Rev. Sarah Buteux
Proper 6, Year B
(To watch this morning’s sermon, click here.)
The greek philosopher Heraclitus once said… anyone?…
“You cannot step into the same river twice.”
(Audience participation – that’s what I’m talking about! I love it! Yes.)
The greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, ”You cannot step into the same river twice.”
I’m sure he said other things too, but when it comes to the saying of Heraclitus, that’s about the only one any of us knows. Right? And that’s ok, because it’s a good one.
“You cannot step into the same river twice,” because it is not the same river and you are not the same person. The water moves on and so do we. The river is always changing as are you, because change is the one constant of life.
Well, I think the same can be said for the parables of Jesus. I don’t think you can read the same parable twice, even parables as straight forward as these two appear to be, because parables are never quite what they appear to be.
Fables have lessons. Tales have morals. Riddles have answers. Allegories have symbols and representations. But not parables…at least not always. They may have all of those things or none. Because, you see, parables are not simply puzzles to be solved.
They are more like mirrors…mirrors that reflect as much about us as they do about the world around us, reflections that change over time just as you and I do.
Amy Jill Levine explains that “the word parable comes from two Greek words:
para – as in parallel – means to put something side by side;
balo means to cast or to throw. (Kind of like that seed you just heard about).
Thus a parable casts two images side by side. When we look at the connection between what happens in the story and what happens in our own lives, we begin to see new things” (“The Marvelous Mustard Seed” by Amy-Jill Levine and Sandy Eisenberg Sasso).
And just like your reflection in the mirror… you do not always like what you see.
I had a friend years ago who strung Christmas lights up in her bathroom when she hit 40 so she would never have to look at herself in the harsh light that ringed her mirror. I thought her action a little extreme at the time, but with every year that goes by, I confess I understand her more and more.
The reality of our situation – our bodies, our souls, our lives – isn’t always pretty, any more then is the reality of our world – our structures or our systems. Especially not when we look at them in the light of the kingdom of God. From a hair out of place to people wrongfully displaced, so much of what we see needs to change.
And yet there is always grace there too – twinkling softly around the edges – not just the fact of what needs to change, but the possibility that things still can… change…hopefully for the better.
Levine says that, “the audience, of Jewish people listening to (Jesus) a Jewish storyteller, would have expected a parable to challenge them” (IBID). They would have expected Jesus to disrupt their sense of who they were and how the world works. They would have expected Jesus to “tell the truth but tell it slant,” as that lady over in Amherst used say. And, thanks to the brilliance of Jesus, they all would have walked away with a slightly different truth to ponder.
So here’s the deal: I don’t know precisely how these parables are meant to challenge you in this moment – what change they might be calling forth in your life and mine- but I have a few ideas and I hope as you listen, that the Spirit will offer you even more. So let’s begin:
In the first parable, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to seeds that manage to grow in spite of the fact that they were never even sown. Someone just scattered them and went on with their day. And yet these seeds grew anyway. In fact, they grew enough to yield a full harvest for the someone who did next to nothing.
And then Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed. Using hyperbolic language and humor, he tells us that “the smallest of all the seeds become the greatest of all…wait for it… shrubs.”
Hyperbolic because even then people knew that mustard seeds weren’t necessarily the smallest. Humorous because last I checked, there is really nothing all that great about shrubs. If your first response when you heard the parables was, “uh, ok,” or even “so what?” That’s a perfectly valid response.
“Parables beckon, inviting us in;” say the good people at SALT, “they resist quick and easy understanding; they say, in effect, Slow down. Come closer, and listen. Let me tell you a secret…”
So what do you think? Is the secret that God can use small things to do big things? That little people can make a big difference? That just a handful of believers can change the world?
I don’t know. Amy-Jill Levine finds that interpretation a little too obvious and not very challenging, but hey, if you’re sitting out there this morning feeling insignificant, like your life hasn’t amounted to all that much, like your presence doesn’t make a difference, maybe that is exactly what you need to hear.
If you’ve been looking at the big picture this past year and pulling back in despair because there is no way little old you could ever heal, say, the discord in your family, let alone problems as big as systemic racism or climate change – heck you can barely find the energy to clean out your fridge – well?
Maybe the idea that God can turn something as small as mustard seed into a shrub that’s at least big enough to shelter some birds isn’t just a word of encouragement but a much needed challenge to your self-perception.
