Sunday, June 17, 2012

Mustard Seeds

Below is the sermon preached at St. Francis Church for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2012. The sermon text is Mark 4:26-34

Starting last Sunday, and continuing through to the end of November, the gospel we will be reading from each weekend is Mark. There is one slight digression: we’ll spend four weeks in late July and August on the sixth chapter of John, where Jesus explores the metaphor of what it means to call him “the Bread of Life.” But other than that, we’ll be spending time with Mark, the earliest written and the shortest of the four gospels: no birth narrative, a very terse Easter narrative, and yet with a clear focus on Jesus as teacher, healer, and suffering servant.

As we embark on this journey with Mark, I want to (very briefly) re-cap where we are in his gospel, before turning to today’s reading. We began in the Judean wilderness where we were introduced to John the Baptist and his diet of locusts with wild honey. We then met Jesus, who comes to the Jordan River to be baptized by John. Immediately afterward, Jesus is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tested. When he returns, he calls his first disciples, performs an exorcism in the synagogue, and heals a leper. All that in chapter one!

Mark is fond of the word “immediately”—his writing style is more Ernest Hemingway than Jane Austen. So Jesus returns home to Capernaum in chapter two and immediately there is controversy with the religious authorities, followed by more healing, more callings of disciples, and more conflict. By the time we get to chapter three, He has re-defined family in a way that is dramatically counter-cultural—not only to the norms of the culture of his day but of ours as well. Those who would speak for Jesus about “family values” in our day need to pay close attention to what he does and does not say in those verses. In the Kingdom of God, according to Jesus, “family” isn’t a mom and a dad and 2.2 children living in the suburbs. “Who is my sister and brother and mother and father?” Jesus asks. The answer is simple and concise: “the one who does God’s will.” Jesus’ biological family thinks he has gone crazy.

This makes it quite appropriate to celebrate the Sacrament of Holy Baptism this weekend and welcome Abigail and Colin into the Body of Christ, for Baptism too is about insisting that “Christian family values” are not about our ethnicity or gene pool, but rather about the new community that Jesus calls together through the waters of Holy Baptism. We are here today to bear witness to the truth that for those who put Jesus at the center of their lives and seek to do God’s will, “water is thicker than blood.” Baptized with Christ, we become sisters and brothers and mothers and fathers to one another.

In chapter four of Mark, Jesus begins to teach this new family of God about what he calls “the Kingdom of God.” Through the healings and exorcisms we’ve already seen signs of that Kingdom. But now Jesus turns to stories—parables. This is important. He doesn’t offer a catechism or a creed or dogma that defines who is in and who is out of this new family he is forming. He doesn’t say you must read the Bible this way or that way, or how the Church must be organized as an institution.
Instead, he tells parables that challenge anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear to imagine the world in new ways.

“Eschatology” is not a word that Jesus used; it’s a theologian’s word. But it’s a good one that simply refers us to the end of human history, and Jesus’ teachings are set in the context of the end times. I suspect that most of us can go weeks and even months without using the word “eschatological” in polite conversation. But whether or not we use the vocabulary, it’s important to know that most of us probably do think eschatologically when we think about the Kingdom of God. In other words, we tend to focus on the end result. We tend to focus on the end of the world as we know it. We tend to focus on heaven.

So what will the Kingdom look like? Will the streets be paved with gold? Will the lion and the lamb lie down together and a little child lead them? What will it look like when every tear is wiped away and they study war no more and they do not hurt or destroy on God’s holy mountain? What will it look like when Christ is all in all and the world is restored to unity and every knee bends and proclaims Jesus as “king of kings and lord of lords?” The mystery of our faith is that Christ has died/Christ is risen/Christ will come again. Eschatology is about that last part—about the end of human history when Christ will come again.

And yet, we live “in the meantime.” We live in the mystery of that place between Easter morning and the fulfillment of human history. We live with unemployment and an economy that has taken a huge toll on the poor and on the middle class. We live with forty percent of school children in Springfield—the home of our church’s cathedral—living below the poverty level. We live with AIDs and civil wars in Africa. We live with deep divisions in our nation and in the church and in our community. The widow and the orphan have not fared well and the Bible is all about keeping us focused on how they are doing. And it feels like we are a long way from “peace on earth and good will toward all.”

