I don’t like surprises. Never have. I am impressed when families can pull off those surprise anniversary celebrations or birthday parties. Perhaps I’m even more impressed by those who are the recipient of the proverbial “Surprise!” How do they keep their composure? Especially when all of a sudden their day and plans are turned upside down – how do they go with the flow?
But maybe I need to open myself up more to being surprised. Because I suspect being surprised is a basic quality of faith. And maybe that’s what I like about that hymn: Great is Thy Faithfulness. Since the first time I sung it, it always catches me and invites me to ponder – life is not about my faithfulness. I remember as a teenager believing mistakenly for a while that this hymn was about affirming the faithfulness of one another in the church. This hymn title suggested to me it was about my growth, my faith and the faith of those I admired in the church.
Anytime we encounter one of these parables about seeds and planting and growth (now that we’re in the season after Pentecost) the temptation is to dwell on and maybe even obsess about what we need to do, how we should respond in order to make things happen in our lives, in our church and in our world.
The Gospel text for today (Mark 4:26-34) nevertheless points to another reality we so easily miss in our striving and toiling, in our compulsions and in our hard work: God is faithful, despite all our efforts. My life is about God, and God’s ways. Not only that, it is the manner in which God is faithful that surprises me.
For fun I have been reading the trilogy of popular books about the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. During the first time the main character, Katniss Everdeen, competes in the deadly competition to survive she is saved by someone who no one expected to live long in the games, by someone no one really took notice of when the games began. In fact, no one even noticed her because she was the smallest, youngest girl, until….
One fateful night Katniss is trapped high in a tree while her enemies simply wait her out camping at the base of the tree. Before dawn she is wakened by some rustling of leaves and branches in a neighboring tree. Looking over she sees the little girl, Rue, who points to a large bee’s nest indicating a way out of her predicament. Acting on Rue’s cue, Katniss drops the entire nest on the unsuspecting group below, scattering them and giving Katniss opportunity to escape.
This seems to be God’s modus operandi: God chooses that which the world presumes unqualified, even undesirable, to accomplish God’s purposes. God will demonstrate God’s faithfulness by sticking by us, especially in our weakness and among those who are marginalized on account of their ‘unwanted’ qualities. When everyone else loses their faith in someone or something, watch out! It is precisely in those circumstances and with those people where God might be working to demonstrate God’s faithful, life-giving, gracious and powerful purposes. Echoes of Paul’s words in his letters to the Corinthian Church sound here: “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9).
I think we can see this operating in the choosing of the smallest, ruddiest shepherd boy David to be the next King of Israel (1 Samuel 16:1-13). The family doesn’t even have him around when all the boys of the family are lined up before the prophet Samuel who comes to appoint the heir to the throne. The older, taller, powerful brothers were exceptional candidates, right? That’s how little faith they had in David’s abilities and gifts. How can God choose such an inexperienced youth, after all? Someone we push around and give all the crappy farm-hand jobs to do?
And what about that tiny seed? A theme throughout the Gospel of Mark is ‘secrecy’ that is eventually unveiled. For example, often in Mark’s Gospel Jesus instructs those who witness a miracle not to tell anyone about it, for the truth about Jesus must be disclosed at the right time – at the cross and empty tomb.
The character of the kingdom of God emerges, comes out. And the kingdom of God matures and grows not because of our efforts but because that’s its job, like a seed. A seed is not forced to grow, or told to grow. It does what it has been created to do, naturally, and on its own timetable.
The nature and function of the kingdom of God on earth starts – covered, veiled, hidden, unsuspecting; but once it starts, you can’t stop it. Because a mustard plant is invasive, like a weed. Nobody wants a weed! Nobody would expect God’s truth, God’s power, God’s ways to come about from something like that, eh? Just like people in Jesus’ day never believed anyone or anything good would come from Nazareth, right?
Surprise! God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8-9).
One way our toiling and striving can get in the way and get us stuck is our obsession with gathering more and more information. As if our salvation rests on more and more knowledge. We live in an age of data-obsession. For example, whenever we encounter a challenge or ambiguity or a question, what is the first thing we do? We collect data. We take surveys. We gather information so that we’ll have an answer to the question. The result, often: we get stuck –in the numbers, the facts.
Edwin Friedman in his book A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix discusses Europe’s rather sudden conversion from being depressed (Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493) and having a lack of hope and vision, to flowering in religious, artistic and scientific revival. The turning point? The discovery of the New World. And what characterized those who discovered the New World was that they had the nerve, the courage and spirit of adventure to go beyond the boundaries of the accepted data of the day.
The sanctioned cartography of the day described the Atlantic Ocean as the only ocean on earth; there were no land masses south of the equator; and, California was an island. If Columbus and other sea-faring adventures remained ‘bound’ by the data they would never have made their discoveries; Europe would have remained ‘stuck’ and ‘depressed’.
I suspect as important as data-collection can be to any vision, this approach can also only serve to squeeze out of our consciousness the vision of adventure, of the beyond- ourselves, including some ambiguity, including God’s ways, God’s power.
The parable of the mustard seed asks us not to close our imagination. This parable asks us not to close our sense of a vision beyond what is immediately apparent and measurable. In short, this parable invites us on a journey of life and faith in which we are open to be surprised by God’s grace. How can we be surprised if we know everything – or pretend to know everthing?
Great is Thy Faithfulness, O God! How can we practice being surprised by God’s unsuspecting faithfulness to us? Well, let’s first narrow our scope from New World discovery to our experience of worship: Ask yourself, why do I come to worship? Where do I expect to encounter God in the worship service?
And let me suggest that you are open to experiencing and encountering God not just where you might expect – the usual suspects: in the sermon or in the music, for example. Let me suggest that God may bless you and move your heart in another place in the service where you didn’t expect it – perhaps in the lifting of the bread and cup at the Eucharist, perhaps in one of the petitionary prayers, or merely one word in the prayer of the day, or in sharing a cup of coffee with another person following the service, or in one line of a hymn, the sound of a musical instrument, the voice of the choir, the reading of scripture. And that can change from week to week!
God is faithful. God can come to us not only in any and all of these parts of the liturgy but in any part of our day from Monday to Saturday where we least expect it. And God comes to us faithfully in order to sustain us, empower us and inspire us with His Spirit. On our way rejoicing!
Thanks be to God. Amen.