Give Thanks For Small Things

June 17, 2018
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92; Mark 4:26-34

Give thanks for small things. I am grateful for an ancient text that seems to describe and understand the world we live in. I am grateful to find some meaning in the midst of the chaos and injustice in this country. I am grateful for a text that helps give some guidance when the world makes no sense, when the decisions of leaders are unnecessarily outrageous, dangerous and cruel. I am grateful for stories that remind us that humans have lived through bad kings, even insane rulers, and have found ways to keep going. I am grateful for a faithful community in which to give thanks. Are those big things or small things?

You might remember Reza Aslan, the Iranian American religious scholar who landed in the news a few years ago as he was promoting his book Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan describes the Roman Empire during Jesus’ lifetime, as an occupying force that co-opts and corrupts the religious leaders. It sounds almost like a prototype for the United States. (at the Aspen Ideas Festival

Reza Aslan says most of the religious authorities of Jesus’ day worked hand in glove with the Romans. If the religious authorities did not operate the way the government wanted, the religious leaders were replaced. (Sound familiar? Remember the chaplain of the House of Representatives who was fired in April for daring to pray for compassion in law making? Two weeks later he was re-hired after an outcry from the public. As a tradition that depends on the separation of religion and state, should we be grateful?)

Aslan says over the years religious leadership became not a calling but a legacy job. It is good to pass the legacy of faith on to our children; we celebrate that today with Baby D and her parents. But the legacy that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day passed down was dominated by wealth and power as they abandoned their religious traditions and adapted Roman ideals. (We are not immune from such family legacies. Do you recognize the family names Graham, Falwell, Osteen?)

I say all of this – again – to remind us that our context and experiences effect the way we read, hear and interpret the biblical text. Living in a context so similar to Jesus opens the text to us – as well as to others. It seems that even Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reading the bible these days, or at least parts of Romans 13. His misreading of the text feels eerily similar to the powerful religious lawyers who quote scripture at Jesus, trying to catch him in inconsistencies, accusing his disciples of breaking the law when they picked a few grains of wheat to eat on the Sabbath. (Mark 2)

Certainly my own context and experiences, the past weeks and months with the Poor People’s Campaign and DMV Sanctuary Congregation Network, impact how I hear these parables from Mark. I admit, I may be too strongly reading from my own perspective, but I am beginning to see Jesus not only as a preacher and prophet but also as a community organizer.

Jesus is baptized into the work by John, and when John is imprisoned shortly after Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness, Jesus is ready to take over the work. Mark’s gospel describes how Jesus goes first to the highly taxed and disaffected fishermen and invites them to be part of bringing the reign of God. Brothers Peter and Andrew and then brothers James and John are eager to find a way out of the Roman occupation or at least a new way to live under oppression.

The next person Jesus calls, according to Mark, is Levi the tax collector. This is an interesting choice since this is who the fisherman would pay their unjust taxes to. Pretty savvy of Jesus to get them all on the same side. Jesus goes to Levi’s house for dinner and more tax collectors and sinners show up, along with the disciples. Way to help them humanize each other. The fisherman can no longer say “All tax collectors are corrupt.”  The tax collectors can no longer say, “All fisherman try to skip out on their tax payments.” Now they are all part of this community that Jesus is building up, the reign of God. Way to organize, Jesus.

We read today – Everything was spoken in parables, but Jesus explained everything to the disciples later – when they were alone. My work with the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, gives me a new lens to understand this secret-keeping organizing technique.

On Monday mornings when I join the other people from the Campaign who are preparing to risk arrest, we begin with singing and chanting. (It is not explicitly a worship service since some folks are non-religious.) Then we hear about the particular issues of the week, the injustices we are addressing and the demands for change. We remind ourselves of our commitments and pledge ourselves to non-violence, dignity, community, and standing together across perceived differences. We begin to build community among people who do not know each other, people who have been separated by geography as well as an unjust economy. Some of us experience chronic oppression and some could be labeled oppressor. We gather together to solidify our message, to practice telling the world about interlocking injustices.

