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Watching for Mustard Seed Moments: The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, June 17, 2018:
Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

Once upon a time, the Lord of the Manor saw great potential in one of the young women living on his land. So one day he called her into his office. “Come and farm for me,” he said.

The young woman was very excited about this calling, and so to prepare, she went off to study agriculture at university. They taught her all sorts of things, like farm history, the rules of farming, and ‘pasture care.’ The young woman thought it strange that harvesting and food distribution were relatively small parts of the curriculum. But she had read some good books, and met some famous farmers and farm-scholars, so for the most part, she remained happy.

A few years later, having attained her degree, she took up her first post, working for the Lord of the Manor. But she felt that things were not quite what she had expected.

She had four barns, each of which had to be managed separately. There wasn’t much communication between the four different barns, and neither the staff nor the animals seemed to get along. Each barn had its own farmyard, paperwork, and Poultry and Crop meetings.

And these farms were on part of the manor’s lands that had a very rich history. The buildings were old, and needed a lot of repairs and ongoing maintenance. The young woman hadn’t expected to have to do so much paperwork, not to mention spend so much time worrying about getting things fixed.

Well, the paperwork blossomed and grew. Many seeds were planted, and some of them blossomed and grew. The buildings didn’t grow, but the repair bills certainly did. But there never seemed to be enough time or guidance on how to actually harvest the crop, let alone take it to market.

One day she sat down and looked around. She was surrounded by animals, plants, machinery, barns, and silos. It looked like a farm. It definitely smelt like a farm. And she asked herself: when would she actually get to do some farming?

To her surprise, most of her co-workers thought she was doing a great job. The paperwork was completed with efficiency. The farm buildings were being looked after. The meetings were planned, and held. But deep down the young farmer knew that things weren’t quite right. If all the farms were harvesting so little, how was the town being fed? Sometimes she wondered if the farms were even really in the farming business. After all, wasn’t food production supposed to be what farms were there for?

Another story:

A man (who wasn’t a farmer), against his better judgement, agreed to a term of warden for his local church. (Gulp.) He started opening and closing up the church on a regular basis. And he was dismayed, when he saw first-hand, that most weeks, during the service, it was not unusual to have someone come off the street and into the church building, asking for some food or cash.

He brought this matter to the parish council. “I know that it’ll take some nudging to get volunteers,” he said, “but how about we prepare some coffee and snacks each week, then we’ll have some food and drinks on hand to share with anyone who comes in and wants to warm up.” Maybe even the visitors and the parishioners could enjoy the refreshments together.

Now, this was one of those congregations where people left their coats on during the service, so that as soon as it was done, they could dart out of there, without having to make conversation with others. So coffee hour after the service was not really something that came naturally to them.

The parish council allowed the new warden to do some research on the matter, but they remained unconvinced. Half of the council members brought up safety: having these newcomers come in might be a security concern. And the other half of the council wanted to talk about policy: “We need procedures for these matters,” they explained. “We need establish norms, and rules, and schedules.” Even thinking about this was exhausting.

Individuals then started speaking up, giving variations on “what if.” What if this happens. What if that happens? Some of the ‘what ifs’ seemed a little absurd to the churchwarden. Like this: “What if someone comes in, we feed them, then they sneak into the balcony, and they dump their coffee and crumble their cookies on the heads of the congregation down below. What then? We couldn’t possibly prepare for such a situation.”

The warden had no answer for them. Words came to mind… But he had no answer.

And just then, a final voice from the council spoke up, with a slightly more plausible ‘what if.’ “What if we start feeding people, and they tell all their other hungry friends? What happens if word spreads? Are we prepared for that? We’d end up feeding all the hungry people around us!” And here the warden and the council actually agreed, all responding with a resounding “EXACTLY!”

The churchwarden heard an opportunity — a challenge, and an opportunity — being presented. The council heard an excuse — a challenge and a risk. And the latter is what won. Nothing much changed. Nothing much happened. And the church was able to continue along, for a time, ignoring the city in which it sat. And the city most certainly went on, ignoring the church.

