A Meditation on Jesus' Parable of the Tiny Seed (Mark 4)
How many of you have seen The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, here in town? If you’ve yet to see it—it’s a movie—and you owe it to yourself to see one of this year’s most delightfully human films.
I won’t give away too much of the story; but I will tell you that I spent the first fifteen minutes of this film underwhelmed. Really. Underwhelmed. Here are seven characters, seven recent retirees; and they come across—at first, at least—as disappointed and disappointing, drained of all passion and delight. In those first fifteen minutes, I even wondered how I’d survive two hours of sadness and disappointment. (And, let’s face it, fifteen minutes in, and even the popcorn’s gone!)
It turns out, of course, that the most important journeys we take are the journeys within, expeditions into our own hearts and hopes. And, bit by bit, this is what happens to most of the characters in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Not all of them, but most. One by one, they wander into their own broken hearts, landscapes of grief and loss, vocation and passion, regret and hopefulness. And these underwhelming characters become intriguing, multi-dimensional, compelling human beings. Before long, I promise you, I couldn’t wait to see what they’d do next. Where they’d choose to go.
So this morning’s parable suggests that the kingdom is like seed, tiny seed, thrown upon a field and buried in the dark. For months, it’s hidden from view, even forgotten by the sower himself.
Well, I want to offer up the possibility that it’s like that with you and me: that there are seasons in our lives when seeds of grace are hidden from view, buried in the dark. Maybe, possibly, we even forget those seeds—those seeds of grace—are there at all. They’re hidden in us. Like they are in those underwhelming characters in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.
Does this sound familiar? Have any of us wandered through a season of loss, grief or despair—and lost track of the ‘imago dei,’ the image-of-god we know is there. We want to believe is there. But seems hidden, unavailable. That tiny seed, lost in a field of sadness, hidden deep in the dark ground of the soul. (I know I’ve experienced something of this just this spring—in my own grief around my father’s death. The seed, hidden. The seed, so tiny, as to seem insignificant and meaningless against the weight of my grief. I know that many of you have been there too.)
Or maybe, like one of the Marigold Hotel guests, you’ve been through some kind of huge transition—lost a job, or left a job for another, or retired at last from a job you loved. Maybe a relationship has run its course, and ended. You’re moving on, and it’s strange and disorienting. In these transitions, it’s possible to lose track—of the kingdom, the grace, the image-of-god within. That tiny seed: hidden, inaccessible, maybe forgotten. Where has my passion disappeared to? Do I have anything left to contribute? Has time passed me by?
Maybe Jesus is saying that sometimes it’s like that for you and me, for disciples and practitioners of hope. Sometimes we lose track. The seed’s buried deep. Hidden. Maybe Jesus’s saying that when we go through these seasons of doubt and sadness, we might call to mind the tiny seed, the tiny seed forgotten, buried in the field. The kingdom of grace, he says, is like that. It hides in the good, dark soil—for a season, maybe two, seemingly hidden, perhaps even lost to us. And yet, there—in our darkness, in our quiet sadness—it sprouts and it grows, it mysteriously pushes beyond itself, into the earth and toward the light. Maybe, Jesus says, maybe, the kingdom of grace is like that.
And if it is, if this is a parable about grace and us, I want to encourage us to practice what some Christians have called a ‘revolutionary patience.’ Revolutionary patience. It means staying alert—especially in the darkness—for the shooting sprig. It means paying attention—even when passion is hard to come by—to the sunrise surely coming, to the brightening colors of a whole new day. It means coming to trust in Jesus and his gospel promise: first, a green stem; then, a bud; soon, the ripened grain. The kingdom of grace is within you, always within you. That’s the gospel promise. You won’t always feel it or know it or see it—but the kingdom is within you. Trust and wait. Believe and watch.
One of my teachers, the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen, once put it this way: “Patience,” he wrote, “means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.” Now I think this is good enough, important enough, to read through a second time: “Patience means the willingness to stay where we are and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself to us.”
