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Parables of Awe

A sermon on Mark 4:26-34

[for an audio recording of this sermon, click here. Photo by Greg Rakozy on]

Whenever the parable of the mustard seed comes up in the lectionary cycle, I can count on finding reminders in various commentary resources that Jesus’s claims are hyperbole, because mustard plants aren’t really all that big,

In the case of Matthew & Luke’s version of the parable, I can understand the caution, since they describe the plant as a “tree,” which… yeah… that’s getting a bit creative with the metaphor.

But Mark just says it is a shrub, which is accurate.

He does emphasize the size, and that it can shelter birds’ nests, and that was the objection I read this week… but I don’t really think that is unrealistic.

As it happens, I have direct experience of birds building a nest in a “shrub” (although, admittedly not a mustard plant).

During the first weeks of the pandemic, Maddox and I set up his sudden at-home classroom in the dining room of our house, meaning that we were spending a lot more time in front of the picture window in the room than we normally would have done.

And because of this shift, we noticed a bird that was frequently arriving and burrowing into the branches of a shrub nestled against the window.

It did not take long for us to realize that she had built her nest into the branches, whose cover provided protection for predators…

and as the weight of the nest and the eggs dragged on the supporting branches, they soon drooped low enough for us to get to watch the emergence and growth of her baby birds.

In the midst of the grief, disruption, and fear of those early weeks of COVID, the chance to watch new life emerge was a precious, awe-inspiring gift.

Now, when I hear Jesus’s description of birds making nests in the branches of a shrub, that everyday miracle is what I think of.

Who cares how impressively big (or not) the shrub is. A branch that can support a nest means the chance to experience awe.

That association was in my mind this week as I studied Jesus’s two parables from today’s gospel, and it gave me a new perspective on the first parable in the reading… the one about the farmer planting his seeds and then basically doing nothing else as the plants grow.

Now – without the adorable-baby-birds association – my default reaction to this parable scenario would probably be one of two emotions:

One possible response to the assertion that my seeds would grow “he does not know how” would be anxiety.

Because… if I’m sowing seeds in order to produce a crop, I feel responsible to make sure this actually happens… especially with my personal track-record of killing just about every plant I have ever attempted to keep alive.

I don’t want mystery, and “the earth produces of itself”… I want a step-by-step process that I can follow to make sure this all goes according to plan.

On the other hand… given my propensity to unintentionally kill green, growing things… this imagined scenario might also be a chance for relief.

It’s all going to happen on it’s own? Phew! I am NOT responsible.

This does not require my attention. God, or nature, or whatever has it handled.

I can just turn to the next thing on my to-do-list and not give those seeds a second thought.

Good deal!

Of course, as responses to parables about the kingdom of God… I don’t know that either anxiety or disengaged relief are exactly the response that Jesus is hoping to elicit.

In the parable, the farmer doesn’t have control over the growth, but they still have the responsibility to gather in the harvest.

They still need to attend to what is happening and be ready for their part.

And there’s something else too, something that the memory of the nest of baby birds made me more aware of this week: a third possible emotional response to the teaching that the farmer “does not know how” the seeds sprout and grow: awe. 

The growth of a plant: the phenomenon of a seemingly static and lifeless seed being buried in the ground, where it undergoes a mysterious change and an entire complex organism sprouts out of the ground… this may be an everyday occurrence, but that doesn’t make it any less stunning.

And I think at least part of Jesus’s point in giving us this parable is to call us into engagement with God’s kingdom… with the work God is doing in the world… from just such a place of awe:

Not anxiously taking on responsibility for the results of God’s mission;

And not passively shrugging our shoulders with the assumption that “God’s got it” so we can just get on with our own priorities;

But actively noticing the evidence of God’s work, taking delight in the ways that growth happens “we do not know how,” and staying engaged so that, when we do have a role to play, we are ready to join in God’s awe-inspiring work of transformation and life.

Awe is a unique orientation in which we are captivated, utterly present and attentive, without either wanting control or believing we have it.

Think of the times in your life when you have experienced awe…

Maybe you have been lucky enough to witness a scene of intense natural beauty or power:

A sunset that paints to whole sky in rainbow colors;

Or an encounter with a wild animal thriving and alive in their natural habitat;

Or a storm that changes the whole landscape with a flash of purple lightning or a coating of reflective ice.

Maybe you have witnessed an incredible artistic creation…

An author who put words to the deepest longings of your heart;

Or a sculpture that seems to turn solid stone or bronze into a scene that moves and breathes;

Or an orchestra that worked together seamlessly to turn layers of sound into music so powerful it brought you to tears.

Or maybe you have felt your soul shift in a moment of connection:

Holding a new baby that nuzzles into the safety they feel against your heart;

Or making eye contact with the person you have fallen in love with, and seeing that love reflected back;

Or placing communion on your tongue and knowing in a way you cannot understand but still KNOW that it is Christ’s love and life that you are receiving.

Awe can be experienced in many different contexts, but in all of them it is powerful and perspective-changing.

And I think that at least part of what Jesus is trying to communicate in this parable about God’s kingdom is an invitation into awe… into a response to God’s active presence in the world that says, “Yes! I am all in. I don’t understand exactly what is happening here, and I know I’m not the one making this happen, but I want to be part of it… because I know life, and growth, and goodness when I see it.”

One of the amazing things about being a preacher, is that I get the chance to hold the challenge of a text in the front of my mind throughout my week.

This week, I heard the challenge to be oriented toward awe… and it was reorienting. I looked for opportunities for awe, and I found them.

I was present, and aware, and eager to notice the ways that love, and growth, and life were happening around me.

And as a result, I have some new parables for the kingdom of God.

On Tuesday afternoon, I went to get a tattoo on my hand that has now locked into my skin the memory of an awe-filled moment a few months ago with Quinn, in which he spontaneously wrote his love for me in purple ink.

Now, every time I touch the ink, I can think: The kingdom of God is like a 16-year-old who takes his mother’s hand to write a note of love on it.

Because the love we don’t have to ask for is the most powerful kind.

Later that evening, Maddox and I went to our weekly therapy group, made up of parents and young teens who probably never would have met in the normal course of events, but who are brought together by our need for better solutions.

And I came up with another parable: The kingdom of God is like a therapy group where struggle gets transformed into learning and laughter.

Because there is a holy joy that happens when we get honest together about what isn’t working and grasp onto the hope that change is possible.

On Friday night, I went to a community theater production of Spamalot and – introvert though I definitely am – I thoroughly enjoyed two and half hours in a room full of strangers.

It turns out: The kingdom of God is a bit like a group of volunteers who sacrifice their time, effort, and dignity to create something irreverent and wonderful for others.

Because the willingness to appear ridiculous lowers barriers and helps us to embrace the beauty of being community, with all our diversity.

You may have noticed that all of my parables of awe involve things with no explicitly religious connection.

This is, of course, consistent with Jesus’ parables. He used images and contexts from daily life. Things that we never think to pay attention to.

And in that very commonality he sought to open our eyes to the way of God that is constantly breaking into the world around us, calling us to recognize that God is active… growing the seed… transforming reality… giving us opportunities for active awe.

So, today, I have a question for you to take into your week ahead: what are the parables of awe in your daily life? I promise, if you look for them, they will be there.

Thanks be to God.


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