And one last, tiny story, from last week:

“No one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” The Jesus we met in last week’s reading, he kinda drops a bomb on his audience. He puts the devil on notice. He sees a world that’s pretty much ruled by evil, or darkness, or death, or fallenness, or however you might put it. And he says that, with him, things are finally going to start changing, and for the better. Because it’s time for God’s Way (God’s Kingdom, or God’s Reign) to come in. Because this is what his people have been waiting for; the Day of the Lord, that prophets like Ezekiel spoke about, when everything changes, and gets turned on its head. “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.”

So Jesus is binding, tying up the strong man, so that people can finally get up from under evil’s power. And start treating people they way they should be treated. And loving God the way God created us to respond to God’s love.

And this week Jesus, having tied up the strong man, he starts to really dig into what the Day of the Lord means, and what it’s going to do. And he talks about it in surprising ways. He doesn’t depict the Kingdom as rounding up his enemies, imprisoning, and killing them. He doesn’t ride into the capitol on a horse. (And when he does do that, he does it on a little donkey.) He doesn’t rile up rabid crowds through fear-mongering and taking cheap shots. (That’s what others will do to him.)

No, instead… he gathers people around, and tells some stories. Because it’s through the creativity of stories that he can hint at the majesty, and the mystery, and the promise of God’s Reign on earth as in heaven. And, it’s through the creativity of stories, that I think, in themselves, we get a glimpse of what that Kingdom is like.

Jesus tells stories to the crowds that open up their eyes, and open up their minds, in new ways. So that they can start to recognize God’s subtle little movements, and nudges; God’s ‘bubbling up’ in the world around them. And that’s the thing — the Kingdom of God is about God’s Kingdom coming. Not about us forcing our kingdoms into what we think God’s Kingdom is like. No, instead, like my favourite Rowan Williams put it, our job is to look around and see what God is doing, already doing… and then join in. But so often we’re inclined, and so often through the Church’s history, we’ve tried to force God in. To bring God in. Rather than do the harder, and slower work or training ourselves to recognize God where God already is. And then just joining in. Like the farmer who looks around and sees the animals. Sees the plants. Sees the silos and barns. And says, “I think I know what we should be doing.” Or the churchwarden who looked around, or really, looked right in front of himself, and saw people there, in need. He recognized God in those faces, and God calling him, and his church to action. A challenge, and an opportunity. To put forth large branches, so that birds of the air can make nests in its shade.

So for us, in our day, when political parties and power blocs make bombastic claims and say “look at us, follow us!” remember the mustard seed. When we think, as Christians, that we need to come up with some perfect, prepared answer before talking to someone about faith, remember the mustard seed. Or when we start talking about how we need to do this or that as a church, or else we’re toast, remember the seed that was scattered, and sprouted and grew while the farmer slept. Instead of making enemies of one group or another, or blaming this or that group, or complaining about secular society and Sunday shopping, remember the mustard seed. Remember that God is working in the mustard seed moments. And calling us — not to create the mustard seed, and maybe not always to even plant the mustard seed — but to water it, and tend it. And not to shoo away the birds that land on it. Just to watch it, and join in. To recognize the often surprising and mysterious Kingdom sprouting up. “For we no longer look at things from a human point of view.”

I close with a new take on the famous Serenity Prayer, by the Jesuit writer James Martin, because I think it’s a mustard seed prayer:

God, grant me the serenity
to accept the people I cannot change,
which is pretty much everyone,
since I’m clearly not you, God.
At least not the last time I checked.

And while you’re at it, God,
please give me the courage
to change what I need to change about myself,
which is frankly a lot, since, once again,
I’m not you, which means I’m not perfect.
It’s better for me to focus on changing myself
than to worry about changing other people,
who, as you’ll no doubt remember me saying,
I can’t change anyway.

Finally, give me the wisdom to just shut up
whenever I think that I’m clearly smarter
than everyone else in the room,
that no one knows what they’re talking about except me,
or that I alone have all the answers.

Basically, God,
grant me the wisdom
to remember that I’m
not you.

And I’m going to add:

But grant me the wisdom
to remember that You’re You,
and You’re around.


© 2018 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter