The garage door opens, the car pulls in, the door closes. Neighbors remain faceless and anonymous. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Cue worldwide pandemic.
Lockdowns had us homebound––as if in a twilight zone––and we suddenly emerged in strangely large numbers for neighborhood walks. We stepped outside our apartments and homes, looking to the left and to the right, some of us seeing our neighbors for the very first time.
We felt something shift in our openness toward neighborly interactions we’d avoided because they were too daunting and awkward. Potential relationships that had once seemed insignificant and a waste of time now felt important. We started at the very beginning, with a wave or a smile.
Start with the Smallest of Steps
The parable of the mustard seed has something to teach shy neighbors and reluctant mailbox-wavers:
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade. (Mark 4:30–32)
What kind of seed? The smallest of seeds. Seeds already strike us as miniature and inconsequential, but Jesus reminds us that great treasures come from these miniature cases.
The miniature interactions we have with our neighbors make a difference.
Similarly, the miniature interactions we have with our neighbors make a difference. What if, during this strange time in history, we began to say hello to our neighbors, wave, and smile? What if we took the time to learn their names? And what if God were to use even the smallest of gestures to change the course of a neighbor’s spiritual life?
It’s never just a wave.
Jesus’s words, “when it is sown it grows up,” emphasize that growth takes time. No one looks at a tree, plant, or shrub––or a child, for that matter––and sees the growth happen in a moment; it’s far too slow. It’s only when we look back at a picture, or the hand-drawn growth-chart lines on a wall, that we see the change.
It’s the same in our neighborhoods. For our family, less happened in our first year as neighbors than what we might have hoped, but more happened in five years than we ever dreamed.
No one looks at a tree, a plant, or shrub––or a child, for that matter––and sees the growth happening in that moment.
Many of the small relational seeds we’d planted when planning and serving at neighborhood events, attending book discussions, joining small dinner parties, taking walks through the neighborhood, and lingering in late-night driveway chats began to grow into shoots that finally broke through the ground.
We discovered our need for our neighbors, built close relationships with them, sought the common good, and saw the social fabric of our neighborhood strengthened. Some neighbors who previously weren’t interested in church or spiritual things began to reconsider Jesus.
But it didn’t happen overnight.
Imagine How God Might Work
In this parable, Jesus captures our imaginations by reminding us that our small, faith-filled actions can grow into something significant that can bring shade, rest, and refuge for us and our neighbors. He says it “becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
When we hear these words, our prayers for our neighborhoods are fueled with hope for what God might do in our lives and our neighbors’ lives. Remember, this seed can grow into a tree. Don’t forget, that early-morning wave can grow into a relationship.
What difference could it make to check on a lonely neighbor? To linger a little longer at the mailbox or pick up trash in your neighborhood?
Last spring, while enduring the unavoidable loneliness and isolation that came with a worldwide pandemic, nearby provisions reminded us we weren’t completely alone. Our neighbors were there, too. What we had experienced for so long as the parable of the mustard seed had somehow become the parable of the mustard tree––and we were in its shade and shelter.
What difference could it make to check on a lonely neighbor? To linger a little longer at the mailbox or pick up trash in your neighborhood? To help search for a lost dog or push through an awkward reintroduction to the guy next door? What could possibly change if you were to pray for the one you’ve passed so many times or eventually share with a neighbor about a current struggle and how your faith in Christ is making a difference in your life?
Jesus reminds us through this parable that it is precisely the small seeds of interactions that God uses to produce the fruit-bearing, shade-making, nest-providing growth in our neighborhoods, emerging years after they’ve been sown.