As If

Child Walking Through Tall Grass

Proper 6 – Season After Pentecost |  Mark 4:26-34

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts related to the Sunday reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.


Note — This post was written in June of 2015. Reading headlines this week, June of 2018, I am appalled to see scripture twisted to support indefensible policies of the present US government. The founders of this nation were wise — one might even say inspired — to separate church and state.

The more I gaze into the face of headline Christianity, the more I understand why people reject anything that smacks of faith. Listening to a politician using faith-speak to galvanize voters (right or left wing, though usually the right — this bird flies in circles, it seems) is enough to repel any thoughtful person.

There are some wonderful public voices in the Christian world. While I am not Catholic, Pope Francis often gives me joy. Rachel Held Evans’ journey has resonated with many Christians as they examine their own beliefs. People like Nadia Bolz-Weber (to the extent that there is anyone like Nadia Bolz-Weber) are inspiring (and entertaining.)

Most of Christianity is quieter, more in keeping with the part of the iceberg that is under the water. We can’t see it, but that massive body of crystals beneath the surface is the only reason any ice rises up at all.

Jesus told parables — stories, illustrations thrown alongside our lives to help us think. The kingdom of God is like seed scattered on the ground, he said, growing into a field of grain. The kingdom of God is like mustard seed, he said, tiny and almost unnoticeable, yet growing into a plant somewhere between knee high and over one’s head, depending on which scholarly opinion one accepts regarding the plant Jesus meant.

There is nothing spectacular about grain growing, nothing that would make a front page article or a popular tweet, except that from it we get the bread that we eat. Nothing about mustard is impressive — tiny seeds and a plant that may be large enough to shade birds but that is nothing more than an overgrown shrub at best.Maple seeds

Scattered, tiny seeds. An unremarkable plant. Such is the kingdom of God, Jesus says. What a remarkable journey, though, from germination to plant. We pass by each day without noticing the process until one day the field is full of grain, or flowers have grown from what looked like nothing.

The kingdom of God — what is with that expression anyway? Do we really imagine God as a radiant old king, someone made in our image, sitting on a throne, gazing down at the disc of the world? Many have. Many still do. It is an image that says more about our limited imagination than it does about God.

With bird feederThe small things, the things we overlook, those are what tell us about God. A child who knows kindness grows into an adult with a good heart; that is of God. A victim offers forgiveness, regardless of the effect on the offender, lightening the burden and opening a new future for the one who forgives; that is of God. Small things and things that cannot even be seen, these are where God is present.

Life grows around us, even without our notice. The universe takes the smallest things and makes something of them. We breathe, stardust and unseen wonder all around us, and a plant uses the carbon dioxide we exhale, growing from what seems nothing. The world is connected in ways we barely understand. On the other hand, our greatest efforts are sometimes the most harmful: scars on the planet that one can see from space, scars within us that God can see from anywhere.

Food for a hungry neighbor, kindness toward a child, a sense of gratitude for being alive — these things matter to God, even when we do not see how such things may change the world. From small things, unseen and unnoticed, come the beauty and wonder around us.

“The kingdom of God is as if…,” the parable begins. As if what?

In field of grasses

Gone to Seed

Gone to Seed  |  Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

The lectionary leads us to the parable† of the sower, or the parable of the seeds. Why not just read the whole chapter of Matthew 13? It will do us no harm. No one would read the first verse of Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” and stop reading, but we act as though we have an innate limitation to the number of verses of scripture we can endure.


Watering a GardenWhatever name we may give this passage, those of us who have spent any time at all around Christianity are familiar with the verses. Jesus talks about seed falling on a path, on rocky soil, among thorns, and on good soil. As we could have guessed without hearing the parable, the first three situations do not yield good results.

Three gospels contain a version of this parable—Mark, Matthew and Luke. All three of these gospels also contain versions of the explanation Jesus gives to his followers, who are not quick studies or bright students. The seeds and where they fall illustrate differing reactions to hearing the “word of the kingdom,” the gospel story itself.

The explanation comes across as a simple and rigid way of understanding the parable. While we like to comfort ourselves with the notion that we are the good soil—who wants to own up to being a thorn bush or a pile of rocks?—we also engage in a bit of Christianized schadenfreude, joy at the misfortune of others.

Oh, come on. Admit it. We do. There is something pleasant about pointing out the people whose minds are empty bird feeders and whose hearts are full of rocks, and we surely know better than to saunter into a briar patch.

That pleasure we take at the failures of others, mixed with the secret fear that we ourselves might stumble, goes a long way toward explaining why most of us don’t want to examine what Jesus is saying.

For instance, a friend once had the temerity to suggest to a group of church folk that the different soils might represent the differing states of our own hearts. Any of us might, she suggested, on any given day find that our hearts are like rocks, or we might end up impaled on the thorns of distraction. You can imagine the reception she got.

We don’t like being robbed of schadenfreude. And we don’t like people meddling with our preconceived notions of God, no matter who does it. Look where meddling got the prophets. Look where it got Jesus.

Here’s an even worse idea than the personal interpretation. Suppose that we, the folk who have heard the “word of the kingdom” and taken it to heart, are now the spiritual gardeners of this new Eden. As God casts the gospel story alongside the lives of people who have not heard it, suppose we are the ones responsible for preparing the soil. We are our neighbors’ gardeners. We are the rock finders, the weed pullers, the pruners of briars and thorns. We are the scarecrows.

Well that is no good, is it? That makes it sound as though we’re called to help the people around us. Yep, those people. The ones with stone hearts, brains like bird seed, and who are prickly all over. Now who gets to enjoy some schadenfreude, eh? Not us, not now. This thing was much more fun when we were spectators.Wild orchid 021

It explains why Jesus waited till he was seated in a boat, out on the water, before telling this parable. He k new the crowd on the shore. Maybe he didn’t want to be standing there when they figured out all of the implications.

You know how people can be. Welcome to your new garden.


† – Note on the word “Parable.” The word literally meant something like “thrown beside.” It was a story thrown out alongside a truth in order to illustrate the meaning.