Sermon III Pentecost (6b)
III Pentecost (6b)
17 June 2012
2 Cor 5.1-10; Mk 4.26-34
Fr. Patrick Allen
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There's a wonderful scene in one of Arnold Lobel's "Frog & Toad" children's books. Toad, inspired by Frog's example, decides to plant a garden. After he gets the last seed in the ground and looks down at the freshly sown ground, he is immediately frustrated by the lack of progress. Nothing seems to be happening. And so, we read, "Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted, ‘Now seeds, start growing!!'"
Well, any of us who has ever planted a garden, who has waited for a seed to sprout, who has glared disapprovingly day by day at green tomatoes hanging on the vine, wishing them to turn red, can feel Toad's frustration.
And it is so well-worn a truth that it almost sounds trite to say it yet one more time in a sermon, but we are an instant-gratification, microwave oven sort of a people, aren't we? We are not good with waiting, with biding our time. Quick service is what we want. Don't beat around the bush, get to the point. Maybe you're thinking that already about this sermon!
Okay, then – the point: It is God's Kingdom, not ours, and he is building it in his own way and at his own pace, for his own reasons. This is what Jesus is telling us in these two little parables in this morning's Gospel:
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear... And, [the Kingdom of God] is like a grain of 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.
God is building his Kingdom in ways that we cannot always perceive – even as a seed beneath the soil germinates and transforms beyond our sight – and, for all our watering and weeding, beyond our control. And God is building his Kingdom by means and with materials – which is to say, with people – which very often seem to us unlikely, just as the tiny mustard seed, which seems so small, so insignificant to us, will grow to be, as Jesus says, the greatest of all shrubs and a home for many.
Jesus' disciples and those who followed along and listened as interested observers wanted God's Kingdom, but they had some advice for God about what that Kingdom should look like, and who should be included and (especially) whom excluded, and how God's Messiah should go about doing that, and when it should be established: powerful, us and not them, by any means necessary (though the more violently the better) and right now.
And so after the feeding of the 5,000, we read that the crowd tried to seize Jesus, and make him king by force.[i] And the fine religious folk scorned him because he sought out and included tax collectors and sinners, prostitutes and the poor, even "Gentile dogs" as he ironically described the poor Syro-Phoenician woman with the tormented child.[ii] And when a Samaritan village refused to receive Jesus, his disciples hopefully asked, "Lord, do you want us to bid fire come down from heaven and consume them?"[iii] And those same disciples, his closest friends, even after he had died and been buried, and like a seed planted in the ground sprung up in to new and resurrected life, asked him, "Lord, now will you restore the Kingdom to Israel?"[iv]
But God's ways are not our ways. And they never have been. From the beginning, God promised a seed – the seed of the fallen woman, our mother Eve, the seed who would crush the garden serpent's head.[v] But see how slowly, how imperceptibly, and in what unlikely ways that seed, that promise, germinates and grows.
The promise is conveyed to Abraham, an old man who with his wife Sarah, reproductively speaking, was, the Bible tells us, "as good as dead."[vi] But the seed is sown and a child, and in that child a nation, is born. A thousand years later and David was so unlikely a king, so small, so young, so much a mustard seed, that when the Prophet Samuel came looking, David's father left him out in the fields with the sheep.[vii] And yet David is the Lord's anointed, and his throne is established forever. And, another thousand years later, "in the fullness of time, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman", the second Eve.[viii] The long-promised seed sprouts and grows in her virginal womb, she knows not how.
But, again, what a mustard seed: a dirt poor carpenter's son, from Nazareth, of all places, and, the Prophet says
"As a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness," the prophet says, "and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not."[ix]
"Despised and we esteemed him not," but God the Son, the God who is Love, made flesh and dwelling among us, giving himself for us, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, but enthroned on a cross: "a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles," St. Paul writes, "but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men."[x] Christ the Mustard Seed, we might say, sown in weakness, raised in strength. Not at all what we would have expected, not at all the way we would have done it, but exactly right, exactly what we needed.
The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, he knows not how... [the Kingdom of God] is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth...
God builds his Kingdom – that perfect Kingdom of peace and justice – in his own way, with the materials and means of his own infinitely wise choosing, and in his own time. But God is building. His Kingdom is, as we will pray in just a few minutes, coming.
And so our part, like the sower who scatters the seed, is patience and prayer and hope, to learn to walk, as St. Paul has told us this morning's epistle, by faith and not by sight.
It is easy to lose patience, to become frustrated with injustice in the world, frustrated with sin and corruption and ineffectual leadership in the Church, frustrated with the slow-to-the-point-of backing up growth of holiness in our own lives. It's really easy to be impatient with the impatience of others. We want it all to happen now, and maybe we are tempted to put our heads down close to our neighbors ears, close to our own hearts, and like Toad shout, "Now seeds, start growing!"
It is easy to look at the Church – we band of bruised reeds, this collection of misfit toys – and abandon hope. But listen to our Lord's parables of the Kingdom. God is doing the building, not us. Even in the natural world, he takes the tiny, insignificant mustard seed and – for all our science we know not how – he turns it into a plant that becomes a home for birds.
Our Lord dies, his battered body is planted in the grave, and his body, and with it our frail humanity, is raised to new and divine and eternal life. And he takes twelve insignificant, often fearful, often doubting men in an insignificant backwater outpost of the Roman empire and builds a Church that fills the whole world, and so many of us have found rest in their shade.
So, patience. We must never look at the world, or at the Church, or at our neighbor, or in the mirror, and lose hope. And no cup of water given in Jesus' Name, no word of encouragement spoken, no act of love, no matter how small, is given in vain. These are mustard seeds planted in the Lord's garden, and he will give the increase. He who began this good work, this Kingdom of righteousness, will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ.[xi]
And God, as he always has, will use the most unlikely-seeming, the most insignificant-appearing, means to do it: a splash of water, a bit of bread and a sip of wine. He may even, strange as it may seem, sometimes use "the folly of preaching"[xii] to increase his Kingdom.
Now seeds, start growing!
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[i] Jn 6.15
[ii] Mt. 21.32; Mk 2.15,16; Mk 7.25-30
[iii] Lk 9.54
[iv] Acts 1.6
[v] Gn 3.15
[vi] Rm 4.19; Hb 11.12
[vii] 1 Sm 16.1-13
[viii] Gal 4.4
[ix] Is 53.1-4
[x] 1 Cor 1.22-25
[xi] Phil 1.6
[xii] 1 Cor 1.21