I’m heading back up to the magic Skagit in just a few weeks. Once into the Valley, I will pass waves of yellow mustard plants spread across the countryside, carpeting the bright fields of summer with their brilliance. I will bask in this welcome sign of another new beginning in ministry. But, while I might rejoice in the beauty of the fields I might not help but wonder what darker scars the wild mustard might be obscuring.
Just recently, I learned that Spanish mustard seeds were first scattered in the 1800s by Father Junipero Serra on his way up the coast from Mexico to explore possible mission sites. Just as Johnny Appleseed bore apple seeds across the continent, so this band of West Coast explorers spread mustard seeds. By the time the priest and his band turned around to head back to Mexico, the mustard plants were in full bloom.
I know how the priests who brought Christianity to California converted Native Americans to our religion. But with the conquerors came diseases that led to the demise of much of these indigenous populations and nearly wiped out their proud cultures. I am reminded of the controversy over the reevaluation of Civil War statues. As I struggle with these historical contradictions, the beauty of the yellow mustard flowers loses some of its brilliance for me.
Light and dark, good and evil, are woven together throughout history and through our own human actions as well. What might seem like the best of intentions at the time can nonetheless lead to unintended consequences we never have complete control over. A similar tension between beauty and destruction runs through nature. The mustard seed is a weed that spreads wildly. Once the mustard plant takes root, it cannot be controlled.
And yet Jesus chooses the mustard seed as a metaphor for the rule of God. God’s reality, like the mustard plant, bursts out of control. God’s reality invades, overturns, and eventually overcomes the old ways of doing something. And it’s definitely not safe, not, that is, if we’re even minimally satisfied with the way things are. Dark and light are there in the mustard plant, in history – and in us. Indeed, beauty can sometimes grow out of the darkness that lies at its roots.
Though for that to happen, the dark may need to be acknowledged. A complex intertwining of the beautiful and good, darkness and evil, lies at the core of nature and of human nature. Are they interdependent? Can one even exist without the other? And yet there seems to be something about the human condition that makes us only capable of focusing on one side of the equation at a time. Our default mode seems to be either/or.
Perhaps the tension of paradox lies at the heart of God’s rule. Maybe that is why in the gospels Jesus tells such parables to explain God’s reality. The tension of living with paradox in the parables as well as paradox in our own lives – unsettles us and pushes us off balance. Perhaps the best we can do is to acknowledge this tension. Our role is to till and sow and then look on in wonder as God brings it to fruition.
Paul A. Magnano