A Reflection on 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 & Mark 4:26-34 for Proper 6B / Ordinary 11B
Sometimes the most valuable and significant things don’t look important at all. Sometimes the things that have the greatest influence or make the biggest difference are invisible. Sometimes the most sweeping changes happen in tiny, imperceptible increments over long stretches of time. In his famous science fiction epic, The War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells chose bacteria as the final conquerors of the powerful Martian invaders. His fictional account, though, was a striking reflection of reality. In Jared Diamond’s enlightening book, Guns, Germs and Steel, he points out that when European conquistadors arrived in the new world, it was not their superior weaponry that overcame the native inhabitants primarily. He writes: “Far more Native Americans died in bed from Eurasian germs than on the battlefield from European guns and swords.” (London, Vintage Books, 2005, p.210). It was the small, hidden enemy that did the work.
In a similar way, pretty much every human being lives with the impact of small, seemingly insignificant decisions on their lives, for better or worse. The decision to look across a room at just the moment when our eyes meet those of another person can lead to a love that changes the trajectory of our lives for ever. The accidental failure to cover a Petri dish leads to the discovery of an antibiotic that saves millions of lives for years to come. Tiny genetic mutations, given sufficient time and the right environment, create increasingly complex forms of life. Small things, small events, hidden forces and insignificant things often bring about deeply significant results.
Yet, even though we know this to be true, we seem helpless to resist our obsession with the important, the highly visible, the fast and the dramatic. We insist on measuring our leaders in units of days even as we expect them to solve problems that have been centuries in the making. We are captivated by the rich and famous even if their contribution to the real issues of justice in our world is minimal or non-existent. We continue to build our world on systems that are biased toward the powerful and important at the expense of the weak and insignificant. Is it any wonder, then, that we fail to find real solutions to unnecessary extreme poverty, to the growing gap between rich and poor, to the violence and terrorism that continues to undermine our security, and to the shifting climate that threatens to disrupt our lives in so many ways?
It doesn’t take long to recognise that God feels no pressure at all to fit in with our need to be larger, noisier, faster and more visible. When Jesus looked for metaphors to describe the Reign of God, it was not to the big and loud things that he turned but to the small, the hidden, the quiet, the slow. God’s Reign, he taught, is like a seed planted into the earth. The farmer is unable to make it grow or even understand how it happens. No agricultural skill can create a growing seed or speed up its growth. All a farmer can do is nurture the soil and wait, making sure to be ready when the time of harvest comes. God’s Reign, Jesus continued, is like the tiny mustard seed that, in spite of its diminutive size, grows into a large tree that provides shelter for the birds. The image of a tree that provides shelter is one that would have been very familiar to Jesus’ listeners. In another of this week’s Lectionary readings, Ezekiel speaks about God taking a small branch and planting it on a mountain where it becomes a large tree that provides shelter for birds (Ezekiel 17:22-24). The message is challenging and difficult for us to grasp: God’s Reign is sown into the hidden places as a small seed that slowly and quietly grows until it finally becomes large enough to provide shelter or a harvest. It is the small and hidden things that God loves to use far more than the loud and visible, it seems.
If we need further proof, the Lectionary also points us to the monarchy in Israel, where a shepherd boy is chosen unexpectedly to be king. The events leading up to David’s anointing read like a spy novel. Saul, the king, cannot know because in spite of his humble beginnings, he has become powerful and arrogant and will soon show signs of insanity. So God, according to the writer of this account, instructs Samuel to perform an act of deception, pretending to go to Jesse’s town to offer sacrifices. The real purpose, though, is to anoint one of this poor, insignificant man’s sons as the new king (See 1 Samuel 18:18). When Samuel sees the eldest boy, he is convinced that this must the one, but God instructs him not to trust his very human way of looking at things. Finally, after all the boys in the house are rejected, the youngest son, the shepherd boy David, is called in from the fields, and God indicates to Samuel that he is the one. Once again it is the small, the insignificant, the hidden that God uses to work out God’s purposes in the world.
It’s tempting to buy into the belief that what is big and powerful is blessed by God. It’s easy to think of the Gospel as a force that must conquer all to set the world to rights, and it’s attractive to think of ourselves as God’s chosen enforcers to make the triumph of God’s Reign happen. But, this is not the picture that the Bible offers us. Instead what we see is a gentle, hidden, subversive and patient movement that infiltrates every life with God in ways that cannot be controlled or coerced. We see that God invites us to participate in this life but to know that we cannot understand or manipulate the processes of God’s Reign. Like farmers we can nurture the soil of our hearts and our communities, and we can watch for the signs of growth, but we cannot make God’s Reign come into being. That is God’s work. We are invited to turn our eyes away from the obvious, the strong, the wealthy, the loud, the large and to search out the hidden, the small, the insignificant and the silent places where the seeds of God’s Reign are sown and are growing almost imperceptibly. We are warned not to be taken in by the marketing or the charisma or the beauty or the power of human people or systems, but to exercise the discernment of God that sees into the hidden heart and calls out the gifts of the least, the weak, the poor and the marginalised.
Our world of the biggest and the best is burning us out, and it’s burning out our planet. The frustration and impatience and greed that it too easily fosters is damaging our souls and leading us into habits of thought and practice that consistently miss the slower, more complex, more hidden solutions to the problems we face. In our own, personal lives, and in our collective, shared life, we desperately need to learn to value and honour the power of the small things, the mystery of hidden things and the transforming impact of slow, gentle things. It takes “kingdom eyes” to see God’s work in these small, hidden ways, but if we will do the work to cultivate this way of seeing, the way we understand and live in the world will change dramatically, and the despair that so easily overwhelms us when we look at the size of the problems we face, and the failure of our large loud attempts to solve them, will be replaced with the gentle, hidden seed of hope.