In Small Packages

Ezekiel 17:22–24; Mark 4:26–34

 

 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;
—Mark 4:31

Every time I go to a nursery — of the Chalet sort that sells plants and trees and not the nursery down the hall with toddlers — I think of my dad and his springtime rituals. Although the tenderness of my dad’s gardening would rival any grandmother’s dotting in a children’s nursery.

After a lifetime of witnessing his rituals, I would expect, by mid-June my dad would have re-staked the borders of the garden, most likely enlarging it. The rototiller, overhauled in February, would have hammered through the soil, breaking up clumps, mixing in fertilizer or compost or whatever would enrich it. (Although when we lived in Iowa, with the blackest soil imaginable, it was not as vital as when we lived in the hard clay of the south.)

His seedlings, started in the basement, under a grow lamp would have been separated, nursed to withstand the outdoors and measured into place in the garden, equal distance apart, enough room to grow, but also close enough to maximize yield. Growing up on a farm, yield management became a part of my dad’s DNA along with all the other arts and sciences of raising fruits and vegetables.

Early radishes and spring onions would be staples on the table by now. From those rhubarb bushes he transplanted from house to house my mom would be working her way through her inexhaustible recipes from cobblers to sauces to chutneys.

Before he retired, my dad traveled for work each week. When he returned home, the first thing he would do, even before coming in the house, would be to inspect the garden’s weekly progress, tie up any fallen tomatoes and then come to kiss my mom. Usually with a handful of something for her to “put up”.

This was part of my life growing up. Now, I have my own springtime rituals of planting even though it is limited to containers in a stamp-book-sized, city yard.

With this ingrained in my memory, the first parable from Mark seems too far-fetched for me to consider. In that parable a sower scattered seed and then just ignored them, by going to sleep, and yet a harvest was possible. The parable that followed of the mustard seed appears in Matthew and Luke, but they drop the story of the sower who reaps without a lick of labor. Perhaps it was too unbelievable for them as well.

The word “parable” comes from the Greek para, meaning “alongside” or “next to” and the verb ballo, translated, “to throw”. Parables are stories thrown alongside our lives. In Mark, Jesus spoke primarily in parables.

Jesus told stories from common life, inviting hearers into his message, provoking them to use their imaginations. As difficult as parables may be to parse, they are the way God speaks to us, through Jesus, in language of earth and seed and season and daily life we can understand, startling us to see other people, God and ourselves in a new light.

But, parables can be disruptive. They interrupt what you thought you knew, not just to teach you something, but also to confront you with an unwanted or surprising truth. Parables are useful when the truth you want to share is difficult — whether difficult to hear, comprehend, or believe. Remember, as I introduced our gospel reading, sharing Jesus’ first words in Mark, the backdrop against which all of his sayings are to be measured were, “Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”

So let us imagine, as Jesus asks, what good news we are to trust when he offers a common plant to describe how the kingdom of God could be working its way into something in our world.

Mustard is an herb with medicinal properties and one that is useful for flavoring and preserving food. The mustard bush, though, is a garden pest. No one would sow it on purpose. It grows all too readily on its own, and once it appears, it takes over the field. Think of kudzu in the south. Would anyone intentionally plant kudzu?

Mustard is an annual plant; its perpetuation depends upon the life of the seed. The small size of the mustard seed may be proverbial, but it is not the smallest seed, nor is the mustard bush the largest of all shrubs. Jesus’ story is just as absurd as the sower who reaps a harvest despite ignoring the garden.

The large crowd that heard these parables of the coming Kingdom of God thirsted for a word of hope amidst their lives. Most would have been bound to a particular lot in life by birth, unable to break out. There were those with ailments, physical or emotional, that labeled them for the entirety of their lives. There were those who were middle of the road in life. Conditions were not too, too bad, but for these people, they did not trust in the foundation of the Roman Empire and Jewish establishment. There were also those who held the reins of power and knew firsthand their tenuous control and the fragile authority with which they exercised their power. Struggle was common and the status quo was not the answer.

The lectionary joins these parables with the poem from Ezekiel, who spoke to a group of disenfranchised people, exiled, having had their homes and professions ripped apart. All of them were struggling. Rather than risk explaining a poem, listen again to portions of it for its beauty and tenderness from the voice of God:

I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out. I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.

 

Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.

After so many struggles, when the Israelites had hit bottom, this poem is of the future but one that depends upon facing the truth. They had fought others and lost. They had served their interests, attempting to succeed on their own terms and came up short. Remembering their mighty past, they sought to restore it at all cost and simply could not.

