the dailiness of bread

 Homily for August 5, 2018

Give us this day our daily bread.

What exactly does this mean when you pray it? Does it help you to trust in the abundance of God, to know you’ll have what you need today? Do you hope for bread that’s readily available and there in abundance, or can you return to an empty pantry each morning and trust that the bread that was there yesterday will be there today as well?

The gospel story from John this morning takes place in the afterglow of the feeding of the five thousand. After this day of teaching and miracle, some went looking for Jesus…because they were still hungry.

When they found him across the sea, he said “you are looking for me because you ate your fill.” But the loaves of bread are not the point. The miracle is not the point. All that is food that perishes…instead, set your hearts on something eternal. On something that feeds not just your body but your spirit as well.

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It’s as if the minute they discovered him, the moment they stepped out of their boats, Jesus wanted to make sure they knew the difference between being full, and being fulfilled. In the fourth century St. John Chrysostom paraphrased Jesus as saying, “It is not the miracles of the loaves that has struck you with wonder, but the being filled.” [i]

All the same, isn’t being full a basic need that we all have, and isn’t the promise of daily bread talking just a little bit about that? When Jesus looked out onto the hillside and saw thousands of people gathered to hear him and be with him, he didn’t ask them to ignore the stomach rumbling. He didn’t ask them to cast hunger out of their minds, nor did he chastise them for letting earthly things (such as, lunch) distract them from heavenly things.

What mattered was that they were with there, with him.

They already had the bread of life in front of them, but if they were going to stay for the day, they would need to eat. So Jesus fed them. He fed them because he cared for them, and so that they would stay with him. He fed them because nothing is impossible with God.

But remember, he told them, there is a great difference between being full and being fulfilled. I suppose that if this story were written today we might be warned to stay away from “empty calories,” from consuming the things that delight us for the moment, but which give us little in the way of nutrition and keep us from seeing much beyond the next meal.

The bread of the world will fill us, but it never lasts. You know this: the funny thing about eating is that you have to do it all over again, a few hours later! Having just returned from vacation with my children, where we adventured through the monuments and museums of Washington DC, I know very well the capacity of the small child to burn through calories and hit a point where: the bread of lunch has perished, and if we don’t lay hands on some loaves or fishes or maybe even just a granola bar, things are going to get dicey fast.

Even spiritually, we can be full without being fulfilled. Our world tempts us with a promise of perpetual fullness. Where every moment is spoken for, and marketed to. Where every meal is can be supersized. Where our pain and our inner woundedness are buried under layers of consumption and business.

Jesus offers something different. He gives them a loving admonition: Don’t confuse the miracle with the message. Even religion can fall into the trap of full-ness without fulfillment, if it’s all about putting on a great show rather than being a place where our lives are changed by the presence of the living God.

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We can’t simply live our faith looking for the next big thing, as only another miracle can sustain us. We need those moments, of course, when we see the miraculous, when the beauty and limitlessness of God is laid bare before us; we need that to break open our hearts and our imaginations. We go through times so dark that only the light of God can guide us back to wholeness, and yes…sometimes it takes a miracle. We know the anguish of emptiness, and so we naturally hunger to be filled.

Yet so often we move to fill those places of emptiness so fast that we miss what they might be teaching us, or where they might be leading us. So often we fill-up to forget, to banish that feeling of hunger for as long as possible, because so often the pain of emptiness can be unbearable.

What I hunger for is not the next meal, but a more wholehearted connection to God. And that’s the funny thing about hunger…it is more likely to point to God than the feeling of being full is. This hunger for God, our hunger to love and to be loved, the hunger for meaning, the hunger to live with integrity and to be treated with dignity, all these desires actually form us in the image of God.

If we stay full all the time, if we live for the next meal or the next escape or the next big thing, we inevitably banish those little moments of yearning that would lead us towards God.

