Proper 6, Year B, 2012

A shrub?

The Kingdom of God is like a shrub?

Shouldn’t the Kingdom of God be a little more. . .majestic?  Maybe the Kingdom of God is like a cedar tree? Or if not majestic, what about beautiful?  Maybe the Kingdom of God is like a lovely rose.

No, we are stuck with the image of the mustard plant, which is, at least, a very large shrub.

What does Jesus want us to learn about the Kingdom of God in this parable?

The mustard plant might not be the most elegant of plants, but it is powerful in its own way.  When a tiny seed is dropped on the ground, the roots start digging in, and stalks shoot forth and flowers bloom and the plant grows bigger and bigger and bigger.  The mustard plant will crowd out other plants, elbowing its way into every nook and cranny it can find.  And all of this happens whether its gardener is tending to it or not.

The Kingdom of God is like an annoying, invasive weed.  The Kingdom of God is out of our control.  The Kingdom of God will not be held back.  The Kingdom of God sprouts up in the most unexpected places.

In the 1480s, Portugal had a new King, John the Second.  This King wanted to explore newer ways of making money, and thought forming new trade routes to the spices of Asia, might do the trick.  He hired the explorer, Vasco da Gama, who led a great exploration from his native Portugal, all the way around South Africa, finally landing on the Western tip of India.

Now, as we all know, with Western commerce came Western religion and values, and soon enough, priests were dispatched to India to convert the local population.

These priests, however, were quite surprised to find Christianity flourishing in the Keralan coast of India.  How did these Indians become Christians if they had never encountered the Roman Catholic Church?

As you know, the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.

Legend has it that the apostle Thomas (You know, the doubting one) traveled to India twenty years after Jesus’ death and planted the seed of the Gospel. That seed was planted and grew deep and wide roots.  For hundreds of years the church in Kerala grew and grew.  It maintained links to the Middle Eastern church and used the Syrian rite of worship.  Their own traditions emerged—priests in cassocks and hats, long Good Friday services, Easter breakfasts. Instead of exchanging rings, a bridegroom ties a tail around his bride’s neck.  The same mustard seed that led to our traditions, in the context of Kerala, led to an entirely different plant.

Now, wouldn’t you love to see the faces of these Roman Catholic priests, who came upon this flourishing church?  Can you imagine the combination of excitement and confusion that a Christianity so different from theirs was alive and well in Kerala.

The Portugese Catholics, of course, could not leave well enough alone and tried to get these Christians to comply with Roman Catholic liturgies, traditions, and power structures.  Some did, but others maintained their ancient traditions.  The Syrian Christian Church of Kerala survived many other groups of explorers as well, including the British, who attempted to bring our lovely Anglican tradition in the 1800s.  The Keralan church went through divisions, like any church does, but there are still families there that trace their heritage and their worship back to those original families that received the Gospel from St. Thomas.

In fact, I have met two families here at Trinity, Princeton, who trace their heritage back to that mustard seed of a beginning.  That mustard plant stretches all the way across an ocean, across two thousand years, and still flourishes.

How about that shrub?

We live in an anxious time for the Episcopal Church.  We see numbers declining, budgets decreasing and we wonder about the health of our future.   But we are part of the Kingdom of God.  And the Kingdom of God is really hard to destroy.  The Kingdom of God is like a pesky weed that not even Round-Up can kill.

Our origin story isn’t nearly as cool as being founded by Doubting Thomas, but it is such a strange story in its own right, the terrible King Henry the VIII trying to find a way to be able to marry once again, so taking England out of the Roman Catholic Church and then Queen Elizabeth I using the resulting structure to create a church both Protestants and Catholics could love, or at least one over which they could stop warring.  And then no English Bishop would allow the United States to consecrate a bishop of our own, but the ornery Scottish church did it for us anyway!  Out of those strange and controversial seeds has grown a church that has become a vital source of liturgy, music, and thought for the entire Christian Church.  We have grown into being the sort of weedy church where all are welcomed and the Gospel is still preached, even if we are not the establishment church we once were.  The Episcopal Church is moving towards interesting, creative places while staying rooted in our powerful framework of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

And we in the Episcopal Church are just one tiny branch of the amazing plant that is modern Christianity.  The Kingdom of God is coming to fruition in all kinds of ways, with all kinds of traditions, in all parts of the world.  We cannot fully understand the Kingdom of God, just as we cannot fully understand Jesus’ parables.  Parts of the Christian tradition may make us extremely uncomfortable.  Like the Portuguese priests, we may look at another denomination’s traditions and think to ourselves, “What are they doing?”  We may look at our own denomination and ask the same question!

But the Kingdom of God is wilder than we could ever imagine and there is room for everyone in it.  Earlier in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus uses another parable about seeds and he describes the birds of the air snatching the seed from the ground before the seed can take root.  In that parable, the birds are an enemy, but in our parable today, the birds take shelter in the shade of the mustard plant!  Even those who were once enemies of the Kingdom of God can end up enfolded in its branches.

And those of us on earth can only see a tiny glimpse of this Kingdom of God.  The Kingdom is stranger and more mysterious than even our weirdest denomination.  When the Kingdom of God is fulfilled, we will be so surprised at how it looks, and how we spend our time, and who else is invited.  All we have are these little images Jesus gives us—mustard seeds, seeds left unattended, seeds planted in rich soil.  The other Gospels give us other images.  The Kingdom of God is like yeast.  The Kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of a pearl.  The Kingdom of God is like a net.  The Kingdom of God is like a child.   These parables can only hint at a world where everything in the Universe and in our hearts is aligned with God.

