Have you ever seen a photograph of a beautiful Cardinal or a brilliant Blue Jay perched on a branch eating a berry- perhaps, on a Christmas card? Hang onto that tranquil image as you imagine walking to your garden. It is early in the morning but late in the berry season. You come, coffee cup in hand, seeking a tasty handful of the last blackberries. You are ignoring the Levitical gleaning laws, seeking to take every berry that God grew. (19:9-10) As you turn past an outbuilding, a gaggle of purple necked Starlings scatters into the sky. You know their orange-yellow beaks are stained with the purple goodness that you wanted for breakfast. Every ripe berry is soiled or stolen by these skyborn thieves. Jesus said “Look at the birds of the sky, they neither harvest nor store. Yet our Divine Parent keeps watch over even sparrows” ( Matthew 6:26 & 10:31).
I have a Blue Grass Seed Harvester that came from our farm. I imagine my uncle ever used it, but perhaps his grandfather did. Bluegrass seeds were a hard-earned cash-crop. Hand collected seeds were winnowed one swing at a time, dried in windrows, turned four times a day for weeks, and finally sold for cash. Hard working ancient farmers may have seen birds as a pesky opponent completing for food!
Jesus told this parable to his rural base: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in their field. It’s the smallest of all seeds. But when it’s grown, it’s the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches” Matthew 13:31-32
I grew up hearing sermons about the faith of the mustard seed. In one season from the smallest of seeds, God grows this amazing 6-15 foot tall plant. We often focus on the amazing plant growth and multiplication from one seed to thousands. Ancient farmers sold mustard seeds as spice. Why does Jesus mention the birds? I am guessing ancient farmers wondered about the benefit of birds nesting in the middle of the garden. Yet, Jesus highlights birds finding refuge the branches and even nesting in the garden.
Jesus, mentioning a sanctuary for birds, pulls our attention away from the main production value of making disciples. Jesus envisions the residual benefits of faithful discipleship. A Christ-like church does not simply crank out disciples. The kingdom of God exists to benefit everyone.
Christ calls us to be a refuge, to offer a lovely seasoning, to bring a just flavoring, a compassionate aroma, and a gracious overflow. The authentic church flavors society. In II Corinthians 2:14 Paul writes, “Thanks be to God, who is leading us around through Christ as if we were in a parade. Through us God releases the fragrant aroma of Jesus everywhere we go.” We are to be light for the world and offer the fragrance of God.
What is that smell coming from the church? Let us take a whiff, and see if it coming from us! What aroma are we spreading to our neighbors? What flavors are we known for? What are the byproducts of our faith? What is our spice?
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. No one is against this stuff. (Galatians 5:22) What flavor do we add to our neighborhood? Is our life producing pleasant aromas? Paul speaks of the flavors of sinful living mentioning flavors like: “hedonism, idolatry, hate, fighting, quarrelsomeness, hyper competitiveness, general opposition, group rivalry, hard partying and stuff like that?”
The Greatest Commandment says the overflow of Love is loving neighbors.
Those who make peace are the very children of God. (Matthew or MT 5:9)
Jesus said, “Good people do good things.” It’s their flavor. (MT 12:35)
Jesus said, “I am gentle.” Is there an air of gentleness in our words? (MT 11:29)
What birds are finding refuge amid our branches? Who is nourished by the presence of Christ in You? What aroma do we offer our neighbors?
Perhaps it is stretching this parable a bit about birds nesting in farmer’s gardens, but I think it resonates with Jesus’ presence: “Jesus traveled among all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, announcing the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness. Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them because they were troubled and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” Matthew 9:35-38
The very fragrance of Christ’s life is compassion. The very name of Jesus is love.
Jesus did not see the needy crowds as someone else’s problems. He never blamed the crowds for being sick, nor shamed them for not having enough to eat. Unlike some who will not bake a wedding cake for those they disagree with, Jesus fed everyone, not just those who agreed with him. Jesus healed everyone, not just those who professed faith. The byproduct of our faith flavors and benefits the larger world- not just the church.
On Wednesday night, we read portions of the report of the Commission on the Way Forward. One of our participants gently remarked, “this language offends me.” The sentence in question addressed of the church striving for a “convicted humility”. The sentence read, “We begin from the recognition that our members hold a wide range of positions….” She spoke up saying “my child is not “a position” but a person. We are not talking about positions but people – my baby is not someone’s belief system.” Does not God love us more than our own mothers?
At times I have judged others by their position, thus missing their person-hood. I have seen a bumper sticker on a car, or heard a tough remark and forgotten there is a person in that car – a person deeply loved by God… a person who is someone’s baby. Inside that car with the disagreeable sticker is a child of God. Perhaps, they are misguided or perhaps I am, but love always sees people, not positions, not problems. Jesus looked at the crowd of the least, the lost, and the last with deep compassion. Jesus wept over the city that killed the prophets! Compassion is the authentic flavor of Christ-like living.
God’s presence in us stirs compassion. The presence of God lets us see others as made in the image of God. We do not see people as problems when we are filled with Christ’s love, for love’s sister compassion comes to rule our hearts. Indeed, the practice of worship is essential to maintaining a deeper connect with God’s grace and love so that we have a storehouse of grace to draw from in difficult seasons. Jesus took communion and then went to the prayer garden before the cross.
I fear our society often sees people as problems, not persons. I imagine such dehumanization offends God, whose love gave birth to us! Now, on occasions Jesus spoke soul challenging and life purifying words to spiritual and economic bullies, but love must filter all our words. Perfect Love can speak up with a hard truth while loving the offending party.
In the midst of the civil rights struggle: Dr King wrote: One of the most persistent philosophical debates throughout the century has been over the question of ends and means. …. In a real sense, the means represent the ideal in the making- the end in process. So in the long run, destructive means cannot bring about constructive ends because the ends are pre-existent in the means. “ I wonder what ends are our means growing?
Goodness is the aroma of the church. Kindness flows from all who truly follow Christ. And compassion must season all that we do. Let us dwell richly, in the forgiveness, mercy and goodness of God so that we might see all people as people made in the image of God, even as we speak up against evil, oppression and injustice.
So let us stay rooted in worship and community, seeking to watch over each other in love and lifting our hearts towards Christ, so that the seeds of Jesus take root in our lives and grow a lovely new creation within us. May faith flower, with the fragrant blooms of compassion, the good fruit that nourishes all who have need, and with branches providing a refuge for the least, the last and the lost. amen.