June 17th, 2012, Rev. Cyndi Banks
The Third Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 6—Year B
I Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; II Corinthians 5:6-10, [11-13], 14-17; Mark 4:26-34
Well, last week we saw Samuel bow to the people’s wishes and make Saul king over Israel. Remember, “We want a king! We want a king! Just like the other nations, we want a king!” But things don’t go well for Saul. From my impartial view, not all of this was Saul’s fault. God had some pretty strange demands that Saul didn’t follow to a “T”, and Samuel didn’t show up when he said he would which made Saul anxious which made Saul force himself to offer the burnt offering to get the LORD’s favor, and somehow, all of this made Saul fall out of favor with God who never really was keen on this whole king thing to begin with. It’s all pretty complicated. Anyway, God has pulled his support of Saul; Saul has lost the support of his super PAC, and when that happens, you are dead in the water. Samuel’s pretty torn up about it too.
So, today, the LORD says to Samuel, “How long are you going to grieve over Saul? I’ve rejected him from being king over Israel; it’s time to move on; I’ve got my eye on someone to take over.” Off Samuel goes to Jesse the Bethlehemite. Jesse and his sons and the elders of the city of Bethlehem and Samuel all gather at the place where Samuel was going to make a sacrifice to the LORD. Samuel is convinced that the LORD’s appointed is before them. There’s Jesse’s first son, Eliab—he’s really tall and looks like a king. Nope. We’re told, “The LORD doesn’t see as mortals see; we human beings are all caught up on outward appearance, but the LORD, the LORD looks on the heart.” Abinadab? He looks kingly. Nope. Shammah. Un uh. Nethanel. No. Raddai—he looks regal. Nope. Ozem. Un uh. Oh, and we don’t have a record of the seventh son’s name, but he’s not the one either. Samuel is perplexed, “Jesse, are these all your sons?” “Oh no, there’s the youngest; he’s still out keeping the sheep.” “Well go get him. We’re not starting without him.” And they brought in the boy. He was ruddy, had a good, healthy complexion, and he had beautiful eyes, and he was handsome. He was the artsy one in the family, not your typical warrior type, more drawn to the lyre, that harp-like instrument, to be honest. But the LORD said, “This is the one; anoint him.” Then Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in his brothers’ presence, and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward.
David, the young, artsy kid is kingly material—this is not what we expect. But this seems to be God’s preferred mode of operation. What we think should be used by God isn’t, and what we think is not a good candidate for God’s work is. And we can extrapolate this to a bigger field. The kingdom of God is often where we least expect to find it.
And that brings us to the gospel. Jesus is trying to describe what the kingdom of God is like. You can almost see him scratching his head—“What words can I use? What images and metaphors will help them to see it? What story could I use? What parable? I’ve got to turn their heads inside out so that they will see it.”
Allow me a detour. Have you ever noticed Jesus’ love of images, of parables, of the blessed metaphor? Why? Why use this language instead of concrete, literal examples, the stuff of the real world? Because the concrete, literal stuff stops at one level of reality, and one level of our brain—our rational minds. When we go concrete and literal, we get trapped in the measuring, observing, judging part of our brains, and more often than not, we will find whatever is being measured, observed, or judged to be wanting; it just doesn’t cut muster in our logical, rational brain, and so we can dismiss it. And note here, good scientific enlightened liberal thinkers are just as prone to this as are conservative the-bible-says-what-it-says-period literalist type of thinkers.
But if we can give ourselves over to images and parables and metaphors, we are invited into this territory, into this playground to play with the reality being described. With cold hard facts, we can stay at a cool objective distance, but images and metaphors and parables invite us to engage our imagination; they invite us to participate. They pull us into their creative tension and won’t let us go until we emerge a changed person. No wonder that Jesus uses this kind of language! It’s not that what he is describing isn’t real; it’s that what he is describing is infinitely real, and he doesn’t want us to stay in our “observer of reality” role—he wants us to walk into this world he’s describing with him; he wants our full-bodied, full-hearted, full-person—mind, body, heart, spirit—participation.