Is it possible that you’ve given into despair? Given up? Ever so quietly let yourself off the hook so much so that you’re not even doing the little things anymore?
If so, then perhaps these seeds are here today to remind you that you’re not as powerless as you think.
Maybe it’s time to take another look in the mirror and realize that you matter more than you know, that you are more powerful than you imagine, that even in the great scheme of things no one is insignificant, no act of kindness is ever wasted, that both your silence and your words have more of an impact than you realize.
If that’s where this parable hits you, then hear me right now when I say that you matter. You matter to God. You matter to me. You matter to all of us…and child of God, you need to own that.
Or maybe the secret you need to hear has nothing to do with the size of the seed at all, but more to do with its tenacity. After all, those first seeds that Jesus mentioned weren’t even planted and they still sprouted. No one watered them. No one showed up to weed. And yet they still produced a good healthy crop.
Well, it’s no secret that some people really grew during the pandemic. They tended to the garden of their soul and you can tell. They made peace with zoom and got on the you-tubes. They joined book groups to talk about racism and learn more about Jesus.
They made new friends right along with their sourdough bread, and between vespers and centering prayer they are coming out of social isolation more connected to God and their church than ever before. And that is so great… for them. Really. But maybe you are not one of those people.
Maybe you stopped watching church on-line after a few months…And friend, that’s ok. I totally get it. I forgive you.
Or maybe you just never started watching at all…oh, it’s ok. I forgive you too.
Maybe you didn’t reach out to as many people as you could have as much as you should have…and for that one, I hope you can all forgive me.
Maybe you thought you were going to be really active in the work of dismantling racism after attending all those protests and reading your way through 2/3rds of the books you ordered off Amazon, but somehow the more you learned the more inadequate you felt to the task. The more things have opened up the more you’ve secretly wished we could go back to the way things were, even though you know full well that the way things were wasn’t good. I get it, and I pray that God would forgive us all.
Well, for anyone picking up what I’m laying down, perhaps this parable is here to remind us all to take a breath. The kingdom of God does not depend on you and you alone. It cannot be rushed or controlled. Working harder doesn’t get you more of it. And not working at all doesn’t disqualify you from future participation.
Even if you neglect it, it’s still there.
Amy Frykholm reminds us that: “The kingdom of God is not an accomplishment. It cannot be earned, achieved, (or) evaluated…” (https://www.christiancentury.org).
The kingdom of God is more like a gift embedded in the very fabric of the universe. It is a gift God is always holding out to us, a gift we stumble into, more often than not, when we open our hearts in the moment to one another.
The good news is that’s it’s never too late to re-engage with the work of God because God is at work all around us all of the time. The invitation is open. The admission is rolling. Yay for us. But before you breathe a sigh of thanks to our God of endless second chances, wake up and smell the challenge in there too.
If this is the secret you were meant to hear this morning, maybe the challenge, for you is to stop making excuses, forgive yourself and others for what hasn’t been done, and lean into what God is doing right here, right now. If it’s never too late then now is a perfect time to start.
With the caveat that the seeds of the kingdom don’t just grow perfectly well on their own, thank you very much, they also have a tendency to spread. Remember that mustard? Well, I don’t know if it’s fair to label mustard as a weed given it’s many medical and culinary uses. But weed or not, it’s well known that mustard can take over a garden or a field pretty quickly, simply because it produces so many seeds.
More seeds, in fact, than any one person can use so I’m sure there is also a message in here about abundance and sharing. But what I’m getting at is that mustard seeds don’t need our help to do their thing. In fact, it probably takes more energy to keep mustard within our desired boundaries, all neat and tidy and under control, then it does to let it run free.
And that tracks pretty well with my experience of the kingdom of God. Like a wild plant, it’s going to keep doing its thing with or without you. If you think it’s a weed, maybe you’ll eschew it. But if you think Jesus’ vision of a better world is of value and you let it in, I’m telling you right now, it will take over.
This idea of a world where God’s will is done here on earth as it is in heaven, a world where all people are seen and loved as God’s children; once you buy into that idea it gets into everything whether you want it to or not. Its roots wiggle their way down deep and crack your heart wide open.
