Toorak Uniting Church

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A kernel of hope

Mark 4: 26 – 34     2 Corinthians 5: 6 – 10
Rev. Anneke Oppewal
14 June 2009

You all, when you entered the Church, received a small seed. I hope you have all got it in your hands now or have at least put it somewhere where you can see it.

I’d like you, if you are able to, take it in your hand, or between both hands, and just hold it. Close your eyes and feel how small it is. Roll it around in your hand and feel the sensation of it rolling around on the inside of your hand. Become aware of its texture, its weight, its dimensions in every sense.

Now, if you’ve managed not to drop it or lose it by now, sit with the seed in your hand and just ponder for a moment what thoughts and feelings this little seed, evoked in you in the past couple of minutes.

What you are holding is a mustard seed.
And I’d like you to keep holding it while we talk about it some more.

In the world of biblical scholarship the innocent little mustard seed has been cause for much discussion. The Jesus seminar, a group of biblical scholars which was all the vogue in the seventies and eighties, decided after much consultation that this parable was a genuine saying of Jesus. Having decided that though did not help them much with the interpretation of it, which is a bit of an enigma.

Mustard seeds you see, don’t grow into big trees. At - all.

So: either Jesus is confusing the mustard seed with some other small seed that does grow into a gynormous tree (and there have been plenty of suggestions made as to what kind of seed and tree this could be), or something went wrong with the translation or transcription of the text and Jesus was not really talking about a big tree, but about the difficult to control weed that does grow out of mustard seeds. Or perhaps, and this is possibility number three: He is using irony to make a point as he does in other places quite regularly.

There are arguments for all three of these possibilities and I can’t really say I have a preference for one or another. All three offer very interesting interpretations and possible meanings. So give your preference to whatever you think may be the most plausible:
That this is a parable about the small seed of the Kingdom growing into a big tree in which shadow the world can come to rest and find peace. An interpretation which pictures a powerful, victorious Kingdom, triumphing over everything in the end, growing and growing, and growing until the whole earth is under its towering influence.

Or is it a parable about the small mustard seed that grows into the bushy weed you can see pictured on the front of your order of service? In that case it is about the small seed of the kingdom, taking root even in the shallowest, most arid soil. Growing in any environment, covering buildings, penetrating everywhere and everything regardless, like the leaven the dough in another parable. Offering the birds of heaven nesting space, closer to the ground and in a far less lofty environment than the huge tree imagined in interpretation number one, but perhaps even more accessible to birds of all kinds.

Or does Jesus confuse us here intentionally by contrasting the two, in irony? (and the author of the gospel putting this saying of Jesus in in this way to encourage the small, dwindling and fragile Christian community of his day) Saying: Look, what you probably expected the Kingdom to be is a huge tree, like the cedars of the Lebanon, but no, it is not like that at all, not powerful and mighty, but stealthily and persistent. It is something that will grow, and that will prove to be impossible to kill, because it will keep coming back like an incontrollable weed.

The first interpretation is the interpretation of a victorious, strong Christianity that seeks to rule the world. The second is of a Christianity that has discovered the strength of the gospel and its power to permeate life. The last combines the two, understanding that the mighty and powerful tree is what we may long for, but is perhaps not always what is called for. A Christianity that has discovered that at the core of their faith is not the high towering, straight and narrow, reaching for the limit sort of faith but perhaps a much more hardy, ineradicable, creeper faith that is not as neat and controllable as a tree with a well defined shape and clear direction. It says that perhaps faith, Christianity can be much more unruly, disorganised, even messy type of growth, like tangled weed. And still produce beautiful blooms and useful fruit.

There is merit in each one of the interpretations, and they each go with a certain phase, or brand, or view of Christianity. They are all valid, and meaningful in their own way. And perhaps it is ok to just leave it like that and accept that there are a variety of ways of looking at this parable and of understanding it and a variety of ways in which the kernel of the Kingdom may grow.

What they have in common is that they all speak about that small seed. That small kernel that lies at the beginning of whatever great and wonderful it is that will grow out of it, be it bush or tree, be it an unruly mess of weed or a nice straight tree. A kernel full of potential and growth. A kernel planted by God in Christ and nourished by the Spirit. A kernel of Kingdom.

