Is it more to the point to say ‘It’s a good thing that I preach from time to time, since that gives me an occasion to update the blog’ or ‘Guess it really shows how lazy you’ve gotten about updating when only a sermon bestirs you to post something’? Either way, I preached this morning and will duly post the sermon text below in the ‘Continue Reading’ link. If you’re on the West Coast of the USA, you may have time to print it out if you’re desperate before a late service.
As our road trip in the USA turned into a succession of hit-and-run visits to dear ones along the Atlantic Coast, blogging just didn’t seem to fit into the atmosphere of reconnecting with family, and most of what was on my mind was how proud I was of X or how wonderful Y looked, and that doesn’t really edify the world. Important things happened in the world, no doubt about it, but my concentration was fixed elsewhere.
So when we got back to home, the Vice-Provost emailed to say Wouldn’t you like to preach this Sunday instead of 1 July?, and I reckoned that it would be helpful and might get me back on my metabolico-intellectual rails after the combination of jet lag and road-weariness. The decision itself might have been a symptom of my boggled mind, but everything turned out all right, and now I have one fewer thing to take care of in the days ahead.
Margaret and I celebrated our 30th anniversary on Tuesday, and decided that as long as one of us wished the other ‘Happy Anniversary’ day-on-day, we would continue celebrating indefinitely. So it’s still our anniversary, and I still love her more all the time, and we’re partying continually over here at the brow of Partick Hill (so long as your definition of ‘partying’ includes ‘staring off into space’, ‘watching back episodes of Taggart’, ‘cleaning house’, ‘sleeping’, ‘working on academic essays’ (which is complicated, when you’re feeling as spaced-out as we have felt), and other such decadent pursuits).
Still some notes to write to the US, lots of admin work to do for the Uni, two or three essays, one book review, course prep, and a grant proposal to write before classes start (heaven permitting); I read Alison Bechdel’s newly-released Are You My Mother? and should blog about that; I’m working on Errol Morris’s Believing Is Seeing; I want to take some fountain pen photos and write about the pens; and I’ll have to index the James commentary. Among other things.
But for now, I think this thing is working again, and this morning’s sermon is below:
17 June 2012
St. Mary’s Cathedral, Glasgow
Ezekiel 17:22-24 / Ps 92:1-4, 11-14 / 2 Cor 5:6-17 /Mark 4:26-34
‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?’
+ In Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
One fine day, in a lecture course about Jesus’ parables, one of my students started an argument with me. I had just finished observing that the common Mediterranean mustard plant, Brassica nigra, simply doesn’t grow to be tall enough, with large branches sturdy enough, for birds of the air to make nests in its shade. Wiser gardeners than I — which is to say, practically anyone, although in this particular case it meant ‘people who have conducted actual research into mustard plants’ — gardeners advise me that mustard plants generally don’t get much over ten feet tall, and even then those are ten spindly feet, mostly stalks and stems and leaves. A bird that wanted to nest in a mustard plant would have to be extremely light, and would have to not mind that its nest would be easily accessible to any human being, and most animals, that pass by. It would have to be a small, light, impractical, relatively short-lived bird. (I hadn’t even mentioned that its seed probably isn’t the smallest of all seeds.)
But no; Mr Student knew, beyond any possibility of disproof, beyond mere mortal certainty, knew that infinitesimal mustard seeds actually grow into mammoth cedar-like trees, with vast colonies of all sorts of nesting birds therein.
I suspect he was (if you will excuse me) barking up the wrong tree — but after explaining why the evidence inclines against the possibility that mustard plants really don’t grow that way, I let it drop. He might, after all, be correct, even if all my research and my reference books suggest otherwise. Our family used to call this a ‘fight not worth having’, where the irritation engendered in the course of hashing out the rights and wrongs of a particular situation outweighs any good that might result from prolonging the argument. Besides, who knows? I haven’t seen all the trees he has, and I’m certainly no botanist. If he does have confidence that a spindly ten-foot shrub actually transforms itself into a majestic pillar of sycamore, he may be seeing something greater than I am, who thinks about mustard plants from a human point of view.
