Monday, July 28, 2014

Mustard Seeds and Hidden Treasure

Sermon On the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
St. James Episcopal Church
San Francisco, California
July 27, 2014

By Elizabeth Nelson

            Our rector John Kirkley likes to organize his preaching rota well in advance, so it was almost three months ago that I got an invitation and the readings for this Sunday. I did what I usually do when I’m going to preach on a set of readings: I skimmed through them in reverse order.
         Gospel:  Great!  Not sure I can fit all those mini-parables into one sermon, but it’ll be fun to try.
         Epistle:  Interesting.  There’s some stuff to talk about here.
         Old Testament:  Hunh.
         Whenever I can, I love to link up the Old Testament stories to the Gospel ones, and then link them both to where we are now.  But this one?   This one, more than most, seemed so three millennia ago.  About all I could think of to say, the first time I read it, was:  Well, here’s one time when Jacob the master manipulator gets out-maneuvered.  Serve him right.  Let’s move on.
         But then … then a news story started to leak out of Nigeria, back in early May – a story about more than 200 young girls kidnapped at gunpoint from their school by a gang of religious-fundamentalist thugs.   A video was published by the leader of the kidnappers, ranting about the sinfulness of Western education and promising to sell the girls into marriage.
         And I thought, well … damn it.  That story that seemed so three millennia ago is not over yet.  And I have to talk to you about it.
         I have to tell you that, according to studies compiled by the United Nations, more than 64 million girls world-wide are child brides, married before the age of 18.  I have to tell you that, world-wide, the leading cause of death among girls aged 15 to 19 is complications of pregnancy.
         But that’s the other side of the world, right?  Mostly?  That doesn’t happen nearly so often here where we are.  Well, let’s talk about what does happen here.  Let’s talk about how here, in the United States of America, one in four women will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime.  Globally that figure jumps to one in three, but let’s stick close to home for now.  Let’s consider that, right here in the USA, 83 percent of girls aged 12 to 16 have experienced some form of sexual harassment in public schools:  taunting, touching, name-calling, grabbing, some form of physical or verbal sexual aggression.
         Men and women experience the world in different ways.  Men live in a world where not everyone has power.  Women live in a world where the rules about power – defining it, getting it, keeping it – have been determined by men.  I’ll say that last bit again, because it’s a decent starter-definition for the term “patriarchy:”  a culture in which the rules about power have been determined, and are defended, by men … up to and including too many of the rules about who has what power over a woman’s body.  Many people – women and men – have worked hard and are working now to shift that balance of power, to ensure safety and rights and opportunities for women.  Here in the United States of America, women have had the right to vote for almost 94 years now.  Here in the United States of America, a woman is free to open a bank account in her own name and to hold a full-time job outside the home – as long as she doesn’t mind working for 73 cents on the dollar, and as long as she remembers to wear shoes she can run in if she has to leave her workplace alone after dark.  And on the other side of the world a woman can be beaten or killed by her male relatives for the crime of having been raped, and little girls take their lives in their hands by going to school.
         But “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God.  Right? 
         When Paul wrote that, I don’t think he was writing out of mindless optimism.  He’d known his full share of trouble and sorrow.  I believe he was writing out of a profound faith that encompassed this life and the next.  I also believe that I would not dare to quote that scripture to any of the mothers and grandmothers and sisters and aunties of those girls in Nigeria.
         But I will talk to anyone, anywhere, about fields full of treasure, and mustard seeds.
         The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.”  It’s true that a mustard seed is tiny.  It’s not true, or not in this climate, that a mustard seed grows into a shrub or a tree; in California, mustard plants grow to about the size of a really big dandelion.  But a mustard seed has some other outstanding characteristics.  For one thing, if you do sow a tiny mustard seed in your field, you’re going to have mustard growing in that field for ever.  Mustard is a persistent little sucker; it grows and re-seeds itself just like a weed.  And maybe that shows us a picture of how Jesus imagined the kingdom of heaven growing and spreading:  not up into grandeur and power, but out and around, seed by seed, taking root from field to field.  And what’s the harvest?  That’s where you get to another outstanding characteristic of mustard seeds:  bite into one, and you discover that it packs a heat and a flavor all out of proportion to its size.  Add a little mustard to whatever sauce you’re stirring up, and the whole meal starts to taste a lot more interesting.
         The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.   The kingdom of heaven is also like a field that hides a treasure – a treasure that might be … well, a mustard seed.  The kingdom of heaven is like a lot of other things too, because God is good and because Jesus really loved parables.  For now, though, let’s concentrate on the mustard seed and the field of treasure.
         The kingdom of heaven happens, for instance, when women are like mustard seeds.  It happens when women persist in sharing their life and their strength and their truth, root to root, seed to seed, field to field, un-weed-out-able.  It happens when they tell their stories and speak their truth to power and defy oppression with voices as clear and sharp as the taste of mustard – even when speaking up puts their lives at risk, even when their voices are dismissed as hysterical or “shrill.”  (When men speak with passion and conviction they’re often described as speaking “powerfully;”  when women speak with passion and conviction they’re often described as “shrill.”  That’s just the pitch of our voices, right?  Couldn’t be for any other reason.)
         The kingdom of heaven also happens, for another instance, when men are like fields that receive and contain a treasure.  It happens when a man listens to a woman talk about the violence she deals with in a patriarchal society, and instead of jumping in with dismissals or why-don’t-you’s or claims of his own, he just … receives what he’s hearing.  Maybe his first reaction as he listens is, “But I don’t do those things” … and that may well be true.  But he goes on listening, and he realizes, “Okay, this story is not about me, it’s about her.  And she deserves a better story than that, because anybody does.  What needs to change, how can I help?”  He asks.  He listens to the answer.  He behaves like a partner instead of like a patriarch.
         That’s when a tiny seed can fill up the field with yellow flowers and spice.  That’s when you discover the treasure.  That’s when the kingdom comes, for all of us.

         Nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.”  No matter how ingrained our training is to seek power and hold on to it, the love of God – love as generosity, as compassion, as creativity, as vulnerability – will not leave us alone.  The strength of men’s entrenchment in power will not separate women from God’s love … or men, either.  The strength of women’s anger will not separate men from God’s love … or women, either.  As often as our entrenchment and our anger separate us from one another, we need to remember the mustard seed and the field full of treasure.  We need to trust God’s love to show us how to love each other.

         Bring Back Our Girls.