With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
– Mark 4:34
3rd Sunday After Pentecost / Proper 6B: 1 Sam 15:34-16:13;
Ps 20; 2 Cor. 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
June 13, 2021
A few years ago, we went through a process here at St. Aidan’s of renewing our mission statement. It was a series of stages involving the community-wide gatherings, smaller cottage meetings at people’s homes, post-it notes on the church walls, a session at J. Scott Evans’ workplace where several of us wrote on a massive wall wipe-board, and finally an Annual Meeting unveiling: “to embrace Christ’s teachings of service and love for all people.” As I recall our journey in creating the statement, the word “embrace” played a key role, conveying a fundamental quality of this community. Service and love also stood out as especially reflective of who we are as a particular leaf among the many that make up the Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement, as our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry might say. And then there is the word “teachings.” Not teaching singular, but plural. Jesus conveyed the good news in many ways, teachings (plural) chief among them, as our gospel passage this morning underscores. What strikes me today is how Jesus conveyed his teachings, not as legalistic declarations but through parables. As this morning’s passage concludes, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables…” There was something about parables as a genre that uniquely and powerfully conveyed what Jesus wanted people to hear. And so when we think about our embrace of Christ’s teachings, I wonder what it might mean to us to recall that we are embracing parables.
What even are these parables we embrace? They are stories. Theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams has described parables as “a series of pungent, dramatic little narratives which you have to digest, to allow to work on you, and when that has happened, you have to decide what has changed as a result of hearing the story.” Parables are not fancy, elaborate tales. They tend to be about everyday life. Sometimes they are straightforward. Other times they don’t make a lot of sense. They are not necessarily simple, neat, or linear, easily able to be wrapped up in a bow. We might hear parables sandwiched between other parables, or told in connection with a description of Jesus’ encounter with someone. Often these stories caused Jesus’ listeners to ask questions. This pattern of embedding stories in scenes, and this tendency to prompt questions point to how Jesus’ parables intersect with life—the life that Jesus’ communities remembered unfolding around him (and them) as he told stories. Parables have a way of intersecting with our life as well, causing us to ask questions and instigating our imaginations. They invite us to think about our everyday lives, to ask what if this encounter in the grocery store, this inspiring turn, this long-term struggle, was told as a parable? Not because a parable would necessarily make our experiences seem polished or resolved in some way. But because seeing episodes of our own lives as parables, as somehow part of “Christ’s teachings,” might help us go about our everyday lives more mindful that our decisions and actions deeply matter; because our lives as parables can illumine the light of divine presence in the midst of contexts that are profoundly unsettled, ambiguous, or unfinished.
This morning we hear two parables of growth. Each is a brief evocation of the reign of God, yet so much is contained within and opened up by them. “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” (Mk 4:26-27). God’s reign is like seed scattered, abundant. It is not neatly placed in our world. It grows on its own, the sower knows not how. Sleeping and rising, this person discovers a new creation mysteriously emerging: “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head” (2 Cor 5:17; Mk 4:28). The reign of God is not static. It lives and grows, producing of itself. Its unfolding is wild. Even its harvest at the peak of its production does not cloud the fundamental truth that its growth cannot be predicted or contained. This is such a brief parable, yet its imagery, its deep truth, sparks imagination. As we were dwelling with it this week in our Wednesday evening formation series, invited to steep in its details by Elaina LeGault who led an Ignatian contemplative reflection upon it, two distinct stories immediately came to my mind.
My family will perhaps not be surprised to hear that my mind first went to Frog and Toad, the ‘70s/’80s era children’s stories by Arnold Lobel. What popped into my head was his story called “The Garden,” in which Toad compliments Frog’s garden, his green thumb (so to speak). Frog replies, “it is nice, but it was hard work,” before giving Toad seeds with the instructions: “Plant them in the ground and soon you will have a garden.” “How soon?” asked Toad. “Quite soon,” said Frog. Toad runs home and plants the seeds. This is where it gets good. “‘Now seeds,’ said Toad, ‘start growing.’ Toad walked up and down a few times,” we hear, but “the seeds did not start to grow. Toad put his head close to the ground and said loudly, ‘Now seeds, start growing!’ Toad looked at the ground again. The seeds did not start to grow.” Toad escalates to shouting, prompting Frog to come running, saying, “You are shouting too much… these poor seeds are afraid to grow.” Even after Frog explains that Toad needs to leave them alone for a few days, to let water and sunshine do their work, Toad can’t let go. Convinced they are afraid of the dark, he goes out to them at night and reads “a long story” to them by candlelight. Over the coming days he sings to them, reads poetry, and plays music. Still nothing. “What shall I do?” he cries. “These must be the most frightened seeds in the whole world!” Only after he collapses in exhaustion does he awaken to Frog pointing out the emergence of small green tendrils. “Now you will have a nice garden too,” Frog declares, to which Toad responds, “Yes, but you were right, Frog. It was very hard work.” Indeed.
