1 Sam15: 34-16:13; Ps 20; 2 Cor5: 6-17; MARK 4: 26-34
In the name of God who created us from love…AMEN.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God or what parable will we use for it? Jesus did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” And off we go to the long green season until Advent, of hearing and considering the teachings of Jesus—so a little about these parables, a little more broadly about Jesus’ teaching and parables, and to begin, Paul’s comment, “We walk by faith not by sight.”
Paul is explaining that later, when we’re with Jesus, we’ll see more clearly and understand more nearly. We cannot get the proof of what to do, what is really correct, the answers to our personal, religious, or theological questions now. Jesus, and here, Paul, each, makes it clear that faith is our guide and must be. He is underscoring Jesus’ use of parables, of metaphorical speech. Sometimes we’d like nice simple answers, “Do this, do that,” but the Holy One is neither Simon telling us which of only two choices to do, (Simon says,) nor which of some larger number of choices, to do. Faith will help be our guide. The collect says, “Keep your household the Church in your steadfast faith,” ... that we may proclaim your truth and minister justice.” Remember Thomas Eyong said there are three things the Holy Spirit never lies about: truth, justice, and love.” Today’s collect underscores that point, and says that the guideline we’re given is faith, not orders, clarity, or simplicity. I was visiting with a friend who takes much of Scripture in a far more literal way than do I— burning hellfire for those who disobey what she believes are clear do’s and don’ts, and other absolutes to her. I don’t see it that way, and Paul’s observation that we “walk,” or here we “live,” by faith gives me comfort that he didn’t say, “We live by clear-cut rules,” and that says to me that neither did Jesus.
Instead Jesus lived by faith in the goodness of the Holy One and explained what he understood in parables, in metaphorical speech, and by talking on long evenings with the disciples, “explaining everything to them in private.” We have little of those conversations, other than that the Gospels overlap considerably, so people must have heard and talked about similar things, such that their reporting Gospel writer narrate comparable parables, stories, and episodes.
Today Mark reports two of these. “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” The ins and outs of agriculture and crop management isn’t really the topic, though, other than observing accurately, they probably didn’t know clearly the way plants ripen to harvest. We know more about that science, enough to know that sun and water, quality of soil and weeding around the principal plants are all important; so did they. They knew less about the chemistry and cell structure, photosynthesis, and other biobotanical/biochemical processes than we do. None of us really understands how or why there are plants and beyond the actual biomechanical processes, none of us knows much better even now, given that plants are useful, how did they exist or why. We know many more descriptive qualities, but we don’t know much more about the essential existence questions, the ones the hero in “Prometheus” wants to know, the “Why were we made,” “For what?" and "By whom” ones. They, at least, remembered to wonder at the full harvest and give thanks for it. I think we think that since we know so much more about ways to make the harvest bigger, we forget to give thanks that there are plants, good growth, good grain, and good harvests. We have contributed to the growth of the plants, and so we think we’ve made the plants too, forgetting the factor of “the earth produces of itself.” We have little humility, let alone thankfulness for the existential wonder of plants, their growth, variety, and amazing harvests.
Similarly, we often forget, too, the essence of the mustard seed parable. From a tiny, tiny beginning, something large and useful grows, seemingly just on its own. The parable cites the enormous, unexpected growth and its nurturing haven, as matters of wonder. We know seeds produce what they’re genetically bound to produce, and we’re not so impressed with the size or shelter provided by the mustard seed, because mustard is both common and unimportant to us. We get the picture of the growth but it‘s almost silly to us.
That is a component of many of Jesus’ parables. They’re funny. They exhibit a visual humor easily accessible to his audience. The parables often have an element of stand-up-comic in them. Here Jesus makes the point about good growth with such a dramatic example, and then keeps the picture quite sober, pointing out the plant’s usefulness. My guess is he told the story with more drawn out humor, showing how tiny and then how huge the plant grew. Its very small and colorless beginning, —pooooof—turns into a huge tree sheltering many. We could use other small beginnings, which might tell this tale more clearly to us, since the mustard tree doesn’t matter to us, and mustard connotes hot dogs and so frivolity. From this wee tiny chip, the world’s massive computers run; from this microscopic virus, this huge person and huge population get sick. Jesus’ parable went from small to hugely effective, even useful. He could also have been looking at his scruffy group of disciples becoming a huge movement to provide shelter for all those looking for a haven from the power of the Roman Empire.
Again for us the first parable could have also been focused on patience—something farmers have to live with. We don’t exhibit much of that, partly because so few of us participate in the growth of anything, except our growing piles of unsorted stored stuff. Maybe instead of “first the grain and then the ear, then the full corn doth appear,” we could pick a soufflé or cake, and remind people not to ruin its success by checking anxiously, and so stunting its growth, making it fail to rise. Again, I used to hear this, “From tiny acorns, mighty chestnut trees grow…” I don’t think so, but we often just don’t get nature parables, because we don’t see or participate in the whole growing process, and we miss imbedded humor.
Part of what we often miss is the broad humor in many of Jesus’ sayings. Not only do we hear the mustard seed as unimportant, we also almost need to upgrade the seriousness of the parable to make Jesus worthy. We are somewhat uncomfortable with Jesus saying, “How big? Soooooo big.” If mustard seeds are silly topics, he must be way-serious or the whole enterprise would seem trivial. Instead Jesus was walking with a small band of ordinary followers, just guys, and they were so inspired they transformed the Roman Empire, Judaism, and much about the then known world into the present day’s wide world. Think of Peter the fisherman and the whole Vatican and Roman Catholic Church structure. Think of those struggling guys (just guys—Happy Fathers’ Day and to all those who’ve served as good fathers to you—) and the masses of every kinds and sorts of people who profess that Jesus is their Savior.
Whether Jesus was talking about miraculous God-given growth of plants, or of his group’s transformation of the world, both little parables of this morning expand into those life-giving huge changes. “He explained everything in private to his disciples.” They ate and talked together and they caught his vision. We are all now in this long teaching season, trying to tease out those long-ago private explanations. “As John Meade Falkner, son of a C of E curate, who made a fortune in armaments and later “found salvation” in literature,” (thank you, John Hooker) wrote:
“We have done with dogma and divinity
Easter and Whitsun have past,
The long, long Sundays after Trinity
Are with us at last;
The passionless Sundays after Trinity
Neither feast-day nor fast.”
These parables, so small, so much part of a world not much like ours, expand to be as usefully illustrative as they once were, when we hear them with receptive ears and we talk together about them, hearing the promises and possibilities in their small faithful community reaching out to ours to help us build, rebuild, energize our own crops of struggling grains into a harvest of hope and plenty to nourish ourselves and to feed those beyond our own personal and parish horizons. Together, whether from grains or mustard seeds, “inch by inch, row by row, gonna make our garden grow, gonna make our parish grow…” Good News.
© Katharine C. Black 17 June 2012 B 3 Pent 17 June 2012 proper 6