So how do we live in such a world as followers of Jesus Christ? How do we live with hope and with patience and with perseverance in the midst of all of that? What does it mean to be an Easter people who carry with us a vision of the kingdom and yet not who will not live in denial about all the hurt and pain and suffering of this world? What does it look like for us to live faithfully in the days between “Christ is risen!” and “Christ will come again?”

That, I think, is the place where we need to try to stand to make sense of these two parables before us today about seeds, from the fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel. It’s relatively easy to paint a picture of the Kingdom of God when it comes to fruition. But how do we develop the kinds of eyes that can see the seeds of that reality already in our midst today? Where is the Kingdom already present, even if only in mustard-seed-like ways?  

I’ve been wearing glasses since second grade for near-sightedness. I can still remember the feeling on the first day of wearing those glasses that there was a whole world out there I hadn’t been able to see before. And then when I turned forty my optometrist told me I needed progressive lenses; trifocals so I could have some help seeing not only those things far away but increasingly teeny, tiny print of the newspaper.

I think that the parables of Jesus are above all else about helping us to see the world from another angle, through a new right set of lenses. We tend to hear “Kingdom of God” just as the people of Jesus’ day did. We tend to look for the big things—for things you can’t miss like a mighty sequoia or redwood in our midst. (The Biblical equivalent, by the way, is the cedar of Lebanon: something grand and unmistakable.) Yet if our glasses are just for seeing big things far away, it’s very easy to miss the mustard seeds that are already in our midst—right up close. And I think that Jesus is trying to get us, his disciples, to look at the world close up.

So the parable of the mustard seed is not only about hope for the future; it’s about patience and endurance for the present. The theologian’s word is to speak of the Kingdom as present proleptically—which is an even better word to use at a beach party than eschatological if you are hoping to impress people. But in the end its meaning is quite simple: literally “to anticipate before.” We live into, toward, the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God. We live it now, anticipating it’s fulfillment.

Or to put it in more practical terms: for there to be peace on earth it has to begin with me and with you. For the Church to focus on God’s mission, it has to begin in parishes like this one. For the world to simply live, you and I must learn to live more simply. The “cedar of Lebanon”—the big hairy audacious goal—is to eradicate world hunger, but that begins at places like the Mustard Seed in Worcester on the second Wednesday of every month when somebody goes and buys the chicken and pasta and frozen broccoli and shredded cheese and cream of something or other soup, and somebody else opens all of those cans and mixes it all up and puts it in the oven and another bunch of somebodies stop by here and drop off desserts, and somebody else comes by to pick it all up and deliver it and serve it to a whole bunch of somebodies with real names and real lives and their own stories, who put this food into their mouths to fill empty bellies. And some other congregation takes care of the second Thursday of the month and somebody else takes Friday and then it starts all over again and before you know it it’s the second Wednesday of the month again and it’s our turn again.

It’s almost kind of boring and tedious, and we’ve been doing it for something like forty years now. (Every thirty years or so we do change the menu up!) Little tiny seeds—barely visible—especially if you don’t know where to look. But you don’t feed the world by waving a wand. You do it one plate of chicken and broccoli casserole at a time. And maybe along the way somebody begins to ask a question about the roots of hunger. Maybe somebody else wonders what it would take to deal with underlying causes of poverty; to move beyond charity and to look at the root causes of social and economic injustice. In such moments, the Kingdom of God is very near indeed. And wherever seeds are being planted and nurtured, the Kingdom of God is present in our midst—here and now—even if the harvest remains in the future.

That truly is good news. It sustains us as we do the work God has given us to do. It means that we can’t allow ourselves to be paralyzed by the enormous scope of the challenges that face us, but that like that guy walking along the beach and throwing the starfish back in the ocean we do what we can, one at a time. We do not lose heart. We entrust the future to God—the shade of the mustard bush where the birds of the air come to find peace and refreshment. The work we are given to do is to keep on planting the seeds.

I imagine it was hard for the first hearers of Mark’s Gospel to be patient and hopeful: a tiny, fragile community standing against the entrenched imperial power of Rome. And yet they persevered. And we are the beneficiaries of their perseverance.  I know that it is hard for us—increasingly aware that the mainline churches are sidelined from the power structures of our society. But maybe that isn’t all bad news. Maybe it is as a tiny, fragile community that we are better able to bear witness to the love of God we have known in Jesus Christ. Maybe our work really is about taking the long view, as we keep tending to the Kingdom in mustard-seed like ways here and now—so that Abigail and Colin and their children may one day enjoy the fruits of our labor.

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