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Avocado Monster - 4th Sunday after Pentecost

6B: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20

2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

The Rev'd Cameron Partridge

June 16, 2024


Good Morning, St. Aidan’s.

          When our family came to St. Aidan’s in 2016, it had been a long time since we had lived in this area. I grew up in the East Bay and had moved to the east coast for college, where I met Kateri. Kateri had done a post-doc here in 2001-3 before we returned to Massachusetts for another thirteen years, returning annually to visit my mom. Now, my mom has a pretty amazing garden. It has changed in various ways over the years yet has always had key anchoring elements—certain trees, particular flowers or flowering bushes. I’ve shared before a story of staking out a small patch of it as a child, fruitlessly trying to grow California Poppies and Money Plants, of all things. Recently I noticed a tree tucked away behind her house near her woodshed that I hadn’t remembered seeing before— thin and tall – fifteen to twenty feet? – with shiny, large, green almond shaped leaves. I had passed it with a question mark a few times before, but this time I stopped to really look at it. Ant then I thought, you know, that looks an awful lot like…. an avocado plant? I’ve grown them my whole life – once I was taught as a child how you can suspend the seeds over water with toothpicks, a monster was unleashed. I grew them in my grandparents’ kitchen. I created charts to keep track of their growth. At some point they would graduate from glass to small pots, to larger pots and so on. Gramps, my mom’s dad, helped me. One plant made it into the ground, and it grew to about ten feet before the deep freeze here in December of 1990 killed it. The avocado monster has lived pretty much wherever I’ve lived ever since. I’m pretty sure we left several potted in Massachusetts when we moved. So when I stopped to really look at this mystery tree, I was pretty sure that’s what it was – is. But how did it get there? Where did it come from? My mom has no other avocado monsters in her life, as far as I know. It had to be me. But since I have no memory of planting this tree in her garden, all I can think is that I must have done it after Kateri’s postdoc came to a close and we moved back to Massachusetts in August of 2003. Perhaps the avocado monster stole into my mom’s yard, whispered farewell and good luck to his potted friend, and stuck it into the ground, hoping for the best, entrusting it to mystery.

Of course, it was our collection of two parables from the Gospel of Mark that made me think of this mystery tree. Jesus loved to teach through parables, and I especially love these, rooted as they are broadly in creation, and in the small, everyday familiar realm of seeds. The parable form, as Sally McFague has written in her classic book Speaking in Parables, “is a story of ordinary people and events which is the context for envisioning  and understanding the strange and the extraordinary. In the parabolic tradition people are not asked to be ‘religious’ or taken out of this world; rather, the transcendent comes to ordinary reality and disrupts it.”[1] A parable “includes the unfamiliar,” more specifically, what Jesus announces as the kingdom of God, “within its boundaries... [as its] interpretive framework, for understanding life in this world.” Rather than seeing the sacred or religious as utterly fenced off from the “secular” world, requiring us to remove ourselves from it in some way (though we may individually choose to take up practices that do that”,[2] “the parabolic world shows us another possibility – and this is what the incarnation is about – that ‘God is with us’ in, through, under and for our human, historical, temporal world.”[3] Or, to de-center the human, God is with us and all creation, inviting us to see and collaborate in God’s kingdom in all its varied splendor. That kingdom, or that dream as theologian Verna Dozier wrote of it, is near.[4] Jesus’ parables invite us into it.

How? First by perceiving it, identifying its presence. The close of our passage from Mark reports, “With many such parables [Jesus] spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” As they were able to hear it. This phrase indicates that in fact we are not always able to hear what is being conveyed via parable, or even in other forms. God in God’s mystery exceeds our capacity to understand. This is always the case. Yet we are able to grow in understanding, to hear more and at greater depth, and to live in light of what we learn. I think Jesus preferred to share the good news of God’s dream in parables because they have this capacity to locate the mystery in the everyday, to allow us to see the familiar in unfamiliar ways, to see the Mystery in the cracks and crevices of our understanding, breaking them open.

But once the parable enables us to begin to perceive the kingdom, God’s dream, what do we see? We see that a primal sign of God’s dream is growth and transformation. The kingdom is as if someone scattered seed on the ground and then slept. How many sleeps, we might wonder, how many days and nights? Unclear. But then, lo, a mystery! The seeds had sprouted and grown of their own accord. Gesturing toward the first Genesis creation account in which God says, “let the earth bring forth vegetation” (Genesis 1:11) the sower had assisted in this bringing forth, handing over seeds to germinate and grow, to radically transform. The mystery of transformation had begun, the sower (or perhaps the avocado monster) knew not how.

