Proper 12, Year A: Mustard & Oscar Romero

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TEXT (Gospel of Matthew):
esus put before the crowds another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”


First of all,
I have a confession.
I am leaning on a long-held notion about
those parables from Matthew.
I had two hours this week for sermon preparation, period,
Between five and seven PM on Thursday evening.
That was it.

You see,
along with Kim Donsaleer,
Mary Shelley, and Kathleen Carney,
I spent Sunday through Saturday
at a conference on congregational development,
during which we worked ten to twelve hours a day.
I’m sure you will hear more about this moving forward,
but the four of us are pooped,
and our brains are losing content like a leaky boat
that’s taken on too much water, too fast.

All of that is to say,
if this sermon is slightly incoherent
I wouldn’t even recognize it.
So I fall upon the mercy of God
to stand these words up on their feet
and use them for God’s own purposes.

Sometimes something happens
and it wakes us up
when we didn’t even know we were asleep.

My oldest son played basketball in college
at SUNY Geneseo,
about two hours from where we lived in Buffalo at the time.
That meant his Christmas break was short
and he would return to play games
during Christmas vacation.

Come to think of it,
some of you may have already heard this story
and if so, my apologies.

One evening, the first year he played,
I drove his girlfriend and one of his best friends,
to one of those games.
It was a cold, wintery night
and the last leg of the trip
was along a two-lane state road
through farm country.

The further we got away from the interstate
and the deeper we traveled into farmland
and the more nervous and agitated
my two passengers became.

“Mr. Miller,” my son’s male friend,
who happens to be an African American, piped up:
“you’re not going to break down are you?”

“Yeah, Mr. Miller,” his girlfriend added, “whatever you do, don’t get stuck in one of those snow drifts.”

I queried them about my driving, if they thought I was being reckless or something.
“No, but Mr. Miller,” the young man said earnestly,
“there are farmers.”
“Yeah so, there are farmers. We’re driving through farm country,” I answered.
“Yeah, but Mr. Miller, they have pitchforks
and who knows how many of them there are?”

I started laughing at the image of Elmer Fudd
hiding at the side of the road with a pitchfork.
But then I realized they were both truly nervous.
It suddenly hit me like a ton bricks,
this was totally alien territory
for either of these two city kids.

They started nervously chattering
about all the hazardous things that could be out there
in the dark of farm country.
It sounded exactly like
the anxieties born of ignorance
I have heard from suburbanites and rural folks
about the dangers of the city.

This was reinforced for me in rural Vermont,
where people unfamiliar with the city
often revealed anxieties and assumptions about “the other,”
and doggone if they weren’t almost exactly th­­­e same anxieties city folks express about strangers out there in rural America.
Even though I grew up in Indiana,
and the flat expanse of corn and soybeans
strums notes inside my heart that feel like home,
at that moment I realized,
with a great deal of consternation,
that my children are city kids.

All that’s worth thinking about regarding
the pastoral and agricultural images
that serve as meat and potatoes for the gospels,
and how alien they are to most of the population.

We can learn about plant biology in class
but that is far different from the relationship
formed with seeds, soil, and seasons
in the garden or on the farm.

80% of the US population lives in urban areas –
and over 50% of the world’s population lives in cities –
and that is increasing rapidly.

I mention it as a preface to today’s gospel metaphors
because the power of ancient metaphor gets diluted
by how far removed we may be from the soil and seasons.

That is just a thought to hold and wonder about
as we encounter all these parables
over the rest of the summer of our own growing season.

But now let’s notice today’s parable itself.
Jesus tells us the kingdom of God
is built upon the accumulation of unnoticeable,
inconsequential moments.
The kingdom of God
is the Cosmos upon whose branches are nestled
countless spinning orbs,
far-flung fiery asteroids,
and clusters of life in untold trillions –
and all of it has its origins
in the teeniest tiniest speck of a molecule.

That is a slightly more 21st century metaphor
than the agricultural mustard seed one,
but it conveys the same idea.

To this parable, Matthew has Jesus add another;
the one about leaven: hidden in only three measures of flour,
the leaven contaminates all the flour.