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Give us this day our daily bread. The dailiness of this bread seems to imply that we always have enough, but maybe not enough to get overfilled. Perhaps daily bread also means that we actually treasure this holy hunger for God, and delight in the fact that it’s a promise renewed, each and every day.

Perhaps the greatest act of faith is looking at an empty pantry at the beginning of each day, and seeing the emptiness itself as sacramental and holy. Looking in, we see not what we will go without, but what will fill it through the course of a day, or a week, or a lifetime. Each day we begin with hopeful expectation.

What did the disciples say when they learned about this? They had tasted the loaves and the fishes, and they liked it just fine, but this bread that fed their souls? That drew them straight to the heart of God? That would not just fill them, but fulfill them, and make them whole?

“Lord,” they said, “Give us this bread always.”

 

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, August 5, 2018, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina. Year B, Proper 13.

 

[i] Christopher Marx, John 6:24-35, Feasting on the Word, Year B Volume 3, p. 310

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Bathsheba & stories left untold

homily for July 29, 2018:  2 Samuel 11:1-15 & Mark 7: 24-37*

This past March the clergy of the Diocese went on a Lenten retreat and our leader, Catherine Meeks, began by inviting us to put down our phones and try to forget the work of the parish for a day (not an easy thing in the last weeks of lent). She wanted us to put down distractions so that we could be fully together and present.  She then said to us, “I think evil gets to us by way of distraction.” I think evil gets to us by way of distraction.

Now, that was all we heard about evil for the rest of the retreat, but there it was, in the air and in our notebooks. An acknowledgement that amid all this talk about presence and soul-deep conversation, we can be drawn to some dark places when we become distracted.

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If you doubt that, just ask King David.  In a time of war, he wasn’t on the front lines with his soldiers. He was back at the palace and went walking about on the roof of his house. As it happened (coincidence, right?), Bathsheba was bathing in her home, and she caught his eye.

This tragic story starts simply enough, as a distraction. David sees Bathsheba and calls for her, and whether she wants this or not, he takes her into his chambers. She becomes pregnant, so he first tries to fool him into thinking the child is his, then sends him to his death when he doesn’t fall for that. The prophet Nathan confronts him in the next chapter and says that there will be strife in your household, David – “now therefore the sword shall never depart from your house” and that the child of this affair will die.

In all this, Bathsheba’s response goes unrecorded.

There are moments in holy scripture where our protagonists do unsavory things, and a closer look at the text and the context gives us some comfort. Perhaps a given story was a part of God’s plan, perhaps the writers had a deeper story to tell.

I’m not sure this is one of those texts. This story is deeply troubling when we consider the fate of the good soldier Uriah; it becomes heartbreaking as we see what befalls David himself. But this story becomes devastating when we consider Bathsheba, a woman who despite being taken by the king, despite seeing her husband’s life thrown away to satisfy David, despite losing her child because of the sentence on David, is given no voice in the story.

Through all this, Bathsheba’s voice goes unrecorded. It’s a story all about men that barely mentions the character who suffers the most.

Now there is a hero here, the soldier Uriah who won’t even sleep in his own home while his men are deployed in the field. The light of Uriah’s integrity shines into David’s window, and out of shame or anger or just an old-fashioned need to cover it all up, he sends Uriah to the front lines to be killed by the enemy.

So we’re beginning to see the evil thing David has done for what it is. We’re beginning to see that David can have moments where he is far worse than Goliath ever was.

Uriah’s fate helps us to see that David’s sin for what it is. But it’s curious and unfortunate that we need Uriah’s story to see it…what if we could have heard from Bathsheba instead? What if she could have spoken up sooner?

I realize that some of this was how stories like this were recorded at the time. But the opportunity we have is to look deeper, to seek healing and transformation not only in the stories themselves, but in the contours that are hidden beneath the surface. Often within those hidden corners we find grief and suffering, but we must go through that if we’re going to reach hope, a hope that is honest. If we can begin to listen to the stories that weren’t told,  what might we hear God whispering to us?

