Our Gospel passage today is like a great hug of encouragement. We have just heard it spelled out by Jesus, through his servant Mark the Gospel writer, read by his servant Caroline/Annie, that your testimony is bursting with the potential to provide light for others and shelter; a safe place for others to protect their young.
Yes – that's right – your testimony. Your walk with God.
I personally don't very often feel that my faith story comes up to scratch. I remember, having shared with the interview panel for this role, here at St Mary's – over six years ago, looking round the room; feeling... what do I have to offer?
Afterwards, one of the bishops commented that the panel had seen that God has his hand on my life. Really? I remember the beginning of the Living Library at WOMAD – a place where the public can borrow, for half an hour, someone with a story, and listen to their tale, as a talking book. I arrived on preparation day in my WOMAD tshirt, and looked around at some of the massive books who were in the library. My contribution looked like this (a tiny mustard seed)....
So the parable acknowledges and affirms the experience of the Kingdom of God which is planted in you, even as a seed this tiny. As seeds go, the mustard seed is pretty tiny; they come in all sorts of shapes and sizes... all the way up to this (a seed potato). I've not yet had huge success with growing potatoes – I'm hoping this will change at Taranaki Retreat! In some ways, though, a church whanau is not dissimilar to a good patch for growing potatoes (or taters as they were known where I came from).
- Some people never seem motivated to participate, but are content to watch others ...They are called "Speck Tators".
- Some are always looking to cause problems and seem perennially grumpy ...They are called "Aggie Tators." (image)
- There are those who are always saying they will, but somehow, they never get around to doing... We call them "Hezzie Tators."
- There are those work diligently maintaining good stewardship of resources while reducing expenses ... We call them "Compu Tators."
- And some folks have the gift of being with God peacefully in the garden, in reflection... They are called "Medi Tators."
- ...and some of us are just good ol couch potatoes. (Image).
If nothing else, the parable causes us to stop and wonder that something as tiny as these (pumpkin seed) – of which you could easily fit 20 of in your hand, has the potential for growth into this (fully grown massive pumpkin) But there are many other aspects to this parable. I want to share with you just three more : One. A shrub, not a tree. Two. Let's get the soil right. Three. A God has provided a shelter. Jeohavah Machseh – God is my shelter.
Number one – a bush, not a tree.
The pendants among us may be irritated by this parable, because it seems to be, well... strictly speaking, a bit inaccurate. A mustard seed, though tiny, is not the smallest we've ever seen, and a mustard tree hardly compares with this chap (Tane Mahuta) – NZ's largest living kauri... how it feels to stand by that tree.... In the Old Testament, we read of great trees used as a metaphor for massive, powerful earthly kingdoms. One example – Ezek 31:2 has the image of a mighty cedar of Lebanon symbolising Assyria and Judah.
But mustard is not a mighty tree. As bushes go, it's spectacular, though – see the picture. It's a shrub, not a tree. This parable should help us to see anew that God's Kingdom; His Rule; His presence, isn't like the great and powerful. It will be; it is beautiful; healing; holy; but it is different from the mightiest towers.
The Kingdom of heaven doesn't replicate human greatness either – it is about the implicit beauty of the humble. Desperately hard to believe and understand that that is what God is about, but it seems to be the message of this parable. Our age, our time, is utterly obsessed with statistics as an indicator of success and achievement. We love em! Numbers that prove how well we are doing. We don't need all that – indeed, we should do everything we can to avoid their pernicious temptation (Ooh! There were 43 people there.... that's more than last year etc. Or – we had six less baptisms this year than last....) That isn't what the Kingdom
looks or sounds like.
Two : Let's get the soil right. At Taranaki Retreat, a large area of the land is simply without topsoil. There's lovely sticky clay and allophanes – but.... barely anything grows on that. As a result we have had to bring in topsoil. In truckloads. The comparison is dramatic. The barren clay looks just like it did, a year ago. Like barren clay. The topsoil – big piles of it is alive, and coated with growth of a thousand different varieties, dancing across it in hordes of delight – rooting, and seeding and being right now seriously annoying.
For those of us who have a Christian faith we live by; for us who love the Lord and yearn for others to come to know him too – the key part is about getting the soil right. When it is right – you see the Word transforming – unstoppable as those seedlings at the Retreat. If we are divided; if its perspectives are wrong; if the Church is caught up with its own affairs rather than plugged right in to the needs of the poor.... that's when the Word will be frustrated from growth. I love how the parable describes the branches providing nesting shelter. It's such a gorgeous image – those precious places where young are tucked into the feathers of the great wings around them, and kept safe. Isn't that precisely the environment we yearn for the Church to be – where the birds of the air – perhaps those not certain in their faith – or distressed – or abused – or homeless – or poor – or marginalised – can snuggle down and be safe... I see those nests being built here, and I give glory to God for that. I heard Canon Whare and our Mayor open their hearts in the safety of this space last week, and I had such a sense of the Holy Spirit moving in a shrublike place in which nests for safety can be built.
Which brings me to my third and final point : God has provided a shelter. In Hebrew – Jehovah Machseh. That security, I just described, comes not from us, but from God. I meant what I said about it being our role to make sure that the soil is ready; the parable makes it very clear that the one planting doesn't achieve the growth – it happens deep in that earth, but the conditions must be right. The security in those branches, comes through no human group or activity, it comes from God, who is our security. Any human person or collective of people will only ever deliver imperfect security – because they are, themselves, imperfect and flawed. God is not. God has this – he is perfect security, our shelter, and all our journeys will end in Him.
The week ahead marks a new chapter that our wardens and myself are working through in the process of working through, with our Bishop and the Taranaki Anglican Trust Board where to now, in response to the needs for this building to be strengthened for earthquake resilience. It way well be that the security we place in this building itself, sacred space and sign of God's grace and love that it is, will need to be laid aside for a time – if, for example, we are required to close ahead of restitution work being undertaken. We may need to learn again what it is to be the people of exile – in some way or another. We will remember, if so, that human actions can neither hasten nor delay the culmination of the Kingdom, which began in the coming to our World of Jesus Christ. We will know that God is our shelter wherever we might have to worship temporarily; and that the work of the Kingdom is generally not all about such major issues. It is about tiny, tiny, tiny things. Like the smallest of seeds. Like the voice of each one of us; like the testimony that we have, of our faith, albeit the size of a teensy mustard seed –
which Jesus himself tells us, is the basis for worldchanging transformation – Kingdomstyle growth – healing; helping; listening; understanding; compassionate caring; selfgiving; outreach; mealpreparing; liftgiving; life saving growth of the Kingdom. I give thanks for each one of you, and the story of YOUR faith. Never underestimate what God will do through the testimony YOU share with the next random stranger.