July 30, 2017
Eighth Sunday After Pentecost
1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
We’ve been hearing a lot of seed stories from the bible this past month. Some testimonials during recent worship gatherings at Seekers also seemed like seeds of faith stories, holding potent and unexpected outcomes. Last week Larry shared his faith journey from what sounded like a narrow faith, then through a long dry spell to an inclusive faith here at Seekers. It illustrates that God does not give up on us. Larry’s “seeds of faith” story inspired me to share a similar experience I had when as a teenager coming from an “unchurched” nuclear family, a high school friend introduced me to the “4 Spiritual Laws” created by the Campus Crusade for Christ. I felt yearning to believe, and a kind of warm security seemed to be available. I was intrigued but dubious, so my friend invited me to go with her to a Christian “rally” with Josh McDowell as the speaker. A little helpful background about me – I’ve been fascinated by evolution since I was in 5th grade when I asked my librarian mother “What is the study of how things evolved?” She said paleontology, so I made a bee-line for the library and poured over the Time-Life book on Evolution for my 5th grade report on Trilobites. Sometime I’ll show you my Trilobite fossils, the first creation having eyes to see, 500 million years ago. Back to Josh McDowell – he was preaching on a run, when suddenly he began to talk about evolution. My ears perked up and when he said “The earth is only 5,000 years old and the bible proves it,” well then my interest this sort of Christianity died on the vine right there.A few years later, while I was in college, members of the Campus Crusade for Christ began to gather every lunch hour in the commons and shout from a megaphone their condemnation of all the passersby. They pronounced all of us sinners, condemning us to hell if we didn’t turn our lives over to Jesus. Ironically here’s where a seed of faith began to sprout within me, planted by my paternal Grandmother Viola, a devout Methodist. In spite of the fact that her son had divorced our family, she continued to maintain contact and every birthday, holiday, or special occasion, she sent cards containing prayers and scriptures. She even sent a children’s bible, which I barely cracked open. But those Campus Crusaders had a reverse evangelism effect on me. Something in me said, “That’s not the kind of loving God that my grandma believes in.” As a student activist hanging with the radicals at the time, I decided I needed to read the bible for myself and discovered that this Jesus was a much a more radical dude that any of us on campus.
Today we continue with another seed parable, in a collection of Jesus teachings illustrating “What the Kingdom of Heaven is like.” It’s like yeast for the bread, a treasure hidden in a field, a pearl of great value, seeds tossed into soil of varying fertility. I have difficulty with the word Kingdom, based on a monarchy even with Jesus’ reversals of the power structure. I know he is presenting a different type of Kingdom, but the word Kin-dom, conveys equitable relations of all Creation: we all, along with the trees, turtles, beetles, every form of life, full of Life lifing itself.In almost every case, this kin-dom that Jesus describes in the parables appears hidden, unseen, out of immediate vision or impossibly small or faces such odds it seems that it won’t to amount to much of anything. And now for today’s seed story: the Mustard Seed, “the smallest of seeds,” which grew into a “great tree.”
Mustard Seeds? This type of mustard is not your ketchup and mustard variety – that’s yellow mustard, which does not grow into a tree. This one is most likely the Sinapis Nigra (Black Mustard), typically used in Indian food cooking. It can grow to eight feet tall, so it could actually be used by small birds to nest in its branches. (pass these seeds around)
Seeds are at the center of a Native American Creation story as told by Robin Wall Kimmerer, professor of botany and member of the Potowatomi Nation. Skywoman fell downward from a hole in the Skyworld toward the water below. She clutched a bundle in her hands. When she fell into the water, the animals helped form a mud island for her on top of Turtle. Then she open her bundle. This bundle contained branches of the Tree of Life that she had grabbed as she fell out of Skyworld and these branches contained the seeds of all kinds of plants in the world. She then began to plant these seeds on Turtle island, earth.
Let’s delve into some of the miraculous characteristics of seeds. I’m currently reading a memoir by geobiologist Hope Jahren, called Lab Girl. The chapters alternate between stories about her life experience as a female scientist facing sexism and patriarchy, juxtaposed with detailed descriptions of plant behavior. I read now an excerpt from her essay on seeds:
A seed knows how to wait. Most seeds wait for at least a year before starting to grow; a cherry seed can wait for a hundred years with no problem. What exactly each seed is waiting for is known only to that seed…. A seed is alive while it waits. Every acorn on the ground is just as alive as the three-hundred-year-old oak tree that towers over it. When you go into a forest…. you probably don’t look down, where just beneath your single footprint sit hundreds of seeds, each one alive and waiting…. When you are in the forest, for every tree that you see, there are at least 100 more trees waiting in the soil, alive and fervently wishing to be.