Jesus’ vision makes you question things other people take for granted and stand up for people no one else would have noticed. It is a plague on your conscience; the little voice that is constantly asking if your money or your time or your energy or your life might be better spent helping someone other than yourself.
But it also gives you the faith to welcome people others would shun, step into impossible situations others would shy away from, attempt to heal wrongs that no one else wants to touch, because once you let that seed take root in your heart, the whole world turns to holy ground, and all of a sudden anything is possible. Anything.
Which brings me to those birds. We haven’t even touched on the birds yet, but I think they’re important. These two parables come hot on the heels of the parable of the sower. In that parable, the birds snatch away the seeds of the kingdom before they can even take root. The birds would seem to be the enemy. You know, “those people.”
I don’t know who “those people” are for you, but given how divided our country has become, I’m pretty sure you have some of “Those people,” in your life just like I do. I’m talking about the people that you’re sick and tired of even trying to understand because their values and politics and behaviors and words are so offensive and contrary to everything you stand for that just thinking about them makes your blood pressure rise and your jaw clench.
And yet, (back to the parable) in spite of the fact that those birds were just recently caught snatching seeds, Jesus follows up with a parable that reminds us that the kingdom of God is for the birds… too. God’s ultimate dream for the world includes even the ones who are working at cross purposes with that dream.
It turns out that God loves and cares enough to provide food and shelter, for “those birds” too. Which means that whenever and wherever the kingdom comes, even the ones who have stood in its way will be held in its love.
And I’ll tell you right now that there are days that this is such a challenge for me, that I can’t act on that truth because I’m still trying to wrap my mind and heart around it. The idea that God loves even those “birds” humbles me. It breaks me down.
Which brings me to the last secret I want to share with you, though it’s hardly the last secret there is to share. I feel like we could dig in this garden full of seeds for a long time and and still not uncover them all. But I want to leave you with this one because even if it doesn’t feel relevant to you right now, I’m afraid that someday it will be.
Maybe all the changes and adversities of this past year and a half have broken you down to the point where you don’t even know who you are anymore. Maybe you’re not even sitting here with us in the light of this beautiful day as I preach these words, but reading this in the dark many nights from now on your i-phone.
If so, then dear one, you are on the path of descent. Like those poor, amazing, little seeds, you are on your way into the ground whether you like it or not and though it need not be the end of your story, the days ahead will not be easy.
Elizabeth Lesser, in her book, “Broken Open” shares the story of a woman who divorced her husband, sent her only child off to college and buried her father, all in the span of a few months. “Every role that defined me was lost:” she said, “wife, mother, daughter, and simultaneously my fertility. I had nothing left to lose.”
Imagine that for a moment. Or maybe you don’t have to to because you already know all too well what it’s like to lose your identity, your way, your purpose. It can be so dark and so quiet down there. You can feel forgotten and alone in that place, abandoned and without hope. And all of those feelings are very real and hard and it can feel as if the hard will go on forever.
“(But)” said that woman, “in that dark place I uncovered qualities I had forgotten I had. I retrieved my soul. I reinvented myself….It was as if I was born again a second time.” (P118)
Born again, just like a seed.
The truth is that there are times that we, just like seeds, must go down into the ground to die before we can be reborn. And just like seeds, we carry the blueprint for a new beginning within us. If you are in a period of descent, know that you, like the rest of creation were designed for such a time as this.
Just like a seed there are times when we are destined to stop, fall down, and lie fallow. And just like seeds, when the conditions are right, we are also designed to grow and bloom again. No death is final. Nor does any period of growth last forever. We sprout, we bloom, we die, and we are reborn over and over and over again.
So if you’re feeling spent or feel yourself falling, know that the soil will catch you. We all fear hitting it, but among all the things we fear at least there is rest at the bottom. May you, my friend, find that place. May you rest in the close and holy darkness of the soil until the time is right for the light to find you and the water to reach you.
May those scars that criss cross your heart, all the lines that testify to where life has broken you down, become the very lines God’s light will trace as She breaks you open for something new.
It’s kind of amazing how much you can get out of a story about a seed. Almost as amazing as what God can get out of you if you’re willing to come close, slow down, and listen. You cannot step into the same parable twice.
Like the kingdom of God, it will always be growing and changing, inviting you into the story of God at work around you and within you. The good news is that what you see all around you can change. The good news is that what you don’t see yet, can still be. And so, my friends, can you. Amen.