- 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
- 2 Corinthians 5:6-17
- Mark 4:26-34
Do you ever have one of those moments where everything has gotten you down? This past month has been building up to one of those moments. And as the story of my life is unfolding, each hurdle to overcome has seemed a little harder to get over. Eventually, I come to a point where I can’t do it anymore. And I have to think about what my next actions are going to be. This week was one of those weeks – coming up with alternatives and making new plans for moving myself on. And it’s usually in the midst of those plans that God sends a little message. When I have completely given up, and I am about to move on, seeking to make peace out of the hopelessness and despair and dejection – something happens to spark hope anew and keeps me on the path that I am walking. Those sparks of hope are incredible, but often subtle, and I fully believe that they are moments of God’s kingdom making God known in my life at just the right time.
Our readings today all speak of what it means to live a life of faith and relationship with God. In our first reading, we learn that what we think and what God thinks are not often the same thing. God’s plan is not our plan, necessarily. In our second reading, Paul speaks of what it means to be a follower of Christ and how Christ affects how we see the world. And in our Gospel reading, we learn that the kingdom of God is a lot more invasive that we might think it is – and that is a very good thing. I want to start with the Gospel reading:
Jesus is a master storyteller. He wasn’t like the Pharisees. When Jesus taught, he rarely quoted from the holy texts. He didn’t lay down law upon law and recite biblical knowledge to prove that the laws were sound. Jesus told stories, and talked to the people about matters that they could relate to. Yet, Jesus also taught with parables. He purposely talked to the people about matters that they could relate to, but perhaps not just yet. A parable needs to simmer, to stew and slowly open its own identity to the hearer, to each of them individually. Parable are things that come alongside the reality. They aren’t allegory. They aren’t meant to re-frame the meaning of the original thing or idea, they are meant to enhance it. The purpose of a parable is one of disclosure and discovery, enhanced understanding if you will, in its own time.
Previous to today’s reading, Jesus, while speaking about parables and their purpose, says that lamps under bushels and beds cause fires. One must admit that this statement would be fairly obvious to the hearers at the time. A lamp, back then, was an open flame. Hiding a lamp under a bed is going to burn the bed down. The point of a lamp is not to be hidden, but to be seen and to give light. There are just certain things that are meant to be put in plain view. They are meant to be disclosed. Even the hiddenness of this gospel is meant to be exposed at some point. And Jesus is setting it up to stew, ruminate, disturb, and reveal itself in its own time. A parable takes time to sink in. It’s not something that you solve right at the beginning. And throughout Mark, Jesus will stop for a moment and ask the disciples, how is this all working out for you? Have you figured it out yet? Give it time.
So today Jesus is talking about seeds. A seed grows secretly. It’s going to grow whether you pay attention to it or not. There are seeds that seem to grow right away and still others that only come up from the dirt years after they have been planted. Eventually and automatically, it will come to fruition. This story, and the parable of the mustard seed that comes with it, are enigmatic, to say the least. We usually end up in more doubt about what is going on than when we started, especially when we participate in that unwholesome sport of trying to assign exact meaning to each of the elements of the story. Suffice it to say that seeds have a function in their growing. The mustard seed is no different. The mustard seed of which Jesus is speaking is a weed. It’s not particularly majestic, nor is it a neat little plant. It is an invasive weed, that left untended, will take over the land and grow like you would not believe, covering the land as it stretches outward and not necessarily upward.
Mustard is also an herb with medicinal properties and one that is useful for flavouring and preserving food. The mustard bush, however, is a garden pest. No one would sow it on purpose. It grows all too readily on its own, and once it appears, it takes over the field. The small size of the mustard seed may be proverbial, but it is not the smallest seed, nor is the mustard bush the largest of all shrubs. In this proverb, exaggeration follows absurdity: a seed that is “sorta like” God’s reign in this story. How could it possibly be good news for Mark’s church and for us?
I think that the point is not simply that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common opportunistic weed, but more like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses. And that’s an interesting thought.
The kingdom of God is our God being here! And we are not in control of the Kingdom of God, and we can’t control it. Where we may want to keep God has been completely torn open. It isn’t a place. It is better described as intention: the intention of God in the world; it’s about God’s presence in the world. These parables aren’t setting out to specifically define the Kingdom of God for a simpler understanding. Rather, they confront us with its power and implications and demand a response. The reign of God is not “like” the farmer, the seed, the process of growth, or the harvest, but it is “sorta like” each of them and all of them taken together. These tiny, minuscule, things – seeds, and parables, become unimaginably present. They break boundaries and move rapidly beyond containment.
Which brings me back to our old testament reading. I’m not sure why, buy I have always summarized this Samuel reading as: “Don’t judge a book by its cover;” or as “What we want isn’t always what God wants.” The story about King Saul and the anointing of David as the new king is often reduced to these or similar clichés or pithy maxims. Using what we have been talking about with the Gospel, I want to present an alternative.