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But there is some good news in this story even if it isn’t enough to prevent the tragedy.  The prophet Nathan confronts David, and in so doing reminds us that this may be a fallen world, a broken world, but it is a moral one as well. In the kingdom of God, our actions have consequences and our sins do not happen in a vacuum.

“You are the man!” Nathan cries to David. You are the man who sent an innocent to die, you are the man who had everything, yet saw Bathsheba and took her, and for this the sword shall never depart from your house, for this I will raise up trouble from within your family. Perhaps we can find some justice in David’s comeuppance, in knowing that God holds us accountable to one another. Perhaps we can remember that even our heroes, even our patriarchs, are fallen human beings, and like us, are sinners in the need of forgiveness.

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It’s a dark story, to be sure, and the closer we look the less comfort we find. We could read this simply as royal intrigue. We could even say that David behaved like a worldly king at first but in a decidedly holy turn accepted the judgement of the prophet Nathan – it’s true, most kings would not have done that. Perhaps we can even look at Bathsheba and say that her story got better: she soon bore Solomon and became a matriarch of the kingdom.

But none of these are quite satisfying, because we are denied the witness that could only come from Bathsheba herself. When we listen for the stories that aren’t being told, when we look at stories like this not for the-way-things-are but for what is possible in the imagination of God, who loves Bathsheba as much as Uriah, who loves Bathsheba as much as David, we might begin to see a more complete picture of the Kingdom of God.

We see God’s story in the familiar characters, true, but we can also see God in the omissions, in the stories left untold that are there nonetheless. What we learn of God there will help us grow, and will help us to be bearers of life in a world that is broken.

Telling these stories will help us to heal. It will challenge us in what we know, but it will also remind us that the deepest part of our own stories, the stories we are afraid to tell, are in fact precious to God, and the places where something new can take root.

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When Jesus meets the Syrophoenician woman, a gentile whose daughter is suffering, what does she do when he at first dismiss her? She speaks up! Jesus – who was still focusing his ministry on his own Jewish brothers and sisters, says in effect, we’re going to take care of our own first. I realize that isn’t what we expect to hear from Jesus, but remember that in the beginning he really was focused on his fellow Jews. But it was moments like this that changed him.

When she asks Jesus to heal her daughter, he says, no, “let the children (meaning the Jewish people) be fed first.”  The response of the Syrophoenician woman is most certainly recorded. Lord, she said, we all must eat. And my daughter’s suffering matters as much as anyone else’s.

She speaks up, and Jesus listens. She speaks up and Jesus immediately expands the gifts of his ministry to the people who were otherwise invisible. Her story mattered. Her daughter’s story mattered. Jesus listened, and made her daughter well.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, July 29, 2018, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina. Year B, Proper 12.

*The gospel is from Proper 18.

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reclaiming weakness

Homily for July 8, 2018

The old Popeye cartoons all had pretty much the same storyline: Popeye was a hardy but small sailor who vied with his rival, Bluto, for the hand of the lovely Olive Oil.  Bluto he was a picture of brute strength, and he did whatever and took whatever he wanted. What did Popeye do to fight back? All he needed was a can of spinach and he’d be powerful enough to take Bluto down. The storyline was all about strength and weakness: brute strength against a weakened hero, who became valuable when he suddenly grew strong.

Paul has something to say about weakness and strength, and it’s quite different from what the Apostle Popeye taught us. But before I go there I want to recall another image of strength, though. I watched an interview in the days after the Charlottesville protests, where one of the alt-right leaders talked about how he had prepared himself. It was all about strength. He described his workout regimen at length: he trained like a soldier, he trained to prepare his body as a weapon. [i] What is that but the worship of strength, but also a clear picture of where it gets us?

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When Paul talked about his own weakness, there was a story behind it. In this part of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul is competing with rival evangelists who are trying, for lack of a better word, to steal sheep out from under him.

