Strange, Patient and Not Fussy
Reflections on Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
RCL Proper 17A
26 July 2020
Holy Trinity Anglican Cathedral
New Westminster BC
Strange, Patient and Not Fussy
When I was Rector of Saint Faith’s in Vancouver, my office was located in the northwest corner of the building. Just across the lane from my office there grew a remarkable large plant that eventually reached a height of more than two metres. I was so curious that I did some research and discovered that the plant is called Verbascum Thapsus or ‘common mullein’. It has a number of nicknames: Aaron’s Rog, Lady’s Foxglove, Donkey’s Ears, Bunny’s Ears, Candlewick, Feltwort, Flannel Leaf, Jacob’s Staff, Lungword and, my favourite, Cowboy Toilet Paper.
The plant was brought to North America by European settlers in the early 1700’s and has made its way westward across the continent. The settlers used various parts of this plant for herbal medicines and teas, particularly as remedies for the symptoms of certain respiratory illnesses. Indigenous peoples also quickly discovered the useful qualities of the plant and made it their own.
But what interests me about common mullein is that it is strange, patient and not fussy. Mullein is strange because it is not a native to this continent and has developed a mixed reputation. Even though settlers and indigenous people found it an aid to health, in Colorado, where I grew up, it’s classed as a noxious weed mainly because cattle don’t like to eat it.
Mullein is patient because the tiny seeds of this large plant will remain dormant for seventy to a hundred years before sprouting. Even then the first year, the sprouts remain close to the ground as if scouting the territory. Only in the second year will a plant reach out to the heavens.
Mullein is not fussy because it will grow in almost any soil, even rocky ground or gravel, a quality that aided its rapid movement across North America. You can see this for yourself the next time you’re driving the Coquihalla Highway. You can see the tall plants marching down the gravel slopes to the highway.
We are strangers in a strange land.
If the truth be told, being a person of faith in the twenty-first century in North American culture is to be a stranger in a strange land. Perhaps centuries ago religious culture was more strongly rooted among the European settlers of this continent, but the events of the twentieth century have made it more acceptable to remain unassociated with a faith community.
It’s even more strange to be a member of a faith community that welcomes questions and seeks diversity. When we look around us, the religious communities that seem to be growing are ones where belonging means believing and behaving in a clearly-defined way. Many, but not all, of these communities tend to reach out to a particular group within the broader social and cultural environment.
When I talk with people who are not part of an identifiable religious tradition, I find myself spending a great deal of time engaged in Christianity 101. Even these folks value their own diversity and distinctiveness, they seem to want to put all Christians into the same box. They’re often surprised when, after they’ve said, ‘Well, Christians believe that . . . ‘, I say, ‘Well, some Christians do, but I don’t.’
That’s why it’s so important that we, as a community of faith, are committed to diakonia, to self-giving service of the wider community. I believe that the main reason this Parish hosts community groups of any sort is because we are here to build community and to serve the needs and concerns of those who are not directly connected with the Parish. Just like the mullein plant became a welcome stranger because of its usefulness, just so we become welcome strangers because people know we care for neighbourhood. To me one of the major costs of COVID-19 has been the absence of our neighbours in this space, perhaps even more than the lost revenue.
We are patient.
Shortly after I became Vicar, Joe Carreira of Conwest, our development partner, and I met the Mayor of New Westminster, Jonathan Coté. At one point in our conversation, the Mayor asked above the motivation for our re-development project. I answered, ‘Holy Trinity Cathedral has been part of this community for more than one hundred fifty years. We plan to be here for at least another hundred and fifty years, because the work begun in 1859 has not only incomplete, it has changed. We’re in this for the long haul.’
Most of you know far better than I the ups and downs of the last twenty years or more. You know the hopefulness that has accompanied plans for renewal. You know the frustrations that have come from waiting for this project to come to fruition. But we’re in this for the long haul because we know that this City needs communities such as ours as places of help, hope and home.
Just as the seeds of the mullein plant will wait patiently for the right conditions to sprout and, even then, poke their heads out in the first year to see how things are, so are we waiting for the right conditions. We do see signs that our hopes will be realized and a new centre for mission and ministry will rise on this site. So we wait patiently knowing as we heard the apostle Paul say last week, ‘For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God’ (Romans 8.19).
We are not fussy.
One of the things that I learned in the early days of ordained ministry was that it was not a good idea to be overly fussy about things. I travelled all over the Diocese with one or both of the Bishops visiting congregations, some small, others larger, some simple in tastes, others more elaborate. In some I was offered coffee with canned milk, in others the choice of various coffees, teas and snacks from the finest suppliers. But all these congregations were centres of mission and ministry, all of them rich and lively and precious in God’s sight.
As a Parish I hope that we begin to rejoice in the small accomplishments. We’ve resumed in-person worship. Is it exactly what we would like? No. Is it an opportunity to share the good news in many and varied ways? Yes. We’ve resumed our Trinity Tuesday program. Is it as much fun as being together physically? Probably not. Are we deepening our understanding of Matthew’s Gospel? I hope so. We’re feeding people on Saturdays with bag brunches. Are we able to connect as deeply as we can when we gather in the Lower Hall? Not likely. Are we serving our neighbours? Definitely.
The kingdom of God is not terribly fussy about where it takes root. Once it does, it hunkers down for the long haul and bears unexpected fruit.
We begin small.
When the Rev’d Mr Sheepshanks rang the gong on that first Sunday more than one hundred and sixty years ago, only six people showed up. None of them were communicants of the Church of England. The only communicant of the Church of England in New Westminster at the time was an unnamed woman who was probably reluctant to show up among a group of strange men. But the seeds were planted and this strange plant we call Holy Trinity took root. Over the years we have patiently borne the ups and downs of being the church in changing times. For the most part we’ve not been too fussy about how we’ve gone about it. And we are here in this place and now, because of COVID-19, people can join us wherever in the world the internet is available.
Consider the common mullein, Jesus said. It is a strange plant with very small seeds. When they are sown, they will wait for the right time to germinate. Even then they’ll only poke their heads above the surface for a quick look around. If all is well, they will spring up into a towering plant with beautiful yellow flowers from which healing medicines can be made. It’s a patient plant. It’s not too fussy. That’s how the kingdom of God is. Strange. Patient. Not too fussy. And it’s all around us.