A reflection on the parable of the mustard seed (Mark 4:26-34) by poet Cate Jacobs, author of Climbing Mountains in the Dark which evokes her experience of living with HIV, at the tenth birthday communion service of Open Table, our ecumenical worship community for LGBTQIA+ Christians and friends, on Sunday 17th June:
One of the amazing things about mustard trees is their irregular yet beautiful shapes. Unlike many other trees they do not have a distinctive form and yet they are instantly recognizable. They are often as wide as they are tall, and their branches start to grow very low to the ground – which makes them easy to climb – you don’t have to struggle to find a foothold, you can simply step up. They grow best in arid conditions and require very little water or nutrients to bear fruit.
The parable of the mustard seed is indeed the perfect metaphor to describe the Open Table community. Ten years ago, it started as the tiny seed of an idea that has flourished to become 14 communities across the country and it’s still putting out big branches so that all the birds of the air can shelter in its shade. And as it continues to grow there is no knowing how big it will become; and all it took was the dream of an idea and faith the size of a mustard seed.
I am glad and truly grateful that it is here, because Open Table is a significant part of my journey back to the church, although when I was first asked to tell my ‘Open Table story’ I honestly felt like I hadn’t got one! But the truth is we all have a story – there is something or someone that lead us all to be sitting here today.
Many of our stories are rooted in the prejudice and exclusion we have faced, in the world and the church, because of our gender and sexual identities - many of us were told we were flawed and sinful because of them. And some among us have suffered spiritual abuse at the hands of those who honestly think it is possible to ‘pray the gay away!’ It’s always struck me as incredibly arrogant that anyone should think that they know better than God about what and who he created us to be.
There is a beautiful verse in 1 Samuel (16:7) that reminds us:
The heart of God’s love is really where my story begins. For I never grew up with anything other than the certainty that I was loved by God exactly as I am.
When I was a little girl my family lived for a time in a village in Wales, and one Sunday morning the vicar at our church came down out of the pulpit and addressed the children. He stood before us and said:
I really did have the best dad in the world. He loved me unconditionally all of his life... even when I was naughty. So if God’s love was bigger than that – well my little brain couldn’t comprehend how big that could be... it still can’t! Throughout my life, wherever my journey has taken me, because of the message I was given then, I have never doubted God’s love.
God’s love has always been my benchmark within the church – if it’s not loving then it’s not of God! And by the way I don’t mean ‘Christian love’ which is often used as a euphemism for shoring up peoples underlying prejudices!
My personal experience in the church was pretty much one of inclusion, but then I flew under the radar in all sorts of ways – I was married and had children and you wouldn’t believe the assumptions people made about my life – must be straight, must be happy, and I was neither! Domestic abuse eventually led to my being divorced – at which point I was told I couldn’t receive communion... Even saying that today makes my heart ache because it put me on the outside and I began to drift away from the church.
Some years later I didn’t just drift, I put on my marching boots, turned my back and left! And what made me go was the message that came out of the church in the late 80’s that said 'AIDS was a punishment from God.'
23 years ago yesterday, I was diagnosed HIV positive and given around ten years to live. In the darkest moments of my life I didn’t feel I could turn to the church for support, love or understanding – I wasn’t just on the outside – I became an outsider – the modern-day leper! A fringe dweller, out on the edge of life and death.
And where was God?
Well God was right in there with me in every sordid difficult moment of the AIDS epidemic. He was there when I faced people’s rejection. He was there when I faced my own rejection and lived in a wild and dangerous way; having reckless sex with anyone who would have me and using recreational drugs. He was there in the midst of the soul-wrenching sorrow of my grief for the continual stream of friends who were dying. He was there when I was raped, beaten up, insulted and spat upon. And when the whirlwind of self-destruction had blown itself out, he was there as a still, small voice that called me out of that darkness to see that I wasn’t dying, I was very much living, in fact I had a huge capacity for life despite my destructive ways and I certainly had the bruises and scars to prove it!
The strong arms of love holding me through it all... even when I was naughty!
Along the way I encountered angels, healers, teachers that reminded me I am loved. I had the love of friends, family, my children and eventually my grandchildren, and that love tethers me to the earth and gives me life.
It was with a couple of those friends that one Christmas I found myself walking through these doors for the Open Table carol service, and I saw the mustard tree blooming amongst you; it was an irregular shape, the branches grew low to the ground, making it easy to find a foothold, as I sat in your shade and found a place of belonging that said ‘Come as you are.’
So, how do I come?
I come as a beloved child of God, made in the image of God.
In me the image of God is a woman.
In me the image of God is a mother, a grandmother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a poet, a lover.
In me the image of God is pansexual.
In me the image of God id HIV positive.