June 13, 2021

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Parables of Change

The Rev. Mark R. Sutherland

Feature picture: Van Gogh: Sower

Being on a cusp between old and new worlds is a bewildering experience. The paradox is that the changes we long for are also likely to be the changes we strongly resist.

We are living in a time of unprecedented change – on the cusp of a new age. We sense its coming with feelings of dread tinged with expectation and hope.

Being on a cusp between old and new worlds is a bewildering experience. The paradox is that the changes we long for are also likely to be the changes we strongly resist.

In today’s gospel portion from Mark – Jesus presents two conflicting horticultural images for the kingdom’s coming.

The first parable depicts a farmer scattering seed and then getting on with his life, minding his own business while the seed’s germination takes care of itself – it sprouts and ripens. Nothing is required of the farmer until harvesting. Here we find the kingdom presented as the outcome of the stable natural order of growth -between planting and harvesting the process of growth requires no human responsibility.

But then Jesus offers a second parable of the kingdom in the image of the mustard seed. It’s not immediately obvious to us, but it would have been glaringly obvious to his 1st-century Jewish audience – that no one in their right mind would plant mustard seeds in their fields or gardens. So, this parable must have raised a few eyebrows.

Mustard is a wild herb that thrives in the wild and must at all costs be kept at bay from invading organized garden spaces. For the gardeners amongst us – it’s like planting ferns or wisteria in our vegetable gardens. If you know anything about ferns and wisteria- which when living at our house on Burrs Lane I unfortunately discovered – once rooted – neither can be easily eradicated. Traveling through underground vine roots, they quickly take over any planted area of cultivation.

In his commentary on this text, Richard Swanson notes:

The dominion of God … is as a seed of mustard. It grows and burgeons. It erupts where and when you’d least expect it. It is destructive to its own ends. It undercuts itself even as it grows. It is chaos and it is life and it is hope and it dissipates its own hopefulness. The question with a parable is not What does this mean?, but What does this do?” What does this make you think about?

The current meeting of the G7 captures the zeitgeist of our time. President Biden and the other leaders of the major democracies are signaling the need for change. But can they bring it about?

At this G7 we’ve heard the collective lamentation of failure to effectively address the global impacts of the pandemic from the leaders of the world’s major democracies. The G7 meeting takes place in the face of growing international tensions – forcing the world back into the dangerous fragmentation of tribal nationalisms.

In China and Russia, the old imperial dream revives. Chinese expansionism allies with Russian mischief making, and we watch helplessly as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin play dress up with the hitherto discarded mantles of Emperor and Tsar. The old totalitarian hubris lives on.

Western Europe is once again riven by petty nationalisms as the members of the Union squabble among themselves. Hollow dreams of Rule Britannia cloud British sensitivity to the destabilization of the post Brexit European order. Petty grandstanding by Boris Johnson – now threatens the hard-won peace in Ireland.

America is in no better position. We awaken to a post Pax Americana morning with the splitting hangover of unreconciled racism, gun violence, and social divisions which like old forest fires that have smoldered underground now reignite in a landscape overgrown with Russian instigated conspiracy theories and bereft of the natural protections of shared civic values and commitment to the democratic vision.

And the travails of the old-world order’s unravelling is but a side show alongside the center stage drama of fast approaching planetary ecological collapse. From the positive feedback from my comments in this week’s E-News Epistle about the need to think globally and act locally, at least this is one matter we find consensus on.

The coming of the kingdom of God is an image that heralds change. The kingdom is a metaphor for the reign of God in this world and it’s abundantly clear to anyone this is a reign yet to be firmly established. But it’s a mistake to see the kingdom’s coming as a metaphor for incompletion. Instead, the kingdom is a metaphor for judgment on a world where things are not as they should be – a world crying out for change to set things to rights. As we find ourselves on the cusp of a transition between the ordered world of a past now gone and the excitement and turbulence of a world yet to come – how does the metaphor of the kingdom’s coming speak to us?

There is a sense of hope in the anticipation of change? Yet there is also a desire to fiercely resist change -fearing disruption and loss. With change we fear that this time will we be the losers?

Will the coming new order result from the controlled arc of the moral universe bending slowly upon its axis towards justice? Or will the new world order come accompanied by upheaval and destruction amidst chaos and unpredictability. The experience of the pandemic and our failure of response has shown us some of what might still lie ahead.

Where the powerful never voluntarily give power up, it must be wrested from them. We are at this kind of cusp – between the old order and the new there is occurring a shift in power relations. Such changes bring both hope but as those who are having change thrust upon us – hope comes with a cost.

Hope costs are words we should make into a fridge magnet and place them where we have to see them every day. We are a community that naturally embraces change as a moderated, well ordered process. We are a community who expects the kingdom to come in ways we can slowly absorb without too much discomfort.

The kingdom comes with burgeoning hope. But how will hope be realised? Will hope’s arrival be ordered and gradual or chaotic and unpredictable? Swanson again:

This parable [of the mustard seed] is only incidentally about how the dominion of God brings BIG things out of little things. More significantly, it makes it clear that the big things that God’s dominion brings will always shake anything that has (so far) passed for stability and safety. To read it otherwise is to tame it, and comfortable people will try anything to tame the dominion of God. If [w]e succeed, this parable becomes a religious affirmation of [our] own stability. And that is one thing the dominion of God never brings.