Sunday, June 14
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Mighty God, to you belong the mysteries of the universe. You transform shepherds into kings, the smallest seeds into magnificent trees, and hardened hearts into loving ones. Bless us with your life-giving Spirit, re-create us in your image, and shape us into your purposes, through Jesus Christ. Amen.
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a 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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
All Readings For This Sunday
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 Psalm 20 or
Ezekiel 17:22-24 Psalm 92:1-4,12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10,14-17 or 2 Corinthians 5:6-17
1. Can spirit be counted or measured?
2. When have you felt God’s hand at work in your life, mysteriously, offering possibilities and choices that no one (including you) would have predicted or thought of on their own?
3. When have you felt small and perhaps insignificant, and yet, in the end, chosen?
4. How do you perceive the power and strength of your church: in numbers, or in the spirit that thrives within it?
5. Does your church feel small in the community and the world that surrounds you? Do you see that as a strength or as a weakness?
Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)
God’s ways are mysterious, it’s true, and two of the readings for this Sunday inspire a sense of wonder in narrative and parable illustrations of God’s power to take small things and make them great. In the story of David’s anointing by Samuel (I Samuel 15:34-16:13), tension builds as God (mysteriously) instructs the prophet not to anoint the obvious choices, the ones the political consultants or pundits would choose today (the ones with the best numbers in the polls or the best faces for television), the ones who somehow appear most qualified or capable because they are older or stronger or more impressive.
“Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the Lord,” Samuel thinks as he looks upon the fine elder son Eliab in verse 6. In some mysterious way, however, Samuel understands that God is concerned with the unseen, the heart, of the person, the very center and core of the one to be anointed. Bring in the little one, the one left out, the one not considered or included; bring in the shepherd and make him a shepherd-king, anointed by God to lead the people and to live on throughout their history as the greatest of kings, the hope of the people, a vision for the future.
Mysterious and hidden things
Who would have thought it, that day, as the older, taller, finer sons were brought forward as obvious choices but were then rejected? Who knew what potential lay in the youngest, the smallest of all? Who knew what power God would give to the power-less? Seeds are small, too, and often buried or overlooked, but what power lies within them! Jesus offers parables in the Gospel reading from Mark that compare the reign of God with the mysterious, hidden way of a seed’s growth, a process that fascinates us even today, in spite of our technological progress and the “wonders” it produces. It’s like that, Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like that: hidden and mysterious, and a very real wonder all the same.
These two seed stories illustrate the way Jesus taught, using parables (the parable of the sower is the first in this series of three, although not included in today’s lectionary passage; the “hidden power of the seed” parable is found only in Mark). For a teacher who sat on a hillside and taught crowds of learned and unlearned, rich and poor, downtrodden and powerful, using the power of story was an effective way to preach something as hard to describe, let alone define, as the kingdom of God. Henry Brinton shares the novelist Reynolds Price’s observation that “next to food and drink, our most basic human need is story.” Jesus used parables, Brinton says, “to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the people who crowded around him, aching for insight and inspiration.” Today, the power of story is evident, of course, in the response of many people to spiritual themes in film and novels. (I can almost hear a 21st-century Jesus saying, “The reign of God is like that last scene in the movie, ‘Places in the Heart’…”) Perhaps we need to nurture our ability to tell great stories in person, and to listen to them with open hearts and minds for hidden but powerful truths.
More than just a good story
Parables are more than just a good story, or a simple and useful illustration to make things clearer. If anything, they may have made things more obscure to the hard-hearted and the close-minded. Parables make us think, and think hard. It’s been said that as soon as you think you understand what a parable means, you probably don’t. However, we can still wrestle with these two little stories of Jesus and come out at the end, perhaps, with deeper insight into that great mystery of the kingdom of God.