In some ways, it reminds me of the friendly confines in Wrigleyville. Only when they hit bottom and decided clinging to the old relics would not allow new life, renovations began, new plantings, new life and the Cubs are in second place and it is no longer pre-season! If there is any team demanding an understanding of hope, it is the Cubs.

God’s tenderhearted response in the poem is directed to those who struggled on their own and had to surrender. In our highly competitive culture — hasn’t competition always driven life — to surrender was unfathomable. Surrender is death. We don’t give up.

When I worked at IBM, early in my career, I recall the motivational posters of Winston Churchill my manager loved, “We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.” It was drilled into us, never give up, never surrender.

Yet, in surrendering, particularly for those of us who struggle, not for food and shelter, but to make meaning and relationships, at some point, when we stop, recognize our limitations, and surrender, we have the chance to wipe clean the scars and start again. Author Joan Chittister writes “(s)urrender does not simply mean that I quit grieving what I do not have. It means that I surrender to new meanings and new circumstances, that I begin to think differently and to live somewhere that is totally elsewhere. There are times to let a thing go. There is a time to let surrender take over so that the past does not consume the present, so that new life can come, so that joy has a chance to surprise us again.”[1]

Surrendering to our fear of the other and actually greeting them face-to-face is the way to create stable relationships. Surrendering our superiority is the only way to create racial harmony, a crucial step in stemming the violence in our city. When we realize the problems of life are bigger than we can control or confront, we need to surrender, for it is in the depths of surrender that we find hope. Hope does not live in isolation from struggle and surrender. Hope is the green shoot from a buried seed.

We can remind ourselves that hope, especially Christian hope, is not optimism. Optimism is an outlook or disposition some people have that allows them to be able to look on the “sunny side” of life. They are consistently able to find reasons to be positive when others are negative. This is optimism; it is a way people choose to look at things.

Much has been written of hope from the earliest times. According to Greek Promethean myth, Pandora was given a box and told not to open it. When curiosity got the better of her, she opened the box, unleashing countless evils. But, at the very bottom, after all the evil had flown out, the thing at the bottom of Pandora’s Box was and is hope. Some will say this hope is also an evil, to confuse the human spirit. Much wisdom literature says the same; “hoping and waiting make many a fool.” Albert Camus proclaimed “think clearly and do not hope” for hopes are the playing field of politicians and economic deceivers who sell illusions and destroy the real life.

When Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed, he was not selling an illusion of fame and fortune, but an image of flourishing from the smallest, unlikely sources, able to take root in barren places, of being able, year after year to bring life not based upon human abilities, but from God.

Theologian Jurgen Moltmen writes, “(h)ope is the expectation of good fortune that is awakened through God’s promise and supported by trust in God…Hope does not detach the human spirit from the present through delusions, but rather the opposite: it pulls the promised future into the present and places the experienced present in the dawn of God’s future. Hope does not empty out one’s life but rather fills it with new powers.”[2]

Some of you may have heard me say this one-on-one; it is wisdom to strengthen all of us in times of illness and a map for other life challenges. Nothing and no one can take away your hope. With symptoms of illness, you hope to find its cause. Maybe the diagnosis is tough, but you look forward, with hope, for effective treatments. In recovery, your hope leads you to appreciate life in a way that differs, is richer. When illness returns and treatments no longer serve their purposes, becoming a burden not a remedy, you hope for a quality of life with friends and family. As the horizon creeps closer, hope now compels honesty and goodbyes with a joy and not regret. In the face of death, those who survive hope for a healing to their grief, to let the love shine brighter even though the loss is heartbreaking. We hope for new love and life to emerge from the smallest slip of emotion left. No one and nothing can ever take away your hope.

Hope is the mystery that is embedded within us, calling us to imagine new life when we thought all was lost. Hope is not based on the ability to fabricate a better future; it is grounded in the ability to remember with new understanding an equally difficult past. Our memories are the seedbed of hope. It is just like a tiny seed containing all the instructions for roots, stems, tendrils, blossoms and food. From this DNA is all the memory of death and rebirth, of mutations to thrive and all the instructions to create life and more seeds for life.[3] Hope is found when we think all was lost, and then, from the smallest package, given by God, comes new life.


 

[1] Joan Chittister. Scared by Struggle, Transformed by Hope. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003) 60.

[2] Jurgen Moltman. “Hope” New and Enlarged Handbook of Christian Theology. Ed. David Musser and Joseph Price. (Nashville, TN: Abindon Press, 2003) 250.

[3] Justo Gonzales. “Living by the Word” Christian Century. June 10, 2015. Vol. 132, No. 12.