Sermon preached June 14, 2015
Texts: I Samuel 15:34-16:13; Mark 4:26-34
Chicago, “Baby What a Big Surprise” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w0xcr93xx3A
The name of this band is “Chicago.” You could hardly be a teen in the 1970s without knowing about Chicago. This particular song was released in 1977 (Chicago XI), the year I graduated from Duluth East High School, where many of you now know that I received “B”s in gym.
The sermon title for this morning was a bit mysterious. What happened in Chicago in 1977? For those who know me, that there was a song involved was not really a surprise, though the song itself is about surprise. Mystery and surprise is where we are going this morning.
A psychoanalyst named Wilfred Bion once wrote, “life is full of surprises, most of them bad” (in Eigen, The Psychoanalytic Mystic, 134). I disagree with him, but there are such things as bad surprises. Remember that banking commercial where the raccoon jumps out of the hedge at the guy trying to trim it?
Friday before last, I ran some errands. Coming home I had parked my car in the driveway and brought some groceries into the house, leaving the garage door open as I was going to go out and mow. I figured it would be good to lock the door between the garage and the house while I put the groceries away and changed into my mowing clothes. Mowing went really well. I felt good to be outside on a really nice day. Then I went to get back into the house to start getting dinner ready. That door that I had locked earlier was still locked. Surprise. So was every other door into the house. My car was open, but there were no keys in it. Well, it was about 5:15 p.m. so I figured that Julie would not be too long in coming home from school. I was wrong. It was her last day with kids and she had decided to work late. She arrived home at about 6:45. We made different plans for dinner.
Not every surprise in life is good, but many are, and being open to surprise, mystery, serendipity, and the unexpected is an essential Christian attitude.
Take the reading from I Samuel. Samuel had been a part of God’s selection of Saul as king (ch. 10), though he had warned people that having a king was not all that wonderful (ch. 8). Saul ends up being a disappointment, and God tells Samuel to look for the next king. He is directed to go to Jesse in Bethlehem. One of his sons will be the new king. The text we read has this review of the sons, but God tells Samuel that appearance is not what matters, not how tall, or strong, but that it is a matter of the heart. Surprise. Even more surprising, it is David, the youngest, who is chosen. In an ironic twist in the story, though, David is described: Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The story is filled with surprises.
What about Jesus’ teaching in Mark? The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come…. With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet 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 it shade.
So where is the surprise here? In the first story, the man who scatters seeds is surprised by how they grow. He doesn’t understand, but the seeds grow. In the second story, the surprise is just how large the mustard plant grows from the seed.
But there is even more going on here than that – more surprise, more mystery. The stories introduce surprising and unexpected elements. What kind of farmer is this first person? He just scatters the seed and then does nothing. I know people who garden. This is not the recipe for a successful garden, though I wish it were. Mustard seeds are very small, and the plants do grow significantly, but the image of birds nesting in the shade of its branches is a bit of hyperbole.
Jesus offers riddle parables. “Riddles are interactive metaphors” (Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler, 11). They invite us to think more deeply, to see in surprising ways. The Mustard Seed is a riddle, an intentionally ambiguous question that asks the audience to respond; its rhetorical impact derives from the fact that no clear answer is provided…. This leaves us in the same position as Jesus’ original audience: confronted with an ambiguity that is never fully resolved, and still debating its true meaning two thousand years later. (Tom Thatcher, Jesus the Riddler, 81)
The movie, Wish I Was Here, tells the story of two brothers whose mother had died a number of years ago, and whose father is now dying. One brother is an actor, married with two children. His family struggles some to make it on his wife’s salary while the husband pursues his dream of acting. The other brother lives alone in a trailer on the beach. This description makes the movie sound quite depressing, but it is sad and sweet and funny. In one scene the older son, the married actor, goes to see his rabbi. This older son has not been active in practicing his faith. He begins to tell his rabbi about the play he and his brother engaged in years before, how they were both super heroes, the only ones who could save everybody. Lately he has been dreaming about this and he wonders. “Do you think God is trying to tell me something, trying to guide me in some way?” To which he quickly adds, “And if you say God works in mysterious ways I will run out that door.”
