At the heart of the service of Baptism stands the Apostle’s Creed. This is the most ancient confession of the Church. It comes to us from the early church, where it was used to prepare people for baptism. The Apostle’s Creed contains the core of Christian theology and remains the most widely accepted ecumenical statement of the faith.
This creed is great, but it sounds really different from today’s gospel. There is nothing in it about seeds or birds or plants sprouting in ways a farmer doesn’t understand.
As it turns out, most of what Jesus says is not abstract theology, but poetry and parable. Today’s gospel tells us that Jesus “spoke to them only in parables.”
On this baptismal day, as we welcome two young boys as brothers in Christ, it’s particularly fitting that we hear a parable from Jesus.
A parable is a story, but a very particular kind of story. It start out with stuff people know about: in this case seeds and plants. The storyteller starts down a path the listener thinks is familiar. Just as the listener starts to go to that mental place of “oh yeah, I know this one, I know how this is going to go…,” ZING! — something unexpected happens. Jesus pulls the rug out from the listener with a twist in the story, and thereby disturbs their worldview or their sense of self or their easy answers about God.
Parenting is a way of living a parable. Parents start down a path they are told is familiar, predictable. Books with check lists and time tables and “what to expect when you’re expecting” chart it all out. Other people share all sorts of stories with parents of young children, unsolicited, on the assumption “your experience of parenting will be just like mine.” Fleets of TV shows and movies work on the assumption that there are universal experiences parents have. Even Modern Family or Fresh Off the Boat, shows about unconventional families, are built around storylines dependent on so-called “universal” experiences of parenting.
But as parents head down this reportedly familiar path, they find all sort of unexpectedness. Their story is their story. Their child is it’s own unique being. Parents find themselves humbled and amazed and awestruck and sometimes heartbroken by the unexpectedness.
As most of you know, Brian and I have twelve-year-old twins. There are times as a parent when I wish that Jesus had spoken more abstract theology or at least in declarative statements: Imagine the Gospel of Mark including the verse, “Jesus said, ‘The correct bedtime for seven year olds is 8 pm.’” Or how about, “Thou shalt start asking your children to do chores at the age of nine.” How about a beatitude like, “Blessed are those who forgive their child for not eating all the peas on the plate.” But instead, I’m left with a father running to embrace the prodigal son; a widow giving her mite in the Temple, and seeds growing in a field, the farmer “knows not how.”
And not just for parents but for all of us, our lives go off in unexpected directions. As the stories of our lives unfold, there is only the smallest measure of predictability. That is both very hard and breathtakingly wonderful through the years. For example, ten years ago, would you have predicted being here this morning? In this church? In an Episcopal church? In church at all? Yet here we are, and today we are welcoming into our congregation people we could not have expected a year ago.
So this is life: going along in our patterns and with our assumptions, only to be upended by the unexpected encounter, the unexpected opportunity or challenge, the prayer welling up inside of us urging us to change our path.
And we turn to our Savior for a word of hope in the midst of it. And we get this particular parable:
With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
So the listener would start into this parable hearing “kingdom,” and thinking “big, powerful, possibly violence or oppressive.” Then they would get to mustard seed, “small,” and expect Jesus to go from smallest to greatest, which he does. Sort of. He uses the word greatest, but he doesn’t use an image for greatness they would expect. “Great” would be a cedar of Lebanon — referred to by Ezekiel today — a tall, majestic tree. But mustard only grows about a foot high or six feet high, depending on which kind it is. And it’s not a tree; it’s a “shrub.”
It’s scrappy looking, but it’s also healing — Pliny (a naturalist of the 1st century) refers to it as “extremely beneficial for the health,” useful in treating snake bites, toothache, indigestion, constipation, dropsy, lethargy.”
The kingdom of God is a modest, scrappy community of healing. It grows in ways you cannot expect and cannot completely understand, but it does grow – within us, as you follow and learn from Jesus – and among us, as we pray and serve and work for justice and open our hearts to one another.
The kingdom of God, like a mustard shrub, is not impressive by any standards of this world, and it shouldn’t strive to be. Rather, it places its hope in the source of all being, God, who is Love, and the one who showed us fully what it looks like to live that love, Jesus. Jesus was a bit scrappy and humble and he was a source of healing and shelter for widows and lepers for the downhearted.
Joseph and Sebastien: Today we welcome you into the household of great storyteller. Our friend and savior Jesus didn’t stop telling parables when he ascended to heaven. He tells them all the time, in the lives of the baptized, who do the unexpected, scrappy, healing thing for love’s sake. Welcome to the community of the mustard shrub. It’s pretty great. You being here makes it even greater.
The Rev. Amy McCreath