So far as I can tell, though, the parable in this morning’s Gospel lesson concerns more than just dendrological lore. Even if you force-fed a mustard seedling with Miracle-Gro, even if you shone on it more sunshine than Glasgow sees in an entire summer — or ‘saw during summer, which apparently ended two weeks ago’ — even with all this special inducement, you would still not nurture a mustard tree of sufficient magnitude to persuade a fat wood pigeon to perch in the same boughs as a hungry peregrine. Whereas readers sometimes emphasise the texture of homely realism in parables, we ought probably to sit down and admit that most of these short stories are profoundly, deeply, upsettingly implausible. When Jesus constructs so extraordinary a parable as this — with mustard seeds like magic beans, and aviaries of universally cooperative wingèd creatures — the very excess, the hallucinatory exuberance of the parable tips us off that we’ve left behind the drab grey world of bushes and sparrows, and we’ve exploded into some brilliant alternate universe, where yes mustard grows sky-high, where yes the eagles and the squab nest side-by-side, where all families of birds are sheltered under God’s hand.
But that grand visionary cedar tree in Ezekiel’s prophecy, that supernatural mustard shrub in Jesus’ parable, these and countless other images in Scripture come to fruition in ways that we do not comprehend; they teach us not by analysis and deduction, but by observation and recognition. Like the crowds standing around listening to Jesus, we’re often perplexed by the off-kilter anecdotes he tells. In Scripture, we very often encounter God’s portrayal of us and our worlds, our fears and our hopes, depicted in forms and patterns that don’t make sense when compared to our daily lives. Ezekiel reports God saying that ‘I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree’ — but we know far too many high trees that seem never to bend, and far too many low trees that have been callously trodden into the mire. The Psalmist says ‘I have been young, and now I am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or his seed begging bread’ — but daily we see integrity bereft, and innocence starving. Jesus promises that ‘some of those who are standing here who will not taste death’, but that was two thousand years ago, and not only Jesus’ disciples, but our parents and our sisters and brothers and some of our children’s deaths seem to tell against that promise.
Those prophecies, those parables, those promises don’t make sense if we take them as straightforward characterisations of the way things are today, the way we might read the weather report or the Euro 2012 results. So when my student insists that mustard trees must grow to be the tallest because Jesus said so, he’s trying to grit his teeth and make the facts about this biosphere match what the gospels tell us — rather than taking the clue that the gospels aren’t describing ordinary black mustard plants from the Mediterranean basin, but pointing to a different kind of life, a different kind of world, where all manner of things happen differently. And we don’t get at the truthfulness of that different kind of life by measuring mustard plants so as to prove that they’re taller than oaks, but by recognising the kind of life Jesus describes when we see it glimmer and flash around us. I can’t give you the chemical formula for my love of my family, nor the gravitational constant that always draws me to the Episcopal Church, no matter how often its spokespeople emit exasperating follies. Indeed, if we decide too definitely what the mustard plant has to look like according to our predetermined criteria (including know-it-all lecturers’ skepticism about stalky shrubs), we’re liable to miss the irruption of holiness when it grows secretly and blossoms unexpectedly where we wouldn’t have thought to seek it. But coming here, standing among sisters and brothers whom I love, even you whom I have hardly met, especially you have so generously taken me into your hearts — here I recognise the Kingdom of Heaven sprouting and growing, I know not how: first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. And now and then, when the choir sounds a stunning chord, or the light flashes through Jonah up there or Moses yonder, when the incense catches sunbeams and it all overflows my senses — or when quiet, heartfelt prayers accompany a stricken heart, when an isolated wayfarer finds company and relief — at moments such as these I see the truthfulness of that visionary promise, and I believe.
Not often enough; I am weak, and we are not yet perfect in outreach, and this perishing world distracts and hinders us. But paperwork and unjust regulations, self-interest and cruelty do not tell the truth about who we are and what we should be about. Bureaucracy and selfishness and exploitation don’t speak a word of truth, but that mustard seed and the cedar sprig, they tell us, truly, that we have the capacity for a generosity, a peacefulness, a joy, a love that makes no compromise with practical worldly limits.
The seed of that heavenly vision, planted secretly within us, grows while we sleep, sprouts as we work and play, turning always toward whatever flicker of the light plays on our horizon. Opening our hearts to God’s grace even just a bit, squinting our eyes to perceive hidden glories, at length we recognise the Kingdom of God coming into focus, resolving into harmony, breaking forth into unconstrained divine liberty, until at last we regard no one from a human point of view, for we have emerged into a new creation — everything old has passed away; see, everything has become unexpectedly, marvelously, spicily, new!
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I was thinking just the same things about the mustard seed parable this morning. That probably seems as if I’m just trying to say, “I’m as smart as Akma!”, but having also heard that mustard seeds and the shrubs they produce don’t really line up with what Jesus says about them, you’ve got to suspect he was up to something other than a (botched) botany lesson or a simple illustration. The “extravagance” of parables, as Kelber says, I think.