Sunday, September 9, 2012

Bread for everyone, crumbs and all ...

The gospel lesson for this 15th Sunday after Pentecost (Mark 7:24-37) talks about two healing miracles. 

Two beautiful stories, indeed and there’s a good chance they’ll add to the ways we might picture Jesus, the Great Physician. Of the two stories, the second is more dramatic. 

The first, while not as dramatic, appears to be interesting since it often elicits from Christians some negative facial reactions; perhaps a raised eyebrow, the one you’d do when something you hear does not compute.

This kind of negative body language is prompted by some kind of a clash between how we had been traditionally picturing Jesus as commonly depicted in Holy Scriptures and with how we might picture him today as described by Mark.

You see, chances are that your images of Jesus include one of supreme gentleness; and with those beautiful eyes, Jesus is portrayed as the kindest, most compassionate person who ever lived. But now, it’s something quite different. We just heard Jesus seemingly insults a woman. What happened to his sense of respect? I’m sure having lived and stayed for a while with Mama Mary and just like a good Jewish son, he should have learned how to respect women. But that doesn’t seem to be the case this time.

And so our minds begin to wonder why Jesus made the allusion that this woman, who basically was just being a good mother begging for her daughter’s well being, was likened to a dog. Could you believe that? A dog! It was an insult pure and simple. Correct?

Now, just before you jump to some conclusion and say that Jesus’ behavior and words are, indeed, so unbecoming, let’s revisit that event from a different perspective so we will have a clearer understanding of this seeming unbecoming attitude of Jesus.

Mark and Matthew both have records of this account. We learn from both versions that Jesus, at one time, was in the area of Gennesaret, in the northern part of Galilee, and that he crossed the border and went further into the area of Tyre and Sidon.

It is important that this little bit of detail be mentioned because this area, Tyre and Sidon, where Jesus and his disciples entered and the setting of this story, was actually an area where Jews were not the dominant culture. This means that Jesus was virtually a foreigner in the area. It was in this area where Jesus was approached by a woman, described by Matthew as a Canaanite but described by Mark as a Greek, a Syro-Phoenician by ethnicity.

This woman allegedly came to see Jesus and implored his compassion by literally falling down on Jesus’ knees and begged him to throw the demon out her daughter. She wanted Jesus to exorcise her daughter that she may be freed of demonic possession.

Knowing who Jesus is and what he’d do in such situation, we could somehow anticipate what was about to transpire. We’re hoping that Jesus, who had been preaching and healing and doing miracles, would cure the woman’s daughter; just as he had been doing elsewhere.

And do you think Jesus was moved with compassion? Matthew tells us that he did not. No answer. In fact, he was encouraged by his disciples to turn her away.  Yet this woman was so persistent, just like a good mother who cares for nothing else except the well being of her child.

Mark does not include this part in his account. He simply proceeds to report that Jesus said: “The children have to be fed first. It isn’t right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.” That may not be of a vulgar character but a very loaded statement, actually and here’s why.

We know Israel had always believed that they were the chosen people; they were God’s people. The Jews believed that and held it firmly as a truth they could proudly claim. They also believed that those who were not Jews, the Gentiles, were the “other people”; not saved, not chosen and therefore not God’s people. Jesus, like a good Jew, heard and was aware of this claim; in fact, at one time, he was heard to have been telling that he was sent only for the lost sheep of Israel.

It is then against this background that Jesus’ allusion to “children and dogs” becomes very significant. The “children” are the people of Israel and this Syro-Phoenician woman, like the others, is the “dog”.

Knowing how “loaded” this statement was (and an insult galore), the woman should just have discontinued her plea; moved on and disappeared in the crowd and that would just have been understandable.

But she did not. Instead, she gave her rebuttal. “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” She (like a dog) would be content to lap up the scraps that fell off children’s plates. This rebuttal was an ace, to use a tennis terminology. With that remark, Jesus gives in. He even gave a compliment. “Good answer” he said, assuring the woman that the demon has left her child; that she was healed and restored back to the community.

So, what do we glean from this? Well, for one, I don’t think this is a story about what is acceptable in our social dealings or how to ward off insults from others. I don’t think this is about anything else other than to tell us about mission; the mission of the church and for that mission to succeed, we need to topple down some barriers.

