God’s Planting

Ezekiel 17:22–24, Mark 4:30–32, preached by Chris Bohnoff on June 16, 2024

This week I read an article by Presbyterian minister and church consultant Sarai Rice entitled, “Imagining a New Model for the Church.”[1] Rice notes a tension between the theological language we use to describe ourselves as church and the ways we actually organize church institutions. On the theological hand, we call ourselves the body of Christ, by which we mean that we take up Jesus’ practice of direct encounters with the world in order to heal, teach, and tell truth to power. On the same hand, some churches refer to the church as those folks who spread the Good News of the Gospels in the world and cultivate disciples of Jesus’ teachings. In these theological terms, church is conceptualized as a group of people reaching past the walls of the physical church to connect with the broader world.

On the other hand, in her article Rice reflects that in actual practice, churches operate more like membership organizations set apart from the world. We gather our people together in specific spaces and build cultures and practices that center “members,” those already inside the church. In Rice’s analysis it’s striking, the difference between who we claim to be and who we oftentimes are.

I don’t know whether Rice purposely timed her article to coincide with this week’s lectionary readings or whether it was serendipitous, but I see her analysis of the church in the two metaphors we heard in scripture earlier. On the one hand, we have the metaphor of a noble cedar, started from a clipping from the very top of the very most noble tree in creation and planted by God at the top of the highest mountain in Israel.

On the other hand, a mustard plant that has somehow, like the kingdom of God as we are told in the parable, grown from a tiny seed not into the invasive and noxious weed that we think of, but “the greatest of all shrubs,” (a backhanded comment if I’ve ever heard one) that provides a home for wildlife just as abundantly as the noble cedar.

One cultivated place set apart, like Rice’s membership organization. One place a manifestation of the world’s messiness that, when allowed to live, becomes not just the very thing that the world needs, but radically so.

It should be noted that the place set apart, the vision of a great cedar on a mountaintop, was an image given to the prophet Ezekiel by God to comfort an exiled people; an image that reassured Israel that God would not abandon them in Babylon, that they would return home. There is value in that prophetic message of comfort, and I am not here to present an either/or choice to make between these two images.

Rice, the consultant, on the other hand, is less diplomatic. She looks at these two visions and observes that the culture that has supported the membership/place set aside model of church has shifted. Fewer of us are opting-in to church membership and as a result, churches are suffering. Her response: decenter the physical church and what happens here. Think less about the singing and the meetings and the food we share, and more about the service we are preparing ourselves to do in all the days and hours we’re not in church. Think of ourselves as customer service representatives to our community, rather than as the customers being assisted by church staff. Think of our time together as a chance to work out the muscles, to develop the skills we’ll need to work out God’s purpose in the world. In blunt terms, Rice tells the church to get serious about living the theology of the body of Christ that we claim in the abstract.

The magic of the mustard seed parable is that it shows us how God works even through things that most of the world devalues and even seeks to eradicate – just as, by the way, our other text says that God will bring the high tree low and the low tree high. But by bringing our attention to the mightiest shrub, we are forced to ask, what discarded things, what discarded people should we be helping God to exalt? What mustard plant have I been trying to weed out of my life and why?

First Church has harbored some serious weeds in its history. The weed of abolition that many in the Minnesota territory hated. The weed of intellectual freedom. The weed of resistance to the Vietnam War. The weed of same sex marriage. The weed of food insecurity. Our culture treated these causes like things to be avoided, swept under the rug, plucked out one by one like dandelions left to wither, but First Church gathered those folks who knew that these causes needed attention and nurtured them. And those “weeds” gave shelter to so much good work in our community and in our world. They became central to who we are, even though they weren’t always.

Here are my questions for you to discuss: what is church to you, and in your most honest of hearts, what do you want it to be? And what – who – are the ones our culture wants to do away with that you feel called to nurture? Which mustard seeds will give First Church shelter in the decades to come? Amen.

[1] https://www.congregationalconsulting.org/imagining-a-new-model-for-the-church/