"The Reality of Uncontrollable Grace"

Date Sunday June 17, 2018
Service Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Text Mark 4:26-34
Author Pastor Jean M. Hansen
Previous Sermon "Glory Pulls Us In"

     It’s mid-June, we live in Ohio where there’s more than sufficient rain this time of year, the landscape is lush … perhaps too lush. Did you ever notice that the plants you wish would die, don’t? Having done the first round of weed and leaf clean-up in my flower beds, I’m anticipating round two in which I must deal with ivy. There are patches of ivy in my patio, and, also in the disastrous beds surrounding the backside of my condominium. I’ve noticed this weird phenomenon that when I’m trimming the ivy, it seems to be growing back even before I’m finished. What if it reaches up, grabs me with its spiny tendrils, and pulls me under?  Someone could write a horror movie about it.

     On Mitzvah Day I worked with a group improving the landscaping at the International Institute on North Hill. One of men was a professional landscaper, so while we were working I asked him how to get rid of ivy. He said to pull it out by the roots, spray a deadly herbicide (nothing organic, he advised) and then when it comes back to go through the entire process again…and again…and again. Ivy is an expert invader.

     And so is the mustard plant; the mustard seed produces a weed that takes over, is unpredictable and cannot be controlled. So, it’s interesting that in today’s Gospel reading Jesus uses the mustard seed in his description of the Kingdom of God. “It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs….”

     There is some hyperbole here … the mustard seed is not the smallest, nor is it’s plant the greatest in size … so, it seems to me that there’s something else about the mustard seed that makes it a good metaphor for God’s kingdom. We’ll get to that in a moment, but first let me note that this is one of Jesus’ many parables.

     Remember that a parable’s purpose is to confront the listener with a surprising truth, one that may be unwanted. Bible scholar Eugene Peterson has described a parable as a narrative time bomb. You hear them – tick – wonder about them – tick – think maybe you’ve got it – tick – and then as you walk away – tick – or over the course of the next day or so – tick – all of a sudden, the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home. BOOM! (1)

     So…is the time bomb ticking away in your brain as you consider today’s parables? If so, what is Jesus telling us when he describes the Kingdom of God as a seed that is scattered, and in unexplained ways grows and matures, until it is harvested?

     The most basic message is that God’s word and ways are the seed, which God plants, but which grows mysteriously, and then God harvests the crop (faithful people) produced by the seed into the eternal silo. A deeper understanding, though, focuses on God’s role and our inability to control whether or not belief flourishes in others, or even in ourselves.

     As Commentator David Lose notes, the Kingdom of God, which could be a metaphor for faith, comes from the outside and is planted in us; God works the soil of our hearts apart from human effort and the crop (faith) produced in us, and others, is to a large degree not in our hands. (2) (Although it seems to me that some watering and weeding on our part couldn’t hurt.)

     The second parable, on the surface, is indicating that God can grow a small thing – like faith, or God’s word and ways - into something grand and that is a blessing. A deeper understanding, though, encourages us to think about the weed that is produced from the mustard seed, and how it takes over wherever it’s planted. So it is with the Kingdom of God, it invades our lives and world, it’s a new reality that replaces what existed previously. It changes the landscape.

     In both parables, writes Dr. Lose, Jesus reminds us that, “the Kingdom of God comes on its own…and it comes for us. The Kingdom Jesus proclaims has room for everyone. It overturns the things the world has taught us are insurmountable and creates a new and open – and for this reason perhaps a tad frightening – future.” (3)

     As I considered this idea of the Kingdom of God invading our lives and our world, creating a new and open future, the thing that came to mind was the book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Father Gregory Boyle. I’ve quoted from it previously, and I know that it captured the attention of at least one of you, who then read it.

     The story is of Homeboy Industries, founded in 1992, as a place where gang members in Los Angeles could receive support to leave gang life. They receive employment, counseling, case management, legal services and tattoo removal, since the tattoos often identify them as members of a particular gang. Father Boyle heads this ministry which ha grown to huge proportions – like that plant from the mustard seed.

     The ministry accomplishes amazing things, but also experiences huge disappointments. Yet, Father Boyle is always willing to step out in faith, sowing seeds of faith, that will invade and take over people’s lives.

     I want to tell you today about Anthony who, at the time Father Boyle met him, was 19-years old, homeless, a tiny young man who sounded like a 12-year-old, in need of help. So, asked by a probation officer to “help this kid”, Father Boyle befriended him and learned that he wanted to be a mechanic although he knew nothing about cars.

     Enter Dennis, Father Boyle’s mechanic, who at the time was in his 60’s, pole thin, a chain smoker and was not only a man of few words, but a man of no words. If you took him your car and told him the problem, he’d take your keys and when you returned later the car ran as it should. No words were exchanged during the entire transaction.

     So, Father Boyle went to Dennis to plead his case for Anthony. He asks him to hire him, even though Anthony knows nothing about cars; he tells him it won’t be just one job for one reforming gang member but will create a ripple effect of peace in the entire neighborhood. Dennis just gives him a stony stare. So, Father Boyle says he gets out his top hat and cane for his song and dance; he speaks of the Nobel Peace Prize and changing the world as we know it. Dennis just fills his lungs with smoke. Finally, Father Boyle gives up and shuts up, ready to call it a day.

     Here's the rest of the story in Father Boyle’s words: “Then Dennis takes one long last sucking drag on his cigarette and releases it into the air, smoke wafting in front of his face, clouding my view. Once every trace of smoke is let out, he looks at me and the only thing he says that day is: ‘I will teach him everything I know.’ And so Anthony became a mechanic.”

     One day, sometime later, Anthony handed Father Boyle a photograph. It was Anthony, with a broad smile, face smudged with axle grease, wearing a work shirt with his name above the pocket. There’s no question, writes Father Boyle, that he is a transformed man. However, here’s the mysterious way God was working.

     “But standing next to him (Anthony) in the picture, with an arm around Anthony (and a cigarette hanging out of his mouth) is Dennis, an equally changed human being…. Being in the world who God is, the ones on the outside have been let in.” (4)

     You see, God invaded Anthony’s life, and Dennis’ too, overcoming the insurmountable, and creating a new and open future. God’s uncontrollable grace takes over; it is a reality not just for them, but for us. AMEN


(1)   “Pentecost 3B:Preach the Truth Slant” by David Lose, www.workingpreacher.org

(2)   Same as #1

(3)   Same as #1

(4)   Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion” by Gregory Boyle, 2010, Free Press, pgs. 75-77