Jesus preached about some hard stuff! He preached that salvation is for all and by “all” he means “all”. The story about the Syro-Phoenician woman becomes a powerful tool that we could use in teaching and advocating for this radical claim on inclusion. Both “children” and “dogs” partake of the same bread!

There is another element in the story that points to this mission of inclusion. We often think of ourselves in the shoes of the “disciples”, after all, they are our forefathers in the faith. That, however, might not be a proper claim to make. Again, using the former reference to the Jewish claim of their being the Chosen People, it would be more correct to regard ourselves as the “others” and in this story, likened as the dogs. The twelve disciples would also have seen us as “dogs”. They would have refused us entrance into their place of worship unless we jump through a lot of hoops designed to make joining more difficult.

Judaism in Jesus’ time had become a kind of an exclusive club with limited membership. Jesus changed all that. He broke the barrier of exclusivity by race and religion.

Perhaps, like the disciples, we need to widen our perspectives. Perhaps, we need to realize that the gospel of salvation is meant to reach to all and by the same line of argument, “all” should mean including everyone.

And if the story of the Syro-Phoenician woman is about mission, then the mission of the church is to reach out to those who are outside of that little corner we commonly construct when we think of evangelization.

Brothers and Sisters in the Lord, part of the mission of faith communities is to be a congregation that is reflective of the community. Your own faith community should mirror the diversity that is in the community; encouraging the blending of various gifts and talents.

If your faith community already looks like your community, you should be commended for an excellent job of inclusion. For those who are not there yet but on the way, may today’s gospel lesson serve as a good source of inspiration. The saving and healing grace of God, thru His Son Jesus Christ and by the power of the Holy Spirit, will show us the way to face our future and will empower us to change the faces of your congregation into what God intends us all to be.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

"Watch out."

Every so often, I would make allusions to the words “Baptismal Covenant” and I do that mainly because, and unless we get intentional in bringing that to the forefront of our Faith Journey, there’s a good chance that they’ll remain in the sideline, meaning, we’ll eventually end up forgetting about it. It’s a simple case of the law of disuse.

For one thing, they’re rarely brought out in the language of our weekly Eucharistic celebrations except for the first half of that said covenant; which is basically the creedal affirmation of our faith and also, when there are actual baptisms taking place. It’s only then that we get to go through the exercise of responding to some serious questions.

They are questions that point to our mission as children of God; our mission to present ourselves, before the world and through the totality of our being, as God’s vehicle in furthering God’s intent of leading others toward the path that’ll ultimately unite all of creation.

It also reminds us of the challenge we have agreed to engage in, namely, to seek and serve Christ in all persons, meaning everyone, not only those who think and speak and dress like we do but everyone, including those who differ from us in matters of culture, of political persuasions and status in the community. Our Baptismal Covenant continues to remind us of that mission.

It also reminds us of the commitment which we pledged to do, and that is to strive for justice and peace, again not just justice and peace among our kind, but among all people, and to willfully respect the dignity of every human being.

These are some of the specific reasons why we need to be constantly made cognizant of our Baptismal Covenant and for us to “walk” it rather than just “talk” about it.

And it’s a tall order for us to follow. That, I don’t deny. I mean, yes, we want to follow Jesus and to have him central in our lives but the truth is that that “all persons” thing, that’s just so prone to be violated and that “strive for justice and peace” thing? Well, you know what I’m talking about.

We can always argue and defend our culpability in this regard by pointing to our flawed humanity as the culprit but that shouldn't be made as an excuse for our continued disobedience of such injunction. We need to smarten up or else.

Well, put that aside for now and listen to this minor confession. With 10 and 12 years gap between me and my two other siblings and being the youngest of us three, I didn’t have any idea how my parents were with them when it comes to discipline. But when I was growing up, I was more of an “obedient” son. And that, I think, was due to how my father molded me more than the scolding I would get from my mother. Between Mom and Dad, my father was the disciplinarian; a very serious gentleman and yet he had subtle ways of getting his message across.

I remember those occasions when he would entertain visitors and I happen to “hang around” just to be nosy, and Dad would give me a certain look and I knew exactly what he meant by it. And I'd get the picture. I’d leave and just do my own thing.

But then there were times when I kind of “failed” to get the message or “pretended” I didn’t see it, and he’d give me that other look which I came to learn the hard way as “Watch out! Smarten up or else.” 

