Year B, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6 June 17, 2018 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.”
The world doesn’t always make sense if you can’t see it as God sees it. Good morning, everyone. We have a couple of parables this morning. The parables of the growing seed and the parable of the mustard seed are not about seeds or plants or farmers, but are about the Commonwealth of God. Commonwealth is a much nicer way of saying what God’s Kingdom actually implies. There is a whole series of parables describing the Commonwealth in this part of St. Mark’s Gospel. What does that mean, to be about the Commonwealth of God? In some instances, the parables are about how God intends the world to be. They are aspirational. This is how it should be, it is God’s will for it to be like x. In other instances, it is about how the world actually is, it is descriptive. This is the true nature of things. In either case, whether is it how God wants it to be and it isn’t or how God made it to be, though we might not see it that way, the parables demand that we see the world through divine eyes, through eyes of faith. The Commonwealth of God is not apparent through earthly eyes, the eyes of the flesh, in Greek sarx. It is visible through spiritual eyes, nous eyes. That’s why Jesus used koan-like parables, because the deepest of wisdom, the paradoxically ultimate reality of God is poetry, not prose. Knowledge of God and God’s will cannot be transmitted digitally, it is a smooth analog curve. Nothing about God is black and white, rather God is a billion shades of magenta in a great fanning smear across the universe. So Jesus teaches in parables, not in outlined lectures or theological tracts (or lengthy sermons, for that matter).
Today’s parables are about the Commonwealth of God. What about it? So the first one likens the Commonwealth to someone who scatters seed. Days and nights come and go, and the seed sprouts. “…he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head then the full grain in the head. But when it comes time to harvest, he knows exactly what to do.
Likely what Jesus was doing here was reassuring the disciples. “Have faith,” He is saying. He was scattering the seeds, in His work, in their work together, the kernels of divine love and truth were being scattered. Through that processes, a process that we cannot see, cannot understand, something will happen, something will sprout, and grow and come to full realization and fear not, you will know exactly what to do when the time comes, just like that farmer at harvest. Most of us have very little idea about how to care for an apple tree, but come October, a five year-old can fill a bushel basket with at least mostly edible fruit. Don’t worry, He is saying, it is happening, it will come.
It is understandable why Jesus would offer this lesson. They’d had some bigger gatherings by then in their Galilean ministry. Twelve of them were really dedicated, that’s pretty good. But it was the backwater of a mighty empire and at St. Mark’s writing, that Empire’s boot was firmly on the neck of Palestine. Its heel had just ground the Temple and Judaic civilization into the dust. And 12 is pretty good, but what are you going to do with 12? I can just imagine them conjecturing, “We’re just sitting around here, talking about seeds, preaching to a few folks, healing one at a time… but we are not doing anything. And what could we do, anyway? The problems of the Empire, the Empire itself is a behemoth. Those Zealots, at least they are training…” Can you hear that? I think I heard the same exact sentence at a meeting at the Homeless Action Coalition last year. Or maybe it was 350.org.
I think this parable is describing the world as it actually is. You’ve heard Margaret Meade’s great quote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” I like Fr. Daniel Berrigan’s complimentary quote, “A good peace movement starts small and get smaller.” I think that is how it is, the world. Judaism is the story of one family! Abraham and Sarah’s family. From that one little miraculous coupling and the descendants number like the stars. From that little cluster of disciples in the Galilean countryside being taught about seeds, from them, because of them and their faith that Jesus Christ sowed in them, we have The Confessions of St. Augustine, St. Peter’s Bassilica, Bach’s Mass in b minor, non-violent resistance to evil, Narnia, coffee hour. That has got to be a Christian invention. Our coffee hour, Karen’s cookies are a head of grain for us to harvest that was sown in the Palestinian countryside 2000 years ago.
Do you believe that can actually happen? That that project you are working on, that that committee you are helping with, that what we are doing here, maybe out in our parking lot, maybe down in our classrooms, maybe here as we pray together, that it will have some impact 2000 years from now? I’d sometimes settle for someone remembering what last week’s sermon was about. Gotta have faith. I struggle with that, knowing that what we are doing is worthwhile. I wish I could believe more of the time that what we are doing, I am doing, will add up to more than a molehill. Because we are so small and the world is so big, and the problems of the world? They loom large.
We’ve been continuously at war for 16 years, with no sign of anything changing. I don’t know if there is a small or even smaller peace movement at this point. A couple of weeks ago a nuclear disarmament group came to speak to Church Women United, WAND. They are still at it. Them’s some principalities and powers to align yourself against. And the climate! Nothing is more urgently pressing or more unfathomably enormous a problem than our climate. But really, what little thing could any of us possibly do that could have any consequence? Any affect? I look at our government and I feel paralyzed by the scope and grandeur of the problems. Is there anything we can do that could possibly matter in something besides a self-soothing, symbolic action? Can I, can you, can we do something that matters?
Yes. Or maybe more precisely, we can do something that might matter. And when it comes down to it, there is nothing more that we can do than that. Maybe that is one of the points of this parable. Everything we do has an affect. From chaos theory we have Edwards Lorenz’s proposition to this affect, summed up in the title of his famous article, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” It is unpredictable, the results of our action, we can’t know how what is done now will take root in the future, but the future, if by the grace of God it comes, is shaped by countless actions, from small to large, happening right now leading, unpredictably perhaps, to the future. We, as people of faith, need to put in our bit, even though we are unsure how what we do will shape the future. We need to have faith that the future is shaped by what someone is doing now, and it could be us. And those little bits, those little seeds scattered to and fro, maybe those little seeds carry the fruit of Empire’s destruction, or carry the salvation of humankind from ourselves and our hubris, or the earth from ourselves and our hubris.
