Sunday, June 15, 2008

Seeing things differently: the parable of the Mustard Seed or the parable of the Bird's Nests?

I have a confession to make.

Last Sunday was not the first time I had preached the same sermon three times. I think it may have been the first time when someone other than my wife was in the Congregation on each occasion. So sorry to Richard for putting you through that – and thank you for your company through the day!

At the end of the day over coffee and leek and potato soup on the terrace of a new restaurant overlooking one of the wonderful lakes around South Cerney we reflected on the experience.

What was fascinating was the way the same sermon actually came out quite differently in each church. The message depended not just on what was written in the sermon, but also on the setting it was delivered in.
Three Churches ... One Sermon ... Three Meanings

The day started very much as part of our Scouting Centenary Celebration. It was great to have Rosemary and Alec here who had married in the church 63 years ago, Rosemary having been a member of the Good Companions, Highbury’s then Youth Group, under the leadership of Alfonso Tosio from Switzerland. He had shortly afterwards returned to Switzerland where he had set up a scout troop and one of this first members, Andrea together with Giovanni were with us last week. What a wonderful greeting Andrea gave, as he reflected on what it meant to be church in that setting in Porschavo that had played a little known yet signifanct part in the Reformation in the Italian part of Switzerland.

Religion is like a ladder that goes up to God. Faith is like a ladder that comes down from God into the heart. But as our heart is changed, Andrea said, we cannot sit back, arms folded. We must then put our heart changing faith into action as we share the task of being peacemakers and engage in mission.

All came together in our service and the sermon seemed to have a focus in mission.

That afternoon Richard and I found ourselves in the tiny Draycott mission chapel with only two others. Our thoughts turned to Kim and especially to her daughter and many like her who are in the throes of doing A Levels, important examinations. It’s a stressful time. Being church is about sharing vision, and also being supportive of one another. The message of the sermon took on a different kind of shape.

And in the evening another emphasis too. It was Congregational Sunday and we found ourselves in the United Church in South Cerney, an ecumenical partnership between Congregationalists and Methodists. Two years before on Congregational Sunday I had enjoyed some banter with Rita Mae and Paul who pastor the church and have built it up as very much a centre for the village community.

On the wall there was a picture of John Wesley celebrating the church’s Methodist roots … but no picture to identify the church’s Congregational roots. When we had been in Plymouth I had spotted just the picture. Not the picture of an individual but of a ship, the Mayflower. For me it suggests the freedom to worship as the spirit leads, the separation of church and state, that faith is a pilgrimage, a journey, that we will get nowhere in the boat unless the wind fills the sails – and nowhere in the church unless empowered by the Spirit of God. Lots of thoughts. The sermon sought to make sense of our Congregational roots in the context of an ecumenical partnership.

Same sermon. Three settings. And it came across in three quite different ways.

That’s nothing new!

One gets the feeling that the stories Jesus told, he told more than once. In different settings on different occasions. They were often passed on as stories, wonderful to tell. But in different settings those stories took on different meanings.

You can see that happening in the way the Gospel writers include those stories and record them in subtly different ways. Same story, but a different setting brings out quite a different meaning.

The Parable of the Mustard Seed
Take the parable of the mustard seed.

We all know its meaning. It’s a wonderful tale of small beginnings and massive end products. A tale of hope, especially if you are only too aware of how tiny your input seems.

Mark collects most of the stories of Jesus, the parables, into one chapter and the run from one to the next to the next. They are for the most part stories about seeds and sowing, or ordinary household life. And they are parables of the Kingdom.

Jesus’ teaching ministry is just getting under way. He has come with a powerful message: “The Time is fulfilled; and the Kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe in the good news.”

Based in Capernaum he has travelled the communities of Galilee with that powerful message, teaching with a remarkable authority, bringing healing into hurting people’s lives. And now he has gathered together a group of 12 to be his disciples.

And so it is we are introduced to this set of parables of the kingdom. They are parables of growth, often in a hazardous world, growth from tiny beginnings to something great in store.

You can just sense how much of an encouragement and a challenge it would be for those 12, conscious how small their movement is up against the powers that be of Rome which is really beginning to assert its powerbase in and around the Sea of Galilee and over against the Jewish powers that be that are in collaboration with Rome.

