Conventional wisdom could lead me to preach this from the perspective of trust – as in the Sower trusting that the seed would sprout and grow regardless of his involvement and so does God’s kingdom – and that would be well and fine. Conventional wisdom might view the second parable of the mustard seed from the perspective of “from small things, big things come” and liken that to the life of faith. Again … that would be all well and fine … and terribly safe. But if there’s one thing I’ve come to know in my faith journey, it’s this: Jesus isn’t safe. As my friend Cam Overs said to me in a conversation this week, “If you want to play it safe, get out of the Jesus business because it’s never safe!” People who play it safe don’t get crucified. So keeping that in mind, let’s take another more subversive look at the words of Jesus. Let’s not settle for the tame and gentle Jesus today – rather let’s allow him to be the subversive, unpredictable and transformative Son of God, shall we?
In our journey together as priest and people, I found myself drawn towards the second parable in this reading: that of the mustard seed. Mustard is an annual plant which comes up in late April and early May and is visible in fields because of its bright yellow flowers. We have mustard in Maryland … but nothing like we have it in California. I’m a native Californian and growing up I learned about how we got so darned much mustard in our state. It seems Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who founded the missions in California, sowed mustard seeds as he made his way up the coast … and farmers have lamented his actions ever since! The semi-arid landscape of California is very similar to that of Palestine – and mustard grows like wildfire. It spreads everywhere and you cannot get rid of it nor can you contain it. If you clear out a plot of land and leave it empty … the following year you will have a plot of mustard. It’s that pernicious … it’s a noxious weed. This likening the Kingdom of God to mustard would be like saying to us that the Kingdom of God is like bull thistles (and we all know how much fun they are!).
So when Jesus speaks of sowing mustard seed, his Jewish audience must have cringed! “Mustard?? Are you kidding me??! That stuff is out of control, it goes everywhere!! Nobody plants that stuff!” Really? Well, evidently God plants something like it when the Kingdom is sown. The kingdom isn’t something which can be contained, its pernicious, it will grow wild. When Jesus speaks of the birds of the air making nests in its shade, the farmers among us would be suspicious of that too … after all birds are not always welcome and often do much damage to legitimate crops. So we hear the kingdom is growing and spreading like a noxious weed and as it does it invites all kinds of unpredictable and even unwanted elements. Is this really good news? Maybe … maybe not.
When we proclaim this the Gospel of the Lord, we need to remember the good news, might not be good news for everyone. In fact, it might be very bad news. In first century Palestine, Jesus was positing a new Reign of God, one which stood in direct opposition to the Reign of Caesar and the Roman Empire who enforced peace at the tip of a sword. Admittedly, this imagery of dueling authorities does not always translate well to us in the 21st century in America. After all, we elect our leaders and live under different circumstances than the subjects of the Roman Empire. We don’t have a Caesar … or … do we?
In praying with this scripture this week, I’ve come to a belief we do have a Caesar of sorts – a power which controls our minds and wills and draws them away from God. In our 21st century American culture, the Caesar we bow down to is anxious fear. That may sound strange but bear with me. In 1996, Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s last book was published posthumously. It was entitled “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.” In it, he described how our culture has been steeped in anxious fear largely as a result of the barrage of violent and frightening images we receive on a daily basis through the media. Back when I was a kid, we turned on the television at six o’clock to hear that venerable Episcopalian Walter Cronkite report the news. If we were night owls, we might watch the eleven o’clock news before catching Johnny Carson (for you younger folks, he was on the Tonight Show before Jay Leno). But that’s not how it is today. CNN made sure we could get news 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And now it isn’t just CNN, it’s Deutche Welle, BBC World News Service, Al Jazeera and others who can tell me what’s happening – and much of it is bad news! Images of war, terrorism, and violence come at us constantly … oh and don’t even get me started on what comes over my smart phone and the internet. We are a frightened people in a world which we perceive to be very, very scary. And one of the things we know about the hard wiring of our brains, is that if we identify with victims of violence and feel they are like us, we take in the anxiety of what happened to them because we think it can, and will, happen to us. And we are terrified.
Now, let’s make this into a perfect storm, shall we? Combine this chronic, anxious fear with a capitalistic, consumerist economic system and you have a system which is out of control. I’ll confess to you that my first degree is in marketing. And one thing you learn in marketing is that fear sells product. If I can make you feel fearful, or at least insecure, about something, I can get you to buy a product or service by positing it as the solution to your anxiety. I can press all kinds of buttons in each and every one of you – and don’t think those ads on TV don’t do it! I can make you feel anxious about your body, your hairline, your age, dying, your performance in the bedroom, your income level, your job … just about anything. Then I’ll tell you how this car, this house, this suit of clothes, these shoes, this drug … will cure your problem (even if you really don’t have a problem). Now we’ve set up a system where frightened people are working crazy hours to make more money because we need those things which we think will relieve our pain and suffering. And we are scared … and we are utterly exhausted. This, my friends, is our Reign of Caesar – it is the Reign of Fear.
Jesus tells us there is an alternative – the Reign of God. It is like a noxious weed and spreads uncontrollably. And the Reign of God is when we hear that still small voice tell us: “You are my beloved child and in you I take great delight. Don’t give in to your fears. Hold on to me. I claimed you in baptism and I will not let you go … EVER!” You see when we trust that voice, the voice of Christ himself, who loves us and gave himself completely for us and who will never let us go, we begin to have hope. And hope is a dangerous thing … because it casts out fear. Hope casts out fear. As our hope increases, our fears and anxieties lessen.
Christian hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is the expectation that things will get better. Optimism and its related success are preached by the likes of Joel Osteen, Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller, and it is a distorted gospel. Hope is radically different! Hope is the trust that no matter what the outcome, no matter how bad things get God’s promises and Word will prevail. Hope lies outside of our immediate circumstances. I witnessed many of my hospice patients who had great hope in God’s promises even as their optimism for recovery was long gone.
The promise of the mustard seed is that no matter what, the Kingdom is spreading and we are promised abundant life, now and forever. This does not exempt us from “hardship, nakedness, peril or sword” as St. Paul wrote. But it does mean we can endure suffering with patience and perseverance and this is what makes hope dangerous: dangerous because by God’s grace we are able to persevere beyond the immediate circumstances and move into an unknown future because we trust God is already there. You see hope is like that mustard seed too – it cannot be contained and it can spread like wildfire. We saw the results of hope in the Arab Spring last year. Some of us remember watching hope tear down the Berlin Wall. Hope is the final message of Revelation in the imagery of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven and the final result being this earth being completely resurrected and transformed.
This is what Jesus offers us today: the dangerous hope that God’s kingdom is here and in the process of becoming fully realized. And while we certainly cannot control or even summon it we can actively anticipate it by looking for and even aiding and abetting its unexpected growth. How subversive is that?? And so … I am giving you an assignment. Yes, I know it’s a little unorthodox to assign homework but I’m into the whole subversion thing today. The assignment I give you is this: spend some time taking pictures of where you find hope. Take pictures of where you see signs of God’s hope sneaking in and spreading around. Take pictures of where the dangerous hope of Christ is transforming lives. Then print them out and bring them to Grace this summer … or email them to me for posting on the web site too. As we do this, may we see more, hope more, and trust more firmly in the presence of the Kingdom right here and right now.