Paul described his rivals as boastful of their strength and the power they held as missionaries. That didn’t pass the smell-test with Paul. He even mocked them, calling them the “super-apostles”. These super-apostles appealed to the Corinthians’ egos, they appealed no doubt to their insecurities and their sense of superiority (which we know is really the same thing). They must have preached a prosperity gospel, they must have preached strength and power through their version of Jesus; they offered the Corinthians not the cross, but a can of spinach.

Christianity without the cross is not the gospel. Paul responded to the boastfulness of these super-apostles by pointing out his own weakness. His own pain. His own vulnerability. He speaks of the thorn in his side – we don’t know what that is, it may well have been a disease of some sort – that keeps him in a physical state of weakness.

I remember when I was about 32, I was on a youth mission trip and met another young minister – he was early 20’s and from a different denomination. He was in great shape, and he told me that he worked out and maintained his appearance because he believed that being strong and good-looking would help him to bring more people to Christ. I am not kidding about this, though I wish I was.

Did Paul need to be strong and good looking? Clearly not…for he writes to the Corinthians that he suffers, he lives with pain that won’t go away, and that through his very weakness he shares in the weakness of Jesus.

But more than that, Paul is redefining strength. No, that’s not exactly true: Paul is redefining weakness, and leading with that. Weakness is not being a doormat, or having a bad hand to play, or even simply being frail or without power: weakness means coming out from our hiding places, behind the supposed strengths of this world, and trusting in the sufficiency of God’s grace.

Jesus’ power came in his moment of greatest weakness. At the core of our faith is a broken human being, humiliated on the cross, completely weakened in the face of human violence.

Yet in that weakness, we find the Glory of God.

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I sometimes wonder how much of our suffering comes from getting this strength and weakness thing backwards. It’s a deeply personal thing, too…think of how often we get hurt, how we want to keep pain at a distance by erecting impregnable fortresses around our tender hearts.

Christian Wiman writes about this beautifully. Bear with me…this is a long passage, but he writes;

How many loves fail because, in an unconscious effort to make our weakness more strong, we link with others precisely at those points? …How many apparently strong and successful men seek out love like a kind of topical balm they can apply to their wounded bodies and egos when they have withdrawn from combat? Herein lies the great difference between divine weakness and human weakness, the wounds of Christ and the wounds of man. Two human weaknesses only intensify each other. But human weakness plus Christ’s weakness equals a supernatural strength.[ii]

This is not the kind of supernatural strength that comes from a can of spinach or the barrel of a gun, because in neither case do we embrace our weakness. In Jesus, however, that’s precisely what we do. Jesus doesn’t fix our weakness, he glorifies us in it.

The way of love does not come through strength. It comes through weakness and vulnerability. It comes when we are willing to risk ourselves, to give of ourselves, to open our hearts to God and neighbor.

What does this weakness look like? In contrast to meeting hardship with bravado or even a stiff-upper-lip, it means coming undone, letting what we think we knew break apart so that God can heal us and remake us. David Frederickson tells us that “It’s the weakness that resides in our mortality or in the weaknesses we feel in ourselves as we contemplate another’s mortality.”[iii] We can add to that, saying that weakness is grief, it is a willingness to sit with pain and loss, and even help carry the pain of others, without inflicting it on others, as strength will so often seek to do.

As Richard Rohr reminds us, pain that is not transformed is transmitted. When we embrace weakness, we refuse to pass our pain along. We breathe it in, we suffer alongside others, we take our pain to the foot of the cross.

We let ourselves come undone, so that we can be remade.

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It should be no surprise that a world that so values strength and so fears weakness would give us mythic heroes like Popeye and Bluto to explain how the world works. But that’s not how we as Christians view the world. As followers of Jesus, we offer ourselves in weakness because that is what Jesus did. We refuse to let another person suffer pain because we couldn’t live with our weakness, and we refuse to let others inflict that harm on our behalf.

