Proper 6B/Ordinary 11B/Pentecost 3
June 17, 2012
1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13
Mark 4: 26-34
The “emerging church” is a growing conversation among concerned theologians and lay people regarding the future of organized religion. It is a loose concept of what the Church (broadly speaking) will look like in the years ahead. The future of the mainline denominations – as we currently know them – is looking grim at the moment. There seems to be a growing consensus that the Church is dying. In the critical age 16-29 demographic – from which church growth springs as young adults have children and bring them to church – 40% of these people now identify themselves as outside the Christian faith (www.unchristian.com, pp.18). The majority of this age group also associates the term “Christian” with terms such as “hypocritical”, “insensitive”, and “judgmental” (ibid.)
In the Gospel reading this week, Jesus is addressing a group of believers who are also struggling with defining their faith – and for whom the “faith of our fathers” was no longer working. In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to “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” (Mark 4:31-32). To understand this parable a little better, it helps to know that – for farmers in Jesus’ time – the mustard plant was basically a noxious weed. It could be useful for spices and for medicinal purposes, but it was generally not intentionally cultivated. Instead, it was borne on the air – or hitched a ride on animals – and it took over their fields as unwelcome guests. Jesus, as he was prone to do, was being ironic. The Kingdom of God was not the mighty cedar of Lebanon, but a tiny seed of a weed that spread like wildfire – much to the chagrin of field-owners everywhere.
The established religion of Mark’s day was dominated by Pharisees – leaders who insisted that religious law had to be followed to the letter in order for the Kingdom of Israel to be redeemed. By the time that Mark’s Gospel was written, the Romans either had already invaded and sacked Jerusalem or were right on the verge of doing so. It is a Gospel filled with urgency, and in it, Jesus frequently points out that the religion of the Pharisees is no longer working: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules. You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.” (Mark 7:6-8). Religion that was “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental” was a problem for Mark’s listeners, too.
The alternative to the religion of the Pharisees, for Jesus, was the Mustard Seed church. After His brutal execution on the cross, the faith that would later become known as “Christian” fulfilled his prophecy and spread like wildfire: “… the movement refused to die. It became a community movement, animated by the spirit of the risen Lord, now free from time and space. It spread rapidly through the known world, creating a self-conscious alternative to the hierarchy and patronage of the Empire [of Rome]” (Meyers, Robin. 2012. The Underground Church: Reclaiming the Subversive Way of Jesus. NY: Jossey-Bass).
What does the emerging Mustard Seed church look like today? It’s very hard to say. It is far easier to say what it is not (or at least what it cannot be if it is going to attract young people and grow): “hypocritical,” “insensitive,” and “judgmental”. One way of getting back to the Mustard Seed church might be to look at one of its key practices: hospitality.
The word “hospitality” has a very different meaning in postmodern times, when “stranger-danger” is blared from every media outlet and “understandings of hospitality have been reduced to Martha Stewart’s latest ideas for entertaining family and friends” (Pohl, Christine D. 2002. “Hospitality, a Practice and a Way of Life.” Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology). In Jesus’ time and for early Jesus followers, hospitality “was a highly valued moral practice, seen as an important expression of kindness, mutual aid, neighborliness, and a response to the life of faith. Hospitality addressed the physical needs of strangers for food, shelter, and protection, but also included recognition of their worth and common humanity. It almost always involved shared meals; table fellowship was historically an important way of acknowledging the equal value and dignity of people” (Pohl, ibid.) What would the Church look like if it featured – at the center of its worship – a shared meal with strangers, with the poor, or with outsiders? I venture that it would be life-changing, much like all encounters with God’s chesed (Hebrew: Unconditional, Covenant-backed love) are.