Karen J. Bowles
I have a confession – sometimes when I read the passage for the day and find out it is a parable – I metaphorically clutch my head in my hands as if I have a head ache coming on. Jesus Parables – of which there are 33 in the Newer Testament, are some of the densest and quite frankly impenetrable ‘story explanations’ in the bible. And today there is not just one of these pesky longer metaphors – there are two!
First a note about these parables. I will speak of both as kin-dom parables. The phrase ‘Kingdom of God’ is found 14 times in Mark. It is an ancient metaphor and has led over the centuries to very strange understandings of what the phrase Kingdom of God means. In Jesus day (and even in some cultures today) all power belonged to the King, the ruler, the Caesar, as in Jesus time. Jesus made the radical claim that all power belonged not to Caesar but to God. This led over the centuries, with the ascendance of Christianity as the seat of power – to kings and queens, popes and rulers, whether despotic or benign – claiming rule by divine right – right given by God to rule. Jesus message was far different – it was a message of radical inclusion all power belonged to God and that God belonged to all equally – the woman at the well and the Samaritan – the Mexican child on the border and Mike Pence. We speak of a Kin-dom not a kingdom of God.
This unfortunate understanding of Kingdom and of the male right to rule countries and households led in part to a patriarchal understanding of families and fiefdoms. Not very helpful for both the male head and the member body. On this day that we mark Father’s Day – on this day as we speak speaking of seeds and plants we will leave that understanding of the kin-dom of God to fallow to germinate…Suffice just that the words of Stephen Colbert late night talk show host and Christian – will make an appearance later on the subject of our understanding of the role of Fathers.
I also find it rather humorous and apt that today we celebrate Father’s day and our scripture passage is of seeds and sprouts and the eternal cycle of life, human and plant.
Do you remember writing précis’ in English class in high school – where you were asked to summarize in very few words a novel a play or a treatise? And you struggled to figure out the important bits – the plot – and to cut out all that was extraneous?
For instance if you asked to write a précis for Homer’s Odyssey – you could say ‘The Odyssey is Homer’s epic of Odysseus’ 10-year struggle to return home after the Trojan War.’period. You would probably get top marks for such a summary – and you would get the plain part but miss the wonder and never even get to the work. You would have eaten the sandwich bread but missed the filling, read the words but missed the layers. You would miss Odysseus and his men battling fantastical creatures, facing the wrath of the gods and dealing with 100 of his wife’s suitors on his eventual return to Ithaca. In this same way you could distill the parables in this passage to their bare bones – could perhaps say for the first – ‘seeds sown produce crops that farmers reap’. period and for the second – you could say perhaps – ‘mustard seed planted will grow into a mustard bush providing shade and perch for birds.’ period
Back to my head clutching over parables! I took heart at my writing desk when I came across a quote from Meister Eckhart, a monk who lived from 1260 to 1328. This German theologian and mystic managed to avoid being put to death as a heretic during the Inquisition by conveniently dying before his trial was over. His words helped me to elicit something of the meaning of these parables of Jesus. He said first: – ‘The seed of God is in us. That is the content of our first parable. I am calling it PLAIN WONDER. And then he went on to say and remember this was 700 years ago (perhaps from a jail cell) and forgive the wee bit archaic language: ‘Given an intelligent and hard working farmer, [this seed] will thrive and grow up to God, whose seed it is; and accordingly its fruits will be God-nature.’ This is the précis of our second parable this morning – I named it WONDER WORK.
I had the title for the sermon PLAIN WONDER WORK and I felt the spirit begin to move within me – felt a little bit of thriving and some growing toward God-nature, as Meister Eckhart would have said. I had something I hope life giving and spirit affirming and trust making to share with you today.
“The kin-dom 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.”
Imagine living in the time of Jesus – would it not be a miracle and wonder producing to witness the journey of the seed to the plant to the crop? The parable describes it as the earth producing of itself. The hymn we sometimes sing ; In the bulb there is a flower – describes both the wonder and the mystery: . ‘In the bulb there is a flower in the seed an apple tree- unrevealed until it’s season – something God alone can see.’
The mustard seed was the smallest of all things in Jesus day. The smallest of all things that grew to the largest of all things. Fast forward to today and your wonder should increase.
From the smallest thing being a mustard seed in Jesus day we have uncovered far smaller things – and that is an understatement. First came the atom and it was thought to be indivisible – and then it was split to reveal protons and neutrons and electrons – and it was thought that these were the fundamental particles – the building blocks of life – until it was discovered that protons and neutrons are made of 3 quarks each – described as types or flavours of quarks with the endearing unusual names of up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and top. My sons were able to recite these off the top of their heads!