But there is a further dimension to the kingdom signaled in these parables, particularly the second one: vast capaciousness and connection. The mustard seed, Jesus says, is “the smallest of seeds” when sown on the ground yet becomes much larger at full height – nine or ten feet, I have read.[5] It may be a bit of an overstatement to say that this tree is the “greatest of all shrubs” at that height, yet the point is taken. The scale of God’s kingdom is so much more vast than we know, growing from tiny seeds. And the shrub or tree is not simply for itself. Its capaciousness allows for other creatures to nest in its branches, to find shelter in its shade. The kingdom of God makes room. It locates us within, invites us into, and calls us within our very lives and communities to join God in opening up canopies of shelter, sanctuaries of rest, sources of life unexpectedly abundant.

In her recently published book What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds, Jennifer Jewel writes of the various oak trees near her Butte County home in the northern central part of our state. Valley oak, blue oak, interior live oak and oracle oaks dot her landscape.[6] The valley oaks were dropping vast numbers of acorns in the fall of her writing – masting, this phenomenon is apparently called, an abundant production that happens every two to five years in oak trees. “They are ‘planting’ their acorns with abandon right now,” she wrote. “The ground is covered in the beautiful plump fruit, and the seeds inside will grow powerfully both up and down. Those that survive the first year, and then the first ten years, will provide food and shelter for many, many other lives – floral and faunal – for the next 100 to 200 years, if not more.”[7] Think of all that can nest in such an oak. As theologian Elizabeth Johnson observes, “a tree… simply by being and growing, offering shade, shelter, food and medicine, and serving as a nourishing nurse log for others when it dies… gives praise to God.”[8] Jewell the ecological gardener-writer goes on to note, “this perspective of the one and the many, the here and now running inside future here and nows, a single season inside a century or centuries of seasons – this is all held in an acorn resting, still, in the palm of my hand.” Time in all of its expansiveness is also part of God’s kingdom, sown in seeds of various kinds. As God’s kingdom ushers us into the mystery of transformation, rooted in creation itself, it opens us to the mystery of God’s time, running from season to season, holding lives and histories that have come before us and unfold into the future, we know not how. The capaciousness of God’s dream invites us to be God’s gardeners, sowing and waiting, perceiving and receiving, inviting, held and holding God’s creation in abiding love.

Which brings me to an icon. I bought it recently as a gift for someone who was just ordained last weekend. Since I forgot to bring it and haven’t wrapped it yet, it has been sitting on my desk and struck me as I was contemplating today’s parables. It is by the iconographer Mickey McGrath, who is based in New Jersey.[9] It is called Christ the Gardener. In it, the risen Christ is outside the garden tomb from the resurrection story in the Gospel of John, the place where Mary Magdalene stood weeping and “mistook” him for the gardener (John 20:14-18). Yet gardener he truly is, and McGrath renders him as such, with a wonderful broad brimmed hat. He stands with palms cupped outwards toward us, their wounds glowing in a light that illumines the resplendent flowers growing below and around him. If I squint, I can imagine an avocado plant among them... Christ is, in this icon, the divine sower, the gardener who invites us to join in cultivating the in-breaking, transformative kingdom that is creation in all its resplendent fragility. Christ is the gardener whose glowing wounds remind us of the compassionate capacity of that kingdom, giving us spaces of respite and care, to heal when we are wounded, and to open space for others to do the same. The kingdom of God is revealed in the parable of our lives, dear friends, even as it extends beyond us in time and in space, we know not how. May we join in showing one another the vast resplendence of God's dream, truly together becoming a new creation. Amen.

 


[1] Sally McFague, Speaking in Parables: A Study in Metaphor and Theology (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress Press, 1975), 2-3.

[2] For instance, in various forms of religious life.

[3] McFague, 6

[4] Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (NY, New York: Seabury Classics, (1991) 2006)

[5] William C. Placher, Mark: A Theological Commentary (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 73.

[6] Jenifer Jewell, What We Sow: On the Personal, Ecological, and Cultural Significance of Seeds (Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2023), 21

[7] Jewell, 18-19

[8] Elizabeth Johnson, Come, Have Breakfast: Meditations on God and the Earth (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2024), 45.

[9] Mickey McGrath, “Christ the Gardener” can be found at: https://trinitystores.com/collections/christ-the-gardener-mmchg. McGrath’s own website is: https://www.bromickeymcgrath.com/about/

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