I want to begin by saying Happy Father’s Day to all the fathers, grandfathers, step and foster fathers and to all the moms and uncles who act as fathers too here this morning
My father – who has been gone now for 27 years next week was an incredibly faithful man in an old school sort of way, for whom being Roman Catholic was as central to his identity as was his Irish heritage, who revered the parish priest and the sisters who taught us in elementary school. He was someone who deeply valued the sacraments, especially communion and confession. There was no question but that we’d attend weekly mass, fast on Saturday night and of course go to CCD (catechism) classes once we were in public high school. He loved the rosary and novenas, and he wasn’t afraid to tell you he thought The Bells of St Mary’s and The Nun’s Story were 2 of the best movies ever made. Long after we’d grown and moved away – he’d call and ask us if we’d made it to mass, if we’d said our prayers. His deep and abiding faith had always been an enormous comfort to him and it made him the kind of father who worried and fretted his whole life about whether his 5 kids would continue to practice the faith he’d brought us up in.
As it turned out these many years later only 2 of the 5 remain active in the catholic church and among the rest there is a Buddhist, one who found a catholic church with a woman priest and me the Episcopalian. Still, I hope that he’d be happy that none of us gave up on god or seeking a spiritual life of our own. And yet for all the religion we were steeped in –for all the ritual that shaped our family life together, being Roman Catholic -it wasn’t really scriptural and so there weren’t many deep conversations about the gospels we heard every week and so I never talked with my father about the parables Jesus used with his followers or asked his help in figuring out what was really going on
Which brings me to this morning’s readings
I was in the Market Basket the other day looking for pickles and who should happen to come around the corner but Roger Cramer.
So we are standing there catching up as other shoppers weave their carts past us and he asks how I’m doing and I confess that I am busy procrastinating writing this sermon because it is about the mustard seed which I don’t find particularly inspiring –
I mean – the proverbial tiny seed becoming the giant tree seems sort of trite and simplistic I am bold enough to say – not much to go on – not enough theological meat to it so to speak –
And in response he proceeds to tell me this wonderful story about the first time he visited the Episcopal church of St. George in Jerusalem and how the entranceway which is down a very tiny street is bordered by these incredibly massive, and sturdy and tall shrubs of mustard and he’s going on an on in that exuberant Roger way about how imposing and brightly yellow they were and you can tell from the way he describes this image how absolutely vivid it remains for him some 30 years later. So I’m thinking – gee, I wish I’d been to visit St. George’s and seen those mustard shrubs myself and then I’d have something more personal to say about this gospel reading we have from Mark this morning. So I briefly consider asking him if he’s busy Sunday morning – but I resist and he says– well you don’t have to preach about the mustard seed you know, and I tell him that now I think I’ll have to because it will feel like cheating if I don’t wrestle with it and see what I am supposed to be getting from it that I just haven’t seen yet and he says good luck and off he goes to the wilds of the vegetable isle leaving me to my jar of pickles.