Nothing is insurmountable or unconquerable if looked at on a long enough time-line. Having Christian faith takes eschatological patience, which really is the definition of hope, patience over the long-haul. In hope, with the faith that sustains hope, there is consolation, there is salvation, even, or especially when the adversary is so mighty, so seemingly insurmountable. The will of God will prevail, the Commonwealth of God is at hand, it just might take a while to see it. It means that no matter how bad it, how little it seems that you can do, do it. Some of it will set roots. You might not see it to harvest yourself, but night and day, it grows. Or like Wendell Berry tells us, “Plant Sequoias.”
This message of hope is not just for those of us with “Resist” stickers on our bumpers. It can fall a lot closer to home. Do you have anything in your life seems insurmountable? Is there anything that you don’t even bother to think about because the problem is so huge, so all encompassing? Like your drinking, or some other addiction? Something entwined in every aspect of your life and you can’t imagine untangling it so you don’t. (Maybe you don’t even imagine untangling it let alone actually untangling it). A troubled marriage can be like that. Your whole world is implicated: kids, work, daily living, friends, family, colleagues, church, property, expense, future, your head, heart and body, everything is all tied up in it and you can’t even imagine… Some health issues can be like that, paralyzing for their scope.
But there are the little seeds we can sow. Like imagining what different could look like. What you could look like, your life, if it were different. The first of the 12 steps is admitting that there is a problem to begin with! Now that is a good start. Reading a book on it. Talking to a friend, a therapist, your priest. No commitments, just a toe in the water. It is amazing what a little grazing touch on that boulder on the top of the hill can lead to.
One of the best bits of instruction on writing I ever received was about sowing little seeds like this. I was taught to sit down in front of a black screen or page and just start writing about the topic you need to address. This can’t be the night before it is due! Just write for 10 minutes. Then put it aside and go about your business. When you go back to the next day, or a few days later, it is amazing what has been going on inside. Somehow the act of writing, even unstructured like that, even just 10 minutes like that, the act of writing sows seeds in the subconscious that start churning away, day and night, I know not how, but when I go back to it, things are so much clearer, ideas, connections, language flows in such a different way.
Another example. Do you know why I invite the children to gather around the altar? It is not just so they have the best seat, or because it proves that we care about them, or that they are so cute, no, it is because we are sowing seeds, tiny seeds of faith in them. Like most of us, most of them will leave the church. I left at 12; no conformation for me, thank you very much. But maybe, 12 (hopefully 18) years of regularly being this close to such a holy thing, sandwiched between the altar of God and the love of you, God’s people, maybe when their time of trial comes they will remember what it feels like to be in Christian community, they will know that they are not alone and that they need not feel alone. Maybe they will even come to church again. Those are just a couple of examples of sowing seeds and letting God take over.
That parable of the growing seed is about how the world is. It describes the world seen through the eyes of the Commonwealth. Those little things turn and move in the darkness and then one day the 30, 60, 100 fold harvest comes. The parable of the mustard seed, on the other hand, is about how the world should be. We will know the Commonwealth of God has arrived when this happens, or it will come sooner if we do this, but it takes some activity on our part. And what is it we are being taught that we should do? Part of it is about faith, like the first parable, it is a story of the tiny seed that can. From the littlest thing can come the mightiest, like the little action we take now, the tiny seed sown can have great consequences. That is a surface message of the mustard seed, but below the surface, like an iceberg, a lot more resides.
The mustard of this parable is not the mustard of your garden, it is a giant shrub. In one of the commentaries there is a picture of one and it must be 20 feet high. That is pretty great for a shrub. But the thing is, this is not something you would ever plant. There are uses for it, parts of it are edible for humans and livestock, and as we are re-learning, having habitat for wildlife within agricultural systems is desirable. That is fine. But in a few places, I read that this mustard was a noxious weed. The picture I saw was not something compatible with a garden. It would be like saying, the “Himalayan Blackberry, or the English Ivy, or Kudzu has the tiniest seed, but when planted it grows into the mightiest bush.” True that, but who needs that kind of bush in their lives? Well…
Maybe this is the point. Not only does the tiny seed grow into something unexpected, but the conventionally undesirable might, too. Like being meek. Not a conventionally desirable quality, but whom does Jesus says shall inherit the earth? Pray for those who persecute you? That is logically counterintuitive. Admitting where you are wrong and putting yourself at the wronged party’s mercy? Resist not an evil-doer? What in American culture tells us that that is the thing we are supposed to do? But this is the essence of seeing the world through divine, spiritual eyes and not fleshy eyes of earthly convention.
Jesus repeatedly chose the misfits to share His time and table with. He chose the road to Jerusalem and a certain and terrible end. An end that taught that in His weakness, His power and glory would be fully realized and the world would change. Now I am not suggesting that we use such criteria in hiring our new nursery person, but if we allow human conventional wisdom to steer our ship, we might be missing out on the vast expanse of divine wisdom that God has embedded in the creation, in us and in our neighbors. Is that like saying just because it seems like a bad idea doesn’t mean that it is? Maybe Jesus should have taken a left at Bethany? Or maybe Paul shouldn’t have been the one blinded by the light? Or maybe Francis should have left the lepers alone, or Dorothy Day the destitute of the Bowery? The world doesn’t always makes sense if you can’t see it as God sees it.
These parables open things up for us. They push us to consider what the world would be like if God not only was in charge, but made all the decisions. Consider that well. AMEN