Text: Mark 4:26-33
It is a story that everyone knows…
On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks, a 42-year-old African American woman who worked as a seamstress, boarded a Montgomery City bus to go home from work. She sat near the middle of the bus, just behind the ten seats reserved for whites. Soon all of the seats in the bus were filled. When a white man entered the bus, the driver, following the standard practice of segregation, insisted that all four blacks sitting just behind the white section give up their seats so that the man could sit there. Mrs. Parks quietly refused to give up her seat. She was arrested and convicted of violating the laws of segregation, known as “Jim Crow Laws.” Rosa Parks would go on to appeal her conviction and thus formally challenge the legality of segregation.
It was a small beginning that led to a large outcome.
This story is a story that some on you may remember…
Little can be verified about the lone protester who faced-off with the tanks of the People’s Liberation Army on June 5, 1989, in Tiananmen Square. As the column of tanks drove down Chang’an Avenue to quell the Tiananmen Square protests, a single unarmed man in a white shirt blocked their path and continually thwarted their attempts to maneuver around him by stepping in their way. Eventually onlookers pulled the student back into the crowd, where he disappeared. Despite his anonymous, brief appearance, the media coverage of his nonviolent act resounded throughout the global community. Stuart Franklin’s famous photo of the stand-off went on to become one of Life’s “100 Photos that Changed the World” and TIME Magazine listed the Unknown Rebel as one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century.
It was a small beginning that led to a large outcome.
This story is a story that most of you have probably never heard…
Severn Cullis-Suzuki has been doing her best to save her planet from environmental catastrophe since she was six years old. At age 10 she had co-founded ECO, the Environmental Children’s Organization, with a group of like-minded sixth grade friends at Lord Tennyson Elementary School in Vancouver, British Columbia. Their first project was to buy a water filter for natives in the Malaysian tropical rain forest whose water supply was threatened by over-logging and the effluence of an ever-encroaching population. In 1992, when she was only 12, she brought world leaders to tears with a speech at the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, in which she chastised them for failing to protect her and her friends from the looming environmental catastrophe. “I’m afraid to go out in the sun now because of holes in the ozone. I’m afraid to breathe the air because I don’t know what chemicals are in it,” she said in a six-minute speech heard around the world. “I used to go fishing with my dad in Vancouver until just a few years ago. We found the fish full of cancers.” Cullis-Suzuki and her ECO friends got to Rio by holding bake sales and making and selling handmade earrings and beaded necklaces. After her speech that day, Al Gore, the soon to be U.S. vice-president, rushed to congratulate her on what he said was the best speech he’d heard at the summit. Today, at 32, with a Bachelor of Science degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from Yale, Cullis-Suzuki travels the world preaching her passion. She is respected as one of the most influential environmentalists today.
It was a small beginning with a large outcome.
While these stories are actual historical events, they are not unlike the parables that Jesus told to his followers in his day. The English word “parable” is a transliteration (letter for letter) of the Greek word parabole. The Greek word has two parts. Para which means “beside” and ballein which means “to throw.” Parabole in Greek is something “thrown beside” something else to make a comparison. Parables do not appear in the Hebrew Bible and in the New Testament they only appear in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. By far the most common use of the parable is in rabbinic literature. But even there the evidence is late. The Mishnah (about 200 CE), the earliest collection of rabbinic material, has only one parable. It was not until the writings of the fifth century rabbis that parables became common, occurring only then in a set form in which the parable illustrated a teaching of the Torah.
Parables are meant to help us re-imagine the world around us. The idea is to “throw beside” and create juxtaposition; their goal is cognitive dissonance. By their very definition we are meant to respond, “huh?” For Jesus, parables were those moments when he stepped outside simply telling, or showing, or doing, and threw a verbal speed bump at his listeners. Many of you, like me, may not find Jesus’ parables to be so simple to understand. And that, too, is by design. The Greek logic goes like this—if a parable causes you to mentally shift gears, you are more likely to actually register the moment and maybe, God willing and the creek don’t rise, experience an aha.
Take for instance the stories I began with this morning. A woman on her way to work. A man who stood in a public square. A student who spoke her truth. These are real people! Regular people! And yet, the calm quiet of their actions changed the world.
In the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus is trying to get the disciples to see that the kingdom they know, their empire, for all its power and domination, is not a model for the kingdom of God. In fact, by using the mustard seed, Jesus pokes fun at the big seeds – the empires of earth. He exaggerates the point saying that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed—the smallest of all seeds that produces far beyond its size, to become the largest of all bushes. Something that starts out so small becomes the place of power. This is, again, Jesus turning the knowing of the day upon its head—upside down. The message of the mustard seed is to shift the hearer’s mindset from empire power to kingdom to power. The message of the mustard seed is to empower every believer to create God’s kingdom here and now, rather than to accept the omnipotence of the existing empire.
Even with the advantage of knowing the truth of what Jesus taught, we still think that we find power in our political systems, our society that we have created and maintained, our hierarchy that we may disdain, but are still deeply invested in. We still have trouble shifting our images of God’s realm from kingly visions to kindergarten classrooms and from legislative halls to church soup kitchens.
Jesus’ parables are meant to help us re-imagine—to see the world around us with different eyes. Indeed, to see ourselves with different eyes. Jesus says that the kingdom of heaven—the place where God dwells—is like a mustard seed. Not a palace, or a throne, or a missile, or a flag. It is a mustard seed—a small beginning with a large outcome. It is a bus seat. Not a political seat or a legislative act or a riot. It is sitting in a bus seat refusing to be treated as less than because of the color of your skin. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed—a small beginning with a large outcome. It is choosing to stand your ground in front of aggression and not retaliating with a bigger tank or bigger gun or hurtful words. The kingdom of God, Jesus teaches, is represented in those places and moments where we choose to respond to the world around us in ways that challenge the dominant culture.
Robert Funk, the founder of the Jesus Seminar, writes, “In his parables Jesus re-imagines the world. The re-imagined world, called the kingdom of God, presents his followers with a new option for living, one that contrasts with the default world of the everyday. And this new world is both terrifying and liberating.” Maybe that is why Jesus’ parables are sometimes so hard for us to get. They terrify us, and yet in them we know lies our liberation. It is terrifying to know that we have the kind of power that Rosa Parks and the Unknown Rebel and Severn Cullis-Suzuki had. It can be terrifying to know that our small beginning might turn into something that could change the world. And it is liberating to know that within us are the mustard seeds that hold the kingdom. The question before us today is this, “How can we liberate ourselves to sew these kingdom seeds in our world?”
In the spirit of Jesus’ parable, we begin humbly, with the here and the now. We see within this moment the opportunities for truth, for kindness, for courage. Today the kingdom may be as small as changing the dynamic in a difficult relationship. Or it may be changing a small action in response to the small, persistent voice in your head that is worried about the environment. Or it may be rethinking how you give of your own energy in the world that results in a first, small shift from days that race to fill an idea or ideal of a life representing the empire thinking to a more gentle, authentic, and compassionate pace that embodies kingdom living. Whatever that seed is inside of you, it is good to remember that in God’s world small beginnings have large outcomes.