Instead, we share in Jesus’ ministry by bearing that pain ourselves, and by letting seeds of love and holiness grow in the tender places of our own vulnerability

 

 

[i] https://www.vox.com/identities/2017/8/16/16155942/charlottesville-protests-nazis-vice

[ii][ii] Wiman, Christian. My Bright Abyss. P. 25

[iii] Fredrickson, David E., https://www.workingpreacher.org/

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gift, grace & generosity

Homily for July 1, 2018

Every so often in church we get to play Indiana Jones, when some old scripture passage helps us unearth what the earliest Christians were going through. This morning we pick up one of those old texts, blow off the dust and see what story it tells.

What artifact do we see this morning in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians? As you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness (If I didn’t know better I’d think Paul was buttering them up for something) – as you excel in all these things, so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. What do you think is happening here?

Paul is asking the Corinthian church for money! What we have just uncovered, nestled behind old baptismal fonts and musty prayer books is something seemingly more prosaic: we have just heard excerpts from the earliest stewardship pamphlet in the history of the Church. We want you to excel in this generous undertaking. But Paul’s message wasn’t prosaic at all: this was about responding to the grace of Jesus Christ with the gift of generosity. Indeed, he spoke of charis, a Greek word that means both generosity and grace.

But let’s not get too theological about this: Paul said this because he was raising money. In the mid to late 40’s there was a famine in Palestine, and Jerusalem was hit especially hard. The church was still anchored in Jerusalem, and the Christians there were struggling to get by, so they appealed to their brothers and sisters in the “gentile” churches – meaning places like Macedonia and Corinth – for financial support. This “Jerusalem Collection” was a part of Paul and Barnabas’ itinerant mission, so from its very beginning evangelism and generosity were closely tied together.

As a fundraiser, Paul was pretty good. Paul was speaking to a relatively wealthy church and believe me, he pulled out all the stops to get them to reach for their purses. It’s earlier in the chapter, but his comments about the church in Macedonia are especially, well, direct. Dear Church in Corinth, he was saying, Consider that the believers in Macedonia, who are a lot poorer than you, are generous despite their poverty, and didn’t just give to this campaign but even begged us to be a part of it!

Macedonia indeed had a tougher time of it. They knew poverty while the Corinthians knew wealth. Macedonia should have been wealthier because of their minerals and timber, yet the Romans extracted those resources and left them impoverished. The Macedonians met oppression with generosity, and in that they found spiritual freedom. Paul writes, “The Macedonians’ abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity…according to the means and beyond their means…begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in the ministry of the saints.”[i]

But there’s more to it, and it’s telling that an appeal like this actually became a part of scripture – a stewardship pamphlet became a part of scripture! Like all good fundraising, this was only partly about raising money: it was really about opening their eyes to the generosity of God, and inviting them to respond. Theologian David Ford tells us that “Coping with God’s generosity… is the central task of the Christian faith.” [ii]

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The word that Paul uses here – charis – teaches us something about the spiritual gift of generosity. You see, that’s the same word that he uses for grace. It’s the same word we use for gift – a charism is a spiritual gift; someone who is charismatic is filled with a spirited energy. Gift, grace, and today, generosity: we know the generosity of Jesus, and so our response is generosity of our own.  It’s the same word. It’s the same spirit. Grace, gift, and generosity are all part of the same spirit moving in and through us.

Coping with God’s generosity is the central task of the Christian faith.  When Paul asks the Corinthians to consider the needs of the saints, he invites them connect to their brothers and sisters through their money rather than let their money be something that separates them.

This is about far more than raising funds to help people out in a pinch: raising money, and giving money, is a part of becoming the body of Christ. Henri Nouwen reminded us that when we as Christians talk about money, we in fact enter a space made sacred by the very subject matter itself, where “those who need money and those who can give money meet on the common ground of God’s love.”[iii] Paul was inviting the Corinthians into this same place, where need and generosity could meet on the ground of God’s love.