Through the years I kept that in me and I learned that obedience does not necessarily stem out of fear but rather out of respect for someone with authority.

It is with these two images of responsibility and discipline that I invite you to revisit our Old Testament Reading for today.

Here once more are the words of the prophet Jeremiah:

“Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture, declares the Lord. This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, proclaims about the shepherds who “tend to” my people: You are the ones who have scattered my flock and driven them away. You haven’t attended to their needs, so I will take revenge on you for the terrible things you have done to them, declares the Lord. I myself will gather the few remaining sheep from all the countries where I have driven them. I will bring them back to their pasture, and they will be fruitful and multiply. I will place over them shepherds who care for them. Then they will no longer be afraid or dread harm, nor will any be missing, declares the Lord.”  (Jeremiah 23:1-4 CEB)

I'd like to imagine Yahweh casting down that “look” on those who had been entrusted leadership and sending them the message, “Watch out. Smarten up or else”.

For us to better appreciate this imagery, we need to go back to the early beginnings of leadership in Israel. Recall that for a time, Israel as a people did not have any formal form of leadership. There were the great Pillars of Faith, like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Moses and Joseph, but for the most part, the tribes of Israel were kind of loosely federated. 

Their next semi-formal leaders were the Judges who did an outstanding job by themselves but as it turned out, Israel wanted to be just like the others in their area. They wanted to be governed by kings.

And Yahweh would have discouraged them if it were entirely up to Him but we learn that Israel got what they wanted; thereby entering into an entirely different level of relationships with their new leaders.

And that’s when the issue of responsibility for God’s people began to get out of hand. There followed a long series of what could be termed as “lousy kings”. Yes, Saul started to be the leader they ever wanted but he later devolved into self-absorption and got obsessed with getting rid of David.

With David, yes, we was the greatest king that Israel had and yet, he, too, was flawed. He was an adulterer having seduced Bathsheba. He even arranged for the murder of Bathsheba’s husband.

Even Solomon who allegedly was another great king having built the magnificent Temple, he, too, was flawed and so did the long line of kings of what would be known as the divided kingdom; the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. Their times could be mildly described as less than savory.

The bottom line is that those leaders, the kings of Israel, did not do well in carrying out the responsibility afforded them by their seat of power and authority. They did the opposite. Utilizing the imagery that was common then, the imagery of shepherds and shepherding became helpful in bringing out this sad reality. The kings of Israel were just like shepherds who had been given the responsibility of taking care of their flock, of protecting them from any harm induced from the outside but who, instead, reneged on their responsibility as leaders of the flock.

And so, Yahweh, having chosen the prophet Jeremiah to speak his Godly Truth, has come back to them and said: “Watch out, you shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture” or as the New Revised Standard Version would have it “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture.”

It was the kings, the “shepherds” of Israel, who were being held accountable for the failure in their leadership. Rather than attending to their sheep’s needs, they were instrumental in their dispersion to places unsafe for their sheep. Rather than gathering them into safety, they have caused them to scatter in harm’s way.

“Watch out. Smarten up or else.” Strong words for Jeremiah’s time and, yet, so contemporary!

This imagery of shepherds abusing their power and failing in their responsibility has continued to be operative among those who had been given the seat of leadership in the religious world, including Christianity.

There had been many occasions when this Scriptural passage has been thrown at clergy who have failed in this regard. All of us know of cases that spotlight a few in the ordained ministry who have failed. In recent years, the whole world has become aware of the scandal of clergy who abuse children, who steal from their congregations, who violate the trust given to them. Somehow the words “Watch out, smarten up or else” have become so apropos.

So where does this take us?  Are these words echoing in your hearts as well? Where’s the good news in this?

In the world of Crime and Punishment, the guilty ones are usually handed out with punitive measures commensurate to their crime. In the language of some church traditions, it’s time for “fire and brimstones” to fall down. But notice that Jeremiah does not say that of Yahweh. We know that the God pictured in the Old Testament is often that of an obdurate Judge who punishes the offender. But in this particular passage from Jeremiah, God does not do that.  Instead Yahweh says that he will raise up “shepherds” over them who will “shepherd” them.

By virtue of our baptism and as affirmed by us or our Sponsors or Godparents in the Baptismal Covenant, we have become those shepherds. We are the shepherds, both lay and ordained, who will seek to gather those sheep that had been scattered and bring them back under the guidance of our Good Shepherd, Christ Jesus.

