Text of the sermon preached on Proper 6B (June 14, 2015) by the Rev. Katie Hargis at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Lawton, Oklahoma.
For those of you who might not know me, I’m Katie Hargis and I grew up in St. Andrew’s not too many years ago. I’m sure there are several of you here who have some fond, or not so fond, memories of me running around with my brother, the McGrory kids and the Prichards in the creek, and climbing on the roof of the church. For the last 3 years I have been in seminary at Sewanee,
Tennessee and you all have been wonderful supporters of me. Tomorrow I begin my first call as the Rector of St. Cornelius in Dodge City, KS, a church that is very similar to St. Andrew’s. I wouldn’t be where I am today without this church and everyone here. So thank you.
Not too long ago I heard a joke about some scientists who learned how to create a human being. So they call God to let God know. And God pays a visit to see what’s up. The scientists go into their labs with all of their equipment and materials and lo and behold, before too much time passes, out they come with a human baby! They thank God for the many years of service and assure the Creator of all time and eternity that they can take it from here. God pauses, reaches down and scoops up a handful of dirt and says, “No, no, no, you have to start with THIS!”
You might have figured this out already, but this sermon is going to be about dirt. Because humanity has a relationship to dirt in the Bible. In Genesis, God gathers soil and breathes into it. Adam comes to life and God calls it good. At creation, humans are this beautiful mix of earth and divine, planted in a garden of abundance, bounty, and plenty. The soil of the earth and the soil of humanity have a rich, bountiful, and beautiful connection. You can feel the promise. But the beauty and harmony don’t last for long. The Adam and Eve apple incident happens and God says to Adam, “cursed is the ground because of you.”
Cursed is the ground. BOOM. The curious kinship of earth and humanity is broken.
We haven’t exactly been on good terms with dirt ever since. Cleanliness is next to Godliness, after all! You can even hear the degradation of dirt and its synonyms in many common phrases. That family is dirt poor. My friend hit rock bottom. This information really muddies the waters. Oh man, I bit the dust. His reputation was soiled. She treated her employees like dirt.
In all of these phrases, the stuff under our feet gets a bad rep. In the same way the ground is cursed in the fall and brings forth thistles and thorns, we also carry into our lives the curse of failure, pain, and regret…by what we have done, and by what we have left undone. We have our own brambles, barbs, and nettles. We’ve been stung. And we sting others.
I wonder if you’ve ever found yourself in a situation that is very messy. It may be a mess of your own making, or you may have found yourself in the tangles of someone else’s decisions and failures. Often times it is both. It can make you feel lower than dirt. You may look for a way out of a situation only to see mud and grime everywhere you look. There are times you realize that there is no way out that doesn’t involve getting muddied, or muddying people dear to you.
Have you ever faced your own personal failings and weaknesses and been utterly buried under regret, shame, and embarrassment? Does it ever seem that no matter how hard you try, dirt from a situation in your past or present still clings to you, unable to be washed away, still lingering under your fingernails?
Or perhaps you are in a winter season, when the earth is cold, stagnant, and unmoving. It is a bit like you’re hibernating. Watching, waiting, and yearning for the ground to soften and for moisture to steep in, for light to reach you. But instead you only know a sense of being trapped and immobilized in a place with hard edges, cold comfort, a few signs of life. You’re stuck, unable to move in any direction, and it’s dark and frigid.
This is where Jesus’ words in the gospel of Mark have something to say to us. Jesus tells two parables, both about seeds and soil, though each slightly different. One is a parable of the growing seed, one is the parable of the mustard seed. Today I want to talk about the parable of the mustard seed.
The mustard seed. It is a very wee seed. This small, scant, insignificant seed. This seed will expand and take root and grow branches that reach up to heaven and allow birds to rest in it. And Jesus says this is like the kingdom of God. In reading this parable I have often thought of myself as the seed, and I’ve tried to be a good seed. To plant myself in good earth. A place that will allow me to take root, to grow, and to be the kind of person that always reaches up towards God and heaven, and in doing so allows others to find safety and rest in the tree that is me. But really, that kind of interpretation is just narcissism. It is presumptuous to make humans the center of the story. This isn’t what Jesus wants us to get out of the parable, because it’s not about us.
