Sunday, June 18th

This week the new Poet Laureate of the United States was chosen, and so on my drive home on Wednesday, the NPR afternoon show broke away from talk of Guantanamo Bay and the ongoing violence in Iraq to interview the new national poet, Stephen Dunn.

As Dunn read a few poems for the radio audience, I marveled at how deeply poets seem to pay attention to the world around them. They see past the surface of things. You might look at chestnut and see just that—a chestnut. But a poet has the ability to see a poem in that chestnut, to paint a whole world within the space of that little nut.

One of my favorite poets, Pablo Neruda, made a practice of writing odes to ordinary things. He composed odes to artichokes and onions, tomatoes and books. He even wrote an ode to laziness— one of my favorite poems to read on my day off. One of his most beautiful poems glorified the lowly chestnut. He mused, “Out of the bristling foliage you fell complete: polished wood, glistening mahogany, perfect as a violin that has just been born in the treetops and falls offering the gifts locked inside it, its hidden sweetness, finished in secret among birds and leaves… oval instrument that holds in its structure unblemished delight and edible rose.” Through metaphor and imagination, Neruda turned a chestnut into a violin—and a poem. Instead of tossing the fallen chestnut aside, he paid attention and discovered its amazing potential.

A chestnut transformed into a poem, a mustard seed transfigured into a shrub large enough to host a flock of birds. The scripture today is about the Kingdom of God. In true form, Jesus doesn’t direct us to consider the big and bombastic; he presses our attention to the tiny and humble. Seeds are small, but not insignificant. Within a seed a whole life is contained, and what’s more, generations of life to come. Jesus calls out the sacred potential of a seed, finding within it a kingdom’s worth of possibility.

Jesus encountered all kinds of low-life characters during his public ministry. Despite the fact that the church has had two millennia to get used to the idea, the church is still shocked and offended by the boundary-breaking behavior of our Lord and Savior.

He hung out with the dregs of society. He broke bread with tax collectors and conversed with promiscuous women—and probably a few promiscuous men, too, though the scriptures don’t point out that particular sin among the menfolk of the bible.

Jesus didn’t hang out with those people because he pitied them. He didn’t call out their sinfulness and run back to the safety of the respectable Pharisees. He spent time with them, delighting in their unique company. Jesus reached out to ordinary, broken people because he saw beyond their sinfulness, beyond their role as outcasts and outlaws. He perceived their potential, the faithful men and women they could become when they experienced the liberating power of his Heavenly Father.

He looked at roughed up fishermen and recognized them as Disciples. He encountered women of ill repute and trusted that the Holy Spirit would transform them into faithful bearers of the good news.

And so the Kingdom of God grows. God’s creative force coaxes forests teeming with life out of brittle seeds, and God’s redeeming love releases men and women from sin, and recasts them as co-builders of his emerging realm of peace and justice. When we keep our eyes open for the seeds of the Kingdom, the ridiculously small beginnings to the great things our God will accomplish are everywhere, just waiting to be nurtured by the breath of the Holy Spirit and tended by the acts of the faithful.

One sign of the Kingdom I have become acquainted with over the last few years is called the One Campaign. One is a small number, an insignificant number. If you found a penny on the ground, you may or may not decide its worth stooping down to add one cent to your piggy bank. But the One Campaign proclaims that one is as mighty as a mustard seed. The organization is lobbying the governments of the richest nations of the world to commit to setting aside one percent of their budgets to accomplish their Kingdom-sized goal: to make poverty history. The One Declaration for the United States campaign is

The hopeful tone of this declaration moves me. One of the last classes I took in school was about the contemporary crisis of poverty. Though one of the instructors was a theologian, I was the only seminarian on the class roster. My classmates were students of politics, psychology, and education. Each week, we gathered to address another dimension of the global poverty crisis. And even though there were so many brilliant people in the room, the crisis seemed to become more and more unsolvable. Our idealistic hope that somehow our thoughtful consideration of poverty would have an impact on the world deflated. We had lost all sense that a mustard seed can be cultivated into the greatest of all shrubs.

By focusing on the simple work of planting seeds that can grow into a global movement genuinely capable of making a difference, the One Campaign guards against hopelessness. Instead, the campaign has a humble confidence that one person, one voice, one vote, and one percent can make poverty history. The Kingdom of God is something like that.

If we are going to trust that seeds can become great trees, that sinners can become faithful saints, that one voice make a difference, well, we have to have a whole lot of hope. Optimism, particularly false optimism, will not help us. False optimism cannot face the fact that the seed is small. The false optimist pretends that the seed is already a tree, that sin isn’t really all that bad, that signing a declaration that calls for the eradication of poverty means that the work is done.

What we need is hope, the hard-earned trust that God will take our small and humble offerings and transform them into pillars of his Kingdom. Hope isn’t about denying the truth. Hope recognizes the weakness of the seed. Hope admits that there is work to be done—soil to till, tender roots to protect. But hope gratefully acknowledges that God is at work, guiding, redeeming, and cajoling his beloved Creation into a place that is fit for the Prince of Peace.

Mother Theresa began her orphanage in Calcutta with a parable vision. She told her superiors, “I have three pennies and a dream from God to build an orphanage.”

Her superiors told her, “You can’t build an orphanage with three pennies… with three pennies you can’t do anything.

“I know.” She said. “But with God and three pennies I can do anything.”


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