Shortly after I moved to Knoxville five years ago, some friends from New York came to visit. They opened the back door of our house and were just thrilled to discover a back porch and a backyard. Unfortunately, I had to admit to them that I had never yet ever stepped out onto that back porch or into that backyard!
Jesus did much of his public preaching and teaching in rural Galilee. So it’s no surprise so many of his images and parables are agricultural in inspiration. That may make obvious sense, but it also may make them hard to relate to, for those of us whose background is completely urban. Indeed, to a non-gardener like myself, gardening seems incredibly complex and difficult. Likewise, as a non-farmer, I imagine farming as also quite complex and difficult. But Jesus’ parables which we just heard [Mark 4:26-32] focus on something else – less on the human work involved and more on the mystery of the process. The kingdom of God, Jesus says in the first parable, is as if someone were to scatter seed on the land and watch as it sprouts and grows and yields harvest. Meanwhile, the second parable contrasts the final product of God’s kingdom with its seemingly modest and maybe even inauspicious beginnings.
A couple of decades ago, when I was new to preaching, I remember being surprised to discover that the first of these parables is unique to the Gospel of Mark, and is not also contained (as so much of Mark’s other material is) in either Matthew or Luke. That seemed strange to me then and still seems so now, although all these years later I have no more or better insight as to why that should be. But, however obscure, however easy it may be to overlook, I think this remains a really powerful parable. It speaks to something many modern people in particular seem to worry about – God’s silence, his apparent absence from the world. The point of the parable (or so it seems to me) is to acknowledge God’s silence - but also to exclude our misinterpreting that silence as being due to inactivity on God’s part. Silent God may well be, but absent he is not.
Both parables are about the wonderful way the kingdom of God grows – unstoppably mysteriously in the first parable, unstoppably successfully in the second. So, despite whatever other human narratives it may be competing with for our attention, the narrative story-line of the kingdom of God is unstoppable mystery and unstoppable success.
Earlier this month, the Church celebrated the feast of the Ugandan martyrs – 22 native African Catholics martyred in Uganda in 1886. In the liturgy for that day, we read the words of Blessed Pope Paul VI at their canonization. Recalling the glorious martyrs and saints of the ancient African Church of Roman times, Paul exclaimed: “Who would have thought that in our days we should have witnessed events as heroic and glorious?”
Who indeed? Yet the fact of the matter is that, all over what we Westerners condescendingly call the developing world (and, above all, in Africa), the Church is experiencing enormous growth and profound vitality. So much so in fact that the energy of those local Churches has begun to overflow in missionary outreach back to the older Churches of the developed West.
Echoing Ezekiel’s prophecy of making the withered tree bloom, Jesus’ parable illustrates the unstoppable mystery and unstoppable success of God’s kingdom in the mustard seed’s growth into such a great plant that all the birds of the sky can find space for themselves in its large branches. What an amazing aspiration! What an appropriate image for what the church is called to be in our - what we, as Church, are called to be in our fragmented, strife-torn world!
Homily for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, June 14, 2015.