Scripture Lesson: Mark 4:26-34 Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Once there was a farmer who planted a crop of pumpkins. Walking through the field when the pumpkins were just beginning to develop, the farmer noticed a glass gallon jug that had been tossed onto the field and was unbroken. As an experiment, the farmer poked a very small pumpkin through the opening of the jug but was careful not to damage the vine.
Months later, when the pumpkins had grown and were ready for harvesting, the farmer inspected the field and came across the glass jug. This time, the jug was completely filled with a pumpkin. The other pumpkins on the same vine were very large and well developed, but the one in the jug had not been able to grow any larger than the jug. It was smaller than the other pumpkins. Confined to its glass prison its growth and size were restricted. [The Sower’s Seeds: 120 Inspiring Stories for Preaching, Teaching and Public Speaking, Brian Cavanaugh]
In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not easy raising fathers, boys, and men today. For those of you who don’t know my situation, I am married to a man, and I have three children, two of them sons, ages 22 and 33. Our sons outwardly discuss how they experience their place in society and the contrast between their situation and when their father or their grandfathers were their age. They feel the losses that many men experience as society continues to change. So I actually do have some intimate knowledge of this matter even though I am a woman.
And there is something else I have noticed about the raising of fathers, boys, and men today. Have you noticed, with all these mass shootings, seldom if ever are they perpetrated by, well, mothers, girls, or women. Mass shootings are most often carried out by men. Often young men. Often white young men. Have you noticed that? It’s a hard time for some men these days. There have been significant shifts in roles, mores, and power over just a generation or two. And many fathers, boys, and men have been left reeling and some have lost their way.
As gender roles have changed in recent decades, men have seen doors open to women. Women have more job opportunities than they did. They are in positions of greater power and authority than in generations past. Women successfully pursue careers in business, technology, science, the arts, medicine, and many other areas. Women now head hospitals and corporations. And women even run for president.
Many women see their opportunities increasing and doors opening though there is still gender bias in many forms in our culture. But things seem to be getting better. But are they getting better for men? How do men perceive their situation?
Men’s roles are shifting. Men have more jobs open to them, without stigma. Men can be nurses and teachers and secretaries and this has become accepted. It is even becoming socially acceptable for a man to be a stay-at-home dad. Fathers regularly change diapers, take a child to school, go to the pediatrician. This was not the case just a generation ago. My husband remembers when we went together with one of our children to the pediatrician. As we drove home, he said, Did you notice that the whole time we were in the examining room, the doctor spoke only to you, looked only at you, addressed himself completely to you as if I was not even in the room? I hadn’t noticed. But I knew what he was talking about. But that is far less likely to happen at the pediatrician today than 20 years ago.
For generations, men have been extremely confined by societal expectations. Men were to be the breadwinners for their families. They were to take charge in every situation. They were to hold their emotions in check – even when a child was killed, or a wife died. Men didn’t cook at home unless it was on the barbecue. They were to do the driving on a trip. They were to follow sports and use tools like screwdrivers, drills, wrenches and saws. They were to fix things. There was a clear set of expectations for men. And, for the most part, it did not include cooking, ironing, or doing the laundry. And it did not include much in the way of caregiving. It did not include many jobs and professions that were considered women’s work. I grew up in a fairly liberated household with two working parents, an anomaly in our social milieu where most families had a stay-at-home mom. My dad was a feminist. And while he was a great typist, thanks to the army, I’m not sure he knew how to operate the washer though I think he knew how to iron.
There has been a lot of pressure on men to behave in certain ways, adopt certain attitudes, and achieve certain competencies. Along with this, they could also expect to receive certain privileges, to assume dominant roles, to be cut certain breaks, to garner a certain measure of respect, and to have certain access to positions of power.
But in their own way, these societal expectations of men restricted men. It was as if men were put in the glass jug like the pumpkin, restricting growth. Women were also put in a jug, a smaller jug, also restricted and confined.