A seed, even a very tiny seed, transforms the soil. It will crack and burst open. It will shatter and transform the surrounding land. It will pierce the earth and take root. Spreading throughout the clay and dirt, reaching deep into the earth and touching every part. And the seed then grows upward and outward into a tree of life. This scant seed not only transforms the soil, but
has the power to transform the world above. A tree becomes this thing that bridges earth and heaven. It digs its roots deep into the soil, but reaches for the sky.
We’re not the seed in this parable. Jesus is the seed. Jesus is the tree that bridges earth and heaven for us. Because we are still people of the earth. A people composed of soil and dirt. A people longing for restoration and transformation. And Jesus comes to nestle himself in the very midst of all of our mud and messes. He embeds himself in the very center of our grief and shame, humiliation and need. He spent three days wrestling the grave, the mud and the mire, and just like the seed, Jesus’ wild and reckless love shatters the earth with the grace that transforms our whole being. Jesus is the mustard seed that yearns to take root in us, to stretch and lift us towards heaven. The mustard seed transfigures the curse of the ground and our kinship to it.
All of creation has been groaning, and the parable of the mustard seed points out that God’s redemption is not just for us, but for all of creation. The soil which was also subject to futility is as transformed by the roots of the mustard seed as the skyline above is transformed by the branches of the tree. God is doing new things, taking root, growing, extending, mending, opening the branches for all of creation to find rest.
You may remember the Grammy award winning song by Bette Midler, “From a Distance” which she recorded in the early 1990s. The song talks about how “from a distance, the world looks blue and green, and snow capped mountains white…and from a distance there is harmony, and no guns or bombs or disease…and God is watching us from a distance.”
The song is so lovely with its images of peace and harmony that you almost find yourself believing it. That is until you realize it is totally FALSE. Heresy! Theological fail. And the parable of the mustard seed is part of what tells us so. God is not watching us from a distance. God is not some pie in the sky God that looks down and glosses over suffering, and who doesn’t deal in the reality of our lives. This God is the God who comes to earth to be among us, who reduces himself to the scant, insignificant life of a poor carpenter, who enters into the dirt and mud, pain and suffering. Who gently but persistently cracks open new life.
If you were to pick up a handful of dirt and soil, the mustard seed is so small, you probably can’t even distinguish it. It’s hidden, out of sight, and hard to find even if you are looking. But it doesn’t mean it isn’t there. The mustard seed awaits, concealed and invisible, until the time is ripe to unleash its mighty re-birth. Just because we can’t see the mustard seed doesn’t mean it isn’t there. In the same way, our inability to see doesn’t affect God’s ability to be. And God is always there for us.
Our faith is an underground and mysterious faith. It involves patient waiting and hoping, for the God of mud and messes to breathe new life into the places where we struggle to see signs of hope. And in the parable of the mustard seed we can be assured of one thing: new life is gonna come. The gift of the itty bitty mustard kernel won’t let us down. The overwhelming, earth-shattering, life-transforming love of God is a love that will not stay buried. There is no place so dirty, muddy, or wrecked that the roots of God’s grace cannot reach. There is no place so dry, hardened, or cold that won’t soften, live, and produce new growth. God is in the business of growing new and beautiful things out of the dirt of our lives. And our faith isn’t only underground and mysterious, it is also vibrant and green, visible and growing. God is rooted in the dirt, but generates and nourishes a kingdom that grows, reaches out, extends its branches, and shares itself with the world.
If you’re in a place where you know regret and shame, confusion and sadness, or if you are in a place of patient waiting through a long winter. I’m here to say…Stay Tuned! You might not be able to see it, but the mustard seed is there. Nestled in your life in the dirt, waiting to hatch and grow. Maybe already cracking open something new that you can’t yet see. The soil is churning. The seed is turning. We may not understand how the kingdom of God will come to life in us, or in what ways it will be unleashed, but grace, with all of its mystery, reveals that new life is ready to burst. The amazing, unmerited, overwhelming grace of Christ scatters and shatters the dirt as it enfolds and upholds the branches. All of creation has been groaning. The ground is being transformed. So are you. The next time you reach down and gather soil in your hands, remember you are the dirt nestled in God’s hands, and God is nestled in you. Yes. Yes. Yes. Re-creation starts with THIS.