In your own little worlds and spheres of influence, it is there where you are called to continue to do the shepherding for those who are out there, just waiting for you. And when you begin to do that, you shall also have heeded the caution: “Watch out. Smarten up or else”.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Tell others about Him.

Certain events are indeed worth remembering and especially if they have become part of a collective mindset such as those of a given people or nation.

On this first week of July, two great neighboring nations remember something significant that took place in their respective history as a people. Our friends and neighbors up in Canada are, on this very day, July 1st, celebrating their 145th anniversary of their beginning as a self-governing dominion of Great Britain and as a federation of four provinces. Today, with more provinces and territories added, Canadians are celebrating this historical landmark with all sort of civic activities along with the usual long weekend festivities.

For Americans, on Wednesday, the 4th of July, we will celebrate our nation’s independence from England when, two hundred and thirty-six (236) years ago, fifty-six (56) of America’s brave forefathers signed what we refer to as The Declaration of Independence.  Along with our Canadian friends, we too will be having all sorts of civic celebrations. Unfortunately, it’s in the middle of the week and it would have been a lot better had it fallen on a Friday or a Monday, making it a long weekend. Right?

But while that would have been indeed much better in terms of an extended period of time off from our work routine, that should not deter us from making a meaningful remembrance of that bold action which our forefathers made in finding a resolve from their ever-growing burden of being subjects of a foreign rule.

Each year, therefore, on the 4th of July, rather than making it a time for travel, merriment and libation by the grill or doing domestic chores like house clean ups or garage sale adventures, the reason(s) for celebrating the anniversary of our nation’s independence should include an appreciation of the early struggles of our nation to seek freedom from the bondage of oppression that they once endured.

While this sounds a bit like a losing proposition, as in the blurred familiarity of why we do it, the need to revisit the circumstances attending to such declaration of independence should not remain unattended; otherwise, its significance could be lost in thin air. The reality is that, through the years, the true reasons for celebrations like Canada Day or Happy 4th tend to get sidelined, unless there becomes a more intentional act of creating opportunities of making them known by succeeding generations.

This is the same kind of sentiment that the early Christians were having vis a vis their relationships with their former faith as practiced in Judaism.

Recall that in some sense, Christianity is an offshoot of Judaism and by that I mean that we can trace our beginnings from the Jewish religion. This is why we still keep the Old Testament in our Holy Bible in spite of it being a literature in and of the Jewish faith.

There was, however, one big event that led to the formation of a new faith we now call Christianity. It was none other than the belief that the Messiah, the Anointed One, had come in the person of Jesus who was born in Bethlehem and grew up in Nazareth as prophesied by the early prophets. This Jesus was the Word that became flesh; lived among mankind but also died and rose again and ascended to be with God the Father.

This was the turning point for us Christians. In due time and with that faith belief in Jesus, followers of this new movement began to be identified as Christians and in many ways, differed from their Jewish faith practices.

But not all did that. There were those who were not willing to let go of ideas and faith practices that they were accustomed to. There were still many who went by the expectations as set forth by their former religion. There were even those who believe one needs to be Jewish first before he or she can be Christian.

This ambivalence was getting serious. The leaders of the early church had to remind others of what Christianity is all about; that it was about the supremacy of Christ Jesus over the Law and the Prophets and that this should be reflected in their faith practices. They needed to be in contact with Christ Jesus because the “old has passed away and the new has come”.

Mark was among the early Christian writers who had to tell the post-apostolic community that there should be no more room for any ambivalence whatsoever when it comes to the essentials of faith; that they should not be misled by those who fostered the idea that Judaism was a requisite for the Christian faith.

And so, Mark, along with others like Matthew, Luke and John began to write what they remembered others said happened to Jesus; where he went and what his band of disciples encountered; what they remembered Jesus said about love and mercy and justice; about the Kingdom of God and most of all about the supremacy of Christ Jesus as the chief cornerstone upon whom all things should be founded on.

Among the things included by Mark in his gospel is this nice little story within a story. Some biblical scholars call this style as “sandwiching”; just like making a sandwich where you take two pieces of bread and put meat or something in between.

