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Mark 4: 26 – 34
Parables are like poetry in this regard: Both art forms take ordinary words, events, things, and arrange them in a manner that invites a new and perhaps extraordinary insight. We are surprised by the unexpected turn of a phrase. We can be shocked by circumstances that are unusual. We want to pay close attention to that poem or, this morning, that parable that broadens the horizon, or that illuminates our lives dispelling the shadows. When we take in this new insight, or when we understand the previously ordinary in a new way, our world can change.
The seed growing in the field is a familiar parable, but it is unique to the Gospel of Mark. Other parables in Mark can be found in the other Gospels. So let’s ask, “What is it in this parable that Mark wants us to know as we grow in the love and knowledge of Jesus Christ?” It all starts with something as simple as planting a seed in the ground.
Agriculture is the bedrock of civilization as we know it. Farming transformed a nomadic ancestors into a people who could settle down, build a city, support the arts, and establish formal education. Every farmer and every gardener knows the agricultural process – planting, waiting, anticipating, hoping – until the earth produces the sprout, stalk, grain or flower. Then the harvest of a storehouse full of grain, arrangements that adorn the sanctuary or garden beds that enhance the beauty of the church building. No surprises here. Jesus teaches that the kingdom of God is like this. Like what? The normal activities of agriculture and horticulture? Is the kingdom in the planting, the waiting, the cutting. Not really. The kingdom is what happens when the blade produces the ear and then the grain and the planter, the farmer, and the gardener hasn’t a clue as to how. The kingdom of God is the mystery of how.
Scripture tells us that we are made in the image of God; I wonder if this means that we are capable of comprehending beauty. The world with all its flaws is breathtakingly beautiful and it is by design. There is a line in the movie The Last Samurai, when Katsumoto, a wise Japanese warrior says to the American soldier, The perfect blossom is a rare thing. You could spend your life looking for one, and it would not be a wasted life.
Staring into the glory of a sunset inspires the bricklayer
Standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon thrills the project manager
Marveling at the tenderness of a baby’s hand fills the accountant with wonder
The intricacies of a suspension bridge captures an engineer’s heart.
The interplay of sound, and the silence in music, lifts the human spirit.
Hearing the stories of love and faithfulness when we talk, sharing a cup of coffee.
These are times when the seeds God scatters so liberally bear a rich harvest.
The kingdom is not in the planter, not in the planting, not in the waiting or the reaping. Gardeners and farmers assist the mystery by tilling the soil, irrigation, applying fertilizer. There are ways we assist the mystery of the kingdom as God’s gardeners and farmers: to speak well of the planting which is the church; to weed the garden plot of your mind of unhealthy things; to till the field of your memory, breaking up the hard packed earth and receive new seeds of faith. There are ways to wait, in hope, for the full mystery of God to be revealed in the rich harvest of brothers and sisters fully alive in the Gospel. We are merely the laborers in the mission field, meant to make good use of our skills and resources. We are those who are willing and able to work for the kingdom; but it is God who brings forth the kingdom.
However, as gardeners know, what is a flower for you may be a weed for another. So we come to the second parable – the mustard seed.
In first century Palestine, the mustard plant or shrub was an unwelcome guest in the field.It was a noxious weed! The Kingdom is like that small, small mustard seed, that isn’t a part of the plan for the garden. Soon the mustard seed has produced a larger shrub, crowding out the other plants. Then it gets worse! The shrub attracts birds to nest among its branches, and birds eat the good seed in the garden. All kinds of birds – Wrens and robins and noisy crows. Ugly turkey buzzards. Raucous starlings. The Kingdom is visible whenever birds of a different feather flock together.The kingdom of God begins so small as to be invisible but ends large enough to welcome saints and sinners alike, sinners who come to the kingdom and saints who help them find a place on the branch next to them. 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 (The Historical Jesus, pp. 278-279).
The kingdom of God appears to overturn, to take over, to transform the kingdoms of this world. And it’s definitely not safe, not, that is, if we’re even minimally satisfied with the way things are. If you can imagine something more than the status quo – scarcity,fear, limited justice and all the rest for 80% or more of the world’s populations, then Jesus offers hope; hope that God’s kingdom is infiltrating the kingdoms of the world. Jesus offers a hope that entices, prods, or pokes us into working toward the vision of the kingdom of God he proclaims. Hope in Jesus is like that — it doesn’t just cheer you up, it moves you to action.
There’s a scene in the movie, The Hunger Games that gets at the same idea. President Snow, the totalitarian ruler of futuristic Panem, asks his chief Games-maker — the one charged with creating a spectacle as entertaining as it is barbaric — why they must have a winner. The answer? Hope. He wants to give the oppressed people of Panem hope that maybe, just maybe, the odds will be in their favor and they win the Hunger Games and escape their life of servitude. “Hope,” he explains, “is the only thing more powerful than fear.” But for that very reason it is as perilous for a dictator as it is useful: “A little hope,” he explains, “is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous.”
Hope in God’s coming kingdom moves us to action. Like the farmer who scatters seed in the field, arising each morning to watch the wonder of that seed sprouting, sharpening the sickle and the scythe to harvest while awaiting the harvest. His efforts are an important part of the harvest, but the farmer sleeps at night, knowing the growth occurs while he is at rest, and not as a result of his efforts.
What kind of God is this that moves within the natural world but in a manner that exceeds the limits of the natural world? The God who is greater by far than we can imagine. This God of hope at work. Amen.