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Even so, this was not ultimately about the church. This was about seeing the grace-filled relationship with Christ for what it is, and responding without reserve and without hesitation. Once we get past Paul’s rhetorical flourishes – “if Macedonia can do it, why can’t you?” and my favorite no-baloney line about it being a fine thing to want to contribute and feel good about wanting to contribute (he actually says that) but for it to count you actually have to do It– once we get past all that, we get to the heart of the matter: because Jesus loves us with his whole being, because Jesus made himself poor so that we might have abundant life, consider how blessed we are to be given opportunities to respond with gratitude and generosity.

Jesus’ grace and our generosity are expressions of the same incarnational gift. Consider that the next time you can share what you have. Jesus’ grace and our generosity are expressions of the same incarnational gift. Consider that the next time you have the chance to give to the needs of the saints, or to build the kingdom of God, or to join God in imagining what is possible.

Paul invites the Corinthians, after buttering them up for being excellent in all things, to a sacred space of generosity. His goal was not so much a donation as it was the wholeheartedness made possible by that gift. His goal was the awakened imagination and the new possibilities that happen when those with need and those with means could meet on the common ground of God’s love. Paul showed them something about grace that only generosity could teach.

Grace isn’t just another word for goodness or love or even selflessness. Grace, to Christians, “indicates that when done it will be God who does it.”[iv] Grace isn’t us at all: It’s God working in us and through us.

It’s God that prays in us. It’s God that does the Giving, when we let go our hardheartedness fall to the wayside and let God, through us, do something new in the world.

That it is not us, but God working in us, may be the greatest gift of all.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, NC

 

[i] 2 Corinthians 8:2-6

[ii] Ford, D. (2005). Living in Praise: Worshipping and Knowing God. Grand Rapid: Baker Academic.

[iii] Nouwen, Henri J.M, A Spirituality of Fundraising. Upper Room Books, Nashville, TN, 2004. p.22.

[iv] The Interpreter’s Bible: 2nd Corinthians, Chapter 8. Peirce & Washabaugh, United States, 1953. P. 367.

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the greatest of all shrubs

homily for July 17, 2018

The Greatest of All Shrubs

The seed of God is in us.
Given an intelligent
And hardworking farmer,
It will thrive and grow up into God, whose seed
It is; and accordingly its fruits will be God-nature.
Pear seeds grow into
Pear trees, nut seeds
Into nut trees, and
God seeds into God.
Meister Eckhart[i]

Is there anything in this world so valuable as a seed? A seed is the first kernel of fruitfulness, it is the tiny speck of promise that, with an unknowable mix of toil and sunlight and water will result in nourishment for all of us. Each tiny seed carries within it the history of the soil it’s planted in, yet each is a unique expression of the world that God created. Did you eat today, or wear clothes, or for that matter take a deep breath? If you did – and I hope you did – you can thank a seed for that. But more than that, if you ate food of different flavors and textures, and were even able to notice and savor the differences, you can thank a seed for that, too.

Farmers know the value of a seed. Anyone who makes their living growing food knows that the price and quality of a seed have everything to do with their ability to make a living or even grow the crop in the first place. Gardeners know the value of a seed. Whether it’s something they plant or an interloping weed or scrubby growth that doesn’t belong, keeping a garden or a yard means daily engagement with where seeds have put down roots – and where they haven’t.

Scientists and universities and stewards of our environment know the value of a seed. In 2008 the Svalbard Seed Bank was established in Norway to preserve spare copies of seed from all over the world, to protect them in the event of regional or global crises. It’s essentially the back-up hard drive for regional seed banks all over the world.

Do you think, though, that the Svalbard Seed Bank has, hiding among almost a million seeds, a copy of the God seed? Probably not. God seeds don’t lend themselves to that kind of cataloging. But as Meister Eckhart tells us the seed of God is in us nonetheless.