In this gospel story we heard today, we learn of two miracle stories; the first piece started with the coming of Jairus asking Jesus to heal his sick daughter and this was “sandwiched” by the story about the healing of the woman who had been hemorrhaging for twelve years and piece number two is the culmination of the first story ending in the raising of Jairus’ daughter back from the dead.

Now, what do you think Mark had hoped to accomplish by doing this, by telling this miracle stories? I’m quite sure he said this not just to remind them that Jesus during his earthly ministry did a lot of healing and this one of those great “miracles”. I also would like to ask you how do you think this is related to the problem of ambivalence, as I pointed out earlier.

These two miracle stories, one story within a story; Mark’s “sandwiched” gospel stories, had a lot to do with what the early church needed to be reminded of. So, let me work on this a bit and hopefully you see it as I see it.

Remember that the people Mark was trying to reach with his gospel were those whom I call “half and half”, i.e., half Jewish, half Christian, not in ethnicity but in practice and only in this context. They were the ones who needed to be reminded that it would now be Jesus and no more of the Law or the Prophets; that Jesus is supreme.

Let’s assume for a moment that we are those “half and half” Christians/Jews and as such, things we do and eat and how we behave are those expected of us as set forth by the Levitical laws. The Book of Leviticus practically told us how to live out our faith. The Levitical laws were the ones taught us by our parents and their parents and their parents' parents. Got the picture?

Now, for us to hear of a story involving a woman who had been “bleeding” for twelve years and coming to “touch” Jesus, or at least part of his garment, that would have immediately reminded us of what the Levitical law expects to happen.

Part of Leviticus Chapter 15 deals with stuff like this. I mean it’s really bad in that a woman who had an “issue of blood” is considered unclean, impure; even the place she touches or sits on is to be considered unclean.

 What makes this woman’s case quite serious is that she had this for twelve years. In other words, for that long period of time, she has practically been “dead” by being constantly considered impure and not being allowed to resume back to her place in society. Read this chapter and you would really appreciate the seriousness of what this woman did to Jesus.

Remember that we are still ‘imagining’ ourselves as among the "half and half" 1st century Christians. The “half Jewish” part of us would have expected the story to include some drastic counter measures to come from Jesus. We would expect something punitive to come from Jesus after he asked the question “Who touched me?” Maybe something like, “Stone her!”

Mark, however, tells us that Jesus said to her, "Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease." We would have opened our mouth wide in disbelief and asked “Who is this Jesus who would do such a thing?”

The words that Mark tells us Jesus supposedly had said are radically different from what we had always been told. The “half Christian” in us is enlarging each time we listen to what Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ has told the woman. We now believe even more in Jesus!

His ways go beyond our understanding; his ways are radically different and exceeded those prescribed by the Levitical law. Jesus, who allowed the unclean woman to go healed in spite of having touched him tells us that only in him and our faith and not in any prescribed Levitical law can we have the eternal healing we need.
Now, do you see the connection? There’s more.

In the Markan “sandwich” literary style, piece number one was the story about Jairus asking Jesus to heal his daughter, which was interrupted by the story of the bleeding woman. Piece number two is when Jesus, along with Peter, James and John finally arrived only to find, as was earlier told him, Jairus' twelve-year-old daughter already dead. In fact, others already started mourning.

Mark continues to say that Jesus said to them, "Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping." And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child's father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was. And the biggest surprise happened.  Taking her hand, he said to her, “Talitha koum,” which means, “Young woman, get up.”

Remember that we are still ‘imagining’ ourselves as among the half and half 1st century Christians. Like as before, the “half Jewish” part of us would have expected the story to end differently.

But listen to what Mark said Jesus did. He took her by the hand. Our mouth would have again opened wide in utter disbelief. Oh my Lord! Doesn’t this Jesus remember what the Book of Numbers says of this?

Our “half Jewish” side tells us that Jesus should not have touched her: a dead woman! But he did and that would have rendered him unclean as well. And yet we learn that by that touch, life came out of death! Again, this Jesus proclaims his supremacy over what the Law would have him do.

I wonder whether Mark was successful in reaching out to his 1st Century readers. I know he did clear it up for us; so let’s go back now to where we are.

Many centuries have passed and through those years there are reasons why we ought to continue in reminding fellow Christians of the supremacy of the Lord God over all things. It becomes our mission to continue that.