I take that to mean that while God may not be
present in all things,
God’s presence makes all things sacred,
while also ripening in the moment;
ripening inconspicuously as the first parable notes.
Most dramatically we should notice
neither parable is not about us.

We are not the one who animates life.
It is not our seed that grows.
It is not our tree.
None of it requires our action to take place.
We cannot ripen it.
We probably cannot even hurry it.  I’ll repeat myself:

We are not the one who animates life.
It is not our seed that grows.
It is not our tree.
None of it requires our action to take place.
We cannot ripen it.
We probably cannot even hurry it.

We are not in this picture at all!
It is not about us.

The meaning of this parable is hard news for human beings,
because we like to imagine it IS all about us
and it is all about what we DO.
But not so:
It is not about us
and we have nothing to do with it.

It is all God’s action
and whatever God is doing,
God is ripening it without our knowledge
and without our input
and as far as we know,
without our action.

I suspect many of us, if not all of us,
would rather carry the weight of the world
on our own shoulders
than accept the kingdom of God
is moving
and growing
and acting
in utter inconspicuousness all around us,
while absolutely without us.

We would rather be crushed
by the weight of the world
than know we are powerless
and without control
over the things that are most important to life.

The kingdom of God lives and moves and has its being,
and unfolds in the universe around us,
with or without us.

The Kingdom of God is ripening:
with unnoticeable growth
and incremental accumulation.
God does what God will do,
where God chooses to do it.
And we are not even in the picture.

All of which begs the question,
why am I preaching about something
that has little, if anything, to do with us?

Well sometimes,
especially when we only have a few minutes
like I did this week,
it is very helpful to step back…
and remember.
we just need to climb down off our high horse,
step down from the podium,
pull the plug on the huge importance of our own lives,
and remember it is not about us.
Then we can go looking for the mouse hole –
or pinhole even –
where we might be able to plug in
some very small bit of contribution.

It’s just a little bit of perspective,
nothing more and nothing less.
You may not need it from where you are looking out
at the universe,
but it sure is helpful to me sometimes.
So bear with me.

There is prayer I have used over the years,
sometimes even as an Affirmation of Faith,
that was written by folks celebrating
the life and ministry of Archbishop Oscar Romero.

If you know about him,
you may remember that he was
the Archbishop of San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador,
as that country began to enter into civil war.
He was a prophetic witness against
the crimes of his own government
as well as those of the opposition,
and even of the Roman Catholic Church.
He was assassinated by agents of the government
as he celebrated Holy Communion,
after having demanded that Salvadoran soldiers
put down their arms and refuse to do violence
to their fellow Salvadorans.

He is now commemorated
on our calendar of saints and martyrs
each year on March 24th.

This is that prayer,
and it eloquently laces
the wisdom of Jesus’ mustard seed parable,
with the refreshing perspective
that is so helpful for us to wash our face with now and again.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, help us, now and then,
to step back and take the long view:
Your kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is your work.

Nothing we do is complete,
remind us that your kingdom
always lies beyond us.

No statement can say all that could be said.
No prayer can fully express our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No healing brings complete wholeness.
No program accomplishes the church’s mission.
No goals and objectives includes everything…

Empower us, O God, to make a beginning,
a step along the way,
an opportunity for your grace to enter and do the rest.

We may never see the end results
so grant us the wisdom to know
this is the difference between
the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future
not our own. Amen.

As the summer moseys along,
and we do not notice – but reap the benefits of –
incremental growth going on all around us,
may we savor the jubilance of ripening fruit
and the succulence of fresh green vegetation
that has come in and out of the world
without us.

My wish,
my hope,
is that you and I can be those people
who love the world,
and experience God’s animating fingers
in the magnificence of life.

My wish,
my hope,
is that your heart and mind,
as well as my own,
now and again feels compelled to dance
and raise our arms in amazed gratitude
for this lovely abundance
born of so imperceptible a presence.

My wish,
my hope,
is we can luxuriate in the wisdom
that we live and move and have our being in God,
but that we are neither
the beginning nor the end of that life;
and certainly not the power upon which it depends.