Now look at or feel that small seed in your hand again. And think about the size of it. Just how small it is and how insignificant. That’s how insignificant the beginnings of the Kingdom are according to Jesus. Nothing much to look at and too small to hold for any length of time without losing it. It’s tiny.

The Church as community has been called to be that kernel of Kingdom, of love, peace and justice in this world. To be the seed of a new Creation, and grow like a majestic tree or a rampant weed, which ever image you prefer. Growing the good news from the inside out, unstoppable and indestructible.

And this seed is also something God has sown in you and me individually, as a kernel of hope, of faith, of Kingdom ready to mature.

While you roll the seed around in your hand once again just reflect for a moment on where that kernel has ended up in your life.

Did it grow up straight and strong, neat, nice, and beautiful? The perfect example of what a tree should be, offering you the shade of God’s peace and love to live in? Or is your faith more unruly? Hard to control and difficult to give shape to? Is it tough perhaps, hardy and hard to kill? A creeper that seeks to penetrate every nook and cranny of your existence?

Or did it hardly grown at all, and has it become hidden underneath all the other growth in your life, all the other things that ask for your attention, that take up the soil of the garden of your soul?

Is your faith plant feeling limp and dry and desperate for some nurture and care? Or has it ended up in a corner somewhere, refusing to die but not really alive any more either? Think about it while you roll that little seed around in your hand one more time.

Do you want it to grow, in you, do you want to tend it, nurture it, make space for it. Is there room for more growth?

What is there in your heart that support it? And what is there that is possibly crowding it out? Love? Anger? Compassion? Bitterness? Happiness? Frustration? What experiences have been helpful in making it prosper and what experiences have stunted its growth and limited its fruitfulness? What are the choices you have made and still can make to help this kernel of hope to take root more fully and blossom in your life more freely?

Rolling the seed around and thinking about it won’t make it grow. Something has to happen. You’ll need to make sure it has fertile soil to grow in, you have to keep watering it, nurture it, care for it, take responsibility and trust it has the potential to grow. At every stage of the growing of your tree or weeds life and in whatever shape or form that may be.

That’s what needs to happen with the Church. Which at the moment looks more like a majestic tree dying from drought and dropping its limbs one by one than something glowing with confidence. Few blossoms, little fruit. Perhaps it needs some trimming back, some extra care, some rethinking of what may be helpful for it to find suitable nurture and care. Perhaps we need to learn to appreciate different ways God’s kingdom is growing, sneaking around our feet like a weed, blossoming and bearing fruit in a different way, but also valid way of being Church and spreading the gospel in the world.

And it needs to happen to us. We need to make room for growth if we want the seed to grow. We need to let God grow in us and through us, whether as a tree or as a weed. We need to let the Spirit nurture and care for us. How? By working on it, by investing in it, by becoming aware of that kernel of faith and what has become of it over the years. Talk to each other, talk to me if you want to, and find ways to make it grow, to make it glow, to make it blossom and bear fruit. For your sake, for God’s sake, and for the world’s sake.

And don’t be disappointed if this means what you once knew takes on a different shape, it may not be what you, what we, need, right now. It may be we need something that will overrun the old growth of things for us to rediscover what is really important for our faith. It may be we need something more insidious, more out of control, more penetrating that grows out instead of up, so we might be reaching out differently to the world of today, than we did to the world of yesterday. Amen.

There is more in you than you think,
Mark 4:26-34

deep in the ground
of your being lies
a seed
planted in the dark of your unknowing
waiting, waiting, waiting,
slowly growing

it whispers with a voice
that knows your name
and whence you came and so much more
than even your mother
could guess
or know for sure

and in the vast uncharted space
of who you are,
this mix of clay and sea and star
where journey, once begun
is never fully told, completed, done
the seed takes hold

and while you wake and work
and sleep and wake and work
rooted in the mystery of time
the seed grows
until the stalk shows

stalk and head and grain
grow and grow and grow again
and harvest brings
such unexpected, unimagined things;

wheat for the taking
flour for the baking
bread for the breaking

there is more in you
than you think
all rights reserved, Jenny Gordon

© Rev. Anneke Oppewal, 2009

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