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Pentecost 4B Sermon
Mark 4:26-34
June
17, 2018

 

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Mark 4:26-34

He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us, in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.

What is the Kingdom of God? If you were to describe the Kingdom of God, how would you begin? Many of us think back to times in our lives when we had wonderful experiences … like a wedding day or the birth of a child; others hearken to the beauty of the scenery we experienced when travelling to faraway places like the Highlands of Scotland! Still others quote passages of scripture like Revelation, where we are told about gates of pearl and streets of gold and lush rivers with trees on either side for the healing of the nations.

When Jesus describes the Kingdom of God, it is most often done in parables. Parables are those tricky stories which sometimes act like allegories, identifying a particular character with God or with us, and sometimes just act like stories which turn our expectations and our worlds upside down! But when you consider that the Kingdom of God – or the reign of God as some say – is neither a place, nor an event, but is a reality, then you can understand why Jesus uses these picture stories to try to convey a reality that is often very different than anything we have experienced.

Consider the first parable in our Gospel lesson this morning. Jesus compares the Kingdom of God with someone scattering seed on the ground. All he does is spread the seed – he can sleep and go about his daily routine without worrying about it, and the seed will grow and produce grain because it comes up from the earth. It’s a bit of a confusing story, and I am not sure I totally understand it – it sounds like Jesus is saying that the reign of God will take root and grow because God is behind it and not us. Whether he means in the world in general, or in an imperial society or in someone’s heart, Jesus does not specify. It will grow gradually and automatically, perhaps so subtly that you won’t even notice it until it is ready to produce the fruit it carries. It is quite cryptic and a little confusing. It leaves us basking in the grace of God’s promise to grow the reality of his reign while we wonder just what our roles might be – seed spreader? harvester? something else?? And what does it mean that we might be harvesters? Does it mean that we collect the goodness that God’s reign produces to share with the world? Does it mean that we might be part of the judgement that is to come? How do we do this exactly? There are definitely more questions raised about the Kingdom of God from this parable than answers given!

But Jesus does not stop there. He goes on and shares a parable that most of us are more familiar with; it is also a parable that would have evoked much laughter from the people who heard it. “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable can we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all …. shrubs, and puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

We are left to wonder why Jesus is not more like Ezekiel when telling us about the Kingdom of God. In our first lesson, Ezekiel is playing upon an earlier poem where the line of King David is compared to a tall cedar tree from Lebanon – a mighty, strong symbol in its day of power and permanence. It would make more sense to me for Jesus to say that the Kingdom of God is like a cedar of Lebanon, whose presence provides shade to all, and whose wood adorns the very temple of Solomon. Instead, Jesus points us to these bushes which come from tiny seeds. That surprises us … and maybe that is the point. The Kingdom of God is surprising and often goes against all of our expectations of God’s reign while it grows slowly, without our attention.
John Dominic Crossan, a Biblical scholar who specializes in the parables of Jesus, also says this about the parable of the mustard seed: “The point … is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher; it is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where birds are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed; [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses -- if you could control it.” If you are like me, you can identify with that parable pretty well. Often what God gives me, while I am grateful for it, is not exactly what I would have fashioned for myself if I had the choice. But it is what I need and we need, and what the world needs me to have and to be so that we might experience this mysterious reality of God’s reign together.

I sometimes wonder if I got the father I would have fashioned for myself, or if he was the father that God knew that I needed in life. When I hear people talk about my dad, I hear them describing a being much like a cedar of Lebanon – he was a giant of a man, strong in so many ways, and so many people benefitted from his presence. But I think that he would be embarrassed by all of that talk. I think he would more likely see himself as a mustard seed bush, something that we might not always have desired, but someone who would welcome and love everyone gathering for shade in his branches. He would never have thought of himself in such perfect, glowing terms as a mighty cedar tree, but we all knew him as one who would give whatever we needed to find joy in life, whether it was a word of correction or a word of encouragement.

The humor and absurdity of these complimentary parables describe the Kingdom of God in ways that my father appreciated and passed on to me. Jesus could have likened God’s reign to the Cedars of Lebanon if he wanted to describe an in-breaking state of affairs that would cause people to drop everything and be impressed. Instead, he describes something more ordinary, and yet also something more able to show up, to take over inch by inch, eventually transforming the entire landscape. Fussy people might deem this uninvited plant to be too much of a good thing. Others might consider it a nuisance; but what about those who, like the birds in the parable, need a home where they can be safe? Who need a father figure to nurture them? Who need the presence of a community where they can experience peace, love and joy? This is the challenge that we Christians have today, especially in light of the actions our government is taking to split children from their parents at our southern border. Jesus doesn’t just say that it is one kind of bird who can find shade in the Kingdom of God. It’s all of the birds of the air. Ultimately Jesus’ parable helps to flush out what he says is the greatest commandment and the one that comes in a close second – to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

Thanks be to God that Jesus doesn’t so much promise us that which impresses and demands our attention in these parables; rather, he gives us freely that which changes our reality and blesses our lives so that we can share God’s blessings with others, even those who have no home or status. May it be so, in the name of Christ our Lord; Amen.