The Third Sunday after Pentecost: June 14, 2015
Preacher: Meredith Kadet, Director of Programs, Episcopal Charities
Jesus invites us to wonder: does it SEEM like a plant eight feet tall can spring forth from a little neglected seed in a matter of days and weeks? With an effortless grace, with no apparent strain? If you hadn’t seen it with your own eyes, would you have believed it? The kingdom of God is like that. Growing up in inhospitable places, dying sometimes but always popping up again, and, when it gets a chance, taking root and growing surprisingly fast.
A seed looks lifeless, inert. Small. It is not. Things are not always what they seem.
Next story: What does the king of a nation look like? Until Saul, the Israelites didn’t have a king. They had God. But they want a king. Why? Seems to be a desire to fit in. “We are determined to have a king over us, so that we may be like other nations, and that our king may govern us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8:19-20). Samuel appoints Saul the first king of Israel. Saul is the handsome son of a wealthy man, head and shoulders taller than everyone around him. He seems to fit the kingly bill. But things are not going well, and God decides it’s time for a new king.
Samuel goes up out of Ramah to Jesse’s lands, as God directs. He’s to pick from among Jesse’s sons. The first one, Eliab, is tall and handsome. The firstborn. Kingly. And Samuel thinks – this is surely the one! But God has something else in mind. “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his… The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but I look on the heart.” And all seven of Jesse’s sons are rejected in the same way. Poor Samuel, who wasn’t too keen on making this trip anyway, and risking Saul’s wrath, must have wondered at this point why God sent him here, only to reject seven perfectly kingly young men. But there is one more. The youngest, not important enough to meet the prophet, forgotten in the field. An unlikely candidate. Because you’ve grown up on the Cinderella story, you know this son is the one who gets to be King. It’s David. He’s the one, God says. And though he may not look the part, Samuel anoints him as God’s directed. And the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.
Things are not always what they seem – but God saw something in David, and God poured out the Spirit necessary to grow David into the leader he was called to be. David, found when he was more like a mustard seed than a mighty shrub: the greatest King of Israel. The kingdom of God is like that – brought about by unlikely people, led by those from who the world expected little. The kingdom of God will defy our expectations.
So now we’ve heard it in a parable, and in a story: things are not always what they seem – especially when God is interfering. In a dead-looking seed, a miracle of tenacious, exuberant life. In a young boy, a great leader filled with the Spirit of God. And in Corinthians, we get the same message in classic Pauline rhetorical form. Here is Paul, trying to wrangle yet another congregation of unruly, infighting Jesus followers. He’s defending himself fro critics on one side, trying to hold the group together on the other. Things aren’t going well and everyone’s on their last nerve, and this is when Paul has to say: “We walk by faith, and not by sight.” Yes, things are looking bad now. We want to be with Christ, and we’re here on earth in a messy community where he can be so hard to find. But please, says Paul, do not lose heart. Because things are not always what they seem. More is happening than meets the eye.
Take Jesus, for example, when he walked upon the earth. Paul says we once knew Christ from a human point of view – and depending on your human point of view, he was a homeless itinerant revolutionary, or a teacher and a healer leading a movement, or the Messiah who would restore Israel to the days of David and Solomon – and from all these human points of view, Jesus met, in the end, with spectacular failure. When he died the government stayed in place, there were still so may sick and poor, Judea was still under the thumb of Rome.
But then again: things are not always what they seem. Yes, he was dead. But dead like a seed, buried in the earth, like grain, and he rose, like a mustard seed. And his message flourished, spread, rapidly, reproducing itself – like black mustard.
