“Kingdom Parables”

Proper 6B, June 13, 2021

Mark 4:26-34

The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor

Rush United Methodist Church

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.

| Centering Prayer |

We have two different, but similar, parables from Jesus this morning.

The intent of each is to describe the kingdom of God.

One is about one who scatters seed,

Goes to bed,

And rises to find that the seeds mysteriously grew.

The second parable is about a tiny mustard seed,

When sown

It grows to become the greatest shrub.

Jesus often taught in parables,

– Teaching by telling stories –

As opposed to speaking plainly and forthrightly.

Behind closed doors,

and in the presence of his disciples,

Jesus was obviously more direct.

But when in public,

Jesus often chose parables as

A literary style of choice.

Many have hypothesized why.

1. Some suggest that Jesus taught in parables as a means of self-preservation.

If the religious authorities witnessed Jesus challenging

their corruption of God’s perfect institution,

they may have him prematurely put to death.

So, Jesus could be just obscure enough

to keep him out of trouble,

yet clear enough

to get his point across.

Plausible deniability.

2. By their very nature, parables are simple,

memorable, using common, humble imagery.

Like a great joke, parables are easy to remember and retell.

Their memorable nature suggest

Jesus wants his message to be retained and spread.

Teaching in parables reveals

Jesus thinking and planning for a future growing Church.

Think: Grow deep; grow wide.

Think: Discipleship and evangelism.

3. Still others hypothesize

Jesus used parables as a means

of provoking thought and coaxing the listener

Into participating more actively in the story.

Scholars generally caution preachers

Of over-explaining parables,

Of pushing them too far.

When the listener has to do mental work to figure out a parable

It makes the parable much more personal and memorable.

Jesus probably had these three reasons, and more for speaking in parables.

This is my approach when preaching or teaching his parables:

Keep it simple.

Don’t over analyze them or try to push them too far.

Speak parables aloud,

Reflect on them,

Maul them over in your mind.

Let the Spirit speak.

And draw your own conclusions.

The two parables Jesus teach this morning are about the kingdom of God.

They are kingdom parables.

Kingdom is a word not often used today,

Especially in western, American culture.

We held a revolution and fought a war to break free from a king and his oppressive kingdom.

However, kingdom certainly had meaning in ancient times,

during the Middle Ages,

through the renaissance, and has meaning today for many people of the world.

Kingdoms have kings;

Rulers who are men,

Holding massive wealth,

Inheriting both fortunes and authority.

Some became king by birth,

others by violent insurrection from within,

or victory on the battlefield from without.

Still others become king by marriage.

Kings create the rules,

enforce the rules,

and passed judgment upon those accused of breaking the rules.

Every member of the kingdom works for the benefit of the king

in exchange for safety and protection.

Benevolent kings ran good kingdoms.

But often, power, riches, and authority cause many to turn bad.

City-sized kingdoms grew into regional kingdoms,

like Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome.

Seeking ever more size, wealth, power, status, legacy

Kings turned upon Kings.

Kingdoms turned on kingdoms,

Each rising and falling in cyclical fashion.

Prosperity is followed by weakening, fall, regeneration, and prosperity all over again.

People tire of the cycle.

People tire of sacrificing their youth to war,

Their prosperity to taxes,

Their freedom to slavery.

But each new charismatic despot takes advantage of people’s short memory and the promise of personal gain or glory.

Original sin finds a way to endlessly mutate and replicate.

Holocaust becomes a cycle of sin.

War and violence continue with unending ferocity.

Creative depravity knows no end.

Such was the kingdom of Rome in the time of Jesus.

The search for God

May be just as motivated by a desire to get out of this place

and these cruel cyclical circumstances

as much as it might be for higher or nobler reasons.

The serf or slave thinks to themselves:

Let’s dump our king

And follow God instead.

Applying the human metaphor,

We make God king,

Give God all authority to create law, enforce the law, and pass judgment upon those who transgress the law.

We return gifts to God.

We learn God’s ways.

We follow God’s will.

It isn’t a perfect metaphor,

Applying the imperfect to the Divine,

But it works pretty well for Jesus.

The metaphor works because kings and kingdoms was the environmental reality.

So he teaches about God’s kingdom.

To the dull or the uninspired,

kingdom talk may have been received as a threat to those in power;

Namely Rome, and the Jewish authorities.

But to those who were tired of this earthly cycle

and were searching for something more,

Thinking about the kingdom of God

was like

A key that unlocked the imagination of how life can be lived

Under the dominion of

A benevolent, loving, heavenly king.

Dream with me, people.

Dream with me of rewarding life that can be lived with God as our king!

Today we have two parables about the kingdom of God.

(Explanations for these two parables and conclusion can be attributed to the exceptional work of Sharon H. Ringe, Professor of New Testament, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, DC; as found at: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?lect_date=6/14/2009&tab=4)

In the first parable, the search for the cast of characters is difficult.