The story is ridiculous, and yet I don’t know about you, but I can relate to it. I (probably foolishly) scattered California Poppy and Morning Glory seeds about a month ago when I put a Peony plant in the ground next to our mailbox. I periodically water and wait. The peonies are still alive, though not blooming, and there is no sign of sprouting seeds. Maybe they’ll come up when the rainy season returns? Maybe never. Stop me if I start reading poetry to them. New growth emerges, we know not how. We are embedded in mystery. We do not get to know exactly how God’s kingdom will unfold.
Yet that not knowing is not meant to give us an excuse to sit back and do nothing. We are also meant to collaborate. This is why I love Toad’s antics so much. He wants to be part of it. And he has no patience! The problem is that he wants control. But another image that came to mind Wednesday evening reminded me of our deeper call to participate in the unfolding of God’s dream. Again, my family will not likely be surprised that I thought of My Neighbor Totoro, the beautiful Hayao Miyazaki animated film that came out in 1988. The children at the movie’s heart have befriended a spirit whom they know as Totoro, who is deeply connected to the massive camphor tree behind their house. This spiritual connection sustains and delights the children as they navigate the mysterious illness of their mother who is hospitalized throughout the film. At one point, Totoro quietly gives the children a packet of seeds which they plant in rows, much as I imagine Toad’s garden. Then in a late night visit after taking the children flying all around the country, Totoro and the children march around the garden plot in a kind of procession. They stop and make upward gestures of growth before processing around again. There is no shouting, no music, no poetry—just gestures. They know not how, but finally, the seeds burst forth into rapid growth – all the tendrils become stalks which join together forming a massive trunk that emerges into the camphor tree. The proverbial mustard seed had grown up and become the greatest of all shrubs— the tree of life, it would seem— putting forth large branches so that the birds of the air (and who knows what else) could make nests in its shade (Mk 4:32). In the morning the children wake up and run outside to discover that the seeds had indeed sprouted overnight. They had not commanded the growth. It was wildly beyond their control—but they had honored its emergence. They had made space for it. They had jubilantly joined in its unfolding. Far from exhausted, they were beside themselves with excitement.
If we take Rowan Williams’ suggestion and let ourselves digest this “series of pungent, dramatic little narratives,” allowing them to work on us, we might then ask ourselves “what
has changed as a result of hearing” these stories (including, shall we say, extra canonical children’s contributions)? If I’m honest, I think they are working on me still. And well they should. I know in myself the desire to make a seed grow at a pace and location of my preference, and I know it doesn’t work that way. The dream of God, as the theologian Verna Dozier referred to it, does not emerge in predictable ways. “The seed would sprout and grow, [we do] not know how.” Yet we are also caught up in its process. We collaborate with God the gardener. We exult in the miracle of creation. We join God the gardener in the planting and cultivating of new possibility. The balance of waiting and cultivation is a mystery. Sometimes we will do well to sing or shout out for the germination of God’s reign, even as we remind one another along the way that we cannot control it. Sometimes we need to process in active collaboration with that dream. Sometimes we need to rest in silence. And we need the wisdom of one another in discernment of what to do when. God the gardener rejoices in creation and invites us into the unfolding of the divine dream. That dream emerges in nothing less than the everyday moments of our lives. Which points to the truth that we too, dear friends, are parables— the mysterious stuff of Christ’s teachings. Let us embrace and be glad in that.
 Rowan Williams, Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 2014), p. 26.  Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad Together (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1971, 1972), pp. 18-29.  https://www.studioghibli.com.au/myneighbortotoro/  Verna Dozier, The Dream of God: A Call to Return (New York, NY: Seabury Classics, 1991, 2006).