God’s guidance is usually not as discernible in the moment as it is in hindsight. We may not sense what God is doing in our midst or how God is leading us. Even the great prophet Samuel did not know what God was doing. But he wanted to know how God was going to fix all the junk that was wrapped up around the King, Saul. The message is pretty clear. When dealing with matters of God’s actions and will, human sight is a completely inadequate tool. The human sense of hearing—if we are listening to God—is preferable. There is something about this text that rings out loudly in our cultural context. We rely for almost everything on our sight, but it often proves untrustworthy. Advertisers know that the quickest way to get their impression on us is through our eyes: Do we really think that wearing the same watch as a world famous model of sports superstar will make us more attractive and successful? Apparently. Since we buy the watches. And the cars, or hamburgers, or sneakers. We make judgments daily about and using the information directly in front of us, with the knowledge of the categories and expectations that our culture and society places on us.
It is no different than when we are waiting on God to act. We continually look for things that we think God would want or be satisfied with. And it’s not just judgment calls; this searching is something that we do naturally. It is a life of faith reality. How can we know that what we’re doing is making any difference in the world? How do we know that God is actually concerned and trying to make something of this world? The truth is this: God is often in a process that we don’t expect, imagine, or want God to be in. God is present in our world.
And while promise, covenant and anointing may have become exalted terms in both Jewish and Christian traditions, ancient Israelites perhaps had a more realistic view of what they entailed. Whether receiving a promise from, entering a covenant with, or being anointed at the command of God, the people of God learned through hard experience that their relationship with God was no guarantee of security or success. In fact, the relationship to which these terms point was almost a guarantee of trouble ahead! But we learn to be patient and trust that God is indeed acting in ways that will astonish and amaze us all. That kingdom of God is breaking in and disrupting things in ways that will eventually make some kind of sense. And leading us all to see things anew. To have those hindsight epiphany moments that re-frame what we are looking at through a Christ lens.
Seeing things with that Christ influence is what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Corinthians. I once had conversation with a colleague about our human sinfulness. Why do we confess a forgiveness of sins for a tiny baby at baptism? An infant is helpless, completely reliant on its family for care, support, protection, comfort, food and shelter. For the first couple years of a child’s life, it is fondly called the “centre of every parent’s universe,” because it really and truly is. Human infants are incapable of caring for themselves. It’s a quirk of the human life cycle. However, that feeling or belief of being the most important thing in the world never quite goes away. As we get older, some of us begin to believe it more and more: we are the centre of the universe. At 8 months, at 8 years, at 18, and 38, and on and on. That self-centeredness, I think, is the Original Sin. Our confession is that we are captive to it – adults, teenagers, children, infants. Our love of God and our desire to be in relationship with God urges us into that place of confession.
That confession is tied to what Paul has been talking about living by faith. He says we are renewed day by day in our relationship with God, through Christ. And he was talking about how we aim for this perfection that we think God has planned, but we continue to fall short because it’s not something that we can really understand. So, we trust in God’s promise of eternal life, however impatient we are for it to arrive. Like Jesus’ use of parables to show an enhanced understanding of what he, what God, is trying to tell the world, Paul cautions us about continuing to regard everything from a human point of view. We are encouraged to trust through Christ; because we have come to know Christ as a human, we can relate. And we profess that Christ died so that all who live and die will rise with Christ. Through Christ nothing remains the same. We can no longer regard the world from that place of self-centeredness. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection changed that. And if anyone is in Christ… there is new creation! Not a new creation. Just new creation: the space where God is active. And if God is active in us, and God’s kingdom is breaking into the world around us, what does it mean for us to call ourselves Christians?
So I say: What if you went out to look for those places where’s God’s kingdom is like a mustard seed: sneaking in, or spreading out, or taking over little corners of our world? What if you were to look for hope, the dangerous hope that changes lives in ways small and large? And what if you didn’t just look for these things, but helped and nurtured them along, and documented it. Maybe you will gather a harvest of pictures and testimony and faith that reflects the wild, uncontrollable, but oh-so-useful mustard seed Jesus is talking about here. And maybe it will make it easier for you to spot God and God’s kingdom at work in your own life.
There is no easy take-home message for us in these parables from today’s readings. They ask that we engage our imaginations to follow the possibilities and inconsistencies that we distinguish between a world where everything is planned, linear, and logical, to one filled with mysteries and surprises into which a sovereign God invites us. So, I invite you to go, as you are able to hear it. TBTG. Amen.
Today’s Image: “Teachings of Jesus 5 of 40. parable of the mustard seed. Jan Luyken etching. Bowyer Bible” by Phillip Medhurst – Photo by Harry Kossuth. Licensed under FAL via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Teachings_of_Jesus_5_of_40._parable_of_the_mustard_seed._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible.gif#/media/File:Teachings_of_Jesus_5_of_40._parable_of_the_mustard_seed._Jan_Luyken_etching._Bowyer_Bible.gif