A mustard seed is .2 centimetres (or 3/4 of an inch). A quark is smaller than 43 billion-billionths of a centimetre. That is 2000 times smaller than a proton which is about 60,000 times smaller than an atom which is about 40 times smaller than the radius of a DNA double helix which is about a million times smaller than a mustard seed.
Back again to my head clutching – Boggles the mind. But also stirs the imagination – and gives rise to wonder – and ignites curiosity and engenders grateful heart opening connection with and for all other living things. But still head clutch making!
The plain wonder in Jesus day of the plant from seed, and crop from plant becomes more awe filling when we get an inkling of the complexity we carry around within us and witness in all ‘forms’ as the Greeks would have called them. Before Christianity divorced science from spirit, beginning with Galileo, we were able to express and experience a much healthier and life giving understanding of God. Saint Bonaventure who lived in the 11th century said “God is the One whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” God imbued in the smallest of all and in the largest of every. I find that comforting and much more accessible than God as somewhere removed available only to those who are righteous.
The kin-dom of God is in all. We do not have to earn it or be worthy of it or righteous or even good. Or as Meister Eckhart put it – The seed of God is in all of us.
Plain wonder and plainly wonder full.
The second parable if you remember I called Wonder Work: “The kin-dom is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 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.”
Here is where our imaginations and our ingenuity, our sweat equity, our enlightenment, our creeping evolution, our work, kicks in. Here is where our wonder should give rise to gratitude and our gratitude should give rise to trust and the response will rise in us to work that the kin-dom of God be made plain in all its wonder and generosity and abundance.
Mary Oliver said it better than I:
Why should I not sit, every morning of my life, on the hillside, looking into the shining world? Because, properly attended to, delight, as well as havoc, is suggestion.
Can one be passionate about the just, the ideal, the sublime, and the holy, and yet commit to no labor in its cause? I don’t think so.
All summations have a beginning, all effect has a story, all kindness begins with a sown seed. Thought buds toward radiance. The gospel of light is the crossroads of — indolence, or action.
Be ignited, or be gone.
Head clutching giving way to head and heart expansion.
A group of mostly men got together – scholars and theologians and philosophers and they came up with a study that became a book called the Jesus Seminar. In it they voted on which of Jesus parables and sayings were most likely to have been said by him. The parable of the mustard seed we have been considering this morning was one they judged an authentic parable of Jesus. But they also had this to say about the the legacy of Jesus:
‘At the heart of Jesus’ teaching and actions was a vision of a life under the reign of God (or, in the empire of God) in which God’s generosity and goodness is regarded as the model and measure of human life; everyone is accepted as a child of God and thus liberated both from the ethnocentric confines of traditional Judaism and from the secularizing servitude and meagreness of their lives under the rule of the empire of Rome.
Jesus did not hold an apocalyptic view of the reign (or kingdom) of God—that by direct intervention God was about to bring history to an end and bring a new, perfect order of life into being. Rather, in Jesus’ teaching the reign [the Kin-dom] of God is a vision of what life in this world could be, not a vision of life in a future world that would soon be brought into being by a miraculous act of God.’
We are each farmers/cultivators of this vision of what life in this world could be and will be and this morning we celebrate and I hope can recommit ourselves to our role in that growth. We are each containers of God and bearers and sowers of the kin- dom. This morning as we celebrate that recognition in our fathers and our sons , we rediscover a Jesus based understanding of the influence that our understanding of God brings to that role. Our image of God creates us and those we parent.
I promised you a Stephen Colbert quote. He joked “A father has to be a provider, a teacher, a role model, but most importantly, a distant authority figure who can never be pleased. Otherwise, how will children ever understand the concept of God?”
Indeed! but not now indeed.
Our image of God creates us – Just as our image of fatherhood informs how we parent. In the Globe yesterday there was a piece by Mark Sakamoto entitled ‘Almost entirely love’. He begins with a line by poet Haydon Carruth who near the end of his life in a poem entitled ‘Testament’: “Now/I am almost entirely love.” At the birth of Mark’s daughter – he says: “I came to understand that nothing in my daughter’s life would impact her more than the quality of her father’s love. I had never before felt such certainty. I had never before felt such weight. That realization anchored and directed me. I needed to become a father to remember how to be a son. And I am grateful on this Father’s day, I know in my heart I am slowly inching closer toward being almost entirely love.”
‘The seed of God is in us. With that recognition, that revelation engendering wonder filled trust, whether we be father son mother daughter or other gender identified – it is our work to ensure that that seed will thrive and grow up to God, whose seed it is; we bear the fruits of God-nature.’ – almost entirely love – drilled right down to our ‘charming’ quarks!
“God is the One whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”
Head un clutched, heart opened to this Jesus inspired love – Let us pray.