So, what is this kingdom like into which he is inviting us? Well, it’s as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, like Bill Marr did earlier this spring out in our garden, and then would go to sleep and get up, night after night, day after day, and that seed would sprout and grow. Bill, can you tell us how that happens? No, he doesn’t know how that happens. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. It is a total mystery. Oh, I am sure that there are botanists that could tell us a lot about the science of it, but could they really unpack the mystery of life? I sort of doubt it.
The kingdom of God is a mystery, but it is absolutely bent toward life, something that comes out of the dark, from the tiniest of beginnings, and can grow into something amazing. But there is more to the story…Jesus goes on, “But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest
has come.” Jesus is upping the ante. Are we just going to gaze at the mystery and wonder of life, stand in awe of the Great Mystery, or are we going to harvest the growth, and make use of it in our lives and show others how to make use of it in their lives? Are we going to look at the kingdom of God from the sidelines as an observer, or we going to engage it in its fullness and claim this fullness for our lives and live out of this prodigal, extravagant, immensely abundant fullness?
And some people got it, and some still didn’t, so Jesus tries again. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? Oh, I know, let’s try this. Anybody know what this is? Can anybody see what this is? It’s a mustard seed. It’s teeny, tiny. It’s minuscule. And when it’s sown upon the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on earth;” (okay, the concrete literalists will get completely lost disputing that fact and say that no, a particular type of orchid seed is the smallest seed and totally miss the point—go with what Jesus is saying; it’s a parable, it’s a story)—“yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
So, the mustard seed, a tiny, tiny seed that grows and grows. How big does it grow? Well, 6 feet, 9 feet, some even say 12 feet tall, and it usually grows about as wide as it does tall. Now, here’s something to think about. Jesus is telling this as a parable, a story, and parables usually have this element of tension that’s there to turn our worldview upside down and pull us through to a different understanding. Where is the tension in this story? Well, there’s the whole dynamic of how something really little grows into something pretty big. Ergo, God can fan our small, little mustard seed kind of faith into a great big witness of God’s power and grace and love. There’s that.
But I think there is a deeper tension here.
Why did Jesus choose the mustard seed? Wouldn’t any kind of tree start from a humble beginning? The oak tree from a little bitty acorn? Or cedar trees from small yellow seeds? In fact, the oak tree was a favorite image of strength in the Old Testament, and the cedars of Lebanon, likewise, a symbol of strength and power and stability. And Jesus chooses a shrub, a mustard seed bush. Why?
I think Jesus is inviting us to expand our field of vision. Oaks are great, cedars are great—height and strength and stability and deep, deep roots are all aspects of life in God, but so is breadth and being low to the ground so that everyone, even the lowlife, can have access to this kingdom. Birds, yes, nesting places for them, but I bet some other surprising creatures inhabit the mustard seed shrub because it’s easy to reach.
For Jesus, the kingdom of God is as broad as it is deep; it’s as low as it is high. Mostly it’s accessible for all who have need of it.
So, what does it matter what the kingdom of God is like? Well, it matters because Jesus is setting the boundaries of how unbounded he wants our hearts to be. I Samuel talks about the heart factor, Paul talks about the heart factor. In fact, Paul goes further today, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” In this kingdom, it’s a whole new day. Whatever we were like before, we are not bound to be that now. We are a new creation! The old way is to guard our hearts, to protect them, to defend them—the old way is to stand tall and move out of our strength alone; the new way is to practice the art of the mustard seed shrub, keeping ourselves close to the ground, our hearts open and accessible to God, to each other, to those we meet out in the world.
Some odd creatures may find their way to us, so in need of the comfort we can provide. We’ll miss it if we hold ourselves above it all. Maybe it’s time we risk getting down close to the ground—as individuals, as a community. Maybe it’s time we let our hearts expand this way < > to include all that God includes in this world, as well as sinking our roots deep in God’s soil.
It’s all a matter of perspective, and today, Jesus is asking us to widen the lens. There is so much more to see of the kingdom of God than what we have been trained to see. So much more to love than we have allowed ourselves to love. So much more room for our souls to play. Let the mustard seed kingdom unfold before your eyes; let this smallest of images that Jesus has given us take root in your soul. God’s work, God’s kingdom, it pops up in the most surprising people in the most surprising places. Let the mustard seed grow inside of you and see what happens to your heart and to your life along the way. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
June 17, 2012