Ordinary time applies to the church season from now until Advent, when the Church Year begins again. We usually refer to these Sundays as “the such and such Sunday after Pentecost.”
Ordinary Time gets its name from the word ordinal, meaning "numbered," since the Sundays of Ordinary Time are expressed numerically.
But there is also this tendency to think of this time in the common sense of “ordinary.” Until I went to seminary, I thought this time was just ordinary. I looked up "ordinary" in an online dictionary:
1. Commonly encountered; usual.
2a. Of no exceptional ability, degree, or quality; average.
2b. Of inferior quality; second-rate.
While I don’t particularly like these definitions for “ordinary time,” I must admit that there is some sense of “average” present in this season. As summer really begins, we return to “ordinary Jesus”...the accounts of his journeys around Palestine, and his telling of parables.
James R. Edwards, the Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington, writes this about parables:
A common understanding is that parables are simple earthly stories with heavenly meanings. That is a common misunderstanding. Parables cannot be understood by standing outside them and peering in. They can only be understood by getting out of our seats and entering into the drama. Jacob had to wrestle with his mysterious opponent in order to receive a blessing from God (Genesis 32:22-32), and we must likewise wrestle with parables if we are to receive God’s blessing through them.”
I like Edward’s basic idea...that the parables have to be encountered and wrestled with to find understanding. What amazes me about parables: the comparison of something that is like something else, is that usually at least two possibilities are going on. There is the obvious way something is compared, and there is another level of comparison and meaning. Often, this second comparison feels different than the first...sometimes, it seems to even counter the first comparison. In other words, two things that appear to contradict each other are both potentially true.
This sometimes odd or uncomfortable for us, as we seek clarity and certainty in most things. Our human experience, however, suggests that our most meaningful experiences have this sense of apparent contradiction. It can be a simple thing like crying when we are especially happy, joyful, or laughing. We think of crying as sadness, and yet it is not always so.
One of the most profound examples of apparently contradictory things being true is death. When someone dies, we celebrate his or her life. Church service wise, it is to be joyful. We give thanks that the person is at peace, especially when they had been suffering. At the same time, we shed tears...we lament, we regret, and sometimes we even get angry. Two things that are supposed to be contradictory...joy and sadness...are both true.
Our religious explanations are full of examples of this type of relationship: our Trinitarian language...Jesus being fully God and fully human...Mary being mother and virgin...they all express truths where there appears to be contradiction.
Most of Jesus’ parables seem to have that quality to them. There are multiple ways to hear them...and sometimes the results both seem to contradict AND be true.
The first parable this morning is this: The kingdom of God is as if someone scatter’s seed on the ground, and then goes on to other things. The seed grows and grows, and only when the grain is ripe does the sower come back, for the harvest has come. (Mark 4:26-29)
This little parable is found only in the Gospel of Mark, although Matthew has a similar story with the sowing of the weeds into the good soil.
The most common contemporary way to hear this story is that God scatters the seed...which is life and specifically human beings...allows them to grow to maturity... and then returns only at harvest time (death or the second coming). Meaning can range from an exploration of free will, to some understanding that God’s returning to reap the harvest.
There is another way to hear this story. Human beings could be the ones who scatter the seeds. The seed sprouts and matures, and the earth produces the fruit. Only then does the one who scattered the seed return to see the growth and the harvest.
There are wonderful paths of exploration in hearing the story this way. What exactly did the sower plant? Seeds that grow to produce grain? Words of God’s justice and love? A child?
In each of these cases, there is the message that we will not necessarily see the growth that we may have planted. We are also not to stress and worry about whether or not the growth will occur... we need not try and micromanage it all. There also seems to be an underlying message of how little the sower does in comparison to the earth that nurtures the seed to maturity. Perhaps the life message is that each of us is called to participate, but no one is solely responsible for another’s growth.
We could explore these ideas to great detail, but I want to move onto the second parable.
Our focus on the mustard seed parable tends to be how something small grows up to be something that “puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32) It is a wonderful image how each one of us, as well as the church, can become something that nurtures and supports others.
There is another aspect of Jesus’ example that’s worth exploring: the obvious comparison with the “Cedars of Lebanon” found in the other passages for today (Ezekiel 17:22-24 & Psalm 92). The Cedars of Lebanon was a well know image of the kingdom of God: a towering tree whose strength cannot be missed. The Redwoods of California would be what most Americans might refer to today, but I live in New Hampshire, so I'll choose the “Pines of New Hampshire” as our equivalent.
Jesus points to the Mustard shrub as his example for the kingdom of God. It is, in some sense, a parody of the Cedars. No one would ever mistake a 10ft Mustard plant for a 100ft Cedar. It’s like comparing a Witch-hazel with a great Pine. Witch-Hazel’s are great shrubs...and can be large enough to be considered trees...but they hardly compare to the towering Pines. There’s nothing grand or glorious about them.
The Mustard shrub is, for all intensive purposes, a weed. Jesus might have been standing near a bunch of them when he told this story. Were they impressive? Perhaps, but they were no Cedars...Mustard shrubs were common plants found everywhere Jesus went.
Everyone was looking for something huge to point towards the kingdom of God: looking up to the skies to find a towering Cedar, but never finding one. In the process, people looked past the flourishing Mustard shrubs...after all, they’re just weeds.
Brian Stoffregen, a Lutheran pastor, says that as far as he knows, there are still no cedars growing in Israel; but there are a lot of mustard plants. He writes:
Is God ruling now or not? Perhaps we are looking in the wrong places -- staring up in the sky for tall trees, instead of looking on the ground for common weeds -- and maybe we do the same thing with people. I've heard it suggested that a weed is just a flower that's a victim of prejudice.
This interpretation of the parable -- God's rule is like a weed -- is one that certainly would challenge and threaten the hearer's world of assumptions of the coming, powerful kingdom of God. Yet, when the seed of a weed is covered by cement, they seem to find a way to grow through the tiniest of cracks. (Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at CrossMarks.com)
I love that image: the kingdom of God is like the weed that finds a way to grow through the tiniest of cracks. What an ordinary...and astonishing way...to describe God’s love breaking through into the world.