So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight.
2 Corinthians 5:6
Jesus 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.’
Let me begin by saying how grateful I am to be in worship with you! It’s thrilling to be worshipping in person with other Christians, and yet it’s good that, as a result of the pandemic, we have developed skills and acquired tools that allow us to gather in other ways. With you, I am praying for your good rector, Cricket, giving thanks to God for the resources of our diocese and your generous spirits that allow her to take this time away for needed rest and healing. It’s been a challenging time for her and for all. Yet there is such hope in the air and in this gathering. A word of special thanks to your vestry leaders and faithful staff for all that you have done and are doing to care for the congregation.
As we emerge from this long season of trial and hardship, reclaiming parts of our lives that we had lost, learning how to integrate challenging truths that have surfaced in this time, we face the future with both uncertainty and hope, cumulative grief and gratitude, exhaustion and the release of pent-up energy. In the words of the Apostle Paul, we are still walking more by faith than by sight. Perhaps it has always been so, but it seems especially true now.
Thus it’s important, in the midst of all that we are called upon to accomplish this summer, to take whatever time we can to catch our breath and take stock of our lives. For those of us who feel called to follow Jesus, this is a time to ask ourselves what he might be saying to us.
Today I ask you to consider not only what Jesus asks from us but also what He wants for us.
I realize that it’s risky to generalize about what we’ve been and are still going through, given the particularities of our experiences. Yet as people of faith, surely there are spiritual wells from which we all can draw refreshment and inspired words that can serve as channels for God’s grace and healing. We are blessed with such words this morning.
But before I turn to the Scripture text, I’d like to share a story that illustrates what is on my heart to say.
The American writer Annie Proulx wrote a novel in the early 90s entitled The Shipping News. The book’s main character is a thirty-six year old newspaper reporter from New York state whose name is Quoyle. In the early chapters, Quoyle’s parents, who had never cared for him well, commit suicide. Then Quoyle’s wife, whom he desperately loved despite her infidelity and cruelty, dies in a car accident on her way to Florida with another man. Utterly bereft, Quoyle decides to accept his aunt’s invitation to move with her to Newfoundland, their ancestral home. There she and Quoyle and his two daughters establish a home together.
In a place known for not much happening, a lot happens to Quoyle in Newfoundland, which makes for a long and complex novel. Most significantly, Quoyle establishes a relationship with a woman named Wavey Prose, whose son, Harry, has Down’s Syndrome. They are friends for a long time before Quoyle realizes that he’s fallen in love with Wavey. You see–and here’s the point of my telling you this story–it doesn’t feel like love to him, because it doesn’t hurt. Love in his experience had always been painful, and this relationship was astonishingly comfortable and supportive. “It may be,” Proulx writes, “that love sometimes occurs without pain or misery.”1
Sometimes, after a stretch when life is really hard, we can forget what it feels like when life is easy, or like Quoyle, perhaps we’ve never even allowed ourselves to consider that we needn’t struggle all the time. For people of faith, when our primary or most dramatic experiences of God are of the grace that gets us through times of sorrow, struggle, and grief, we forget, or never learn, that God also comes to us in joy, and serendipity, ease. The same Jesus who said, “Those who want to be my follower must take up their own cross,” also said, “Come unto me, you that are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
I don’t mean to minimize for a moment the grace that gets us through hard times, when we are not spared and we have no choice but to go through the storms that come. I simply want to hold up, as Jesus does for us today in his teaching, another dimension of what God is like, another way that grace and love come to us that actually make our lives easier and lighter. With this grace we learn, ever so slowly, to trust that life doesn’t have to be hard all the time.
Now to the biblical texts: From the Gospel of Mark, we’re given two of Jesus’ Kingdom of God parables. Here’s a tip: Whenever you hear or read Jesus say, “The Kingdom of God is like,” you can substitute, “This is what God is like,” or “This is what the presence of God in your life feels like.”
The first parable, one of my favorites, focuses on the miracle of how seeds that are scattered on the ground sprout and grow. The one who scatters the seeds has no idea how the growth occurs, only that it does. And no matter how much you may actually know about how a seed becomes a plant, the fact that it does so, seemingly on its own, is nothing short of miraculous. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like, Jesus says. That’s what the presence of God is like within you.
Think about it: How many times in your life has something wonderful happened that you cannot fully explain or account for by your own careful planning or brilliant endeavors? It was far beyond what you could make happen on your own and yet it happened for you, as miraculously as seeds coming up from the ground.
As a parish priest I did my share of preparing couples for marriage, and when I would ask them to tell me how they met, more often than not there was wonder in their voices as they spoke. No matter the details, how any love relationship begins feels like a gift that often catches us by surprise.
