1 Samuel 15:34 -16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26–34
Most of you know that I am chairing the upcoming Revival here in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts – October 21 – mark your calendars! We are very excited about our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry being our preacher, and about the opportunity to revive the church here in the Berkshires and throughout our Diocese.
To begin planning for the Revival we started by several hours of conversation about what needs to be revived in ourselves, in our churches, and in our communities. As that conversation unfolded, it became clear that what needed reviving was HOPE.
The current political climate, combined with all the stresses of everyday life in the 21st century, has made hope more elusive, and much more sorely needed. Ultimately our Revival theme became “Rekindling HOPE, Sharing LIGHT, Loving JESUS – but I would argue that light and Jesus are also about Hope. Hope is really our focus.
The parables in today’s gospel lesson are also focused on hope. They are part of a number of parables in Mark’s gospel on the Kingdom of God. That idea alone—the Kingdom of God—is tricky, because it is not a very exact translation of the Greek phrase, an because we are not very familiar with the concept of kingdoms.
One theologian explains that the Biblical writers thought of the “kingdom of God” as a place of radical inclusion; a kingdom not of haves and have-nots, but rather one that reflects the egalitarian relationship of God’s beloved community.” She suggests that, to understand this idea, we should instead call it the kin-dom of God.
In any event, these parables are about the hopes of the people of God for the world—and for the way of God in the world. Our task as readers and listeners is to determine what God would teach us about that kingdom of God today.
The first parable speaks beautifully to the gift of grace from God. This seemingly rather lazy, or at least clueless gardener scatters the seed, but then does nothing to promote its growth. Nonetheless the seed sprouts and flourishes. Grace is like that; we are given the gift of God’s love and care even if we do nothing to warrant it.
The second story, the parable of the mustard seed, is more appealing to me. I find it more compelling, and also a little more difficult to unravel. I am indebted to theologian David Lose, who helped me understand that the way this parable is most often interpreted and preached is as an allegory or fable. The allegorical approach says that, just like the mustard seed starts small and grows, so might your faith if you tend it. The fable approach says that sometimes very large things have small beginnings, so don’t be discouraged if you exercise your faith in small ways, because God will use it to do great things.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with these interpretations. They convey the idea that the kingdom of God and its importance is not obvious, at least at first. The kingdom of God may appear quite modest and yet exert significant, even surprising influence. But fables and allegories are meant to teach, to instruct—to give us a wise bon mot that will inform our lives. Parables, on the other hand, are meant to overturn, to deconstruct, and ultimately, to transform our lives.[i]
These common interpretations of this story are too safe, and I don’t think safety is what the word of God is about. I think the more interesting path is to explore what radical, parabolic Word God might impart to us through the story of the mustard seed.
Perhaps the key to reading this parable is to understand how peculiar the mustard seed is. I think of mustard seeds as a rather innocuous spice (something in one of those jars that I have purchased for a particular recipe and that now sits, dusty and languishing, at the back of a pantry shelf). But for the gardener, mustard seeds are at the very least pesky, and are even somewhat dangerous. I am told that wild mustard is incredibly hard to control; once it takes root it can take over a whole planting area. In the ancient world, mustard would only occasionally be found in a garden. More likely you would look for it overtaking the side of an open hill or abandoned field.
So it seems that Jesus is comparing the Kingdom of God to a weed. You can choose your own modern-day equivalent—crabgrass, dandelions, poison ivy, or [if you have roots in the Deep South] kudzu.[ii] Jesus is suggesting that the kingdom of God can grow from something small and inconsequential into an invasive presence that will overtake everything in its path.
Then there’s the part of the story about birds nesting in the branches of the resulting shrub. At first glance that sounds nice and cozy—until we remember that birds are often unwelcome by gardeners, because they tend to eat the crops before they can be harvested. And remembering an earlier reference to birds in the parable of the sower, where they eat the seed off the path so that it cannot take root, we understand that a bird can be the enemy of seed. So this part of the parable suggests that once the Kingdom of God takes root, all kinds of things happen, including the sudden presence of “undesirables.”[iii]
Looked at this way, Jesus’ parable is a little darker, even ominous. John Dominic Crossan, in his book The Historical Jesus, says this:
The point, in other words, is not just 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 weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses—if you could control it.[iv]
And that’s the point, isn’t it? We cannot control the Kingdom of God. The love that Christ bears for the world is a force of unimaginable power, able to take over even in places where it is not expected. The way of Christ promises infinitely more than we can ask or imagine—we cannot be sure where that force will break through, nor how big it will grow. And despite our efforts to focus on the pretty, “why can’t we all just get along?” view of God’s love, the fact is that Christ came into the world just like a parable: to overturn, to deconstruct, and ultimately, to transform our lives.
So the image of the kingdom of God that Christ puts before us is not necessarily a comfortable one; Christ describes a vision of a radical force coming into the world in such quantities as to be dangerous for the status quo, for life as we know it.
I think there are some who would welcome a paradigm-shifting change; a re-ordering of the world. Certainly the occupy movement from a few years back, and its inspiration, the Arab Spring, were examples of a desire to radically reorganize our political and economic world to bring it in line with a more egalitarian, inclusive vision.
But most of us are very comfortable with the way things are. We don’t really want things to change; the world the way it is may not be perfect, but we know how it works, and we know our place in it. We are comfortable, if not completely fulfilled. Change is scary.
Christ, in this parable, calls us to strive for more. To open ourselves to the possibility that there is a better way. To dare to open our eyes to see the glimmers of hope for a more just and balanced world.
[Example of children being separated from family at the U.S./Mexican border; are we being called to stand for something better? For the Kingdom of God?]
I invite you to reflect this morning on the places that you see that hope pouring through, taking over and changing the world. Are there places where you see the kingdom of God breaking through right here in this town, in this county?
I want to try something a little different today; I want to give you a homework assignment. This week, as you go about your business, look for those places where God’s kingdom is sneaking in, or spreading out, or taking over little corners of our world. Go out and look for hope, the dangerous hope that changes lives in ways small and large. And when you find it, take a picture (we all carry cameras around these days, don’t we?), or write a brief sketch of what you saw. Send it to me, and I will make sure that those pictures and word sketches get posted on our Facebook page—on a mustard seed hope wall.
I challenge you to open your eyes to the invasive hope of the Kingdom of God that is all around us. And when you see these things, I pray that you won’t only document them for our intellectual discussion. I challenge you to also consider how you can aid and assist this radical hope for the world. I hope you will dare to dream that the mustard seed that you are can help take over the world with the radial message of God’s inclusive and unconditional love. Amen.
[i] Lose, David. http://www.workingpreacher.org/dear_wp.aspx?article_id=597, accessed June 11, 2012.