A wild goose.
1 Kings 3:5-12
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
We have this way of cleaning up the stories that form us.
From stories of war to stories in our families, we have this way of ignoring the unpleasant parts of our stories and turning even the smallest details into a rose-colored, bigger, better version of the story as it happened.
But the truth is always a wild thing, messier, more complicated, more unpredictable than we like to imagine.
Today, in our Old Testament reading, we have a story that some of us might be familiar with — you’ve got King Solomon, son of King David, who has just taken the throne. He’s slumbering peacefully in the midst of a Middle Eastern night when God shows up in his dream and all Solomon hears is the voice of God: “Ask what I should give you.”
Solomon replies in flowery words that include praise for God’s love of and favor towards Solomon’s father, David. Then in the dream, Solomon says to God, “And now … you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child, and I do not know how to go out or come in.” Solomon goes on to ask, famously, for wisdom, and the takeaway that we’re supposed to have is presumably that Solomon could’ve asked for anything from God, and he asked for wisdom.
Even God seems surprised by Solomon’s answer and promises to give him not only wisdom, but to make him, essentially, the person most known for wisdom in biblical literature. The GOAT of wisdom, if you will.
What we’re not told in this story is the Game-of-Thrones like narrative that precedes it in 1 Kings. You see, this “little child” of a king has already ordered the deaths of three people in order to solidify his reign. There had been a little uprising that needed quelling. He’s also entered international politics in a House-of-Cards-style way, marrying Pharaoh’s daughter and even sacrificing to her gods in the high places.
No story about humanity is entirely clean. Stuff, as they say… stuff… stuff happens. Humanity is complicated. The truth is wild.
We forget that, sometimes. History usually tells us the cleaned-up version of everything that happened before we were born. News outlets, to some varying degree, try to give us multiple perspectives on what’s happening now, but increasingly, people on the left and the right are flocking to the ones that un-complicate the story. We want things easy and digestible in a way that confirms what we already knew to be true, preferably in 140 characters or fewer. I think we want our views confirmed because we don’t like to be surprised. Being surprised is scary and difficult.
A disclaimer: just the other day I reflected that someone really should write a ballet called On Both Sides: The Dance of False Equivalence — because too often, when people use the phrase “on both sides” or “on the left and the right” in political discourse, the two things being described aren’t really the same, and few people, when pressed, would agree that they are. Saying “on both sides” and blaming everyone is just another way we try to clean up the story. So I don’t mean to do that here.
Some problems, however, really aren’t partisan — they are human problems. It’s a human problem that we all tend to want our stories cleaned up, neat, and orderly. We don’t much like to be surprised by nuance or complication when it comes to our deeply held beliefs.
The problem is that most wise people will tell you that experience and wisdom aren’t clean and uncomplicated. Wisdom doesn’t happen when planned. Wisdom is usually the thing you get when you’re least expecting it.
I’ve learned plenty in planned visits and meetings and study sessions in the past six years of pastoral ministry.
But the truth is that I’ve probably learned a lot more through the sudden, messy stuff: the hospital pager going off at 3AM. Working at an Atlanta shelter for those without housing that has just discovered a bed bug problem, then trying to get 40 men, women, and children into clean clothes and sheets before nightfall.
Every crisis that ever turned into a conversation has taught me something.
We don’t often like to be surprised by life. We want things dependable: reliable transportation that cranks every time. A steady income. Loving and uncomplicated relationships with friends and loved ones. Predictability in the country in the world on the news.
Clean and simple. Predictable. Stable.
We tell ourselves that this is what we all really want, from work, politics, and relationships.
How’s that working out?
In the Gospel reading, Jesus tells a rapid fire series of parables today that quite frankly would have made a bizarre speech even by today’s standards.
He compares the kingdom of heaven to a shrubbery before Monty Python made it cool. Then he compares the kingdom to yeast — yeast, which ancient folks thought of as unclean. Then he compares the kingdom to treasure and pearls, which makes more sense. After that, without stopping to explain, he compares the kingdom to a net full of good and bad fish.
Then he says, “Have you understood all this?”
And the disciples lie.
They say they get it. I wonder if this is one of those times that after Jesus told a bunch of parables, the disciples sit around and poke each other and say “You ask him,” but then they realize that they’d all just nodded and said they understood and now it’d be awkward if they asked.
And the passage went on to become famous for the seemingly simple parable of the mustard seed: the little seed that grows quickly into a big tree, symbolizing the great growth in the early church.