What difference will this Jesus make? What will this kingdom be like? How can it make its mark when you think how powerful the world’s powers that be really are?

‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.’

The key words in the telling of that story leap out at you.

The smallest of all the seeds on earth.

The greatest of all shrubs.

What encouragement for that small band of followers of Jesus.

And it has to be an encouragement for us too. What difference are we going to make in a world where it is so difficult to make a difference?

That’s the whole point … small things do make a difference.

After the service last Sunday morning Andrea and Giovanni caught the 12-45 coach to Heathrow and on to Luton where they stayed overnight. Early Monday they caught their flight back to Italy and across the border home to Porschavio. Both were leading members of the Protestant church in their village. They had a truck already loaded with furniture. The two of them later that day, I think, were going to drive the truck over the border into Croatia and deliver furniture to an orphanage they had been supporting as a church ever since the ending of the Bosnian war.

Small things that make a difference.

What a powerful story this parable is!

But that’s not the only way this story plays.
The Parable of the Bird's Nest

In Luke’s gospel it is not just part of a collection of parables of the kingdom … it seems to come at quite a specific moment, as Jesus’s actions and his teaching address the question … who is this kingdom for?

He’s teaching in a synagogue on the Sabbath when he is confronted with a woman who has had a sprit that has crippled her for eighteen yeas. Jesus doesn’t hesitate. God’s rule is precisely for the likes of this woman. He reaches out and touches her, frees her from that spirit of infirmity, and empowers her to stand tall once again.

The powers that be in the synagogue, the synagogue ruler is perturbed. It’s not the kind of thing you should do on the Sabbath.

Yes, says Jesus it is precisely what you do on the Sabbath – the kingdom is for those weighed down with afflictions impossible to bear.

When he said this all his opponents were put to shame, and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

Then comes the story.

And it is quite explicitly linked with what has gone before …

Let’s here it again in Luke 13.19-20

He said, therefore, ‘

What is the kingdom of God like? And to what should I compare it? 19It is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in the garden; it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

Same story? Yes, but it works differently. We need a different picture.

The mustard seed is no longer the tiniest of seeds. The tree is no longer the greatest of shrubs.

The story seems to drive on to its conclusion as if that’s the punchline of the story.

it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.’

It is as if the point of the story is now in the space there is in the kingdom for people to make a home there. The kingdom of God is not for the ones you might expect.

As he moves non through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem someone asks a question that seems to follow on in the way Luke tells the story from that parable about the birds nesting in the branches.

Lord, will only a few be saved?

What Jesus goes on to say is uncomfortable.

Strive to enter through the narrow door, he says, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.

The point he goes on to make is a pointed one. And it is directed at those who think they are safe and sound, those who say, Lord … .those who feel they are well k known and part of the in-crowd, those who are used to eating and drinking at table together.

Jesus’ words are directed at those for whom religion is a ladder to God. As they find themselves at the top of the ladder – they feel secure and they have power. And they wield power.

And they are in for a surprise, they will weep and gnash their teeth for with Abraham and Jacob they will see the prophets, the ones who speak for justice and for righteousness.

And those who are in power – who have got to the ladder will be brought low.

And then what will happen.
Seeing things differently

Remember the story of the mustard seed- think of it as the story of the birds nesting in the branches. The kingdom of God is for those who have been considered outsider. It is for those who are vulnerable. It is for those the powers that be reject …

Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. 30Indeed, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.’

This is powerful stuff – it’s a striking, disturbing message – and it’s the message of the parable here in Luke.

Andrea was quite remarkable – a saddler by trade. For a number of years he has opened his home to someone for two years, first from Kenya, then from Uganda, most recently from Burkina Faso. He has taught them the trade of leather making, and then equipped them with tools, set them up in a workshop back home.

We mustn’t sit back, arms folded. We must be peace makers. We must work with and for those most vulnerable – for that’s who this wonderful kingdom of God is for!
With such a familiar story, how important it is that we take time to see the same thing differently!
We need then to ask ourselves two questions:
What one little thing will I do this week that will make all the difference in the fullness of God's Kingdom?
Who will I make space for this week?

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