June 17, 2018 – Year B Proper 6
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4,11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17; Mark 4:26-34
Yesterday afternoon I returned from sophomore camp at Camp McDowell. One-hundred and twenty rising eighth and ninth graders from around the diocese, including several from St John’s, gathered for nine days, and I had the opportunity to serve as a chaplain along with the other camp staff. Lauren and the kids were able to stay a couple of days and we all fell in love with summer camp. The culture of inclusion, community, and growth created by the young adult camp counselors, staff, and campers as a whole is outstanding.
Camp McDowell is a wonderful treasure and resource we have as a diocese and being at this session of summer camp has reinforced for me just how special a place it is. If you have children or grandchildren, I can’t recommend the camp experience at Camp McDowell enough. I don’t know of a better environment for children to be in during the summer.
Grace was the theme for one of the days, and as we as the program staff discussed how to explain such a deep concept, I was struck by our discussion of God’s grace. And this is what we landed on as a helpful definition of grace for the campers: Grace is the moments of our lives when we experience connection with God and with others. This connection with God is unearned. It’s a gift.
We didn’t share this with the campers, but our discussion led us to talk about how we had experienced these moments of grace in our own lives. We talked about experiencing moments of connection with God’s presence during good times, but also in extremely sad and difficult times. This awareness of God’s presence with us wasn’t dependent on outside circumstances. It was an awareness of the gift of God’s presence in our lives. And it’s this awareness of God’s presence with us that Jesus invites us into in today’s Gospel. In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus is trying to expand our perception so that we might be able to see more clearly the presence of God in our lives.
The language that Jesus uses for the healing action and presence of God in our lives is the kingdom of God. In fact, Mark tells us that Jesus begins his ministry by proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom being made available to anyone who would like to be a part of it. And it’s hard to turn a page in Mark’s Gospel and not see Jesus talking about the kingdom of God. He’s constantly telling anyone who will listen the good news that God’s presence is with us. But the problem is that we often don’t have the ears to hear it or the eyes to see it. We don’t notice the kingdom of God. We aren’t aware of God’s healing action and presence in our lives because we aren’t looking for it. And if we are, it can be easy to overlook because it doesn’t come in the way we expect. That’s why Jesus tells us the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a bush. In his subversive and disarming way, he’s trying to change our expectations so that we can see God’s healing action and presence all around us.
Throughout scripture, the cedar trees from Lebanon were renowned as majestic and mighty trees. And in the prophecy from Ezekiel, the kingdom of God is said to be like one of these mighty cedars. And in light of this prophecy, you can almost hear the crowd chuckling or maybe even groaning as Jesus tells them the kingdom of God is actually more like the smallest seed around that grows in to an unwieldy bush.
Jesus, this isn’t what we were expecting. Give us something a little more classy and dignified. We’re on the lookout for something glorious. We’re looking for God’s healing activity and presence to be remarkable and undeniable. We want the majestic cedar tree, and Jesus gives us a bush that is more like a weed than anything else. And that’s the key. The kingdom of God is all around us, but it’s not what we were expecting and it’s easy to miss.
Jesus’ parable of the kingdom being like a mustard bush reminds me of Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush. God appears to Moses in what is traditionally thought of as a thorn bush. Moses is a shepherd tending his flocks in the wilderness when he notices a bush that is burning but isn’t consumed. It’s the very presence of God with Moses, and the key detail of the story is that Moses first noticed it, and then turned aside to take a closer look. Jewish commentators have said that the bush was always burning, it just took Moses a while to notice.
How many burning bushes of God’s healing action and presence do we walk by in our lives?
The late English poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, puts it so well:
“Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”
It’s so easy to live our lives sitting around, focused on the blackberries. All the while we miss the glory of God burning in every moment of this precious gift we call life. We miss the presence of God sustaining all of creation, earth crammed with heaven. We can be so distracted by the demands of life that we fail to notice the bushes burning all around us. Our very existence and all of creation are shot through with the love and glory of God.
Jesus invites us to expand our perception to be able to see the burning bushes of God’s presence everywhere we walk through this life. To see that wherever we walk, the place beneath our feet is holy ground where God’s presence dwells. And like the mustard bush or the burning bush, we can walk right past if we aren’t taking the time to notice God’s presence with us.
There was a camper I met this past week who I will call Ricky. Ricky was bigger than most kids at camp. He wasn’t a bad camper, just rowdy and disruptive at points. He seemed to like being perceived as a tough kid. He usually had to be reminded to stop talking or to be more respectful. He definitely tried some of the counselors and other campers’ patience. But a couple of days before camp ended, he asked to talk to his cabin counselor. He told his counselor that he tried to act like a tough guy, but he did that because he was really insecure. He liked being at camp and was going to be better.
And there it was. God’s presence burning brightly as Ricky was able to be vulnerable and share himself with another person. He felt like he belonged. And he learned about himself and became a little more whole. It wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t going to show up on the nightly news, but it was the kingdom of God growing as quietly as a tiny mustard seed.