Given an intelligent and hardworking farmer, Eckhart tells us, the seed of God in us will grow and thrive, and the fruit will be of the same substance as the seed itself. A pear seed results in pears, a wheat seed results in wheat, and the seed of God bears the Holy One.

Can you imagine a more valuable seed than the seed of God? Yet the sower isn’t building the kingdom of God: she is simply faithfully planting and watering seeds and letting them grow naturally. As Matthew Skinner writes, “It is the nature of God’s reign to grow and manifest itself.”[ii] We don’t have to force it. We don’t have to worry about hybrid seed blends or crop efficiency or even the basic economics of growing food (which is a sermon for another day). We simply honor that the seed is God, and show up each day to water and tend it.

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But sometimes – oftentimes, really – the seed of God has even less to do with us than that. That, of course, is why Jesus goes straight from a simple lesson about farming to a much more playful and disruptive parable about the mustard seed.

Anyone who grew up in the church and attended Sunday School as a child will know this lovely parable about growing in faith and maturity, from something tiny to something grand. But look more carefully, and we see that Mark isn’t talking about faith. The “faith the size of a mustard seed” is from Matthew; Mark’s mustard seed is entirely about the Kingdom of God.

The mustard tree may be great for shade, but they tend to pop up in places we don’t expect, and sometimes in places where we don’t want them. The mustard tree is both a promise of God’s prolific hospitality, and a rejection of the ordered and contained furrows into which humankind presumes to plant the seed of God. The mustard tree is not something one plants; it is a scraggly volunteer that lands where the wind blows, puts down quick roots, and changes the landscape whether the farmer wants it to or not. The mustard tree doesn’t care about our agriculture any more than it cares about the rest of our culture. And that, too, is the Kingdom of God.

But is this seed as valuable as the rest? Does the mustard seed belong in the great seed bank, alongside the seed of the olive tree and chickpea and the grain of wheat? If there were farmers in the audience, they might have said no. But Jesus wasn’t teaching how to farm, he was teaching them how to be holy.

They’d have laughed at the very idea of planting a mustard seed in the ground. As my garden gets into the leggy season, I like to joke that Norway has the world’s greatest seed bank, but my yard is the world’s greatest weed bank. And that’s exactly how they would have regarded the mustard seed: teacher, is the kingdom just a plot of weeds? And then Jesus tells them what the fruit of this seed is: not the mighty and beautiful cedars of Lebanon, or the majestic oaks of righteousness, but the greatest of all shrubs. The kingdom of God is like unto the greatest of all shrubs.

It sounds absurd, and Jesus meant it that way. Jesus was telling us that kingdom values were not to be confused with the values of the world, whether the practical and necessary values that made agriculture possible, or the avaricious values that leverage cash crops into profound disparities of wealth and power. The first parable is a story of a crop that is harvested, but the mustard seed isn’t valuable for its economic output. The mustard seed is valuable for the hospitality and sanctuary that it offers, but also for its very ability to grow anywhere in the field. Whether we like it or not, God gets into everything, putting down roots on every hill and in every valley we can see.

That wild and untamed seed is in us as well. That may be hard to believe when our lives and our spirits seem to press daily against a world and culture that seek to tame our souls and to contain and define the wildness of God. How can we be the kind of soil in which the greatest of all seed can grow and bear fruit?

We know not how, yet the seed of God grows in us all the same. Our souls are a curious yet fertile landscape, ordered furrows mixed in with scraggly shade trees, sometimes places of sunlight and refreshment, and other times enduring drought and downpour on the same day. Yet this, too is the kingdom of God. The seed beneath the soil withstands all of it, and grows in us to become the fruit of holiness and grace.

The Rev. Bernard J. Owens, St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Greensboro, North Carolina.

[i] http://www.saltproject.org/progressive-christian-blog/the-seed-of-god-by-meister-eckhart

[ii] https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3676

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