Shrub Seeds of Transforming Hope
Marion Pardy’s sermon for the CCS 120th Anniversary worship service on Sunday, October 14, 2012:
In preparation for today’s sermon I attempt to purchase a bracelet, with a small glass ball hanging from it, containing a tiny mustard seed. They were popular a few years ago. You may remember them. Usually the bracelets came with a verse, “If you have faith as a tiny mustard seed, nothing will be impossible” or “If you have faith as a tiny mustard seed, you will be able to move mountains”. I think the creators of these trinkets missed the major message of this mustard seed parable, probably because they were more interested in profit than point.
The mustard seed is a provocative, strange parable. If Jesus had said, to people living under Roman occupation: “God’s reign is like the mighty cedars of Lebanon as described in Ezekiel”, the people might have yawned and said “of course”. If Jesus had said: “God’s reign is like the apocalyptic tree of Daniel, with the crown of the tree reaching to heaven and the branches covering the earth sheltering the beasts of the field and nesting the largest of birds, the people might have said, “Who is he trying to fool in our day and age?”.
Instead we seem to have this message:
If you can’t have hope as in the majestic cedars of Lebanon and in the apocalyptic tree of Daniel, try hope as in a shrub.
People in Mark’s gospel community needed transforming, credible words of encouragement and hope. Oppressed under Roman persecution, Jerusalem is rampaged and the majestic, “holy of holies” temple is destroyed. Hope was needed desperately but credible hope – hope one could believe in and live by during hopeless times. Images of majestic trees as a symbol of hope in this context would be too overwhelming. Instead, take a tiny, very tiny mustard seed. Plant it. It germinates and over time the seed sprouts and becomes a glorious shrub. Not a great tree like the mighty cedar but a shrub. A big shrub – it will get to be 4 -5 feet, maybe larger. Small birds might perch on its branches. “Finding a nest” there is stretching the image a bit too far. At the time of “nesting” the plant would be in the growing stage and certainly not large enough. Still, quite impressive. The point is the mustard does not grow to be tree strength size because it is an annual plant – germane to its existence is the life of the seed and something beyond itself – the weather.
Jesus queries, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” or “What parable can we use for it?” and, then, responds, “a shrub”! We might detect the humour of Mark and of Jesus but also the realism: “If, at this time, you don’t have faith to move mountains, or faith like a mighty cedar, try a shrub. It is a story told for the encouragement and hope of people in Jesus’ and Mark’s day and it’s a story for our encouragement and hope.
I connect this parable with the verses in the book of Job, albeit taken out of context. A cut-down tree is hopeless, life-less but wait. There’s a little green shoot on that tree and, at the mere “scent” of water, it will grow again. There is hope for a hopeless tree. Transforming hope can occur at the mere “scent” of water, as in a tiny mustard seed.
Theology arises from the context of life. This is contextual theology at its best. If our broken world, dwindling church budgets and hopeless personal contexts make “faith to move mountains” incredible, try a tiny seed and a shrub; try a cut-down tree, a little shoot and the “scent” of water. And of such is God’s reign, says Jesus. It is credible; it is “doable”.
The roller-coaster history of the Centre for Christian Studies is marked with stories of shrub seeds of transforming hope. Hear the names: Church of England Deaconess and Missionary Training House (1892), the Anglican Women’s Training College (1947), the Methodist National Training School (1894), the United Church Training School (1921), Covenant College (1961); the Presbyterian (Ewart) Deaconess and Missionary Training Home (1897) – the change of names alone points to this transforming hope. We graduates have a legion of stories to illustrate.
It was 1966– my first year at Covenant College. Dr. Jean Hutchinson (Dr. Hutch, we called her) was leading us in a study of the synoptic gospels with her usual biblical depth, insight and questions. I was mesmerized. Here on one page were the gospel parallels of stories of Jesus and about him, expressed quite differently in Mark, Matthew and Luke. Being an avid reader I would have read as much background material as possible for each session of the course. On this particular day, when I had read and heard just one too many interpretations, I put my head in my arms on the desk. Everyone left, except Dr. Hutch. I lifted my head, looked at her and in hopeless desperation said: “Dr. Hutch – one of us has got to go – you or me”!! And I wasn’t so naïve as to wonder which one of us it would be! Calmly, Dr. Hutch responded: “Marion, I would like to treat you to lunch at the Arcadian Court in Simpson’s. The day arrived and, thankful that I had spent 4 years at Private School and had hosted Sunday Afternoon Tea at Covenant, I could relax around the amount of cutlery and china provided, and pour out my concerns about her course. I don’t remember the content of that conversation; no doubt, in true “Dr. Hutch” form she listened and questioned and commented and questioned again. The end result was that I engaged biblical studies with renewed passion, devouring every text I could find and, in fact, became a continuing student of the scriptures with biblical and historical studies being the chosen area of my D.Min studies. At the time Dr. Hutch, no doubt, wasn’t thinking of even “shrub” seeds and I certainly wasn’t thinking of transformation. My anguished concern was “survival” and I didn’t smell even a “scent” of water. It is one of my many stories of “shrub seeds of transforming hope” and I am confident you have others.