To some degree we could find some affinity with the characters in our miracle stories. Like Jairus who defied the barriers of his culture and even his religion and begged Jesus for his daughter’s healing, so could we put down those barriers that hinder us from our search for the real source of our well being and plead our case to our Lord Jesus. He once assured us “who are heavy laden to come to him that we may have rest”.

Like the unknown woman who was tormented with her issue of blood for some lengthy time thereby putting her as some kind of “untouchable”, so do we have “issues” of our own that at times tend to isolate us from the rest of our community.

Learn from her. Having entrusted her trust for healing on the hands of conventional sources but with no effect, at times we travel on the same direction arriving at the same end result of getting nowhere. Learn from her. Defying all cultural restrictions, she approached Jesus convinced that if only she could touch even just the hem of his garment she would get healed.

She could be our model in our search for the often-evasive true source of life and happiness. With her healing, she was restored to her faith and social communities. With our healing from God, those of us who had been considered almost “dead” by others could now have our “life” back and be restored in our circles of fellowships.

Indeed, we may find ourselves in life's conditions like those encountered by Jairus or this Unclean Woman and when we do, let it be our bold action to come and seek out for His healing and when we find Him, allow ourselves to be touched by God in and through Jesus and by the power of the Holy Spirit.

May there be that full assurance that God be supreme in our lives and Jesus as the chief cornerstone in the building of our spiritual edifice.

We need to tell others about Him.  

Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Great Provider

 “Happy Father’s Day” to the fathers among the various  gathered community and especially to those who are still in their prime time of discharging this important role of fatherhood.  I am just so glad that we continue to have this special day of honoring this special group of individuals.

I realize that some of these individuals have failed in the discharge of their parental duties and therefore most people think they are not quite deserving of whatever accolade the rest of the fathers are afforded on this very day. While that scenario looks sad and undeniably so, the truth is that it’s part of the reality out there; just as  on the other end of the pendulum there are other fathers who actually go beyond their expected role of fatherhood, as a result of their spouses having abandoned the equally important role of motherhood.

But traditionally, on this day, we call to remembrance those fathers who have carried out or are currently carrying out their duty as “provider” in the arena of parenthood.  And they do this exceptionally well especially with the help of and in partnership with their wives.

I used the word “traditionally” mainly because in times past, it was the father who took on the role of the “provider”. A typical scenario would be that Dad was the breadwinner in the family. He leaves for work with his lunch box already prepared by the loving and caring wife who stays home and takes care of the children. At the end of Dad’s workday, he first drops by with his buddies at the local watering hole and then comes home and enjoys supper with his family, again prepared by the wife. This pattern gets repeated for a few more days in the week.

This is the “ideal” dad, the best “Provider”, who gets honored on Father’s Day. Sounds familiar? Those of you who have no clue as to what I’m talking about must be truly younger than those who nodded their heads and gave the impression that they do.

Sadly, such arrangement has now become a kind of an artifact, a thing of the past in most cases, since it does not “hold water” anymore. Single parenthood is not an uncommon scenario when we talk of modern day parenthood. There are many, many cases of parenthood being borne by one parent fulfilling both roles. Hence, in today’s celebration, I also recognize and honor the mothers and others who had acted as fathers to children. They are living witnesses to the reality that being a “provider” is no longer the monopoly of the fathers.

I think I have said enough about the role of provider both being “traditionally” assigned to fathers as well as being fulfilled nowadays by mothers or in ideal situations, assigned to both parents. And so, to all who have fulfilled that role of “providers”, Happy Father’s Day and I hope nobody disagrees with the intent of such congratulations.

Moving on, let me continue by saying that the gospel lesson in today’s readings, undoubtedly, is among the familiar ones in all of Scripture. It contains two sets of parables or stories, which, while relatively shorter as compared to other stories in the Bible, are so powerful in themselves and have inspired so many people of faith through the centuries. They are stories that have something to do with the aforementioned role of “provider”.

Listen to them once more and see if you could spot their allusion to the concept of provider.

Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvest time.” He continued, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it? Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”  (Mark 4:26-32 CEB)

Short but very pregnant stories; so loaded with serious implications in life. The first story is a gentle reminder of the often-neglected truth that God is indeed the “Great Provider”.

