Proper 6, Year B
17 June 2012
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Athens, Ga.
Old Testament: 1 Samuel15:34 - 16:13 (anointing of David as king)
Epistle: 2 Cor. 5:6-10, (11-13) 14-17
Gospel: Mark 4:26-34 (Parable of the Growing Seed; and the Mustard Seed)
The unbelievable, perplexing, surprising, often unnerving grace of God. Is it possible that this is what Jesus is talking about in the two parables he tells to the crowds, to the disciples - to us - in today’s Gospel passage?
I can’t take credit for the idea, but I have to confess I find it very, very attractive, mainly because it is simple, and pure, and basically. . . just the kind of thing you would expect Jesus of Nazareth to try and communicate. The difficulty and uncertainty of interpretation is there, of course: these are parables, after all. Like many of Jesus’ parables they are famous for combining accessible, down-to-earth imagery with lots of room for puzzlement. But strip down today’s two parables about the nature of the kingdom of God: the automatically growing seed and the mustard seed, to their barest elements and what do we hear?
First we hear that the seeds that the sower has scattered on the ground are going grow into the plant they were meant to be, regardless of human effort. The gardener can go to sleep and rise in the morning, then do it all over again, day after day, not lifting a finger to help those seeds, and yet they will sprout and grow. Modern agricultural techniques aside, that’s truly what seeds are meant to do (right?), using the nutrients from God’s earth and the rain from God’s sky. The farmer has simply to rise and walk out with the sickle, when the fruit is full on the head of the stalk, and reap the bounty of the harvest to take home, to share, to enjoy to the fullest.
Then similarly, the mustard seed, the tiniest, most inconsequential-looking seed of them all, when placed in the earth, transforms in due course - remember those nutrients & rain God’s earth has provided? - transforms into “the greatest of all shrubs” - as high as the eave of a house, they apparently can grow - with such sturdy branches that birds have a new place to nest and enjoy the shade.
So, with us human beings a passive bystanders, as little but observers . . . that is, without the sower of either seed DOING ANYTHING - there is dramatic growth, way out of proportion to our human efforts, and yielding benefits - to all kinds of God’s creatures - that NO ONE HAD TO WORK FOR.
A GIFT, organically present in the very structure of Creation - just part of THE WAY THINGS ARE - a GIFT we do not have to work for, a GIFT that is out of proportion to what we might expect or think we deserve, yielding us real benefits: THAT, bros. & sisters, is a description of God’s GRACE. A description of God come near to us, of God’s closeness to us, of God’s loving desire for us - to be in relationship with us and to enjoy our return of that love.
The kingdom of God, the dominion of God, Jesus seems to be trying to tell us, is a place of uncommon GRACE, of unearned, undeserved, unconditional GIFT. “Intimacy with Christ grows in us as certainly and as effortlessly as seeds grow,” one commentator has said. “We have so little to do with Christ’s nearness to us that we - like the sower in the first parable - can just go to sleep.” Isn’t that just crazy to hear?! That Christ’s nearness to us is NOT about us moving ourselves around, physically or spiritually, earning the “right” to draw close somehow - but rather about the way things already are . . . how . . . very . . . unnerving! This doesn’t sound much like our everyday world, does it? ...our frenetic, busy, working and earning, getting and spending, testing and advancing sort of world, in which taking care of our selves, our families, our communities, necessarily involves everything BUT passivity.
But think about how the ways of the world do not truly fit in our spiritual lives. Think of how typical it is of us, particularly us serious and upright churchgoers, for example, to think we can work our way into dramatic spiritual growth, that we can work our way into that feeling of closeness and intimacy with God that we so desire? Think of our prayer lives and our constant, ever shifting efforts at praying correctly (or perhaps, of constants fears that we don’t know how or can’t). Think of the million ways to pray on offer. Think of the hundreds of conferences and retreats on prayer that are held each year. Ah - think of the gazillion books on prayer. The eternal temptation I’m pointing to, of course, is the attempt at intimacy with God - dwelling in God’s dominion - by technique. And what a temptation it is, especially in our North American culture, still so dominated by the Protestant work ethic, an ethic now mutated and super-sized by the promises of technology, with it’s infinite set of options, it’s lure of efficiency: someone is always building a better mousetrap - I mean a better app - “and by golly if I’m an early adopter THAT will be my ticket to getting ahead. THEN I’ll really know how to PRAY!”
That is: “If I’m ready and willing to try - and even pay for - the newest, most popular, or even most retro way to pray - the right technique - I will finally find what I’m looking for: the intimacy with God, the nearness to God, the peace of God that passes all understanding.” But no. This is what we call works righteousness - thinking we can earn God’s favor, earn God’s nearness, earn salvation, even, by doing the right thing, by working the hardest, by following all the rules correctly, by using the right technique.
It’s supposed to work the other way around, in fact: our first task is to become aware of God’s grace - God’s gift of presence to us and relationship with us in Christ Jesus, all an expression of the Creator’s infinite love for the creature - then, and only then, are we truly free to be - to pray, and speak, and behave - as the people we are called to be, that people of hope, justice, and love.
We can’t forget, of course, that any talk of trust - especially the deep, abiding trust in the God of all things that we refer to as faith - has a dark side: normal, standard, human fear. How can we be aware of the grace of God’s presence, of Christ’s nearness, of the grace of the kingdom, when we know there will always be things we are afraid of, whether physical suffering, or personal or business failure, or for the health and safety of our loved ones, or that nastiest of fears: that we may one day find ourselves alone. We cannot deny our fears, but what we can do is lay them at the foot of the cross, give them over to the God who also experienced fear, indeed the ultimate fear of abandonment. The God who overcomes fear is the same One who is much closer to us than we think.
“The maxim of ‘illusory religion’ is this:” said one philosopher: “‘Fear not; trust in God and He will see that none of the things you fear will happen to you.’ But ‘Real religion’ has a different maxim: ‘Fear not; the things you are afraid of are quite likely to happen to you, but they are nothing to be afraid of.’”
The kingdom of God, the dominion of God, is right at hand, Jesus seems to be telling us in these parables today. The reign of God is here, now, permeating the world, permeating the space between us. We can’t EARN a place in that kingdom, we can’t see it, experience it, dwell in it by using the right technique. We enter that kingdom through trust, the kind of elemental trust signified in our baptisms, when without resistance we allowed ourselves to pass through the waters of new birth; the kind of elemental trust that a sleeping gardener has for the splendid ways of nature, once the seed is sown and the warm afternoon sun is beckoning her toward a nap on the porch. An afternoon nap, yes. Pure grace.