The Centre for Christian Studies, together with all theological schools, is faced with many challenges. Some see it as a crisis; others see it as an opportunity for change, continuity, growth and transformation.
In some ways we, in church and school, still function as if we were in our “glory” days when people were numerous, budgets were large and new church buildings were being constructed frequently. We tend to function still as if the Church were a majestic cedar, instead of a shrub.
Maybe our transforming hope is in developing a “shrub” theology. The Church has neither the dollars, nor people it once had and theological schools are the same. At the same time the Centre for Christian Studies has much to celebrate in its Endowment Fund Campaign.
A “shrub” theology names the context we find ourselves in and plants seeds, tiny seeds. Covenant College and the Anglican Women’s Training College did this in 1969. There weren’t too many United/Anglican shared ministries at that time. There are still inter-church issues to be resolved. Now might be a time, however, to start planting seeds to push those boundaries further – to other denominations, other partners in university and community, to other religious communities. “Doctors without borders” – “A theological centre without borders” – how much richer our education could be in the company of people of all religious expressions and, more important, how more effective we would be in our justice-seeking and peace-making in God’s world.
A related ingredient in a “shrub” theology is a theological imagination, that lingers with the Why and What questions, that plays with the text and conversation, questioning and being questioned. . CCS has demonstrated that theological imagination in a number of ways:
- the move to Winnipeg from Toronto amidst controversy and conflict (1998);
- the reflection/action model of learning;
- the spiral model of theological reflection.
That theological imagination has CCS housed in the J.S. Woodsworth House. In the risk of the move to Winnipeg, the newness of curriculum development you found a heritage home where social gospel and social justice thrived (Interestingly, Woodsworth, too, was born in Ontario!). .
A “shrub” theology recognizes that we don’t have the monopoly on truth; there are always new truths to be discovered, in other cultures, countries and theologies and CCS has already planted many seeds here.
In my DMin Course of Studies I was privileged to take a course from Dr. Bernhard Anderson. His text Understanding the Old Testament was required reading in many schools, including Covenant College. One day in class we were examining a verse in the Hebrew Scriptures – most of us jumping in with our various interpretations. In the midst of this fairly heated discussion, one student pounded the table with the Truth. His voice shouted above the sound of his fist, “This is what it means”. Dr. Anderson quietly said, “Let’s see what the Hebrew says”. He read the verse in his Hebrew bible, looked up with his half-rimmed glasses on his nose, and calmly said: “The meaning is obscure”. “The meaning is obscure” – what a great find in the search for truth! On another occasion over lunch I asked him, “Why did you do a revision of your text, Understanding the Old Testament, while it is still in stock and still a best seller. He replied: “because of new discoveries in biblical archaeology, the Dead Sea scrolls and because of feminist theology.” He went on to say something like this, “Feminist theology has turned biblical theology into topsy turvy” and he paused, looked at me, and continued, “And that’s a good thing!”
A good thing, indeed. It is transforming hope.
The good news of “shrub” theology is that we don’t have all the answers and we don’t need all the answers. The complexity of the issues in our world today suggests that we need to be cautious with answers. It may be more important to struggle to find the right questions and, having found them, to patiently and passionately push the horizons. “It is more difficult to ask the right questions than to answer them”, philosopher Gadamer of the 20th century wrote (1). Any insights we glean are “glimpses of truth”; glimpses that that we place, for critique, beside other glimpses coming to us from other countries, cultures, from native spirituality and from other faith communities. Hear the good news in “glimpses of truth”! It is wonderful and marvelous, even mysterious, that we can dare to claim “glimpses of truth” in our diverse, complex world.
What our situation calls for frequently has us stymied. What does it call for? We don’t know. We groan under the weight of our uncertainties – we planted seeds but no shoots have sprouted – we can’t see a shrub, let alone a tree. The good news, as found in Romans, is that as we groan, the Spirit helps us. Caught in the struggle between futility and hope and with “sighs too deep for words”, the Spirit identifies with us and lifts us to God – our God whose heart is broken by the brokenness of our world. We lift our eyes to glorify God; we participate in the mystery of the bread and wine. “God’s glory is in humanity fully alive” and, thus, with the symbols of towel and basin, we immerse ourselves in the dis-grace of the world, where too many people still live under oppression and poverty. We seek “shrub-like” ways to empower ourselves and others to be mindful of the Grace and attend to the dis-grace.
The mustard seed shrub/plant. A Manitoba farmer friend says that here the plant grows to about 2 feet only. There is a bountiful harvest. Canada is one of the world’s largest exporters of mustard.
The Centre for Christian Studies with its vision of a new heaven and a new earth. Planting tiny seeds that produce shrubs might be our methodology and, together with justice-seeking and peace-loving partners around us and throughout the world we have made and can make a difference. May it be so!
Sermon by: Marion Pardy, St. John’s, NL, written for the 120th Anniversary of the Centre for Christian Studies, Winnipeg, October 14, 2012
1. Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method, translation of Wahrheit und Methode by J. C. B. Mohr, Tubingen (New York: Crossroad Publishing co., 1982). Page 326