As I have repeatedly noted in previous homilies, our common tendency is to assume and claim ownership or hold dominion over things or people around us. At times we get so successful in doing so without regard to other people’s dignity and we perpetuate it almost as a norm. In no time we are led to believe that the “blessings and comforts” we enjoy are due to us and not from this Great Provider. Many follow this path but that’s just not right!

Jesus’ story, of how the Kingdom of God is being compared to a farmer sowing seeds that live and thrive on their own and get ready to be harvested, points us to the presence and generosity of the Great Provider, the All Merciful and Loving Father of us all.

We must never forget that every good thing that we experience in this journey we call life – even those that come about through our own efforts, is only but a reflection of God’s goodness and power, never ours.  Whatever good we are able to do or whatever qualities we possess are possible and exist only because our God, the Great Provider, made that to happen. 

Each of us only has a certain kind of “importance” and “worth” not because God has singled us out or exalted us as individuals over others, but because we are created out of God’s love and formed in God’s image.

Jesus used this parable to illustrate what the “Kingdom of God” could like. Taken in the sense of God as the Great Provider, we can then say that the Kingdom of God will see its final coming only when we cease or stop making that erroneous claim that things are what they are because of our inventiveness and ingenuity.

And we’re not quite there yet, to be honest. Perhaps, one reason why Jesus included the phrase “thy kingdom come” in the prayer we call the Lord’s Prayer is to encourage us to be relentless in our asking of that time when we could honestly claim that everything we have and enjoy is not because of our own doing but comes forth only from the Great Provider.

The second story in our gospel lesson is the famous Parable of the Mustard Seed. Needless to say, we have heard this story so many times and on those occasions, our attention was drawn to the particulars of “smallness”.

I recall being always awed by how this “smallness” could transform into “big-ness” making my mind wander off into the world of “how can it be” as in wondering how can it turn into this big tree when the seed is so small. I’ve passed that stage already and I now dwell instead more on the area of  “so what good is this big-ness”.

With this questioning stance, the emphasis of the story shifts. Now the focus is not just in the mystery of how “smallness” gets transformed into “big-ness” but on what happens because of that “big-ness”.

This is where the concept of  “provider” gets upped another notch. The mustard seed, the smallest of the seeds that a local Palestinian farmer could have sown by then, grows big enough to provide nesting comfort for birds in the area. It’s something that happens as a result of this “bigness” that has emanated from something so small.

The shift happens in a unique way.

 In the first story, we easily look at “provision” to be like a blessing that is received. And we assign this role to the Great Provider. In the second story, we look at “provision” as a blessing that is given and this is one role that happens when the “seed” of faith that has been planted in us grows “big”. In this sense, those of us who have received blessings become blessings for others.

As to the prayer that “thy kingdom come”, we again are reminded that this will only come to pass when we ourselves shall have become “providers”, blessing others with what I call their “nesting comforts” in their personal lives in the community they live in.

That is the role that often generates some notes of nostalgia whenever we celebrate Father’s Day. We miss those times when our fathers showered us with tokens of their role as “providers” for their families.

I miss my dad’s unique ways of providing us with his version on “nesting comforts”. Just like a typical father, my dad was the assumed breadwinner of the family but in reality, he shared this role with my Mom. They both helped each other provide us with a decent home and an opportunity to pursue studies in good learning institutions.

As a clergyman, my father’s role of being a “provider” leaned more towards providing me and my siblings with good Christian values; shaping me with healthy spiritual formation and developing love and respect for the family.

Looking back to those early formative years, I could truly regard them as my transformation from “smallness” to “big-ness”; forging a growth into something which has enabled me to provide my own family with my own version of “nesting comforts”. I would always pay my deepest respect and admiration to a man who learned from the Great Provider, allowed the seed of faith to germinate in his life and learned to give to others the blessings he received himself. Such was the father I wish I could still greet “Happy Father’s Day”.

Brothers and Sisters in the Lord, the mission field around us is so rich and fertile for the seeds of faith to grow. We could engage ourselves into becoming active participants in planting seeds to that field perhaps beginning in our family circle. Let us continue to fulfill that role of “providers” not so much in terms of material comfort but more in the areas of caring and nurturing of the values we hope to ripen for some good harvesting.

God indeed is the Great Provider and we can do a similar job of continuing his work in the mission field of our choosing.  

So let’s start small and let God, the Great Provider do the rest.  Who knows what we might grow into?