Rev. Susan’s Sermon for Proper 6, June 13, 2021
Several years ago, my daughter and I went to Scotland. It was one of those mother-daughter things: you go on a trip, and it becomes an adventure. You think you’re there to see the sights, but what you learn most about is each other. A trip like this is disarming and enriching.
Scotland is beautiful. Incredibly so. We were there in late spring, but that doesn’t mean much in a country where you can experience the four seasons in a single day. We missed the heather, but were there for the lambing. Surprisingly, it was very sunny, not much rain, so no brooding mists. That meant there were few midges, the curse of the isles, to bother us.
One thing that was blooming heavily was gorse. It covered the hillsides with this lovely shade of yellow; sometimes the hills seemed like they were on fire. Gorgeous!
I was not familiar with gorse, so I had to have an up close look, and boy, are their looks deceiving! For, under the bright yellow, coconut-scented flowers, are branches covered in spines, long thorns, the size of toothpicks! They take the whimsy out of the beauty with a sharp touch of reality.
Gorse has other amazing properties: it is very oily, which can lead to devastating fires and it’s a ‘phoenix plant’ in that the seeds can remain dormant for decades; it keeps reseeding and surviving, so It does especially well in rocky, inhospitable places… cue the Scottish moors. Gorse is considered cattle feed at best, but mostly, the advice is to be vigilant about it and try to eradicate it, where it’s not welcome.
In the gospel reading today, Jesus speaks about the nature of the kingdom of God, using two parables to describe it. His examples are somewhat of a head scratcher, though. I mean, if you were going to encourage people to strive for the kingdom, I’m not sure you would have picked these stories. Then again, we come from a culture of in-your-face advertising, one whose goal is to sell us something, to make us commit to an action with as few questions asked as possible. So maybe Jesus is on to something.
You can’t listen to these parables, short as they are, without wondering… is the kingdom like the seed, the sower, the fertile ground? Is it about growth, is it about expectations? Well maybe all of the above. My New Testament professor said this about parables recently: “Parables are a non-coercive way of speaking, one that, above all, invites reflection.” So Jesus is not being pushy when he talks about the kingdom, rather he is inviting us to consider something we can’t quite see or readily put together.
“The kingdom is as if…” he says, talking about things happening with soil and seeds, and a curiously trusting and incredibly lucky gardener. (He has a crop, and doesn’t know why or how!) Jesus says it is like when insignificant things can become important, essential, and even grand.
The way Jesus talks about the kingdom is as if describing a mystery. It is like all life is mysterious: generative, impulsive, creative, sometimes even unassuming and not a bit dangerous.
But if it isn’t something we can grasp, how will we know the kingdom is here, or that we’ve arrived at it? How do I recognize it? What am I striving for?
That is our challenge and invitation: to see the kingdom from an “as if” or “is like” perspective. This is the only way we can even begin to realize that what we have, what we have created, instituted, sacramentalized, or sentimentalized is but a veil. A glowing shade of yellow on a hillside.
We do real damage to ourselves, to others and to creation itself when we live as if we knew it all, when in reality, we know nothing. It is dangerous to believe we’re in complete control of our lives and destiny, when we can barely apprehend the mystery that is the kingdom of God. I saw hills covered in yellow, as if it was a vision of beauty, a gossamer vision; hidden, were thorns underneath.
By suggesting “the kingdom of God, is as if… or is like…” Jesus tearing at the veil between our world and the next, this reality and God’s; he is subverting our well organized status quo, the conventional, normal way things operate. He is proclaiming that the kingdom can’t be contained and proceeds in its own time and order. Gorse is wild, spreading swiftly, invisibly, underground, unrelenting. The kingdom is likewise.
And like the mustard of the parable, gorse has other functions and qualities not immediately obvious to us humans: “it is a key plant for wildlife, providing early if not year-round nectar, and solid protection for birds and invertebrates. The prickly bushes are an ideal setting for nests: on open ground where trees are few, they provide a port in a storm… It is an effective pioneer plant, its roots fixing nitrogen in the soil, to the benefit of smaller plants… it can withstand exposure, drought, and sea winds… its prickly exterior encloses a thing of beauty, with a hint of the exotic.” (Gardenista website)
The kingdom of God is as if all that concerns us, isn’t all that matters. There are matters greater than our immediate wants and needs. Through the parables, Jesus is both disarming our defenses and enriching our imaginations, inviting us to question norms, upend conventions, to envision life open to wider possibilities, to imagine it bigger, bolder, to become more engaged and aware. Jesus invites us to imagine a realm where an exceedingly tiny and apparently insignificant thing, can become, through God’s action and grace, something acceptable, useful, even hospitable, if only we could allow ourselves to see life that way.
Here’s an even more radical thought: if we did, if we could see the kingdom, we could be true agents of change. Because you know what, mustard or gorse, that little speck of a seed is the beginning of something that can swallow up a whole field, sometimes waiting for years until the time is just right for it to make its presence felt.
Then, it becomes a new reality that invades, overturns, and eventually overcomes the old one. It becomes something that can’t be held back: a word of promise that spreads, creates hope and expectation of new possibilities; it becomes something that grabs people, inspires them, changes them, opening their eyes, helping them to leave behind their old ways of being. And before you know it, they are on fire.
The kingdom of God is like that.
The kingdom of God is as if people were on fire…
And it spread everywhere.
And it couldn’t be stopped.
And everything glowed.