3 Pentecost, Proper 6 – June 14, 2015
Almost 80 years ago, in 1936, a sociologist named Robert Merton developed a theory about “unintended consequences of deliberate acts.” He was studying the behavior of people who were trying to cause positive social change. He looked at people who had very good intentions and who spent a great deal of time studying ways to improve important services like education, childcare and health standards. Even though they planned carefully how to change things for the better, they did not always achieve the outcomes they expected. Merton discovered — not surprisingly, in retrospect — that people may make deliberate plans but often end up being surprised by the results. It is a little bit like the saying “Life is what happens when you are making other plans.” We can’t always anticipate the consequences of a particular action.
For example, almost every parent can tell a story about buying a gift for a child and discovering that the child is actually more interested in the box in which the gift arrived rather than the present itself. The parent may have envisioned the child having hours of fun with a particular toy and purchased that toy with that scenario in mind. But — surprise! — the toy is put aside in favor of the box. There might still be hours of fun, but it involves climbing in and out and on top of the toy’s cardboard packaging. Merton would call this an “unanticipated consequence.” It is not necessarily a negative thing — in fact, it can often be positive — but it is surprising nonetheless. Can you think of times when the “best–laid plans” do not actually go according to script but still have a positive result?
For such a brief passage, the parable of the mustard seed works well on many levels. Let’s start with the obvious. Appearances are deceiving. Great things can have very humble origins. Mustard is a weed. It grows in the wild from a tiny seed. While other weeds spring from the ground and spread quickly, the tiny mustard seed inconspicuously comes to life sending out a single root to probe the earth for nourishment. But while the others are gone in a single season, the slow, steady progress of the mustard seed’s offshoots continues on for generations.
Why did Jesus spend part of his precious time with us teaching a botany lesson? Because it is the perfect analogy for his mission to build and to spread the kingdom of God. He is explaining God’s own grassroots approach to transforming the world. The Messiah did not come storming out of the clouds surrounded by legions of angels to meet and greet the world’s movers and shakers. To all appearances his origins are as humble as the mustard seed. He’s an itinerant carpenter who has gathered an unimpressive following… fishermen and laborers; wives, widows and single women; the poor, the afflicted, the sinners; even a tax collector. Where the cynical would see a band of losers led by a charlatan, the faithful were beginning to understand that they were on the ground-floor of greatness. They had nothing but the Word. They were probably poorer today than they were yesterday. But they understood and they related when Jesus told them: …the kingdom of God …is like a mustard seed.
The lesson is as fresh today as it was twenty centuries ago. We can easily get lost in the weeds. What distinguishes both the mustard seed and the Church is our resilience… our ability to take the worst of what the world throws at us… our ability to survive and to thrive in good times and bad. The smart money says mustard seeds don’t stand a chance; might makes right; keep your head down; play it safe. But Jesus doesn’t play it safe. And neither should we. Like the mustard seed, we are called to greatness.
But clearly, we are much more than mustard seeds. While we can be buffeted by wind and weather, our roots are not in earthly soil. As Teilhard de Chardin explains: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” The bodies we inhabit are husks we give back to God at the harvest along with the fruits of his love. Our growth is marked by the rich rings of successive seasons spent praising God and serving neighbor.
In Christ every one of us has the growth potential of a mustard seed. God wants us to grow. He expects us to grow. But growth is not inevitable. We must work at it every day… seeking God’s will in all things. As sinners our lives are a series of two steps forward, one step back. What distinguishes the mustard seed from the dandelion and the other seasonal weeds is a predisposition to keep growing despite temporary setbacks in all climes and conditions. What gives us this same predisposition is a certainty that we are God’s own seed. He knows us and loves us in our sins. He is with us in all seasons. We shelter in his mercy.
God does not measure our growth by how many points we put on some celestial score board. God’s measure of growth is love. Are we totally committed to loving God and neighbor? Do we make our every encounter an opportunity to witness God’s love? Are we guided by God’s word? Do we live in an ongoing dialogue of prayer… speaking and listening to the divine presence in our lives? If we live to return God’s love, he will surely bring the growth and the greatness… not the single season kind, but the eternal kind… blooming in God’s perennial garden, watered by the saving blood of Christ.
A legend tells of a man who used to carry water every day to his village, using two large pitchers tied on either end of a piece of wood, which he placed across his shoulders.
One of the pitchers was older than the other and was full of small cracks; every time the man came back along the path to his house, half of the water was lost.
For two years, the man made the same journey. The younger pitcher was always very proud of the way it did its work and was sure that it was up to the task for which it had been created, while the other pitcher was mortally ashamed that it could carry out only half its task, even though it knew that the cracks were the result of long years of work.
So ashamed was the old pitcher that, one day, while the man was preparing to fill it up with water from the well, it decided to speak to him.
“I wish to apologize because, due to my age, you only manage to take home half the water you fill me with, and thus quench only half the thirst awaiting you in your house.”
The man smiled and said:
“When we go back, be sure to take a careful look at the path.”
The pitcher did as the man asked and noticed many flowers and plants growing along one side of the path.
“Do you see how much more beautiful nature is on your side of the road?” the man remarked. “I knew you had cracks, but I decided to take advantage of them. I sowed vegetables and flowers there, and you always watered them. I’ve picked dozens of roses to decorate my house, and my children have had lettuce, cabbage and onions to eat. If you were not the way you are, I could never have done this.” (by Paulo Coelho)
The extraordinary can be found in ordinary people. Find the seed of God’s love within and be extraordinary! Amen.