Paul was so close to it: living at the time where dashed expectations for a Messiah on human terms were so fresh, but at a time where it was clear that something unexpected
was happening. A movement of people who had experienced Christ mysteriously even after his death, and whose lives were changing accordingly. A movement of people who were treating one another differently as a result, regarding the world from a new perspective. What if there is no male and female, no slave or free, no Jew or Greek – but all of us are one in Christ Jesus? At least, not the way we naturally think of it, with one part of each pair being more powerful, more valuable, than the other. That requires us to walk by faith, and not by sight. We will always see with the eyes of judgment; but we are called also, now, to a double vision, to see also with eyes of love. Doubling our vision requires widening our hearts (as Paul implores the Corinthians at the close of this letter) – widening our hearts to the possibilities, the mysterious workings of God, that we may not see. SEE says Paul – if not with your eyes then with a heart of faith – even now everything has become new, in Christ. It looks like the old world; it is, at the very same time, in God’s eyes, a new creation, full of new possibilities. Things are not always what they seem.
One more story about that. On WNYC this week there was a story about a Brooklyn third grader named Q Daily. Q self-describes as “curious, silly, and nice.” He likes pop music, dancing, and cool hats. He was also born a little girl. If you had met him on the street with his parents when he was 3 or 4, he might have been wearing a dress (though he might not have liked it), his hair would have been long – all that. Today, Q identifies as a little boy. Q is transgender – a person whose gender identity does not conform to conventional ideas about gender or who don’t identify with the gender assigned to them at birth. Things are not always what they seem.
Today, Q can go to school dressing, talking and acting like the little boy he feels inside. He doesn’t have to wait until he is 67 years old, like another transgender person who has been all over the media this week. I am glad that life is getting easier for children like Q. I am glad that his parents and his teachers and his fellow students accepted Q and were able to get help and care for the still-unusual experience of raising a child like Q.
The report asked Q, What do you think of when you think of your old girl’s name? I think of crying, Q says, because it means they don’t believe me.
But listen to what Q says about being able to live as the boy he knows he is.”It feels like, instead of a dead flower, a growing flower.”
A growing flower – a metaphor Jesus would have understood. With what tenderness Jesus describes the miracle of a growing plant in Mark. First the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. All of that contained within something that looks, to the outward eye, unimpressive and inert. A seed that looks dead and becomes a great shrub. An un-kingly young man forgotten at his labors, chosen to lead a nation and be one of the Kings we still speak of today. A little boy who felt dead because nobody believed him, and now he feels alive. Things are not always what they seem, because its’ not just we who are looking on them. God is, too. And God sees what we can’t yet see. Here’s the message: Look up from what you think you see. And see what God is doing.
God is doing a lot. Here, through us. Mother Kate invited me to preach today because this is the day that Saint Michael’s is celebrating Episcopal Charities Sunday – the outreach arm of the diocese, and the place I do much of my ministry.
Thank you for remembering Episcopal Charities today, and for the contributions you make to today’s special offering. Episcopal Charities has a very simple mission: to transform the lives of people in need. We believe that one of the very best, most effective ways to do that is to identify great parish programs like the Saturday Kitchen and provide them with funding and support to do what they do best. Things they do like open their doors and give people a place to be comfortable a while. Give people an opportunity to help one another. Give people who are hungry something to eat. Depending on your point of view, these are small things – or they are the difference between hope and despair.
Episcopal Charities is a way of directing our resources into the small things that congregations do with great love. Small, local programming that is persistent. And effective. And has more of an impact than you’d expect. Like a mustard plant. Things are not always what they seem.
There are millions of hungry and poor people in our city. What difference does the Saturday Kitchen make? I’ll tell you. Thousands and thousands of meals served. And together with the 49 other feeding programs supported by Episcopal Charities, more than 2.6 million meals served, together, last year. That makes a dent. Talk about the grandest of shrubs, with branches for all the birds. Did you know that 75% of food pantries are run by churches, synagogues and other faith-based organizations? And 65% of soup kitchens? Without these small and faithful efforts, unnecessary suffering would be so much greater.
Those of us here who have been involved in the Saturday Kitchen, or something like it, know that loving service takes on a life of its own. It grows – we know not how. I can tell you that 5 years ago Episcopal Charities funded 33 feeding programs – today we support 50. The seeds are propagating. More and more parishes are getting involved in the work to ensure that basic needs in our communities are getting met. God is doing a lot. I thank you for seeing that, and for throwing your lot in with God’s doings. I thank you for supporting Episcopal Charities. Thank you.