At some point each Monday morning, there is an explicit instruction to turn off cell phones, to not record or tell anyone what will be said next. Only those who are most committed to the struggle and the action are allowed in the room. Only those who are most committed are allowed to hear how we will challenge the powers that day.

Mark describes how Jesus keeps his message close to his chest. Using many parables like these, Jesus spoke the message to them, as much as they could understand. Everything was spoken in parables, but Jesus explained everything to the disciples –  later when they were alone.

The Poor People’s Campaign does not speak in parables. The police know we are coming. I was reminded of that when I went to pay my fine this week. Officer Wilson, of the US Capitol Police, recited to Madeline and me the next two dates for action and arrest. He chided me for not having the dates memorized. “What kind of protester are you if you don’t know when your next arrest will be?” He chuckled as he said he would see me again soon. The police know when we will be there but they do not know exactly what we will be doing. That surprise is one small piece of power that we have.

The campaign co-chairs, the Reverends Barber and Theoharis, have a plan – 40 days of action to kick off a multi-year campaign to bring a moral agenda to this country that has become morally bankrupt. Is Jesus carefully and systematically rolling out his plan to bing about the Reign of God? He organizes the fisherman first (Mark 1,) then invites in the tax collectors (Mark 2.) It isn’t mentioned in Mark but in Luke’s gospel, right before these same seed parables appear, we are told there are wealthy women who become patrons and followers of Jesus. Then comes a leader of the synagogue to ask for healing for his daughter (Mark 5.) Matthew’s gospel inserts the healing of a Roman Centurion’s servant (where Mark has a man with an unclean spirit in chapter 1.) Jesus slowly gathers people across the economic, religious and social spectrums as he continues to announce that the Reign of God is near.

The beauty, paradox and mystery of parables is that they are convicting. Listening carefully we find our place in the parable. And as one commentator wrote, parables are “time-released.”  It may take a while to feel the impact; over time we begin to understand it. As time passes the depth of the meaning grows with us and within us.

Imagine Jesus telling these seed parables near the beginning of his organizing. The disciples are probably impatient. They are so done living under the oppression of the Romans. And Jesus tells them this parable about the sower who scatters seed, doesn’t plant it really, just scatters it around. The sower doesn’t even tend the seed. Still Through it all the seed sprouts and produces a crop by itself – first the blade, then the ear, and finally the ripe wheat in the ear. What comfort and reassurance must it give to Jesus’ followers that their scattered travels from village to village, watching Jesus teach and heal and eat with people, actually might turn into something. But when the grain is ripe, at once the sower goes in with the sickle, because the harvest has come. When the time is right, they will be gathered together. For now, the Reign of God is growing.

One small detail of this parable really catches my ear. The sower goes to bed at night and gets up day after day. Did you hear that? We who are scattering seeds of peace and justice and hospitality and compassion and creativity can go to bed at night! It is right there in the text. We are allowed to rest. Growth can happen without our constant attention. I am so grateful to be reminded of that.

The enormity of the disciples’ task, assisting in this campaign to bring about the Reign of God, must be overwhelming. Jesus gives them another parable: The Reign of God is like a tiny mustard seed. It is so small and insignificant it is easy for humans to overlook it. But birds find it, birds eat it. And then birds scatter it, pooping out potential mustard plants all across the land. In this way, mustard is more like a weed, growing in places you might not expect – or want. It is not the most picturesque of trees but it can grow big enough to house those same seed scattering birds.

Jesus’ seed parables make the Reign of God sound persistent and almost inevitable –  though maybe not as majestic as we might wish. If I am understanding the parable correctly (and maybe I am not since it is all so secret) the Reign of God is hardy and spreads like a weed, without much assistance from human seed sowers.

  • – Are we ready to be part of such a noxious, weedy proposition?
  • – Are we ready to annoy respectable gardeners, as scrubby Reign of God bushes emerge for those who need places to make their nests?
  • – Can we scatter the seeds and still go to bed at night, assured that the soil and water and sun will do their part in helping the Reign of God to flourish?

On this day when we give thanks for fathers, I also give thanks for small things, like babies and seeds and secret parables that continue to unfold. I am thankful that from small seeds, and small movements, the Reign of God grows.