But there’s another truth about mustard seeds.
Mustard seeds were tiny, which also means that they can hide in a bag of other seeds. Mustard bushes aren’t the kind that farmers planted in nice rows. They’re the kind of seeds that spring up in the middle of a field, tossed out by some unsuspecting sower. It’s not the nice story of a planting that we might imagine — it’s one of a sudden shrub that pops up in the middle of the field and provides shelter — and food, since nearly the entire plant is edible. It’s often an unplanned plant that gives itself for the life of the world around it.
And yeast, thought of by the ancients as unclean, is another hidden thing that springs up — not clean or neat or predictable. Bread rises as it will rise, hopefully in an attractive way. Also springing up unpredictably is hidden treasure, and a net that gets hauled in suddenly, chock full of both good fish and bad fish.
I was standing with my church planter friend at the Worship Jubilee in 2015 when she was asking a rather famous Lutheran pastor about synod and churchwide support for this pastor’s early work, when her church start was new and growing. This pastor responded, “Oh, they didn’t know what to do with us — not to be flippant or disrespectful, but honestly, we were kind of like a crisis pregnancy.”
New life is happening, but it’s happening suddenly and unexpectedly, and oh my gosh what are we gonna do?!
Humanity, indeed life, is not clean and predictable. Every day we meet people and see situations that could radically change how we see things, if only we would let them. Every day God drifts into our lives, into our mess, quite suddenly, and says,
“Ask what I should give you.”
Just this week, that same friend of mine was chided that she may become a bishop someday. My friend responded, “Thank you, but no one in their right mind would make me a bishop.”
I responded, “Good thing the Holy Spirit is never, in my experience, in her right mind.”
Humanity and history aren’t clean. And in the midst of that, we serve the church, which has more than a complicated history of violence and suppression and, on our best days, feeding people and living into the kingdom.
The Church’s history is a net full of good fish and bad fish.
We, for our part, have found this particular church, all of us, in our different ways. This church is a surprise in itself, one that has been through its share of crisis, one where people don’t always agree but where they love each other nonetheless and where eventually, if we keep showing up, we find reconciliation and hope together despite our mess. Where people who believe in the same hope come together and give of everything they have and are for the life of the church and the world.
I’ve said it recently, but sometimes I don’t think we fully recognize what a miracle it is to find a loving church family where all are welcomed and loved. It is, in the words of Jesus, “like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (v. 44).
Life is messy and hard, but these days I find it easier to believe in God because of you.
Your faith, your strength, your willingness to show up and to struggle, your willingness to give life to those around you and to roll with whatever life throws you inspires me to believe that this is a church with a future that we get to step into together.
It won’t be clean or easy or predictable. The story won’t be an uncomplicated one because human stories never are. The story of the Church’s past isn’t.
But it is our story: a story of a God that keeps surprising us when we least expect it, in the things that are hidden and complicated and messy. The story of a God that just keeps giving life, whether we’re expecting it or not.
I close with a prayer written by an artist and architect from my home congregation. She makes sketches and writes prayers to accompany them. In one particular sketch prayer, she depicted wild geese. The wild goose is a Celtic symbol of the Holy Spirit which stands in contrast to the quiet dove of Scripture.
I like this image: one of a diving, honking, disruptive, protective goose.
Alongside the sketch of wild geese, Ann writes this prayer with which we close.
Let us pray.
“O holiest of spirits,
As the wild goose soars,
So do you.
With strength and power.
You call our names.
We who grow anxious and fearful,
We who succumb too easily to popular norms,
We who fail to lift our heads upward.
We who fall too silent, too soon, too often.
In our midst,
You come like a raging wind,
Calling us with loud squawks and honks.
May we listen to these uncommon invitations,
And join your Spirit ways –
Boldly shouting ‘yes’ to grand, unknown adventures,
Courageously turning where your voice leads,
Transforming systems to bring healing and wholeness,
Radically welcoming all of God’s people,
Speaking truth to power, day after day,
With open hearts, generous in love.
May we be so brave as to follow your wild ways,
Knowing you will joyfully lead us,
And love us, on the journey.
For all that will be,
We lift our hands in gratitude,
Spirit of God. Amen.” (1)
Solomon’s story was a complicated one, and so are all of ours. But God was with Solomon, giving wisdom, showing up in unexpected places, and God will be with us too.
So let us follow Jesus together.
It won’t be predictable, but one thing is for sure: it will be wild. Amen.
1. You can find more of Ann’s Sketch Prayers here.