In the age of science, we tend to think in logical and rational ways, perhaps using the left side of our brain more than the right. It seems that parables exercise our right brains more, and it wouldn’t surprise us if the reign of God has much more to do with the right brain than we have understood. Dianne Bergant describes the way that parables “engage two very different realities and use one to throw light on the deeper meaning of the other,” challenging our imaginations and our ability to see “connections” we might otherwise miss. I suspect, then, that parables are not very good bedtime stories, because they stimulate and unsettle our brains rather than soothe or settle them. Megan McKenna’s image of parables as “a trapdoor into another world” is dramatic, as we may not find that other world a place we want to inhabit. (Are we ready for the cost of discipleship?) Still, McKenna writes, “Mark reminds his church that this isn’t just a story: it is the truth of their own lives.”
Who can describe God?
Even so, this truth isn’t easy to grasp intellectually. John Pilch cautions us against easy conclusions that pin things down or make things too simple and clear, because even the most powerful parable cannot adequately describe the reality of God. We can use the language of analogy, to say what God is “like,” realizing all the while that nothing truly compares to God. Of course, while words–and stories–cannot describe God fully, Fred Craddock observes that the meaning of parables is more readily grasped by those who have a personal investment in Jesus and in the reign of God.
It’s helpful to read Eugene Peterson’s eloquent translation of the mustard seed parable, using an image that’s a bit more familiar to us: “‘What kind of story can we use? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.’ With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots” (The Message). The parables, like everything Jesus said, are about God, not, John Pilch writes, “a place (kingdom) but rather a person (God).” That might explain why these stories were and are so provocative, coming from One who mysteriously and powerfully conveyed “who” God is.
The underdog of seeds
The little mustard seed might seem like a sweet little image, as if it’s the little underdog, the good seed that survives against the odds and flourishes, triumphant over the “big seeds.” However, it seems that mustard is not only NOT a “sweet little” image; it’s not even a “neutral image,” according to Richard Swanson. Jesus’ hearers would have been offended by the reference to a “ritual weed” that they would never be caught planting. One thinks of kudzu in the southeastern United States, where years ago I was told that a small but invasive vine had grown into the thick green covering on trees and signs and even buildings. No one could control it or get rid of it, they told me, and I was reminded of that when I read Swanson’s description of the mustard plant as “uncontrollable and disorderly,” embodying “an offense against Torah observance in a chaotic world.”
In the midst of such disorder, Swanson says, a stable and orderly community that loved God would “act out the possibility that life does not simply come down to a clash of power.” Such a community, observing God’s law, would be “a sign of real hope” for those coming out of chaos. And the “shrub” (rather than tree) that grows from this seed may have reminded Jesus’ listeners of the great cedars of Lebanon in the Hebrew Scriptures: Ezekiel 17:22-24 speaks so beautifully of God taking a “sprig” from a mighty cedar, “a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs,” planting it high on a mountain so that it can produce fruit and become “a noble cedar” that, like the mustard plant in Jesus’ parable, provides rest in its branches for “winged creatures of every kind.”
Unexpected places and people
We don’t hear Jesus’ words with the same filters that pick up these meanings and associations, and they add another layer of questions for us to ask about the reign of God which, it seems, may be found in unlikely and unexpected and “unworthy” people and places after all. (Could the parable suggest, Barbara Reid asks, that the “pesky” plant resembles “the tenacious faith of those who seem to be of no account” in the eyes of the world?) Just as a parable surprises and baffles us, so do God’s ways, mysterious and deep and bringing something great out of something very, very small, and the wonder, and the power of it all. From Ezekiel, and from Jesus, we learn that this wonder comes from God’s work, not from our own efforts.
Thus, a passage with two mysterious little stories about littleness and mystery suggest a number of possibilities for reflection. What if Jesus is reassuring his audience that God is in control, no matter how things appear, and no matter what we do or don’t do? Charles Cousar recalls the interpretation of classical liberalism which would have read in this text “the inevitability of growth, the progressive development of the reign of God” that “reflected the optimistic mood of the times.” While we are perhaps not so optimistic in our present age, we can still trust in what is happening behind the scenes and beneath the surface, and the One who is making it happen. The question we might ask is, “What are we hoping for? What occupies our thoughts, and of what do we dare dream?” While we’re at it, we might ask whether our dreams themselves are big enough.