And there is nothing we can do to hurry up the coming of the Kingdom.  We just live our lives, trying to be faithful to our baptismal promises, trusting in the love and grace of Christ, tending the bit of garden we’ve been given.  The best news about the Kingdom of God is that it is the Kingdom of GOD.  The reason the mustard plant blooms, and the church in Kerala flourishes, and the Episcopal Church endures, is because of God’s grace.

We expect God’s work to look like Cedar trees and rosebushes.  We expect God’s work to look like thriving parishes with growing numbers and successful ministry,.  We expect God’s work to look like gorgeous stained glass windows and sound like a Bach cantatas, but Jesus reminds us that God works with shrubs.  Ordinary, boring shrubs.  Shrubs like us.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 22, Year C, 2007

I’d like all of you to turn your faces to the window and concentrate on the large tree between the church and the Marston La Rue House.

(Squeeze eyes)

Did it move?  Well, let me try again.

(Squeeze eyes, grip podium)

Oh, well.  I have to confess that every time I hear this passage, every time, I try to move a tree with the power of my mind.  This plan has yet to work.  Not one branch has wavered, not one root has become unhinged from the dirt that surrounds it.  I find this all very frustrating.

When the disciples asked Jesus to increase their faith, they were frustrated, too.  They did not ask Jesus to increase their faith out of some selfless piety.  They asked Jesus to increase their faith because they had just heard Jesus say, “If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him.  “And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”

This teaching was too much for them, as most days it is too much for us!  They did not want to have to forgive people who had hurt them, especially people who had hurt them a lot.

So, they ask Jesus to increase their faith-as if faith was a something that could be measured-as if faith could be used up and then replenished like gasoline in an automobile.

But Jesus reminds the disciples that faith cannot be measured in quantities. To have a gallon faith is not better than having a pint of faith.  Faith, in fact, is not about us at all.  Faith is about God, not about our capacity to believe.  Jesus tells the disciples that if they had the faith of a mustard seed, they would be able to uproot a local mulberry tree and toss it in the sea.  Obviously, none of us have the capacity to move a tree just by thinking about it.  God, however, can move a tree.

How many of you were around for Hurricane Isabel?  I was living at the seminary in Alexandria at the time.  When I awoke the morning after the hurricane I was shocked to see that giant trees, trees whose roots had stretched deeply, were knocked over as easily as playing cards.  In Richmond, the damage was even more intense.  In the lush Maymont Park, the carcasses of dozens of overturned trees littered the grass for almost a year. 

For God, moving a tree is as simple as creating a big wind.  For us, not so easy.

So, faith is not about us willing God do so something through the power of our own piety, but realizing that God can do things greater than we can even imagine.  God can even uproot us in places we are stuck and fling us into a new life of freedom and joy.  This part of the passage is about expanding our horizons, opening our minds, coming to terms with a limitless, powerful God.

And then, before we can get too excited about all this, Jesus turns a corner.

In the second part of our gospel reading today, Jesus tells a parable about a slave and a slave owner.  This parable is extremely, nail bitingly, glance around at your neighbor uncomfortable for us.  First of all, it addresses slavery, which in our country was the most shameful part of our past.  Secondly, Jesus encourages rude behavior!  We are in the South.  We thank people.  I sometimes write thank you notes for an event before I actually go to the event.  The idea of not thanking someone who has worked all day for you and then cooked is shocking!

When we think about this passage, it is helpful to remember the context of the time.  In Jesus’ time, slavery was not a race issue-it was a political and financial issue.  A person could be placed in slavery when his country was conquered by another country.  A person could also sell himself into slavery if he was deeply in debt and needed to buy his way out of the debt.  None of this makes slavery acceptable, but in Jesus’ time, it was a part of the system that was taken for granted.  So, when Jesus uses a parable about slavery, he is not endorsing slavery, simply acknowledging that it exists and using slavery as a metaphor his listeners will understand.

So what does this metaphor mean?  To Jesus’ listeners, the idea of thanking a slave would have been laughable.  Slaves had jobs to do-their whole purpose in live was to do these jobs, so to commend them would be silly.  I do not think that self-esteem was a big issue in Jesus’ time. 

Jesus is reminding his disciples that, as followers of Jesus, they have jobs to do, too.  Yes, their God is a mighty God who can uproot trees and transform lives, but that same God also calls us to responsibility.  When it comes to forgiveness, Jesus is telling his disciples to “just do it.”  He’s telling them not to expect to be coddled by God or thanked for doing what they are supposed to be doing. 

While these images of faith and slavery seem radically different, they are two parts of the same point.

God is God.  We are not God.

God can do amazing, nature defying, life changing things.  If we step back and let God do these things, all we have to worry about is doing what we’re supposed to do. We are not responsible for controlling the universe, or making miracles happen.  We are not responsible for changing the lives of others.  We are responsible for our own lives and how we live them-living with integrity, kindness, honesty, forgiveness, love.

If we acknowledge that we already have a mustard seed of faith within us, then all we have to do when we are worried about something or someone is to pray.  We are called to pray and wait for God and do the work God has given us to do without complaint.

When we do manage to do what God has called us to do, we don’t wait around to be praised, but we go on with our lives, knowing we have done the least we can do  to live lives worthy of God. 

So, we live in the tension of faith-of trusting in an endless God, while still navigating our own small lives.  We live in the tension of dreaming big dreams and praying big prayers, while still taking out the garbage every day.  The life of faith is both incredibly expansive and freeing, and limiting-as it provides us boundaries to live healthy and holy lives.

This tension is also a kind of freedom.  By trusting in God, rather than ourselves, an enormous weight is lifted off our shoulders.  By responding to God’s call when we hear it, we always know we are doing what God wants us to do.  Living out this tension offers us a life without anxiety-knowing that we are each fulfilling our own small role and that God is taking care of everything else.