“Big things in little packages”
March 31, 2019
Samuel 16: 6-13; Mark 4:26-34
Israel was looking for a king, and God had an idea just who might fill the bill. So God sent the prophet Samuel to see Jesse of Bethlehem because “I’ve spotted the very king I want among his sons.”
And this is what happened according to 1 Samuel 16: 6-13:
When they arrived, Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought, “Here he is! God’s anointed!”
But God told Samuel, “Looks aren’t everything. Don’t be impressed with his looks and stature. I’ve already eliminated him. God judges persons differently than humans do. Men and women look at the face, God looks into the heart.”
Jesse then called up Abinadab and presented him to Samuel. Samuel said, “This man isn’t God’s choice either.”
Next Jesse presented Shammah. Samuel said, “No, this man isn’t either.”
Jesse presented his seven sons to Samuel. Samuel was blunt with Jesse, “God hasn’t chosen any of these.”
Then he asked Jesse, “Is this it? Are there no more sons?”
“Well, yes, there’s the runt. But he’s out tending the sheep.”
Samuel ordered Jesse, “Go get him. We’re not moving from this spot until he’s here.”
Jesse sent for him. He was brought in, the very picture of health -- bright-eyed, good looking.
God said, “Up on your feet! Anoint him! This is the one.”
Samuel took his flash of oil and anointed him, with his brothers standing around watching. The Spirit of God entered David like a rush of wind, God vitally empowering him for the rest of his life.
If only it were that easy today! Right? Look at what we have to endure to elect a leader! David went on to become the most famous and important king in Israel’s history, the hope of the people and vision for the future. He wasn’t perfect. He certainly had his flaws, but he proved that someone powerful can come from the “runt of the litter,” so to speak.
Unfortunately, it was all downhill after David. Centuries later Israel was again looking for a king, and some thought that Jesus just might be the one. He talked a lot about ushering in the kingdom, but he had a whole different idea about what that kingdom would look like - certainly not the Roman Empire. It was a kingdom where God ruled, not Caesar. It was difficult to explain, so he tried to describe it by telling stories, parables, using everyday events his listeners could relate to. Today’s comes from Mark 4:26-34.
He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come."
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade."
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
And unfortunately most of those explanations were never written down. But then again, maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Maybe they are left open to interpretation on purpose, so each generation, and each of us can discover our own meanings in the stories.
In the Jewish tradition, dating clear back to ancient rabbinic schools in Palestine, people wrote stories about the stories in the bible - to uncover more and more layers of meaning. They are called Midrashim. I’ve read them when we did a blessing of the animals out on the lawn. Stories, whether made up ones, or true stories about people’s lives, have a power within them to open our eyes and inspire us with new possibilities.
Years ago a friend introduced me to the Global Fund for Women. I was invited to a brunch with Musimbi Kanyoro, who was the CEO. She was born and raised in Kenya, and she is an inspiration! She captivated a room full of women with her stories - true stories of poor, power-less, overlooked women in developing countries who God had planted seeds in, and the Global Fund had furnished them resources. The seeds grew and multiplied, and slowly they are creating the kingdom that Jesus had talked about.
One story in particular spoke to me like a modern day midrash - a story that captures the meaning and spirit of the two scripture passages we read this morning. It takes place in Liberia seventeen years ago - a story so amazing it’s almost like someone made it up, but it really happened.
At that time more than 100,000 people had died in a brutal and devastating civil war that seemed like it would never end. The country’s infrastructure lay in ruins. Young boys were being forced to fight for one side or the other, turning them into drug addicts and armed killers.
Gbowee, a newly graduated social worker had sent her four children to Ghana to keep them safe. As Carol Mithers, who co-authored Gbowee’s memoir, writes: “Anguished and angry, one night she had a powerful dream in which a mysterious voice ordered her to ‘gather the women to pray for peace.’ That vision led to a weekly gathering. But she knew it would take more.”
President Charles Taylor, who has since been found guilty of war crimes by the tribunal at the Hague, refused to allow any public opposition to his policies. The men were doing nothing, and Gbowee realized it was up to the women who had suffered so much, to bring peace to their country.
So she organized a protest in a field leading into Monrovia’s central road - thousands of women dressed in white staged a sit-in: Christians and Muslims, young and old, educated and illiterate gathered with a single demand: “The women of Liberia want peace.”
They sat for days into months, through scorching heat and pouring rain. The protests spread to rural counties and across Liberia.
That summer peace talks began in Ghana. When it was apparent they were going nowhere, she organized Liberian women living in exile there to stage a sit-in that literally locked the diplomats in their conference room.
Mithers tells us that “In the face of the women’s actions, the talks grew more serious”. “Taylor left Liberia, peace finally came, and in 2005, after more strategic organizing by women, Liberia elected Ellen Sirleaf Johnson to be Africa’s first modern-day female head of state. Today, even as the country struggles economically, peace endures.”
Both Gbowee and Sirleaf Johnson were recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. They’re the King David’s of Liberia. In all of these stories, God took small things, unlikely individuals and made them great. Just looking at the exterior of all these women, no one would have anticipated the power they possessed to bring about peace. But God could see into their hearts. God saw what they were capable of and planted the seeds - from one inspired woman who heard God’s voice in a dream, to tens of thousands who listened to her call.
It didn’t happen overnight. The Kin-dom of God is a work in progress. It took four years of sitting, waiting, patiently, like the farmer who scattered “seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow.” Gbowee scattered the seeds and their movement grew until peace was harvested.
Jesus’ followers would never have been caught planting mustard seeds. That’s what makes this such a provocative parable. They grew into uncontrollable and disorderly bushes, much like the the fields I placed on the front of your bulletins. It takes over everything and you can’t get rid of it. Charles Taylor and his gang of thugs must have thought of these women much like ancient Jews thought of the mustard plant. They kept growing and just wouldn’t go away. Barbara Reid compares the mustard seed to “the tenacious faith of those who seem to be of no account in the eyes of the world.”
They trusted what was happening, behind the scenes and beneath the surface. They trusted the One who was making it happen.
When I look at these stories I ask myself, “What do they say to our church today? - about hope, trust, faith, patience, growth, persistence, potential. What are we hoping for here at the Eliot Church of Newton? What occupies our thoughts? What do we dream of? Are our dreams big enough? Gbowee’s dream started small, a women’s prayer group for peace, but in time they grew into a movement large and unstoppable.
That time between the planting and the harvest, those four years of sit-ins, and news conferences, picketing and marches, must have seemed like an eternity. Such times can be riddled with anxiety - uncertainty - is anything happening? At such times it’s easy to forget that God is there working beneath the surface, that the earth will yield its fruit. Henry David Thoreau once said, “I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.”
It can be hard in today’s world, with all we face, to have faith that God is present, when so often the ways of God often seem hidden from view, not noticed by us. That’s when we need to listen to these ancient stories that speak to us even today - that tell us size isn’t the most crucial factor in success - little steps taken in the path Jesus has laid before us can lead to amazing things we can’t even imagine. God imagines it. Jesus imagined it. It’s what they intend for us.
So we need to start looking for where God is working under the surface. Where do we see the sprouts of new life emerging from the soil? How can you be the mustard seed that grows and provides shelter and refuge and sustenance to God’s creation and to the people of God? Food for thought.