June 16, 2024 - Fourth Sunday After Pentecost

"The Mystery"

Rev. Gary Percesepe

Mark 4: 26-34

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how…. With many such parables he spoke the word to them as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. ~ Mark 4: 26-27; 33-34

When I was a little boy my parents often found me seated in front of a small TV in the living room of our apartment in Yonkers, before 7 am every Saturday morning, watching a boring show about gardening. Week after week I sat there, rapt with attention. What I didn’t know was that my parents watched me watch. I was not ordinarily an early riser; it mystified them why I got up so early for a show that had no music, interesting characters or discernible story line, just some images of plants and soil, strangers digging in the ground, talking quietly about gardening. Why was I watching a boring black and white show about gardening?

Maxwell House coffee brewed in the kitchen. From time to time, my parents would peek in to check if I was still watching the gardening show. I was.

One day I overheard my father say, “I don’t understand Gary getting up early every Saturday morning to watch a garden show on television. Maybe he’s got a green thumb? I wonder if he’s interested in taking up gardening?”

“Or farming,” my mother said.

“But there are no farms around here,” my father said.

We lived in south Yonkers, New York, a few blocks from the Bronx, not far from where the Hudson River emptied into New York Harbor, home to the Statue of Liberty, which on a clear day could be seen from our old house on Park Hill, the house where I was born, where we lived with my grandparents before grandfather Percesepe moved suddenly to Miami, creating an upheaval that forced us to move to the apartment on Lawrence Street where I sat like a stone watching a boring TV show about gardening. It puzzled my parents no end.

One day my father walked in on me. He’d lost his eldest son Tommy a few years before in a freak accident during a snowstorm. There were things he needed to know: “Son, why are you watching this? You think you may have a green thumb?”

I had no idea what a green thumb was, but I was pretty sure I didn’t have one. I shook my head no. I didn’t use many words in those days, a policy I sometimes regret relinquishing.

My father tried again: “So, do you like this gardening show?” I shook my head no. In truth, I had no idea what the program was about. I was only waiting for 7 am, when “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle would come on, my favorite cartoon show.” I rose early and suffered through the stupid garden show so that I wouldn’t miss a minute of the next episode of Rocky and Bullwinkle and their friends. But I didn’t tell my father that, not then, not ever. Not because I didn’t love my father, I did. Maybe I believed there were things parents shouldn’t know about their kids, maybe a believed in a zone of privacy, or maybe I didn’t tell him because I didn’t feel like it? Besides, telling him would involve speaking, which I wasn’t big on. It’s possible that I thought telling the truth might disappoint him, or make me look stupid? Did my parents really believe I was a budding farmer who’d soon be scattering seeds up and down the streets of Yonkers, an urban Johnny Appleseed? I never told my mother, either, widowed for twenty-five years after my father died in 1994. In fact, I’ve never told anyone the story until today of how I was mistaken for a farmer in training when secretly I just adored Rocky, Bullwinkle, Boris Badenov & Natasha Fatale, Dudley Do-Right, Fearless Leader, the dog named Mr. Peabody, and the comical “Fractured Fairy Tales.”

Which is, I suppose, a kind of modern-day parable, in this sense: things in everyday life-- things right under our nose-- are often not what they appear to be at all. The parables of Jesus always contain a surprise. Parables test the limits of human reason, making the familiar look strange. They ask us to look deeper. to entertain an alternate reality, and ultimately, to acknowledge that life is mysterious. Bowing to the mystery is humbling for the ego. If you had asked my parents what they thought Gary was doing they would have answered, “Oh, how that boy loves gardening!” The rational mind has difficulty accepting that there may not be a reason at all for the mystery of faith. Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point – The heart has its reasons which Reason knows not of. (1)

Parables are at the heart of Jesus’ ministry; they reveal his values and mission. He describes his mission as establishing God’s kingdom (which theologian Walter Wink calls a “non-Domination system”), referring to it as leaven, a pearl of great price, a field with treasure, a fishnet, and in today’s reading, a mustard seed. It is in the parables that we hear the very voice of Jesus. Things hidden become revealed.

Walter Wink wrote, “Parables are tiny lumps of coal squeezed into diamonds, condensed metaphors that catch the rays of something ultimate and glint at it in our lives.”

Jesus tells a parable about a sower scattering some seed. It may refer to Jesus himself, who certainly scattered a great many words as if they were seeds. The seed is sown but none of us knows how it grows. The growth of Ke Akua’s realm is in Ke Akua’s hands, not ours. We do our part, but growth is finally up to God. At Keawala’i Congregational Church, in just a few weeks, the Church Council will discuss the weighty matter of “Stewardship,” which involves growing giving hearts. How will the congregation receive this word? How do you grow giving hearts? Does anyone know? How do you convince people that giving has very little to do with raising budgets or even money, but has everything to do with the transformation of human hearts? That giving is a spiritual discipline more than a matter of finance? That, contrary to the laws of capitalism, Ke Akua’s world is one of abundance not scarcity? Why does one human heart, stunned with gratitude, open like the petals of a rosebud, offering the beauty of generosity, while another heart clenches in fear at the mention of parting with a hard-earned buck, or chafes at the idea of pledging?

I have no idea how or why Ke Akua called me to preach the gospel, which is another way of scattering seeds. I prefer to sit at my writing desk writing books, or skiing Telluride in Colorado or the Alps in Zermatt. I dream of skiing the Himalayas of Kashmir, plunging down the fall line at dangerous speeds in frigid temperatures, high above the timber line. I never pictured myself as a resident of Maui, let alone being pastor of a church.

But now that I think about it, maybe my parents were not so far off in their dream that one day I’d become a gardener. Somewhere over the rainbow I picture them now, reunited at last, looking down on their enigmatic second son scattering seed today, big smiles on their faces. “What’d I tell ya, Lee,” my father beams. “The kid has a green thumb.” My mother smiles demurely, keeping her thoughts to herself, and asks for another cup of coffee. When dad goes off to fetch it, she whispers a prayer. “Thank you, Jesus. How you did it is an utter mystery.” Amene.

(1) Blase Pascal, Pensées.

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