Mustard Seed Church

Instead of the club understanding of Church Jesus offered the parable of the mustard seed: “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that a person took and sowed in their garden. And it grew and grew and became a great tree with large branches so that the birds made nests in it.”

The power of this parable relies upon us knowing some basic botany. The mustard plant is an annual that grew wild in Palestine. Pliny, that great Roman observer, writes: “It grows entirely wild … when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it.”
[i] It was, in other words, a weed. It was the oxalis of the ancient world.

In the parable the person plants the mustard weed in their garden. Apart from being a stupid thing to do [think oxalis], it violated the law of diverse kinds in Leviticus 19:19. This law was designed to maintain order and separation, keeping plants in their proper place and not mixing them. Normally mustard was sown in small patches on the edge of a field. It was prohibited to plant it in a garden because it would result in mingling. By planting it in the garden, the planter makes the garden “unclean”. The mustard seed grew, and grew, and grew … as weeds do.

Jesus was inviting his hearers to imagine God’s reign to be very different from their religious club. The Jewish purity regulations were a result of needing club boundaries. All clubs need boundaries in order to create safe cultures, delineating insiders from outsiders. Jesus however was saying that God violates boundaries, violates biblical principles, disregards common botanical sense, and makes a mess of good order.

Jesus could have likened God’s reign to a cedar of Lebanon that grew tall and strong with many branches, capable of holding nests for many birds.
[ii] In the great tree of the religious club all birds, read people, could find a home.

Mustard seeds don’t grow into great trees with branches. They grow into shrubs, with a maximum height of 1.2 metres. It takes a lot of digital re-imaging, or G.E., to make mustard into a large tree. Jesus was either botanically challenged or was deliberately mixing it up. The lowly, virulent, and problematic mustard can hardly be mistaken for the lofty, virtuous, and powerful cedar. Indeed his audience was probably smiling at the thought. What was Jesus trying to do in stirring his metaphors?

Jesus often did the reversal thing, trying to turn people’s thinking upside down. Consider, for example, the man beaten on the road to Jericho. The hero of the story is the unclean and despised Samaritan. The reign of God is meant to be mighty, exalted and significant, like a cedar. The mustard seed though is proverbially small, despised, and insignificant. Yet in the topsy-turvy, upside-down mind of Jesus, God is seen clearest of all in the small, despised, and insignificant.

There is disorder contained in the mustard metaphor. The reign of God is not like the Auckland Botanical Gardens were everything is carefully laid out, well tended and watered, named and admired. The reign of God is not orderly, where people all have allocated places and behave themselves. Rather the reign of God is like oxalis. It crops up all over the place, despite our best efforts to keep it out. Just when you had that patch of garden looking great, up she pops with her little yellow flowers.

It didn’t take long for the early Church to try to domesticate the breadth and wildness of God’s reign and call itself the Kingdom of God. Constantine made an empire out of it. All theistic religions have a tendency to want to own God and declare their institutions are God’s creation. Jesus in his day was trying to help his Pharisaic colleagues to broaden their thinking, see the divine in the weeds as well as the cedars, in the impure as well as the pure, and above all not to imagine that they could domesticate God.

[i] Pliny, Natural History, 29.54.170 [LCL, 529].
[ii] Ezekiel 17, 34, and Psalm 104.


The Morning Club

Sometimes a children’s story contains a great truth:

“Grasshopper was walking along the road. He saw a sign on the side of a tree. The sign said MORNING IS BEST. Soon Grasshopper saw another sign. It said THREE CHEERS FOR MORNING. Grasshopper saw a group of beetles. They were singing and dancing. They were carrying more signs.

“Good morning,” said Grasshopper.

“Yes,” said one of the beetles. “It is a good morning. Every morning is a good morning!” The beetle carried a sign. It said MAKE MINE MORNING.

“This is a meeting of the ‘We Love Morning Club’,” said the beetle. “Every day we get together to celebrate another bright, fresh morning. Grasshopper do you love morning?”

“Oh yes,” said Grasshopper.

“Hooray!” shouted all the beetles. “Grasshopper loves morning!”

“I knew it,” said the beetle. “I could tell by your kind face. You are a morning lover.” The beetles made Grasshopper a wreath of flowers. They gave him a sign that said MORNING IS TOPS.

“Now,” they said, “Grasshopper is in our club.”

“When does the clover sparkle with dew?” asked a beetle.

“In the morning!” cried all the other beetles.

“When is the sunshine yellow and new?” asked the beetle.

“In the morning!” cried all the other beetles. They turned somersaults and stood on their heads. They danced and sang.

“M-O-R-N-I-N-G spells morning!”

“I love afternoon too,” said Grasshopper.

The beetles stopped singing and dancing. “What did you say?” they asked.

“I said that I loved afternoon,” said Grasshopper.

All the beetles were quiet.

“And night is very nice,” said Grasshopper.

“Stupid,” said a beetle. He grabbed the wreath of flowers.

“Idiot,” said another beetle. He snatched the sign from Grasshopper.

“Anyone who loves afternoon and night can never ever be in our club!” said a third beetle.

