Read and Hear Martha’s Sermon from June 17, 2012
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St. Margaret’s Church
Sermon for June 17, 2012
The Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick
Year B, Proper 6
1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13; Ps. 20; 2 Cor. 5:6-10, 14 – 17
Kudzu and the Reign of God
Parables. Jesus’ primary teaching and preaching tool. So simple on the surface, so thick and layered with meaning. Containing the obvious and the hidden. Ultimately mysterious. The parable has one overarching purpose, one reason for its telling: to break open our understanding of the reign of God. It does this by starting with something familiar. And then there’s a twist. In the twist is the opening. And through the opening is something startling, often subversive, usually disturbing.
So one key to breaking open a parable is to push through the obvious, to look for what perplexes you. Questions are more useful than answers. And, if you think what a parable is saying is obvious, that’s your clue that it isn’t. It’s easy enough to reduce this gospel to a fable. Big things from little things grow. If you exercise your faith in small ways, God will use it to do great things.i It’s not that this is wrong. It is true enough, and an important element of this parable, that the Kingdom of God and its importance is not at first obvious and may come in surprising forms and places, places we might think are too small for God. But this is not a fable, but a parable. Fables instruct and edify. Parables, on the other hand, deconstruct.ii They seek to overturn what we might think. This is how they work. If you aren’t confused and aren’t perhaps going “hey wait a minute” you’ve stopped short of a higher meaning. What we’re looking for is to find the hook, the twist, and to do that we have to move beyond the safe interpretation.
We start with the familiar. This parable itself sounds familiar. Matthew, Mark and Luke all have parables about scattering seeds. But this is the only parable of the “automatically growing seed.” So there’s something new. We recognize some things here, especially this time of year. We plant seeds, we try to give them good soil and water, but we can’t really do much of anything about its growing. We get that there’s something to this we don’t control. We’ve all planted seeds and seen nothing come up. We’ve all had surprises turn up in our gardens.
But there are some problems with this reading. Other translators, looking more precisely at the Greek, as well as understanding more of Mediterranean culture, offer insights. To begin with, note the word in our translation “scatter” — “as if someone would scatter seed on the ground.” “Scatter” is not “sow.” There is another Greek word for “sow” used elsewhere. This is more like “toss” and could be inadvertent, casting something off, thinking it is worthless, or worth not much. So the person tosses his seeds, and then goes about his days, sleeping and rising, and isn’t even expecting anything. He hasn’t been vigilantly watching for the harvest, he’s surprised by the whole appearance of the harvest.
And then there’s the second parable, the mustard seed. Yes the mustard seed is tiny. Yes even at its full growth it is nothing like the mighty and majestic cedar. And it had useful purposes as a spice. But it could also be unruly and invasive, taking over where it wasn’t wanted. In the ancient world you would find it taking over a hillside or an abandoned field. Read “kudzu”, “bamboo” (or what’s the stuff that looks like bamboo but has round leaves? Knotweed!) or the aptly named “Bishop’s bane.” And before you get to comforted thinking about the birds finding shelter there, recall that a few verses before, in the gospel of Mark, it is the birds who plucked the seed from the ground before it could sprout. So here they might be seen as an enemy of the kingdom. And here we have it — the kingdom of God is — Invasives and undesirables. And growing where it wants, out of our control.
I’m also struck by the passivity of this person who scatters seeds willy-nilly. It all seems rather passive. The man sleeps and rises. The earth produces of itself.
And on the subject of sleeping, there is a turn of phrase that caught my attention. The person would “sleep and rise, night and day.” Sleep and rise, night and day. Note the parallelism, which is common in the Hebrew language. Parallel phrases, repeated for effect. Why? And note the order. He would sleep, and then he would rise. And it would be night, and then day. Does it remind you of anything? “And it was evening, and it was morning, the first day.” “And it was evening, and it was morning, the second day.” From the beginning of Genesis, describing creation. But the Jewish day — and doubtless Jesus’ day as well — begins at sundown. And not with work. Not with meetings. Not with a to-do list. In the ancient world sundown was when work ceased. There was limited light with which to work. A new day begins with a blessing and a meal, and rest.
