In the Name of God who looks on our hearts and not our appearances. Amen.
In this capitalistic culture which bombards us with media that is obsessed with our outward appearances – this morning’s lesson from the First Book of Samuel is utterly refreshing! Yes, the Good News of God does indeed reside in the Older Testament! When the Prophet Samuel arrives in Bethlehem to anoint one of the sons of Jesse as the king over Israel, we learn that when Samuel looked on Eliab, the eldest son of Jesse, he mistakenly assumes that Eliab must be God’s anointed. “But the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Today is Father’s Day and we celebrate with those who are honoring the vocation to parent children. As I preached in last year’s Sermon for Father’s Day, even though there are excellent theological arguments for imagining God as Father, we must acknowledge that there are fathers who are neglectful, abusive, or absent, and that there are children being raised by one or two mothers, so the image of God as Father, or as Mother for that matter, does become problematic. That said, regardless of the joys or struggles we have experienced in our relationships with fatherhood, I believe that the Good News proclaimed in today’s Old Testament Lesson and in today’s Gospel provides new ways to understand the Holy One who does not look on outward appearances but looks on our hearts.
As the President of this country makes so painfully clear every day, our greed-obsessed media and culture have permitted demonic patriarchal norms to hijack authentic masculinity in order to produce and to perpetuate what is known as “toxic masculinity.” For those of you who, like me, identify as male, you may feel uncomfortable about the direction my sermon is taking. To you, I say, fear not! Scholars studying toxic masculinity have made it clear that “masculinity itself is not, by itself, the problem to be fought against, but rather a specific construction of it, a construction shaped by a mold of patriarchy and privilege.” For centuries systems of government controlled by white men have ensured that a disproportionately large share of power should be accorded to persons who happen to be male, straight, white, rich, able-bodied, able-minded, young, and American. To maintain the status quo of this patriarchal culture our media and society pressure men and boys to conform to norms of “traditional masculinity.” These norms include: winning at all costs, the need for emotional control, risk-taking, violence, dominance, sexual promiscuity or playboy behavior, self-reliance, primacy of work, power over women, disdain for homosexuality, and the pursuit of status. As Indiana University’s recent meta-analysis of almost 20,000 males revealed, “men who conformed to [these] traditional masculine norms had higher rates of mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and stress, and lower rates of positive mental health outcomes, such as life satisfaction, self-esteem and psychological well-being.” After studying the film, The Mask You Live In with Circle of the Beloved’s young adults last year, we learned that because of America’s obsession with “be a man” posturing and the media’s commitment to marketing and perpetuating toxic masculinity by affirming rage, violence, and isolation as “manly” traits, young boys simply cannot cultivate their innate capacities to create caring relationships, practice empathy, nurture closeness and connection. As a result, three or more boys commit suicide daily because they can no longer cope with the feelings of shame and humiliation they experience by having to constantly prove they are “real men” who must use violence to gain respect.
It is difficult to celebrate fatherhood today, knowing that the white men who are your country’s elected officials enforce laws that rip migrant children away from their fathers and mothers for the cruel and deplorable purpose of deterring already traumatized families who are fleeing war, poverty, and disease in their own countries from entering the United States. Toxic masculinity corrodes and destroys the tender web of human relationship. Toxic masculinity is this country’s ‘zero tolerance’ policy which has now torn 1,800 immigrant families apart so that the Trump administration will appear to be the toughest enforcer of immigration laws which will “make America great again.” Toxic masculinity results in the irreparable harm pediatricians have named ‘toxic stress’ which is damaging the lives of over 11,000 migrant children who are separated from their parents. The New England Journal of Medicine reports that,
if children are unnecessarily and traumatically removed from their parents, their physical and mental health and well-being will suffer. The effects of traumatic experiences – especially in children who have already faced serious adversity – are unlikely to be short lived: cumulative adversity can last a lifetime, even increasing the risk of early death.
Today’s good news is that we can liberate ourselves and our loved ones from the oppression of toxic masculinity when we witness ourselves or our loved ones struggling to conform to the dehumanizing norms of “traditional masculinity.” Men and women alike no longer need to destroy our tender personhood by constantly striving to appear invincible, stoic, fearless, violent, dominant, promiscuous, self-reliant, successful, misogynistic, homophobic, and ambitious; because God does not look on these outward appearances. God looks only and eternally on our hearts.
The parable in today’s Gospel provides us with a symbol that points beyond itself to this sacred truth. Jesus’ parable teaches us that the kingdom of God is “like a mustard seed, the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” Jesus’ mustard seed rejects the demonic kingdoms of imperial, earthly rulers, like Caligula, Nero, or the 45th President of the United States – each obsessed with being the greatest; not with being the least or the smallest, like Christ’s mustard seed. The Gospel truth proclaimed in Jesus’ parable this morning affirms that the kingdom of God shall indeed come to full fruition when the smallest seed is sown and inevitability sprouts, grows, and produces an abundance for all: a miraculous mystery beyond the understanding or the control of the one who sows the seeds.
The unfathomable marvels of God’s kingdom always begin with the smallest and the most unlikely. Like the youngest and forgotten one, keeping his father’s sheep because no one would have ever considered inviting the youngest to a prophet’s anointing. And yet, God chooses the least likely, the almost forgotten one, and the anonymous shepherd becomes the anointed King David. King David, the ancestor of the poor, Palestinian boy, born to an unwed mother in a squalid shelter for animals who would grow up to be lynched by Roman authorities in front of his mother and his lovers on a garbage dump outside Jerusalem. Yes, indeed it is the most unlikely one who is the Son of God, the Christ, God’s Word made flesh: Jesus, crucified and risen!
We are called to sow the smallest mustard seeds of God’s kingdom in those almost forgotten and unlikely people, places, and spaces in this world. In her book, Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Marie Brown, discusses the importance of fractals to create systemic change. She writes, “what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale” because,
When we speak of systemic change, we need to be fractal. Fractals – a way to speak of patterns we see – move from the micro to the macro level. The same spirals on sea shells can be found in the shape of galaxies. We must create patterns that cycle upwards. We are microsystems… Our friendships and relationships are systems. Our communities are systems. Let us practice [fractals] upwards.
Christ’s mustard seed is the Gospel’s fractal. We can build the kingdom of God by intentionally practicing the radical and unconditional love of God with ourselves, our neighbors, and all of Creation in small ways – in small, intentional, mustard-seed, love-fractals. When we practice sowing the smallest mustard seeds of God’s love in our own lives: we suddenly notice that empathy, compassion, connection, kindness, closeness, hospitality, and the tender power of human relationships liberates us from the tyranny of toxic masculinity. By paying attention to the smallest, the youngest, the most unlikely, and the almost forgotten, we sow the smallest mustard seeds of faith in God who turns “never” into nevertheless and who makes a way out of “no way.”
Let us go forth to sow the smallest seeds of God’s kingdom of radical love in the world because “when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that all the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Amen.
 1 Samuel 16:11.