I calling this abundant waiting. It’s not doing nothing; it’s ready, and it’s poised for growth once the conditions arise for its flourishing. Dr. Jahren goes on to describe the length to which some seeds will wait for these conditions. Scientists found a Lotus seed buried in a bog in China. When they scratched its hull and provided water, it began to grow. The carbon dating of the hull revealed that this Lotus seed had been waiting 2,000 years.
Abundant waiting was my Grandmothers forte, for she had an Irish tenacity like seeds, faithfully waiting for God’s work to be done, poised for life and exquisitely adapted to their circumstances. But tenacious dedication or loving loyalty to God, a person or a cause for the “long haul” isn’t easy. Sometimes our ability to sustain our commitment can be impaired by limited thinking. I’m going to use the word myopic here, which can refer to a limited ability to see only those things close at hand, right up close, as in nearsighted or shortsighted. Myopic thinking can also impair our ability to see the deeper implications of what’s right in front of us. Looking at seeds can be like that. The Oak Tree is not apparent in the acorn, nor is the “great mustard tree” evident by just looking at this tiny black seed. (hold one up)
Abundant waiting is also characteristic of evolution. Even the cosmos itself can be viewed from a seed perspective. And as contemporary Poet / philosopher Drew Dellinger says (The Awakening the Universe video 5:24):
We can see that everything that was, is, or will be, was compressed into a space smaller than a seed, tinier than a tear, more miniscule than a molecule, all space, all time, and the potential for everything that would ever exist started from a single point. so in a very real sense, science has discovered what indigenous peoples have known all along…we are all one, we are all connected, we come from the very same source.
There are evolutionary and spiritual possibilities we haven’t dreamed of… which brings me to my second Seekers seed story or proclamation actually coming from Pat Conover a few weeks ago – and I paraphrase: we don’t know enough to be sure about outcomes. As Joanna Macy points out – whenever we don’t know what’s going to happen there remains the possibility of a way through or around or out of what seems terrible. In other words, uncertainty can bear the seeds of hope. What we don’t see or expect may surprise us. As we were reminded in Romans 8 passage last week, the whole Creation is ever-groaning in labor of birthing something new, as we hope for seeds of things yet unseen to be born.
On a cosmic scale, unexpected turnarounds occur on the microscopic and macroscopic planes of existence. From a journal on contemplative Christian practice, The Mark, a publication of the Church of Conscious Harmony:
Our scientists are able to trace the signature of Life as an almost inconceivably continuous trail of Light, back toward the Big Bang. But even uncovering the earliest nano-moments of Creation, we see, unarguably that all possibilities of all possible forms that are ever going to be expressed were in there. Many of those possibilities have been exhausted. All that seems “normal” today was once inconceivable. Even all that was once conceived, and yet thought impossible has become the everyday ordinary environment that we hardly notice.
And there are still possibilities that have not yet emerged! This big picture perspective of the original seed may seem too big too grasp or irrelevant, but we can hitch it to the exquisite details of our everyday lives. As the Franciscan Friar Richard Rohr reminds us, the universal can only be truly understood in the particular: this tree, this bird, this person, this seed. (hold up the seed). As Franciscan theologian Duns Scotus says: loving each thing itself, for itself.
Looking back through the 14.5 billion year time tunnel of evolution, there were many points when it seemed that life was teetering on the edge, and then something shifted. There was, and is, and will be, suffering, I am not intending to sidestep that reality. But as a recent blog post stated – Of what use is it to focus on an apocalyptic future without any hope? How is that helpful, inspiring motivating?! Recently a proactive and sobering article in the New York Times called “The Uninhabitable Earth” sparked a refreshing counterpoint to this in a blog with a title I won’t quote (because it begins with a 4-letter word) but suffice to say the meaning was “Be gone with your apocalypse!” In it, Nathan Thanki says:
The world has not accepted defeat…. communities on the frontlines impacted by climate change have not thrown in the towel….Instead, they have at every stage of this apocalypse we are living in decided that their lives are worth fighting for. That their forests, rivers, and special places are worth protecting.