To encourage us to be open to mystery and surprise and the unexpected is not meant to be the end of the conversation, the end of the lesson. It is truly an invitation to dig deeper. There is mystery in the teaching of Jesus, probe more deeply to listen for how God might be trying to speak.
Jesus introduces the parable as an invitation to pass through the looking glass: on the other side the mighty cedar is brought low and the humble herb exalted. On the other side: that is to say, in the world mirrored in the looking-glass of the parable…. If the kingdom is extended in the parable with comic relief, it is in order to offer the kingdom only for what it is. It is not a towering empire, but an unpretentious venture of faith. As a venture of faith, however, it is of course potentially world-transforming. (Robert Funk, Jesus As Precursor, 26, 24)
The parable centers attention upon mustard seed, which, as a comical burlesque of the Great Tree, demands that the hearer accept grace in an unexpected fashion. The Kingdom’s miracle, its grace, demands the acknowledgment that indeed the mustard seed is the appropriate metaphor. (Bernard Brandon Scott, Jesus, Symbol-Maker for the Kingdom, 72)
Being open to surprise, mystery, serendipity, and the unexpected is an essential Christian attitude. It is Jesus invitation in the parables here. It is the invitation of the story in Samuel. Let me say just a little more.
We should be open to being surprised by our self. Where have you surprised yourself? Where have you found in your life strength or courage or love you were not sure was there? I love these lines from John Wesley. For if it really be true that you can do nothing, then you have no faith. And if you have not faith, you are in a wretched condition. Surely it is not so. You can do something, through Christ strengthening you. Stir up the spark of grace which is now in you, and he will give you more grace. (John Wesley, “On Working Out Our Own Salvation” (1785)). With God’s Spirit at work in our lives through Jesus, we can surprise ourselves sometimes
We should be open to being surprised by others. We are often convinced that “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” There is some truth in that, but also some truth to the idea that people can change and grow. It is important to listen to others, to learn with and from others. Next year I will be a delegate to the United Methodist General Conference. Our denomination faces some significant struggles. We have been disagreeing, sometimes acrimoniously, over human sexuality issues, marriage issues, structural issues. It can be discouraging sometimes, but I plan to cultivate an openness to being surprised, to finding ways to work with others who may not seem natural allies.
We should be open to being surprised by God. God can surprise us through ourselves and through others, but there are times when grace-filled serendipity seems to happen. I officiated at a wedding a couple of weeks ago. During my reflection, I quoted from the song, “I Was There To Hear Your Bornin’ Cry.” I have never used that song before in a wedding. I don’t know exactly what drew me to that song for that wedding. Later that week I heard from the bride. She told me how meaningful that song was to her, for it was the song she requested when her son was baptized. Surprise. Last Sunday, I had gone to the Unitarian Church for a meeting that was scheduled for that evening. Somehow, the meeting had been cancelled. I came to my office just to double check the e-mail I had received about it. I had not mis-understood, but obviously the event was cancelled. I decided that I would call Sammy’s Pizza and pick up a pizza for Julie and me. When I got to Sammy’s there was a nice family gathering, and among those gathered were a couple whose infant son had died four years ago, and I officiated at the service. They were there with their two children, and it was so nice to see them and their children and their family. Surprise.
An ironic Christian knows new, knows fresh, knows surprise, but does not know it all. Once upon a time the term “Christian” meant wider horizons, a larger heart, minds set free, room to move around…. Curiosity, imagination, exploration, adventure are not preliminary to Christian identity…. (Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion, 8, 9, 10)
Being open to surprise, mystery, serendipity, and the unexpected is an essential Christian attitude. It is an important part of hope. Who knows, but that with God, scattered seeds just grow into something meaningful and important. Who knows, but that with God, tiny seeds become welcoming shade trees, welcoming for all. Who knows, but that with God, the person needed for an important task may seem the least likely. Being open to surprise, to mystery, to serendipity, to the unexpected is to live with hope, and hope, along with faith and love are what finally remain, are what finally matter. Amen.