Monday, June 8, 2015

Mustard Seeds

I'm not preaching much over the summer, including this coming weekend. But I'm still in the habit of reflecting on the upcoming readings and this Sunday we'll hear one of my favorite parables, the parable of the mustard seed.  The reflections below are basically a reworking/re-editing of a sermon I preached nine years ago at St. Francis, Holden. Perhaps some who are preparing to preach on this text (and others who will be listening to sermons on this text) will find these thoughts helpful. 

From now until the end of November, our gospel readings come from Mark’s Gospel, the earliest of the four. (There is one slight digression: we’ll spend four weeks in late July and early August on the sixth chapter of John, where Jesus explores the metaphor of what it means to call him “the Bread of Life.”) Other than that, it's all Mark until we get to Advent. So it's a good time, perhaps, to sit down and re-read this shortest gospel - ideally in one sitting, and preferably aloud in order to "hear" the good news. If you are looking to dive into a great commentary, for my money none is more provocative than Ched Myers' Binding the Strongman: A Political Reading of Mark's Gospel.

As we embark on this journey with Mark, a very brief re-cap where we are in his gospel before turning to today’s reading, which comes from the fourth chapter. Mark's story begins in the Judean wilderness, where we are introduced to John the Baptist and his diet of locusts with wild honey. We meet Jesus when he comes out to the Jordan to be baptized by John. Immediately afterward, Jesus is driven by the Spirit further into the wilderness to be tested. When he returns, he calls the first disciples, performs an exorcism in the synagogue, and then heals a leper. All that in chapter one!

Then he returns home to Capernaum and immediately there is controversy with the religious authorities, followed by more healing, more callings, and more conflict. By the end of chapter three Jesus 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 about the church as "family" or in the political world of "family values" need to pay very close attention to what Jesus 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 clear and concise:the one who does the will of my Abba. 

Christian "family values" are not founded on allegiance to tribe or family lineage or ideology. The new community that Jesus calls together is instead bound together by the waters of Baptism. For the new family that is created by those who put Jesus at the center of their lives, “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 his disciples about this Kingdom of God. Through the healings and exorcisms we’ve already seen glimpses of that Kingdom. But now Jesus turns to stories—parables of the Kingdom. That 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 will be organized as an institution. Rather, he tells parables that challenge anyone with eyes to see and ears to hear to imagine the world in new ways. He tells stories that give us “hints and guesses,” and which are always in need of being interpreted anew in each generation.

I suspect that most of us can go weeks and even months without using the word “eschatological” in our vocabularies. Eschatology is simply talk about the end times. 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: i.e. we focus on the end result. We focus on the end of the world as we know it. 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” and swords are beaten into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and when there is a new heaven and a new earth? The mystery of 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.

And yet we live “in the meantime.” We live with lots of war and study of war, even in the ironically named city of peace, Jerusalem. 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 war destroying Africa. We live with deep divisions in our nation and in the church and in our community. We are a town and a state of "yes" and "no" signs and it doesn't much matter what the issue is: we dig in. We are certain we are right, and our neighbor is not just wrong but amoral. We live with these deep divisions and are used the polarization of a society that isn’t comfortable with “maybe” or “I'm not sure.” And so it feels like a long way from “peace on earth and good will toward all.”

How do we live in such a world as followers of Jesus: with hope and with patience and with perseverance? That question is always before us: what does it mean to be an Easter people who carry with us a vision of the kingdom and yet not live in denial about all the hurt and pain and suffering of the world? What does it mean to live faithfully between “Christ is risen!” and “Christ will come again?” 

This, I think, is the context in which we need to try to see these two parables about seeds with new eyes. 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?

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. Now I wear progressive lenses—tri-focals--which take some work to get used to and quite frankly knowing where to look through them for what. 

I think that the parables of Jesus are above all else about helping us to see the world from another angle, through another set of lenses. We 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 is the cedar of Lebanon—but that’s all it means—something big 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 his disciples—then and now—to look at the world close up.

The parable of the mustard seed is not only hope for the future, but 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 than eschatological if you want to impress people. But really its meaning is quite simple: for there to be peace on earth it has to begin with me and with you. For the Episcopal Church to work its way through the challenges of the day it has to begin in parishes like this one. For the world to simply live, we must learn to live more simply.We can think globally but if we don't act locally it's a sham. 

The “cedar of Lebanon”—the big hairy audacious goal—is to eradicate world hunger. But it begins at places like the Mustard Seed (interesting name, eh?) in Worcester on the second Wednesday of every month when somebody goes and buys those large cans of baked beans and those hot dogs and somebody else cuts the hot dogs up and opens those cans of beans and stirs the pot and puts them in the oven. And another bunch of somebodies stop by here and drop off desserts, and somebody else comes by to pick up the cooked beans and franks and drives them into Worcester where somebody else has dropped off the salads and then they plop it on the plates of a whole bunch of somebodies with real names and real lives and their own stories so that they can put food into an empty belly. And then the pots come back here and somebody scours them out and puts them away. And then on Thursday night another congregation does the same thing in their own way, and on Friday night another congregation does it. Little tiny seeds—barely visible—especially if you don’t know where to look. Because the Telegram and Gazette for the most part isn’t interested in covering what happens at the Mustard Seed.

You don’t feed the world by waving a wand. You do it one plate of beans and franks at a time. And maybe along the way someone begins to ask a question about the roots of hunger. Maybe someone wonders what it would take to deal with underlying causes of poverty, to move beyond charity and to look at issues of economic justice. In such moments the Kingdom of God is very near indeed. And wherever seeds are being planted and nurtured the Kingdom of God is truly in our midst. It’s already present—here and now—even if the harvest remains in the future. That truly is good news. It sustains us in doing 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. 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 hope alive, and to not lose heart. Our job is to keep on planting 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 entrenched imperial power. 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. Yet 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 is to keep on tending to the Kingdom in mustard-seed like ways here and now—so that our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren enjoy the fruits of our labor.  

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