May 17, 2020
He 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.’ 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.
One of the gifts of being new to gardening, is being given ample opportunities to learn just how much I don’t know. From learning about plants native to Maryland, to the soil conditions for carrots, to how to get tomatoes to produce a summer of deliciousness, I am constantly having to learn from Google, asking friends and fellow members of our community garden, and reading about organic farming.
Growing up, I hated not knowing something. When I would realize I didn’t understand something, or that I had been wrong, I felt like something was wrong with me. I assumed being an adult meant being free of realizing you were wrong, or that you had more to learn. I thought not knowing something was a temporary experience, something I would outgrow. As I’ve grown up though, I’ve realized just how much I didn’t know. Having limited knowledge used to feel like a threat. But now, it feels like a visit from an old friend. Realizing I don’t know it all has begun to feel like a gift, an invitation to learn, to experience wonder, and interestingly, an invitation to feel closer to other people.
Growing up, my Mother loved taking me to the library. I struggled to learn how to read, but I quickly discovered that just because I had trouble deciphering letters and words, didn’t mean that I couldn’t learn. I would ask my mother questions that she didn’t know the answer to, and she would write them down, and then take me to the Tigard Public Library, and walk me up to the Reference Desk. I’d sit down, at age eight, and ask a question to the reference Librarian. And then we’d pull out Encyclopedia’s, and go to the Card Catalog, pull up some microfiche, and begin our journey of discovery. I look back now, and think of what a gift that was for my mother to share with me. There wasn’t shame; there was, however, an invitation to be in relationship with Librarians, who are some of my absolute favorite people in the world.
Jesus is all about these kinds of relationships as well. In the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Jesus teaches in Parables, stories that are invitations to conversation and relationships in the search of wisdom and truth. The Disciples don’t have perfect knowledge, they don’t know it all, but they are invited to sit together in the evenings and talk over the parables Jesus has been teaching during the day. These conversations are an invitation to fall more and more in love with Jesus, the Holy, and their neighbors.
Jesus uses parables, not so much to educate, but to build a community that loves and seeks God and neighbors. We are opened up to the Holy in a new way when we recognize we don’t know it all, especially when we realize we can make mistakes, and still are worthy of love. Jesus, in the Parables, sometimes even makes mistakes, because he’s fully human, while also being God incarnate. Jesus’ mistakes, they don’t cause us to lose our faithfulness. Instead, these can be moments we are reminded that we don’t have to have perfect knowledge to be loved by God. In the parable of the mustard Seed, Jesus talks about the Mustard seed being the smallest of all the seeds, and that they produce a massive bush, some gospels even say a tree. I’m pretty new to gardening, but one thing I know is that Mustard grows as green leaves, not as a bush or a tree. And as someone who regularly plants carrots, I can tell you there are so many seeds smaller than a Mustard Seed. I’m not being smug, but instead, I enjoy that Jesus doesn’t have to be perfect to be the Son of God. The early church felt this way as well. Followers of the Way, after Christ’s death and resurrection, during the earliest days of the Jesus movement, gathered stories about our Rabbi and his parables, retelling them for a generation or two, and eventually writing them down. The faith of these story tellers and writers is beautiful to consider. Instead of changing Jesus’ parable, they kept the mistake. While the Messiah is presented as the Cosmic Christ, Jesus is also fully human, and has limited knowledge. Jesus has opportunities throughout the Gospels to learn, to make mistakes, and then learn, change, and grow. The Rev. Dr. Ken Evers-Hood, in his book The Irrational Jesus, lays out why this would have been so important to the early church. Instead of making Jesus look perfect all the time, it was actually theologically vital for Jesus to have limited knowledge like all of us. Athanasius of Alexandria, Athanasius of Alexandria understood what was at stake in Jesus being fully human, while also fully divine. If Jesus wasn’t fully human like we all are, then we’d be left on our own by God with the parts of us that Jesus didn’t experience. These parts of us would be untouched by God’s love for humanity. He stated this through his maxim “What has not been assumed has not been redeemed.” If Jesus doesn’t make mistakes, and doesn’t have to rely on a community that can teach him, as well as learn from him, then we’d be saying that we have to be perfect, to have complete knowledge, to be lovable.
As Stewards of Creation, Jesus’ limited knowledge about seeds and the growing habits of Mustard can hold good news for us. Instead of having all the right answers about ecology & sustainability, we’re invited into wonder, discovery, and reliance on Wisdom, what we can learn, but also relationships with others, awe at God, doing the best we can with what we know, and being open to surprise and change.
As a child I realized that being a know-it-all doesn’t build friendships. I learned the beauty of learning from others, and the power of saying “I made a mistake. Can you help me?”
There is a spiritual gift in our limited knowledge about creation, and our place in it. It can open us to humility, and being connected to other people who we can learn from. Paradoxically, making mistakes makes it much easier to do the Good Work of caring for creation, because instead of being intimidating, we can be human to our neighbors. When we build communities of learners, of those who are willing to experiment and discover, study and explore, we build trust. We also can lower the standards folks set for themselves to be in relationship with God. Sometimes the Christian faith has been presented as providing all the answers, a one-stop shop for the ultimate truths about life, death, God, society, human relationships, even how to make money. But Jesus doesn’t seem to be particularly interested in this kind of encyclopedic faith. He teaches in parables, and then gathers his friends to talk about what he’s been hinting at, setting up a community where God is a friend on the journey, a teacher, but also a co-explorer. Discipleship is an invitation to be in relationship with God in mystery, awe, and humility. I love that Jesus makes a mistake about the smallest seed, and tells a parable that doesn’t quite work. God becomes human, and makes mistakes right alongside us. In Jesus’ movement, there’s the ability to question what we hear, to say, “You know, this doesn’t quite match up with my experience.” The Holy One is in no way diminished by these questions, and in fact, I see it as an act of incredible faith in God to challenge what we read, or hear. It’s a sign of spiritual maturity, of trust that God is big enough for our questions. And there is a freedom we experience in knowing we’re not the only ones with limited knowledge, but are in relationship with God who has limitless grace and love, and desire for us.
Beloved, there’s a lot we don’t know right now, and I have found that, two months into this pandemic, I’m starting to settle into that unknowing. I’ve got a lot of questions for God these days. But I’m discovering that this is a time for building new relationships, and to relish in gathering folks to figure out our way forward through faith. We don’t know what seeds we plant are going to grow. We don’t know what will provide shelter for folks buffeted on the winds of chaos in our world. But we can plant, and ask questions, feel for God’s guidance, and invite more folks into the conversations.
Environmental movements often struggle with humility. But when our love and care for the earth comes from Jesus’ love for us, we can be freed to gather folks who want to do the right thing, even when we’re not sure what that’s going to look like. So let us learn together, be reminded that Jesus is in this journey with us, and revel in the gift of not knowing it all, not having to be perfect to be loved, and still being called to care for Creation. Let’s plant some seeds, and see what comes up.