Anxiety and courage
Barbara Brown Taylor appropriately titles her sermon on this passage, “The Automatic Earth,” as the Greek is best translated in its gift of “agricultural grace.” She focuses on our anxiety amid the uncertainty here, living “between the planting and the harvest.” Her sermon exposes some of the symptoms of our anxiety, including perfectionism, drivenness, moral outrage, restlessness, dread of being alone, and estrangement from God. She calls anxiety “an occupational hazard of being a finite creature in a universe of infinite possibilities” (now there’s an unnerving thought!) and suggests that we might repent of our conviction that we must work out our own salvation, on the one hand, and that, on the other hand, we are doomed to fail. “What is absent when anxiety is present,” she writes, “is faithÖthat God will be God, that the automatic earth will yield its fruit, that life can be trusted.” The antidote to anxiety, then, is courage, chosen “over and over again, every day that you live, if real living is what you are afterÖ.Then,” she writes, “scatter your seeds.” It’s a beautiful sermon, and a beautiful interpretation of the text.
There’s so much around us today, as there always has been, that may press us down in spirit. We see war and hatred, prejudice and injustice, hunger and violence, the everyday grind of so many lives, the apparent hopelessness and intractability of some problems and conditions. It’s difficult indeed to know the ways of God, so often hidden from view or not detected (or noticed) by us. Nevertheless God is at work always and everywhere, bringing about God’s will in unexpected and marvelous ways, like the amazing things that can grow from the tiniest of seeds. I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s words, “I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
There is, of course, much more to the story. We live not so much in optimism that thinks we can fix everything but out of the hope that God is in charge of everything, and we are simply called to participate in what God is doing in the world. That is why we find flashes of brilliant hope and the promise of a greater day to come. They may only be flashes, but they are powerful epiphanies nevertheless. Here and there, in longed-for reconciliation within families and among friends, in healing from illness and grief, in the decisions by a community that places its most vulnerable members at the top of its agenda rather than at the bottom, in sharing and celebration and the release of grudges, in acts of great and unexpected generosity, in the end of war and the seeking of peace, in the breaking of bread and the nourishment of our souls and our bodies, in giving voice to the voiceless and lifting up the hopes of those in despair, we see the mysterious ways of God.
From small to great
It may begin, or seem to persist, in smallness, in little steps and small hopes, but the path, Jesus says, leads to greatness, a greatness we cannot see or even imagine today. God can see it, and God can imagine it, and most of all, God intends it. The tiny little seed grows into the greatest of all, the mustard tree, strong and great enough to offer shelter and goodness and the stuff of life for those who need to find a home.
There are so many large and powerful entities that surround us as individuals and as churches. Even our own denomination, the United Church of Christ, seems so small when compared to other organizations that attract the attention (and time, and energy) of our members. And yet, and yet. What hope lies beneath statistics and reports, what potential lies in giving voice to the smallest but persistent of witnesses, the early truth-telling of our tradition, the evangelical courage, and the extravagant hospitality that express our commitment and describe our deepest hopes not only for our church but for the world beyond its walls! How can you be the mustard seed that grows and provides shelter and refuge and sustenance to God’s creation, and to the people of God?
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
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A preaching version of this reflection (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel_sermon_seeds_june_14_2015.
For further reflection
Martin Luther, 16th century
“If you truly understood a single grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.”
Emil Gudmundson, 20th century
“May we have faith in life to do wise planting that the generations to come may reap even more abundantly than we. May we be bold in bringing to fruition the golden dreams of human kinship and justice. This we ask that the fields of promise become the fields of reality.”
Anne Frank, 20th century
“Everyone has inside of [them] a piece of good news. The good news is that you don’t know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!”
David Levithan, 21st century
“Remember that at any given moment / There are a thousand things / You can love.”
Anne Lamott, 21st century
“When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility.”
G.K. Chesterton, 20th century
“If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?”
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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer is from The Revised Common Lectionary ©1992 Consultation on Common Texts. Used by permission.