“He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’”
I feel sorry for people who don’t have a place they think of as “the old neighborhood”. You know what I mean, I hope. It’s a place that probably never existed the way it does in your head, but when you get together with other people who were there at the same time, you find out you all have the same general landscape in mind, peopled with the same unusual characters, unaware that you are probably also a character in somebody else’s version of the place.
For my friends and me, one of the people who will always live in the old neighborhood, even though he has gone to be with the Lord many years ago now, is a man named Samuel B. Patchell III. He was one of those loud, unabashed, intensely social men who thrived by the connections he made. I am not making this up: he wore a cheap toupee and chomped on an unlit cigar everywhere he went. He sold insurance for a living and handed out these pocket calendars left and right. They had bright, shiny gold covers and you saw people pull them out of their pockets all over town. He made sure that his son and daughter’s friends all had Patchell planners before they got their drivers’ licenses so that when that time came they would suddenly think of him. This story has to do with kids and cars, too, and will eventually get around to the mustard seed turning into a tree, but bear with me.
I was home from college one summer. It must have been 1987 or ’88, but the date was definitely July 3. That night I went to the movies with a girl from the old MYF group, who was also a friend of Mr. Patchell’s kids, and she drove. After the movie, we were getting close to my house and one of her tires began making that sound that tells you it’s flat. We pulled into the driveway and I got ready to change the tire. I pulled out her spare and then looked for the jack. There was none. It was an old car and who knows where it had gone. That’s okay, though. I knew we had a jack in the shed and I went up to get it. While there, I also noticed a whole, big bundle of flags that had accumulated there and realized that it was now after midnight. It was the Fourth of July, and I had an idea that would turn a dismal end of the evening around.
After changing the tire, we took the flags – and there were a lot of them – and we went around the block to decorate the Patchells’ house while they slept. We left flags around the flower beds and along the street on both sides (it was a corner property). We put them along the driveway and up the sidewalk. We stuck them all over the place. Then we started laughing, because we could picture what we knew would happen and (as it turned out) did happen in a few hours. That would be when Mr. Patchell would get up to let the dog out, open the door, and turn around and scream up the stairs, “Vi! Vi! Wake up! Ya gotta see this! Vi! Look out front!”
That morning, Fourth of July, I told my parents about the stunt and they had to go see it right after breakfast. It was surprising we hadn’t heard Mr. Patchell shouting, since we were only about a hundred yards away, and I have no doubt the other neighbors heard. I was surprised, though, that I didn’t hear from his daughter, Joy, who was also home from school, but I would see her later when the whole bunch of us went to watch the fireworks down by the Art Museum. It was her turn to drive.
So that night there were about seven of us in the car and I hadn’t said anything. Joy brought up what had happened. She had been asleep when she heard her father shouting to her mother. “Vi! Vi! Wake up! Ya gotta see this! Vi! Look out front!” She was used to her father going off and ignored it until her mother shrieked. Then Joy got up and looked.
Mr. Patchell’s old friend Joe had died not long before that, and Joe had always decorated his house in a big way for Fourth of July, so Mr. Patchell became convinced that someone had done this in memory of Joe, and the first thing he did when he stopped shouting was to get on the phone with Joe’s widow and thank her for doing this. Only, she hadn’t done it. Then he started calling through his rolodex to find out if any of his fellow Masons or Rotarians had done it. Nope. Then he decided it had to have been arranged by his son, who was in the Army in Korea at the time, so he started calling all of Greg’s friends and they all said they knew nothing. Next, he placed a call to Greg himself. He called him in Korea, on the other side of the world, to ask how he had pulled it off. Greg knew nothing. By 4:00 that afternoon, he had convinced himself that Joe had somehow reached out from beyond the grave to put those flags around the house. That was the only possible explanation, and Joy was very glad to be out of the house for the night, because she was tired of trying to convince him that they were not being haunted by a patriotic ghost.
One of the hardest things I have ever had to do was to tell her what had happened, and then to walk into the Patchells’ house after the fireworks, where everybody was still all wound up, and interrupt her father’s endless retelling of his morning (and it was hard to get a word in with him even when he was calm), to tell him that I was the ghost. By the way, the next day he made a chart of where each flag had been as he took them down, so that he could put them up in the same spot the following year.
So, what does this have to do with the mustard seed parable?
If one small act of attempted humor can get so out of hand, and one excited person (admittedly over-extroverted to begin with) could stir up so many other people, not just from one end of town to the other, but also as far as Asia, within a matter of hours – all of this before social media spread our instantaneous reach – just think what it means when someone gets excited about something that really matters, something like what God has done for them, something like what happens when it’s not a bunch of flags that shows up along a driveway but the love of Jesus that shows up in their heart.
I love that story in the gospel of John about Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a village well when it was only the two of them around. He sees all the troubles and baggage that’s in her heart, talks with her about the rough spots she’s been through and probably was still experiencing, and offers her hope for something better and the assurance that he was there for her, even though nobody else in her old neighborhood probably saw her as anyone except a woman who was trouble. Her response was not to pretend they didn’t know her, but to ignore the story they told her about who she was and to adopt Jesus’ version. She ran to get people from the village that had rejected her and to tell them,
“Come and see a man who told me everything I have ever done! He cannot be the Messiah, can he?’” [John 4:29]
They went to see what was happening. Jesus spent a couple of days with them, and at the end of it
“They said to the woman, ‘It is no longer because of what you said that we believe, for we have heard for ourselves, and we know that this is truly the Savior of the world.’” [John 4:42]
The kingdom of heaven surprises us with its intense, sudden, and unstoppable growth that doesn’t come about because of gimmicks and programs (pocket calendars and pens with church names or Bible verses printed on them, visitation plans, advertisements on billboards, and so forth) but when those who have faith like a mustard seed let it grow and do its work. It happens when people speak up plainly and honestly, not with any self-interest or desire to build up their own ego or sense of achievement, but just to say that they’ve met someone who could understand them through-and-through, who can say with the authority of God himself that they are forgiven and made whole and there is a place in God’s kingdom that is there just for them, a spot in God’s neighborhood where people can see themselves and those around them as part of this great, wonderful, worldwide, unending story of God’s love, and maybe (at least sometimes) all laugh about themselves together and discover there’s a place in their hearts for each other, too. “Vi! Vi! Wake up! Ya gotta see this! Vi!”