June 17, 2012
“MESSING WITH OUR ASSUMPTIONS”
I remember the days when girls would receive a necklace as a gift, usually from parents, and it would house one solitary mustard seed encased in glass. “Ooh, a mustard seed,” we would say, and we would think of the parable Jesus told about the smallest of seeds that grew into a large tree. We remembered that Jesus likened this small kernel turned massive tree to faith that began in miniscule ways, but with Jesus’ help, would become something huge. Are you old enough to remember such things?
Don’t you just hate it when someone pops the bubble of that which you’ve thought for decades? Does your world crumble when the interpretation changes? You see, while Matthew and Luke talk about the mustard seed becoming a tree, Mark the Gospel writer says that the seed becomes a shrub. A shrub? The Kingdom of God is likened to a shrub? Our faith starts as a seed and becomes a shrub?
That’s not all, friends. I know this may sound crushing to you, and we will be happy to provide grief counseling following today’s worship service for all of you who are devastated by this news, but at the time of Jesus mustard shrubs were nothing really special. In fact, mustard was considered to be a weed. Not only that, but mustard was one of those plants that would grow and spread at such a rate that they could take over an entire area of land. One writer likened the mustard shrub in Jesus’ day to our crab grass, dandelions, or maybe in our neighborhood, autumn olive.
Listen for my whine. I don’t want God’s Kingdom to be a shrub! I want it to be like the cedar tree described in our first Scriptural reading from Ezekiel. The cedar tree could be 100 feet tall, reaching majestically into the heavens. Now, that’s more like it! A cedar! Or maybe a Redwood from California. Redwoods would make great parables about the kingdom…one could cut out a tunnel at the base of a Redwood that cars could be driven through. Now, a Redwood would be a proper statement about God’s might, power, and grandeur, as God brings God’s kingdom, (reign or rule or presence of Jesus) to earth. I want the kingdom to be like a Redwood, not a dandelion!
Nadia Bolz-Weber is pastor of an ELCA mission church in Denver, Colorado. She wrote two devotions for the Christian Century magazine, and she reminds us what a parable is meant to do. Nadia writes, “…parables aren’t neat little moralisms dressed in narrative. They are meant to be swallowed whole, not dissected. Parables are living things meant to mess with our assumptions…” “Meant to mess with our assumptions…hmmm.” She wrote, “Maybe we are to experience the parable rather than understand it.” And Nadia shared this thought: “(Parables) are more like jokes than anything else, and as you know, to explain a joke is to make it no longer funny.”
Pastor Bolz-Weber pictures Jesus telling this parable, and while most of his hearers respond with furrowed brows and looks of “huh?”, a guy in the back of the crowd bursts out laughing, but then quickly covers his mouth when he notices no one else was laughing. Those nearby heard him mumble, “I don’t care who you are…that was funny.” Those kind of reactions meant Jesus had accomplished his mission with this parable…to mess with their assumptions.
But, faith is serious business…and I don’t need God messing with my assumptions. For more years than I can count I’ve resisted the idea that some truths about God ought to be experienced rather than understood. Statements like “experienced rather than understood” all but drove me to drink. “Give me a break, Lord,” I would complain, “I’m a preacher and a teacher! People expect answers from me, your answers. We live in an age where folks expect quick, easy answers, twitter-sized rather than essays. I need to know what I’m talking about, Lord. ‘Experienced rather than understood?’ You are going to have to give me more than that, Lord, or they will point-blank stop listening to me!” Answers. Easy answers all tied up in a nice looking package. So I would try harder, study more, listen more intently to try to get to a place where I could explain Trinity with a simple equation, where I could explain the concept of God’s Kingdom in thirty words of less. I want to be able to dissect the meanings of parables, like cutting to find out how muscles work. And then it hit me…finally. Who is the subject in my rantings and ravings and paranoia and anxiety about experiencing rather than understanding? Me! I! In my feeble attempt to be in some kind of control, I want to be presented with all of God’s mysteries and secrets. I want to sit at the right hand of God, so that I get/understand everything that God thinks. And here is the truth. The problem is that we do want to be in control, so that it is our interpretation, our description, our judgment that fits all that God says and does. We want to be like God in that regard, and that was the real original sin.
And this is another truth. God is in control of God’s Kingdom, the Trinity, parables, and everything else that we are only going to be able to experience rather than understand. God is God, and we are not. After all, how are we really going to be able to explain or understand resurrection? This is what we are to experience. God is in control. God knows and we don’t, and that is the way it is supposed to be.
Experienced rather than understood. So, God is in charge, and our job is to share that message, along with the truth that everything we need to know about God begins and ends with love. God’s Kingdom comes wherever God is. We can go to bed at night and wake up in the morning, and we can say and believe that God’s Kingdom has come and it has grown as God has seen fit! It is not our job to define where, and that is the hard part. We have our own assumptions as to where God’s Kingdom is and is not, but God is out to mess with our assumptions, because it is God who is in control. So we might find God’s kingdom in the midst of redwoods, but God also has a history of showing up in the midst of mustard shrubs. God may be found among the cedars, but don’t count God out among the weeds. After all, when the seed of a weed is covered by cement, they seem to find a way to grow through the tiniest of cracks. And yet, God doesn’t need me to write his material. I can’t tell jokes well, either. Amen