He points out that the doom and gloom fortune tellers ignore these hopeful stories in their writing. Dystopian visions of the what is possible are not Kin-dom visions. They are myopic and based on scarcity thinking, reflecting a blindness to infinite possibilities that we have no way of knowing exist. With a myopic interpretations of reality, I only see this little black seed or just an acorn. This kind of thinking insists that there’s not enough to go around, not enough solutions, not enough money, ergo we’re doomed.
Francis Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, wrote in her book Getting a Grip she lays out the political and social consequences of scarcity thinking vs. abundance thinking. Scarcity or myopic thinking produces what she calls a spiral of powerlessness, characterized by viewing human nature as selfish, competitive, and materialistic, incapable of collaborating to achieve a common good, fueled by distrust of government replaced by a trust in the market, resulting in concentrated wealth, increased power inequities, and suffering in the human and wider ecological community… all fueled by this premise: a lack of goods & goodness. On the other hand thinking based upon a premise of plenty of goods and goodness leads us on a spiral of empowerment where human nature is viewed as having deep needs for cooperation, fairness, and altruism, fully capable of learning skills for problem solving, aiming for equitable wealth distribution, life-serving markets guided by democratic social principles, and political systems freed from the influence of wealth, so that we can resolve the local and global challenges to people and the earth.
Returning to Nathan Thanki reflecting an abundance thinking:
What good is our analysis, what is the point of our writing, if we can’t offer anything else? If we can’t contribute to transforming the world? It speaks to a poverty of the imagination if we cannot even see past our nihilism to ideas about how we might possibly fight and win. “Ordinary” people are fighting for life all around the world.
And Wen Stephenson’s What We’re Fighting for Now Is Each Other: Dispatches From the Front Lines of Climate Justice: “It’s time to fight like there’s nothing left to lose except our humanity.”
We are now agents of an evolutionary way forward. We are the earth aware of itself, as Thomas Berry says. The choices we make can contribute to the healing and restoration of earth, our communities, one another.
I confess that it’s easy to go to scarcity or myopic thinking in light of the realities facing the precious earth. When I heard about the dire condition of the Great Coral Reef this week I felt such sadness and loss. Where are we going? Toward what future are we headed? Yet there are still possibilities that have yet not emerged from the original seed of Creation. I take consolation from the cosmic history of earth as conditions kept changing and evolving in favor of life. Possibilities not dreamed of being possible in what seemed like tremendous odds. (like the Great Oxygen Revolution about 3 billion years ago when oxygen began escaping into the atmosphere from ocean creatures called cynobacteria. It was a toxic environment for the anaerobic creatures at that time, but it wasn’t the end of life. Some of these creatures evolved to breathe oxygen. This was just one of the 5 mass extinctions that have occurred. I am convinced that God wants Life wants to live!
Fast forward 14.5 billion years from that tiny seed that sprouted from the big bang to us living in this present moment. We can be an evolutionary force for the good and healing of the Kin-dom. What do fruits do the seeds of our present times await to bring forth? As Norman Cousins says echoing Pat Conover: “Nobody knows enough to be a pessimist.” When the need for hope arises, we can fall into the grace of life that yearns to live. Like Jacob waiting 14 years, like a Lotus seed waiting 1,000 years, we too can choose to engage in the long haul of abundant waiting. We can face the future looking forward – what awaits us there? How do we get there? May we too, like Solomon, be granted a wise and discerning mind.
As we meditate on “what the kin-dom of God can be like,” the words I read from Thomas Keating seem so relevant here: “In many parables, Jesus presents the Kingdom of God as a process of growth, both human and Divine. Special environments are required for growth.” He goes on to describe how contemplation in community is a sign of growth in the Kingdom of God. I would dare say that it’s a prerequisite.
We might also take some guidance for the journey from Paul’s epistle to the Romans: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness, when we know not how to pray. The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” This seems to me like a seed waiting. and ready for conditions to arise for growth.
Each of us is like a seed, full of possibilities not immediately apparent, not yet visible. What we don’t expect may surprise us. As Hope Jahren says: “Each of us is both impossible and inevitable.” Faith, merely the size of a mustard seed, is an abundant active waiting for the impossible and the inevitable. What conditions do you need for growth? What’s inside your seed? What seeds of possibility await growth in the future?