This is so often the message, for example, of our weekly ministry with inmates at the county jail. It ought not be delivered cheaply or lightly—like revolutionary patience is easy. Because it’s certainly not. But so often our message to inmates is this: Something precious, something holy, something sacred is hidden in you, hidden in this season of incarceration and worry. Stay in yourself. Commit to yourself. Live out each day, each hour, each opportunity to the full. Because that hidden grace, that tiny hidden seed, will manifest itself. Somehow. It will be revealed. First, a green stem; then, a bud; then, the ripened grain. The kingdom of grace is like that!
And tonight, when our Shelter Team opens the Upper Room to ten parents and their children, to ten without homes, isn’t their message also one of revolutionary patience? Not cheap patience, mind you, but revolutionary patience! This new ministry isn’t simply about a dry roof and bathrooms that work, right? For us, for Christians, the message is love, the message is grace, the message is patience. With every bowl of soup served, with every greeting offered, in every quiet meeting of the eyes—we want to communicate love, grace, patience. To every guest tonight and always.
Something precious, something holy, something sacred is hidden perhaps, hidden in a homeless father on a dangerous edge, hidden in a frightened child arriving with nothing but sneakers and a t-shirt. Our gospel, our faith, our Jesus tells us that that hidden grace, that tiny seed, will manifest itself. Somehow. Seeds scattered and sown will somehow find the light. In all of our ministries, in all the dimensions of our service, in every individual act of compassion, we embody this parable. Revolutionary patience. The kingdom of grace is like that. Like that seed, once hidden, budding in the darkness, reaching, stretching for the light.
What we’re really saying here—what Jesus insists on in every one of his parables—is this: the kingdom of grace isn’t a place you go to, it’s a place you come from. It’s not like Hawaii in the afterlife, a set of spiffy digs you earn for good behavior—but a kind of consciousness, an orientation that keeps faith in the here and now. What we’re saying here is that you don’t die into the kingdom of grace—so much as you awaken into it. And this, exactly this, is the point of our spiritual practice, yours and mine: to awaken the kingdom within, to awaken an awareness of grace, even and especially in the darkest seasons. Even and especially when the seeds are hidden, inaccessible, hard to find. You see: you don’t die into this kingdom—so much as you awaken into it.
Writer Cynthia Bourgeault likes to remind us in the church of Paul’s words to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you,” Paul wrote. “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.” She likes to say that these words invite something more radical, something deeper than traditional, liberal theology suggests. “What we’re supposed to be doing on the path,” she says, “is not just admiring Jesus, but acquiring his consciousness.” And I think that’s our challenge, right here in the progressive church. I think that’s our challenge, this week and every week. Not simply to admire Jesus from afar, but to acquire his consciousness, to awaken in our own hearts his grace and hopefulness. Revolutionary patience.
You know, our core practices invite just this kind of patience; they shape and nurture a kind of ‘Christ consciousness.’ Mindfulness watches, attends, waits for Christ in all things. Forgiveness bears in mind the essential oneness of all beings. Discipleship learns to act from a place of compassion; and communion dares to enact a feast of plenty for all. Do you see how these four practice—our core four—shape a kind of ‘Christ consciousness.’ Make them the pattern of your days and they will move you, motivate you and stir in you the revolutionary patience of Jesus. Mindfulness, forgiveness, discipleship and communion.
We often think of summer as a season for grand adventure, a time to fuel up the RV and head out for unseen parts. But we know, don’t we, that the truly transforming journey is the journey within, the pilgrimage into our own depths, the wild and broken terrain of our own souls. Maybe you want to take that trip this summer. Maybe you want to wander deep into the sacred spaces of your spirit, even the unexplored regions—trusting that God’s own image waits for you there, holy seeds of grace wait for you there. You don’t have to go anywhere. Just wander deep. Trust in the one who waits for you there.
Along those lines, I want to finish up with a poem by the great North Indian mystic Kabir. It’s about that journey inside, that pilgrimage into your soul’s center. And it’s about the kingdom to be discovered right there. It’s called “A Place to Sit”:
Don’t go outside your house to cut flowers.
My friend, don’t bother with that excursion.
Inside your body there are flowers.
One flower has a thousand petals.
That will do for a place to sit.
Sitting there you will have a glimpse
of beauty inside your body and out of it,
before gardens and after gardens.
“Inside your body there are flowers,” says the poet. And “one flower has a thousand petals.” The kingdom of God is within, says Jesus. The kingdom of God is within you. Amen.