It’s a similar experience when I talk to people who describe how they discovered their life’s work, be it their profession, an artistic expression, or fabric of relationships for which they feel particularly called. For many–perhaps for you–there is an element of wonder: how on earth to account for the gift of being able to do what we do? Yes, whatever our vocation, there is hard work involved, but in truth, it often doesn’t feel like work and it doesn’t feel hard in the sense that there’s nothing else we’d rather do.
My point is this: Sometimes grace simply shows up and carries us. Sometimes love surrounds us on every side. Sometimes things happen for good that we didn’t make happen.
And sometimes, when we’ve been through a really hard ordeal, we can forget what it feels like to be on the receiving end of such blessings, or that we can’t bring ourselves to embrace them, for it feels like we’re negating the pain we and others have endured.
This isn’t a question of either/or, but of both/and. Sometimes life is hard. Sometimes it doesn’t have to be.
I had a foundational spiritual experience in my mid-20s, when I was living and working in Central America. Simply being there was the hardest thing I had ever done up to that point in my life. One day, after I had been there a few months, I remember taking a walk with tears of frustration streaming down my face. I looked up to the sky and cried out, “Is it always going to be this hard?” In my heart, the answer came to me, almost immediately–yes. It made me laugh out loud, because it was so clear and unequivocal. But then I heard “But I will be with you.” A settled feeling came over me, as I felt the companionship of God. With that, I knew that I could go on.
To be honest, I’ve spent most of my life accepting that hardship was mine to accept. I expect most things in life to be hard, and that God’s grace, when it comes, doesn’t spare me from hardship, but is there to see me through. I believe that to be true and I thank God for sustaining grace. But it’s not the only truth.
Fast forward about 20 years from that day in Central America. I’m now serving as a parish priest. I’ve been married for those 20 years, and we have two adolescent sons. I’ve hit a wall in my vocation. Truth be told, I feel stuck and even trapped. Life is really hard.
One day I was sitting around with a few clergy colleagues, all of whom were struggling in some way. I shared the story of my spiritual experience in Central America, how God told me in no uncertain terms that life would always be hard, but that God would be with me to see me through.
A bit later, one of my colleagues around that table, who was also a mentor, took me aside and said, “Mariann, I heard what you said about life always being hard. And I want you to know that life doesn’t always have to be hard. I think you need help. Please ask for help. Things can be easier for you with help.”
Her words were a revelation to me. Listening to her, I felt that same settledness that I experienced in Central America and I resolved to seek help. When I did, my life got easier. Through my colleague and friend, it was as if God were saying to me that I didn’t have to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders and make everything happen on my own. Neither do you.
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.
Now let’s consider Jesus’ second parable, which also involves seeds, this time the smallest of seeds that when planted produces the largest shrub in which birds can come and build their nests. This parable is a clear invitation to consider the grace and goodness of small things, tiny blessings that we can easily overlook or underestimate.
The late Henri Nouwen, author of many uplifting spiritual books, has this to say about small blessings in his book Gracias!
Our salvation comes from tender and vulnerable beginnings, hardly noticeable. . . Somehow, I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me of God’s saving power, but over and over again, I am reminded that spectacles, power plays, and big events are the ways of the world. Our temptation is to be distracted by them. . .
When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence–the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends–I will always remain tempted to despair.2
The temptation to despair, which we would be made of stone if we didn’t succumb to from time to time, is eased by the small blessings that come to us. Jesus invites us to pay attention to the bits of goodness scattered in the soil of our lives. Nurture them, he says to us, so that they might take root in you and grow.
Jesus, of all people, is not suggesting that we ignore the hard truths and the big issues before us, or that we minimize the grief and loss we’ve endured. But he wants us to trust the mystery of goodness and the persistent God-created life force that is at work in the world even when we can’t see or feel it. He wants us not only to believe, but to know in our being, that goodness and love will prevail in the end.
In the coming weeks, I invite you to be on the lookout for small blessings. Watch for them, and take time to savor each one. Consider keeping a blessing journal by your bed and each night before you fall asleep make note of the day’s gifts to you–those mustard seed size gifts that came your way. By the summer’s end, who knows what they will grow into?
Pay attention as well to the goodness and grace that seems to carry you forward, or open doors, or ease tensions, or work things out without you needing to do very much at all.
I’m reminded here of a line from the movie Shakespeare in Love in which the manager of the Globe theatre says something about life in the theatre, which is also true of life in general:
“The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”
Someone then asks him, “So what do we do?”
“Nothing,” he replies, “Strangely enough, it all turns out well.”
“I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”3
Grace is a mystery. From time to time, by grace, things work out without our doing much of anything at all.
May this summer be a time walking by faith, of small blessings, heart healing and moments when you feel carried by grace, and restored by goodness.
Remember that what Jesus, your Savior and friend, wants from you pales in comparison to what He wants for you. Amen.
1 Annie Proulx, The Shipping News (New York: Scribner Books, 1993).
2 Henri Nouwen, Gracias! A Latin American Journal (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1993), p.62