“UP WITH MORNING!” shouted all the beetles. They waved their signs and marched away.

Grasshopper was alone. He saw the yellow sunshine. He saw the dew sparkling on the clover. And he went on down the road.”

Every community places boundaries around itself. It creates a sense of identity and belonging. It delineates between insiders and outsiders. Even the most inclusive community in the world has boundaries. The art of inclusion though is to recognize that your community does not have a monopoly on truth, love, God, beauty, and knowledge, and neither does any other community; and to keep the boundaries you have as porous as possible so that the challenge and love of God may freely flow through.

The beetle club had created meaning and borders around their enjoyment of the morning. Their allegiance to their club identity blinded them to the truth that was beyond their borders.

[i] A. Lobel, Grasshopper On The Road, London : Windmill, 1979, p.8ff.

Question from Isabelle: Where are devils?

Dear Father Glynn,

Where are devils?

Love Isabelle.

Dear Isabelle,

I think devils are found in the imagination. Sometimes they are in people’s dreams. Often they pop up in story books – story books are of course imagination put into words and written on paper.

I don’t believe devils actually exist. No one has ever seen a devil. We know from history that the idea of devils has developed in stories. In some periods of history people thought they were real, and lots were afraid of them.

I don’t even believe they are in hell. I think the whole idea of an actual place called hell is highly suspect. It was thought up in the days when people believed in God living in heaven above us and the devil living in hell beneath us. Nowadays we know that we live on a round planet. Beneath us is earth and rock. Above us is sky, space, stars and other galaxies.

God is the name we give to the powerful love often seen between people who seek the best for each other. It's a love that can even heal us. People who try to destroy that love live a ‘hellish’ life. Hell is a state of mind and existence that rejects love and delights in hatred.

Kind regards,


It’s a tough time to be a conservative.

It’s a tough time to be a conservative. Despite all that moralistic fervour, those righteous admonitions, all the pointing of the fingers at secular humanism and bankrupt liberalism, the numbers don’t look good. New Zealand is not about to become a Bible-believing nation any time soon. The crowds who swim to the latest Pentecostal preacher and get hooked also seem to tire after awhile and break free. Attendance in mainline denominations is at best static, with a few exceptions here and there. Certainly there is no second coming for biblical morality and church going conviction.

In Anglicanism the great conservative thrust over the last decade has been to claim they are the majority, they are the true stewards of biblical correctness, and any unrepentant loving gay or lesbian who has the audacity to show up in Church needs to be exorcised. Conservatives chose homosexual relationships as their line in the sand. ‘Bashing gays,’ they reasoned, ‘is sure to win us the day.’

And for a while it did look like they were winning. The Archbishop of Canterbury got confused between management and leadership, and sank into the mire of the former. The Primates took to themselves power to punish dissent, though it was never theirs to take. The Anglican Consultative Council, while showing more backbone than most, seemed to succumb to Episcopal bullying.

Even in little old NZ the conservative stench breezed in. Vicars threatened to resign because of what was happening overseas. Some bishops developed supple spines keeping those vicars in ‘the family’. Lots of consultation was called for. Not mind you with disaffected gay and lesbian Christians who were once again being clouted by bigotry, but with those poor hurt conservatives who always want religion to make them feel good. Bishops paused before ordaining anyone who was gay.

The reassuring thing however about conservatism is that given time, and enough rope, it will hang itself. Slowly and surely the Anglican world is waking up to the ugly reality of the bigotry it has been trying to accommodate.

Consider the tone of recent editions of Church Times that barometer of English purple opinion. No longer are the Americans being vilified as imperialistic innovators who take no notice of anyone else. Now, after Archbishop Rowan has finally visited them, they are being spoken of as conciliatory and reasonable.

The ludicrous situation of three African Provinces competing with each in a race to ordain the few renegade American bishops is being exposed for the sham it is. How a bishop in Pittsburgh is meant to be accountable to a Primate in Nigeria is anybody’s guess – though ‘accountable’ is not what is in mind. Power and money is.

The murderous Bishop of Harare has used the climate of anti-homosexuality to further his own ends. Despots count on the absence of backbone, and their ability to spread fear and mistrust. Hopefully the leadership and lawyers of his Province will deal to him as best they can.

Wycliffe Hall, the evangelical training college in Oxford, is also reeling from its own Machiavelli. Their principal has successfully caused the resignation of over half his staff, public condemnation from former principals, dismay from moderate evangelicals in general, and the substantial inflation of his salary package. Amongst his incredible actions is the appointment of a Vice-Principal who does not believe women should teach men! The Council to whom he is accountable are at best displaying a predictable lack of intestinal fortitude.

Maybe however the biggest atmospheric change afflicting conservatism is the slow awakening of that patient tolerant beast called Middle Anglicanism. For at the end of the day the conservatives have chosen to vilify someone who is everyone’s neighbour. And they are vilifying him or her because that neighbour has chosen to commit him or herself to another in love. ‘Neighbours’ and ‘love’ are two words at the heart of Christian faith. There is something deeply counter-cultural to Christianity in advocating the theological and political crucifixion of a neighbour who has dared to love another.

As I say, it is a tough time to be a conservative.