So perhaps we ought to spend a little less time arguing whether that was a literal 7 days 6000 years ago, and instead turn our attention to what a day means. If you were asked “when does your day begin?” you would likely say, “when I get up.” When does it end? when I go to bed.” Ours is a culture that takes great pride in busy-ness. “I have so much to do.” and we do. We’re on committees and we chair boards and community groups and friends and family to keep up with. We get asked to get involved in the library, the garden club, Senior College, Rotary and the Altar Guild. And there are the causes and ministries –the food cupboard, restorative justice, environmental protection and a seemingly endless list of others we feel we ought to do something about. We have ideas and projects of our own – clean out the closet, paint the shutters. So you wake up in the morning, plant your feet on the floor, and mentally run through the things you have to do.
This is good work, and it gives our lives a sense of purpose. But here’s a problem that we all face at one time or another when we have a major life shift and we’re not as productive as we once were. I’ve heard many a newly retired person say: “When I was working I was contributing to society. Now what am I doing?” So we channel that energy and curiosity.. Sometimes finding new outlets that we didn’t have time for when we were fully employed. And as good Christians we hope we know the presence of God in all of that activity.
Our society can make us feel that we’re only as worthy as our contributions, however the world measures those. But then we get laid off from work. Or We can’t do anything for ourselves because we’re ill, or our body doesn’t move well. Or we get tired more quickly and can do half what we used to do. Or we’re struggling with psychological or emotional issues and we can’t focus. Or sit still for very long. Or we’re just plain old. As many of us know, this can take a real toll on our sense of who we are, of our self-worth. We can identify with the psalmist who says “I am as useless as a broken pot.”
But notice who is the prime mover in the Gospel parables. It is not the human, it is God. God is the one at work, and the human shows up, a bit at the beginning, and a bit at the end. These are not unimportant, but it is not primarily about us. There is a bumper sticker out there that says “actually it is only 1/7 billionth about you.” I have a quote that I cut out and framed and that sits on my bureau. It is a prayer of Sir Jacob Astley before the Battle of Newbury: “Lord, I shall be very busie this day. I may forget thee but doe not Thou forget me.” I wonder if we don’t go about our day with our schedule and plans and hope that God shows up at some point.
But rather than the hope and faith that God is present in our day, perhaps we should be praying that we show up in God’s day. That we have the presence of mind to notice when the harvest is ready and immediately receive what God has provided.
So what does that look like, to show up in God’s day? Following the rhythm of this parable, it begins at sundown. The work of the day ceases. Then there is blessing and thanksgiving, a meal. We begin with blessing. We don’t have to earn it, or prove ourselves with work or accomplishments or anything else. It is simply a gift. Then, peaceful rest. Meanwhile, God continues to be at work in the world. And then we awaken, and our job then is to be truly awake. To be spiritually awake. All the wisdom traditions teach this, a quality of awareness, of being fully present.
Last week Deacon Tom told of a person he had met at the soup kitchen who’s at the reentry center. A while later Tom saw him downtown, and he had gotten a job. Tom was going around telling everybody. This isn’t a little thing, it’s a huge thing. But it’s one we can miss if we’re not looking. If we’re somewhere else on our own agendas. The harvest in this case was the witnessing and the telling. You witness live-giving stories of transformation and you go tell it on the mountain!
We live in a world where we are regularly reminded of scarcity and fear and limited justice.iii We are often painfully reminded of our own powerlessness. But it’s not up to us. God is at work building the reign of God. So we Look for where things are growing. Look for where there’s hope. Look for where there is growth, positive live-giving energy and transformation Look for where there is new life. It may not be obvious, it may not be grand, but what do we know anyway. And help each other to notice, to aid and assist, to share, and to bear witness. And the kingdom will happen – is happening — in unexpected places. Amen.
i David Lose, workingpreacher.org