Last week we heard that Jesus' family came to restrain Jesus, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind."
Maybe they're right.
This week's gospel would seem to back up their case.
What lazy farmer would scatter seed rather than planting it strategically, or, in a tradition that prized knowledge and vigilance, fall asleep with no clue if or how growth happens?
But it's the next parable that really raises the eyebrows.
No one sows mustard; it's a weed of the field, not a crop of the garden.
It is not the smallest seed, and it does not grow into a tree.
Birds don't fly around looking to upgrade to the shade of some scrawny mustard bush.
Plus, what does this all mean?
Why won't Jesus be more clear?
He did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples ... who spend the rest of Mark's gospel demonstrating time and again that they
have learned approximately nothing.
Why would Jesus be a teacher when he's obviously not any good at it?
Is it because he's even worse at farming?
Maybe he has gone out of his mind.
Or maybe the world has, and that's why we don't understand.
Emily Dickinson famously counseled:
Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind — With what can we compare the kingdom of God, Jesus asks, because pouring it straight would be like pointing his hearers to look directly into the sun.
It is like a wonder emerging from beneath our view and beyond our control, or a mustard seed that becomes a maple, or God's plan to save everything tossed out to the crowd like t-shirts and then entrusted to twelve dimwits who expanded to zero before becoming the church.
Another poet, Robert Southey, said, I could believe in Christ if he didn't drag behind him his leprous bride, the Church.
Apparently we are part of God's strategy to protect the world from exposure to glory, and survey data on church trends suggest it's working.
The church's ego doesn't like to hear this, of course, but our shortcomings are essential to our witness, because it is not to ourselves.
We have this treasure in clay jars, Paul explained, so that it may be made clear that this
extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.
We witness to the God of the cross, the God who brings new creation out of death, the God who plucks the top branch and plants it in the ground, the God who announces, I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree, the God of Mary's song and Zechariah's silence.
We witness to a God with dirty hands, a gardener who breathes life into dust over and over again, who brings grace and growth we know not how.
Often it is hidden from our view, like a seed buried in the earth or the air we breathe.
Sometimes it is hidden in plain view, like bread and water and the neighbor we ignore.
One of the most remarkable aspects of Jesus' nutty parables is how unremarkable the protagonists are.
Today is it is seeds, weeds, and a sleepy farmer.
Other days it is a runaway son, a shameless Dad, a pearl, a field, a net tossed into the sea, birds, goats, sheep, ruined bread, lost coins, a crooked judge, a corrupt manager, assorted dead rich people, and other buffoons.
Everywhere you look is a parable waiting to be told, a possible comparison to the incomparable kingdom of God.
We cannot see it directly because it is too great, but maybe we Americans don't see it at all because it is too small, too ordinary, too mundane, too automatic—which is our form of automatē, the Greek word Jesus uses to describe how the earth produces.
Maybe grace is too common for us to notice or care.
The weather-beaten Webster's dictionary in my office has multiple definitions for the word common, and almost all of them apply to how Jesus presents the kingdom of God: belonging equally to, or shared by, every one or all;
widely existing, general, prevalent;
met with or occurring frequently, familiar, usual;
widely but unfavorably known;
having no rank;
below ordinary, inferior...not refined.
The truth's superb surprise is that God arrives slant, dazzling at times so gradually we don't see it at all.
The scattered seed slowly stretches sunward into a loaf of bread, which Jesus breaks like a heart and passes around to his buddies who have no idea what they are getting, even after two thousand years of doing it.
The ugly instrument of torture on which he died now stands like a mighty cedar stretching to the sky.
Common weeds continue to grow and birds continue to nest.
The leprous bride continues to be dragged along as wits and relatives and experts shake their heads and think that the church has lost its relevance and Jesus has lost his mind.
Thanks be to God, the seed's growth does not depend on the knowledge of the farmer.
Grace does not depend on us understanding or accepting it.
The kingdom flourishes just fine without us knowing how.
And Jesus, the tiny seed in Mary's womb and God's earth, the irritating weed from
Galilee, the disappointingly common Christ, gets killed off and comes back anyway.
God doesn't settle for making sense.
God instead is making all things new.