So there- I’d done it – I’d committed myself to this reading and there was simply no getting out of it. Having just told our former rector of my intent, I’d have to find something interesting to say about this story we’ve all heard a million times
In our reading Jesus is talking to his disciples about the kingdom of Godand he’s using a very common technique of rabbinical teaching – which frames a particular problem by asking the question – “what shall we compare it to”
In our passage from Mark, Jesus uses two parables to describe what the kingdom of god will be like and each involves a sower (a farmer) and seed scattered on the ground and the resulting growth
These are spare passages –yet there are rich images here –
In the first parable Jesus points to a central mystery of God’s creation saying “the earth produces of itself” and telling us that the sower “knows not how” this transformation takes place
But transform it does – from tiny seed to sprout – without our knowledge or even attention – for day and night come and go and even while we sleep, the work of God’s creation of God’s transformation is unfolding in the dark in the quiet of the earth
In the second passage, we get the old stand by of the lowly mustard seed that grows to become the greatest of all shrubs putting forth large branches for the shelter and shade of the birds
Now, the fact that the mustard seed is not the smallest of all seeds – is not the point of course –remember this is a parable – a metaphor about what the kingdom will be like
And one of the things I like about it is that Jesus uses a common shrub – basically an ordinary hedge if you will and likens that to the kingdom of god –
while his Old Testament ancestors preferred the analogy of the Lebanon cedar – a majestic and noble tree that Ezekiel uses as an image for the Pharaoh of Egypt and later envisions even as the Messiah
For this teaching with his disciples, Jesus picks instead a common bush that grew all over Palestine–almost as ubiquitous as a weed – and plants that image in our mind’s eye – (pun intended)
These are spare passages – without much explanation that seem intentionally vague – they are word pictures that are simple but powerful and they are meant to lead his disciples only so far-
meant it seems to leave them with questions, to leave them room for their own grappling
Indeed, it almost seems that Jesus is saying to them – you figure it out
But that’s how parables are – they are about thinking in pictures –poet Timothy Johnson says that the best parables have fingers you can almost hear turning the doorknobs of your imagination
But what if you were one of the group that Jesus is teaching – what would your reaction be? Ok –wait – The kingdom of god is like this run of the mill bush over here that’s loaded with sparrows??
With his provocative examples – Jesus engages his hearers imaginations in startling ways –his use of the most common, everyday objects to explain the mysteries of God is meant to be jarring, even unsettling
But I think that the contrast between a tiny seed growing into a sturdy shrub with large branches is only the beginning of the stark disparities that Jesus is drawing for us here
Because this is a passage that challenges his disciples and therefore us, to think about what our expectations of the kingdom of god really are
That seems to be the question these parable pose – what exactly were we waiting for – what kind of kingdom had we imagined?
For centuries the common interpretation of this parable held that the great shrub/tree was the Way- Christianity itself, that had grown from a small bit of faith among the first few disciples and spread over two millennia to include legions of followers
Some embellished that vision with particularly earthly characteristics—in which the shrub represented a sort of exclusive club for god’s chosen people – in the form of an institutional church with doctrines and hierarchy that would dictate the rules for living a holy life and how and to whom salvation would be rewarded – or not. In that version only some would receive the shelter of its branches
And yet, with the imagery Jesus has chosen here, it seems to me that he is telling his followers not only that a little bit of faith goes a long way but that the kingdom of god is wholly and utterly different from the kingdom under which they are living at that time, or any indeed any earthly reign they have ever experienced
That’s what I think these parables are really about – not just that the kingdom of god will grow from a tiny band of wavering believers into an amazing movement with followers the world over for the next 200 years –
But, rather the kingdom of god that he is describing will not be about place or region or property to be defended with armed military, it will not be a dominion shaped in the way that human kings have ruled though history
No, It will be a kingdom that is about the power of god expressed through deeds; one realized through the action of god in the world
As early as the mid sixteenth century, the notion of human agency being the expression of the kingdom of god, the idea that god’s people will participate in the realization of the kingdom, that they will live out god’s action in the world was articulated by Teresa of Avila (1515–1582) who insisted in her poem ‘Christ Has No Body’ that we are the hands and feet of Christ –
“Christ has no body but yours” she wrote
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world. …
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours …
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
What if she is right? What if we are god’s agents in the transformation of the world? How does that change our perception or expectation of god’s kingdom?
If we think our faith is too slim or too battered, her idea may seem to daunting – too much for us
But maybe that’s the point of the mustard seed
I think that what Jesus is suggesting to his disciples is that the kingdom of god will not be established by force or regulated with outside authority – rather, it will take root and flourish like a common shrub in the deep internal places of our hearts where the seeds of faith are planted and grow without our knowledge or even attention – for day and night come and go and even while we sleep, the work of God’s creation of God’s transformation is unfolding in the dark in the quiet of our souls and will be realized in the fruits of love and compassion and hope
The kingdom of god is dependent on us, in the acts and deeds of our hands, our feet our eyes, in the hope and love he planted in us and expects us to share
Paul tells us in his epistle this morning that the love of Christ urges us on – the love of Christ urges us on
Sounds like something my father used to tell us regularly