Third Sunday after Pentecost
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time
In an era with a six billion dollar election cycle and more than 90% of elections won by the candidate with the most money, these understated stories of anointed shepherd kings and mustard shrub kingdoms make little sense to our calloused senses. The prophet Isaiah warned, and Mark quotes just prior to the telling of these parables, that people would “look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand” (Mark 4:12).
Like Isaiah’s warning, the passage from 1 Samuel plays off of this same distinction of looking (nabat) but not seeing or understanding (ra’a). Samuel’s initial instinct to anoint the one who looks to be the best and brightest is stopped short by God who sees beyond outward appearance and has another plan in mind for Israel. Anointing an inexperienced, young, absentee eighth son fresh out of the pasture hardly seems to make any sense in Samuel’s mind and ours, yet the choice of David as king is our first lesson in right seeing for this Sunday. The one thing that is clear from this text is that God’s future for Israel does not always appear clear to human eyes.
Likewise, these truths about the kingdom, hidden amidst sleeping gardeners and in the branches of an unremarkable mustard shrub are our second reminder that in God’s kingdom we must learn to see with different eyes. The secrets of the Kingdom of God are not obvious at first glance, but then again, neither is the one who is the fulfillment of these words he speaks. We need to hold the story of David, the unlikely king, in our repository to set the stage for the even more unlikely Messiah-king, a Galilean carpenter’s son born in a stable and crucified as a common criminal, that comes to reign on Israel’s throne for eternity.
I am thankful for Don Salier’s remark that “to follow this teller of parables is to become alive to all of the paradoxes and tensions of his life and death: goodness appears in human form, human powers are threatened, yet death leads to life.” It is a fitting reminder to my own church, which like many churches, has a tendency toward anxious hand-wringing in the face of what appears to be weakness and loss of power or relevance.
Too often the things that we try for the sake of “building the Kingdom” reflect what looks good on the outside, but inwardly have very little to do with the one who kingdom begins in something as insignificant as a mustard seed and when fully matured will still appear to be unremarkable and insignificant in the eyes of the world. It takes a holy imagination to get excited about a mustard shrub. Yet if Jesus is to be believed, that is precisely where the heart of the Kingdom is located.
If we can peel our eyes away from the hypnosis of the news cycle and those who, with budgets and brawn, make messianic promises, we just might have the eyes to begin seeing God at work in the communities and congregations in which we are planted. The seeds of the kingdom are sown in the ground of relationships, service, and the fight for justice.
Those who find rest in the shade of our branches promise no obvious return on investment. My own congregation will win no denominational rewards or credit in the local paper for the effort of caring for a sick single mother who ended up admitted to the hospital at the same time as her 8 year-old son this week. The fight to ensure that they, as Medicaid patients, are treated as equitably as would any other of our members will engage the skills of ones who never knew that they would cast their lots alongside a poor, black woman. Members will jump at the opportunity to pick up deodorant and slippers from the Family Dollar to take in a humble offering of love. To many eyes it would look to be insignificant and unremarkable, but for those with eyes to see, never has the Kingdom of God blossomed so powerfully in our midst. If these lessons teach us anything, may it be the eyes to see the possibilities of grace and hope that grow out of the most unexpected places, beyond (and often in spite of) traditional channels of power and influence.