Sunday, June 14, 2009

2 Pentecost


June 14, 2009

Mark 4.26-34

I hate to do this to you. I hate to start your Sunday out with, of all things, a poem. Actually, it’s only a fragment of a poem. But still….it’s a poem. And not just any poem either. No, this poem is a poem translated from, of all people, a Chilean Communist. But it is one of my favorite poems. It is called “Oda al átamo” or “Ode to the Atom.”

Infinitesimal
star,
you seemed
forever
buried
in metal, hidden,
your diabolic
fire.
One day
someone knocked
at your tiny
door:
it was man .
With one
explosion
he unchained you,
you saw the world,
you came out
into the daylight,
you traveled through
cities,
your great brilliance
illuminating lives,
you were a
terrible fruit
of electric beauty…
[Then] came
the warrior
and seduced you:
sleep,
he told you,
curl up,
atom, you resemble
a Greek god…
in springtime,
lie down here
on my fingernail,
climb into this little box,
and then the warrior
put you in his jacket
as if you were nothing but
a North American
pill,
and traveled through the world
and dropped you
on Hiroshima.

This poem was written by one of my all-time favorite poets—a poet no doubt you’ve heard me quote before and, trust me, you will hear me quote again and again—Pablo Neruda. And this fragment of the poem we just heard just touches a bit on what something as small as an atom can do.

An atom—that smallest of all things—can, when it is unleashed, do such horrendous damage. It truly can be

a
terrible fruit
of electric beauty…

An atom. That smallest of things. And look at what it could do. If the people of Jesus’ day knew what atoms where, he would no doubt would’ve used the atom instead as a symbol of the Kingdom of God, But rather, what we find today in our Gospel reading is Jesus comparing the Kingdom of God to the smallest thing they could’ve understood.

A mustard seed. A small, simple mustard seed. Something they no doubt knew. And something they no doubt gave little thought to. But it was with this simple image—this simple symbol—that Jesus makes clear to those listening that little things do matter.

This past Thursday—on the feast of St. Barnabas—I celebrated my fifth anniversary of ordination to the priesthood. The night before, at our Wednesday night Eucharist, I preached about the fact that five years in ordained ministry is the equivalent of the seven year itch in a marriage. At that point, the honeymoon is over (in my case there wasn’t ever really a honeymoon). The uniqueness of being ordained has worn off at five years and the reality of the expectations of being a priest have settled in. More importantly, one knows if one is bearing fruit or not by five years. One knows if the seeds one has sown have been planted in fertile ground or are, instead, being thrown to the wind and to infertile ground.

After the Eucharist that night, most of us gathered at John Alexander’s Restaurant. While there, we all had an interesting discussion about what ministry is all about. What we all recognized was the fact that in one’s life as a Christian there are going to be moments when it seems as though one’s ministry is flourishing and wonderful. And there will be moments when our ministry seems to be producing nothing. Our ministry, in many ways, reflects our lives. There will be feasts and there will be fasts. And all are equally productive.

Jesus’ use of the mustard seed is particular apt way of approaching ministry. The mustard seed is the smallest of the seeds and yet look at what it produces. This is what ministry is all about as well. The smallest thing we do in our ministry can produce some of the greatest fruit.

And that’s real point. All of us—certainly all of who profess our faith as Christians, who come to church on Sundays—are called to ministry. Ministry is simply part and parcel of being a Christian. If we are baptized, if we live out that baptism in the world, we are doing ministry.

Ministry is not, nor has it ever been, the exclusive claim of those of us who have been ordained, who wear funny collars and crisp black clothes. Ministry has always been the work of all of us. That is why Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to these images of seeds. The Kingdom of God doesn’t just happen when priests and bishops get up and preach and make legislation in the Church. The Kingdom doesn’t’ happen just when we as a Church send out deputies off to places like Anaheim, California where they make decisions about what direction the Church might go. The Kingdom happens when we—each and every single one of us—do, in even some small way, what we profess to do, when we go out from this church on Sundays and try to live out in whatever way we can what we have learned and professed here.

When I was ordained a priest five years ago, my sister gave me a present. It was a small pendant and in it was a mustard seed. And it was a gift that I have come to greatly cherish. It was so small, so seemingly unimportant, just sort of floating there in its amber glass. But over the years, that wonderful little pendant has taken on a huge amount of meaning in my life. That little mustard seed—that miniscule little dot—has become for me a potent symbol of the Kingdom of God. It reminds me that, to bring about the Kingdom of God in this world, we don’t need to be grandiose. We don’t need to shout or scream or strut about, full of ourselves. We don’t even have to say a simple word.

When it comes to the Kingdom, when it comes to true ministry, little things do truly mean quite a lot. That mustard seed also reminds me of that poem to the atom by Neruda. Just as the small good things in the world can produce such beautiful and wonderful things such as the Kingdom of God in our very midst, so do those small seeds of discontent flourish into ugly and life-threatening weeds.

Sometimes the little things we do, do much harm as well. A quick, harsh word of criticism, a glance, a gesture of anger at a fellow motorist on the highway—all of these don’t do anything to bring about the Kingdom of God in our midst. They only sow discontent and anger and frustration. And where discontent and anger and frustration flourish, the Kingdom of God is stifled.
We have all known what it feels like to be on the receiving end of those seeds of discontent. We have all known people who have been driven from the church by what those seeds have produced. We ourselves have no doubt been close to leaving the church over those weeds that clog our lives and cause us such pain.

But it does draw us back to the mustard seed once again. It reminds us that despite all the weeds that can grow, that mustard seed can produce something even greater than weeds. Those small, good things we do can truly bring about more good than we can hope to produce. Simple things like a hug, an ear to listen, a smile, an attempt to soothe, to comfort, to help—all these things and so many more go a long way in helping to crowd out the weeds of negativity in the world. Over and over again in our lives, we have no doubt seen the Kingdom of God blossom in people’s lives and in the world from the smallest seeds of goodness.

So, hold before yourselves that image of the mustard seed. Let it be an icon for you in your ministry. Let it be for you a symbol of the ministry you have been called to do by your baptism, by your membership in the Church of God. Let the mustard seed be for you a doorway through which the Kingdom of God breaks through into our world. Let it be the positive atom which, when unleashed, creates an explosion of goodness and beauty and grace in this world. Let it be the “fruit/of electric beauty” that will transform this world into the Kingdom in which God reigns completed and fully through us. Let it be, as Neruda begged the atom to be at the end of his poem:

“…instead of the fatal
ashes
of your mask,
instead of unleashed infernos
of your wrath,
instead of the menace
of your terrible light, deliver to us
your amazing
rebelliousness
for our grain,
your unchained magnetism
to found peace among men,
and then your dazzling light
will be happiness,
not hell,
hope of morning,
gift to earth.”

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