In recent decades, the liberation movement has sought to remove these socially constructed barriers that have limited fathers, boys, and men as well as mothers, girls, and women. While most women see the benefits of removing the restrictions, this is not always as evident to men. Many men don’t see the changes in society as doors opening to them. They don’t see that their options are increasing; that they have more choices, that some of the expectations placed upon men that were burdensome are being lifted. They may not see that in some significant ways they are under less pressure than in the past. We don’t see society or the church, really, celebrating the increasing freedom and liberation of men. Instead of seeing how things are getting better and what they are receiving as society becomes more free, many fathers, boys, and men perceive that they are losing something, that something is being taken away from them. And it is. The bottle that was confining them is being taken away. And for some men, that is producing resentment, fear and anger. They no longer know where they fit in. They don’t feel they belong. They don’t know how to grow freely. They aren’t prepared for full maturity.
In the scripture we heard this morning, we see Jesus undermining typically held assumptions. The story about the mustard seed is about a small seed that grows into a large bush. But it is also a comment on the Hebrew Bible’s use of the imagery of tall, majestic trees, like the cedars of Lebanon, as an image of God’s favor and blessing.
In the Hebrew Testament, the image of the towering tree is used for large, flourishing empires. It is used in reference to strong, dominating kings. It is used as a way to refer to power arrangements, nations, and rulers that are considered to be blessed by an all-powerful God.
That’s the kind of greatness people are used to hearing about and used to associating with God in Jesus’ day and often today as well. And in the parable we heard this morning, Jesus talks about faith using the image of a bush, suggesting the image of a bush as symbol of great faith and favor and blessing from God. And this bush is not tall and straight and towering (and phallic?). It is low to the ground and spreading and it provides shade, shelter, and nesting space for birds and other critters. And this plant is used in cooking not for building great temples and palaces. The mustard seed produces a plant associated with nurture not dominance, empire, or machismo. This story involves the intentional subversion of commonly held notions associating God with certain kinds of power. We still need to hear that today.
We also heard the story of the sowing of the seed. After the farmer sows the seed, what does the farmer do? Nothing. The farmer sleeps and wakes and sleeps and wakes. And while the farmer is doing that, the seed is sprouting and growing; “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain” until the harvest is ready. Then the farmer is back on duty. Well, no actual agricultural worker will last taking that approach. But parables are meant to use everyday images to offer new insight, to surprise, to illumine. In this parable, the seed that is sown is associated with the realm of God, the dreams of God, the intentions of Divine Love. And these seeds grow. They progress. They come to maturity. And then all enjoy the harvest.
In this story, we can see a way of looking our situation today. The way of Divine Love has been planted, sown, it is present though at times it may seem inconspicuous. And that seed is growing. The greater freedom and dignity of women and men are evidence. But sometimes we humans do things to limit and restrict that growth. Still the seed has been sown. It is there. And the growth proceeds. It may be mysterious and inexplicable. We may not see a blueprint. The growth may challenge us. But the Divine commonwealth continues to grow, to become more evident, to mature. It cannot be thwarted. There will be a vast harvest.
The seeds of Divine Love will grow to full maturity. They will produce a human community characterized by dignity and respect for all life and for the cosmos that sustains life. The seeds will grow communities of justice, peace, and creativity. They will grow communities of acceptance, choice, and self-determination . Essentially, the seeds of the way of Love will produce communities that are truly free – characterized by freedom from want, hunger, poverty, abuse, violence, fear and domination; communities embracing freedom of expression and self determination. The seeds that have been sown will yield the way of full humanity.
Given the past, maybe one message we need to hear is that sometimes we need to get out of the way because well-intentioned as we may be, sometimes we are creating obstacles and restrictions to the growing of seeds of Divine Love even in the church. Sometimes our humanly conceived machinations and constructs get in the way of growth.
Seeds buried by a squirrel in the Ice Age 32,000 years ago, found 128 feet below the permafrost have germinated and produced flowering plants. [https://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2012/02/120221-oldest-seeds-regenerated-plants-science/] On the space station, seeds have grown zinnias in zero gravity. Seeds are life. The seeds of Divine love and community that have been planted will grow. They cannot be stopped. Wonderful fathers, boys, and men will be raised. And all of humanity as well as all of Creation will flourish. Amen.
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