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Parables are hard. Like a zen koan that asks, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” or the old question, “If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it make an noise?”, parables are by nature unresolved. We can get them translated — find the ancient Greek or the Aramaic or the Latin verse and get those words worked over into English. We can parse the verbs and figure out the syntax, but understanding that doesn’t really help us know how a tiny, tiny seed like a mustard seed is compared to an action of God. God is, after all, large…as Monty Python would say…so absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell you. How does it make sense to portray the Kin-dom of God, the Creator of the universe, with something so small that you couldn’t see it if I held it in my hand right now? And why compare the Kin-dom with a weed, something invasive and problematic? It doesn’t make sense. But then again, the task of the parable is not to understand. It is to know, and to know at some place deeper than our brains.
In her book, Walking on Water, Madeleine L’Engle tells of a young woman who told the author, “I read A Wrinkle in Time when I was eight or nine. I didn’t understand it, but I knew what it was about.” I sometimes feel the same way about Jesus’ parables. I don’t understand them, but I know what they’re about. Jesus taught in parable because he wanted to convey one of the most important of spiritual lessons. Understanding is overrated. We have so much data and information available to us these days, we think that we know lots of things, and we’ve forgotten how to simply wonder about something. Why does a zebra have stripes? Whip out the phone, 10 seconds to Google and you understand about pigmentation and genetic evolution. But, if you’re like me, you are still left wondering…you still don’t know why. And that wondering is half the point.
About this time many of you are preparing to harvest your backyard crops or enjoying the wide range of produce showing up at the farmer’s market. Porter peaches, okra, squash, green beans, maybe some cucumbers or corn or cantaloupe. And very soon, tomatoes, oh my goodness…the tomatoes. If you are growing them yourself, you may not be able to give them away. And of these things started with seeds. Tiny seeds. This bounty, this plentiful food that comes up out of the ground is in itself a clear sign of hope. Life continues. Things break and die and then something else lives, as if God’s creative energy cannot be silenced or buried, it just changes forms. Even as we are faced with dire circumstances, with hard news and a world that seems to fracture by the minute, that life-giving presence stands beside us. The Reign of God is near.
How can that be, we ask ourselves, when we see the pictures we see? How can we understand that when we know what is happening in Syria right now, when we get stories from people in Nicaragua as the chaos and violence increase each day? How can we glibly assert that when we can almost feel the pain of the families who are being torn apart by our own government, seeking asylum from untold violence and hopelessness only to have their babies take from their arms? How, one could easily ask, is the Reign of God near? It seems light years away.
I had a text conversation with our CE Director, J.D. this morning. I’ve been having a lot of them with him lately as he’s been away at Officer’s School in Alabama, away from his family enduring long hours and rigorous training for his military chaplaincy work. It has been immensely difficult for him and hard on his family, and I’ve been trying to offer him what support I can from far away. This morning he texted to me that as he leads chapel this morning he’s going to open with, “No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” He said how proud he was to represent his Fellowship family in that way and how much it meant to him that there were prayers lifted up for him each week. Then he told me that it was the smaller group discussions where he, a guy from the Black Baptist tradition on the south side of Chicago, was able to sit in a room full of military officials in Alabama and make an argument for inclusion, an argument that he attributes to us. His claim for the acceptance of all people, in the chapel and otherwise, was formed here. It was planted and nurtured here. Not from a place of understanding, because he didn’t understand at first, but finally from a place of knowing. In knowing all of you, this kind of love has grown in his heart, from a tiny seed.
We’re often told that the problem is our faith – it’s just not strong enough. We’re told we need more of it. In fact, that’s how this parable is often interpreted, if you only had faith the size of a tiny mustard seed…you terrible Christian, you. Well, that last part is usually not said out loud, just implied. But what the Gospel really says is this – good news! God isn’t looking for your purity, God is looking for your participation. God isn’t looking for you to fix the world, but neither are you free from being a part of the repair. And more good news – God grades on a curve, a big curve. All God needs is a tiny seed, a pinch of yeast, to grow the garden and leaven the loaf.
So, I’m going to offer us a few possibilities we might consider as we work to make our Christianity smaller, and God’s Reign bigger…a few small changes in the way that we talk and think about our faith, about the way that we practice that faith and even about God that might produce something much larger, not on our timetable…but on God’s. These are seeds, a jar full of mustard seeds, that we can plant as Christians…
1. Less doctrine, more stories…I don’t think that Jesus cares what your atonement theory is, but I do think that he cares about you listening to your neighbor’s story…
2. More honesty on what we think God cares about, even if we have to admit that it’s not what we always care about…at least not yet.
3. Volunteer. As the sign out front says this week, “We rise by lifting others.” If you are feeling down, or depressed, I suggest to you that you find a way to help someone else. You may not understand how that will help, but you will soon know how it does.
4. More grace, less judgment…starting with yourself. And LOTS more humility…starting with everything.
5. Instead of making the gospel about changing everyone else,
let’s remember that it’s really about changing ourselves.
And finally…smile more. Listen to more music. Watch less TV, especially news. Write a letter every now and again…by hand. Make time to be with other people. And have faith, trust – as if the world depended on it – that how you treat the waitstaff, the clerk, your partner, your child, your co-worker, your neighbor, your immigrant neighbor, your gay neighbor, your homeless neighbor, your disabled, addicted or mentally ill neighbor, your Muslim neighbor…your Republican neighbor…how you treat those around you will change the world. How? I don’t know. Seems like such a tiny thing…