If God is the sower

Like we often think of God as being a sower

We are puzzled by the fact that the sower doesn’t know how the seed grows.

That doesn’t work.

So, try this: we are the gardener and God is responsible for the growth.

Yet, the harvest belongs to the sower.

But this doesn’t work either because we know the harvest belongs to the God, not to us.

Hum.

Time to step back and take a look at the big picture.

Mark’s audience was the first century Church.

They expected Christ to return at any moment.

All would be judged.

The kingdom would come on earth as it is in heaven.

This was the confident expectation.

Consider the possibility that

this parable is designed to

provoke the audience to respond

in a predictable way.

Consider

The reign of God is not “like”

The farmer

The seed

The earth

The process of growth

Or, the harvest.

Rather, consider the possibility that

The kingdom of God is “sorta like

each of them

and all of them taken together.

In God’s kingdom

Seeds are sown

Germinate

And grow.

God’s kingdom grows.

In God’s kingdom,

Judgment

– the harvest –

is unavoidable.

The harvest comes to every citizen of God’s kingdom

Like it

Or not.

I’m suggesting this parable demands a response.

Prepare for judgment, people!

Get ready for the harvest.

How will you respond?

What kind of changes can you make in your life this very moment

To prepare to stand before Jesus

And face his judgment?

Are you following God’s laws?

If not, this would be a good time to make a necessary course correction.

Are you loving God, neighbor, and enemy just like Jesus tells us?

If not, consider ways to become more loving.

Are you a living vessel in which the Holy Spirit can live and work?

If not, perhaps it is time to invite the Spirit in.

Are you bearing witness, leading the world to Jesus?

If not, this is the time to go bold.

Are you prepared?

The second parable

Is also simple and easy for our Lord’s

Agrarian audience to grasp.

One would think.

The problem is

In the next breath

Jesus compares the kingdom of God with a weed!

They just seem like un-natural dance partners.

Farmers in the crowd would scratch their heads

Because not one of them would intentionally plant mustard

Any more than one of us would plant dandelions or thistles.

They spent their days toiling to rid themselves of mustard.

They wouldn’t plant it.

Members of the audience also would notice

Mustard seeds aren’t the smallest

And mustard bushes aren’t the biggest.

Exaggeration follows absurdity.

What gives, Jesus?

Again, consider the big picture.

Jesus creates contrast between the small seed and the large plant.

This works well as an image for the reign of God.

This is good news to people aware of Jesus’ humble beginnings.

This is good news to people with struggling faith.

The predatory ability of an aggressive weed like mustard

Would crowd out EVEN the orderly but oppressive kingdom of Rome.

Even birds taking shelter in their branches

Would peck away at the carefully planted crops.

Understanding would have produced a cacophony of chuckles in the crowd.

The idea that God empire would subvert the enterprises of Rome,

Now that’s Good News!

The days are coming

When the powers and principalities of this world

Will fall

And be replaced by God’s emerging kingdom.

Deeper still,

The faithful farming community would have been drawn to the similar imagery from Ezekiel 17:22-24:

“Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.”

Ezekiel is a book that paints a picture of end-times.

This sacred Hebrew text is referred to as apocalyptic.

God plants a tiny cedar twig on a high mountain.

The twig becomes a large and fruitful tree

Under whose branches every kind of bird finds shelter.

The birds are like all the nations of the world.

All who flock to Israel’s God,

Who find shelter in the Lord’s branches,

Will be saved on the glorious day when the Lord returns with judgment.

This picture in both Ezekiel and referenced by Jesus in today’s Gospel

Envisions a day when God’s sovereignty and life giving power

Will embrace, shelter, and save those under God’s protection.

Now that’s Good News!

Pay attention all you birders!

So, what’s the take home?

How should you and I respond?

The answer isn’t easy,

But consider this.

We live in an ordered, planned, linear, logical world

Filled with cyclical violence, sin, and evil.

The world is consumed with greed and lust for power.

Injustice and oppression are pervasive.

There are many in this world

Determined to drag each of us straight to hell.

Contrast this with what Christ is offering:

A new life

A fresh start

In God’s kingdom.

“Behold, I make all things new,” our king proclaims. (Revelation 21:5)

God is making new a different world,

One filled with mysteries and surprises,

Abundant grace and love,

Forgiveness and salvation.

In this new world

We are invited to work on the Lord’s behalf.

God’s emerging kingdom clashes with this world.

Powerful kings of this world

Are threatened by God and each of us

Who seek to follow God’s ways.

This makes you and me troublemakers

To the kings and principalities of today’s society.

As disciples of Jesus

Work to break the cycle of oppression and sin.

Labor to oust the false rulers and principalities of this world.

Seek to replace

every oppressive despot and

every false messiah.

In their place  

Recognize the Lord as our only king.

Christianity is revolutionary –

– In a dumping over the money changing tables sort of way.

We seek to turn the world upside down,

Breaking open vaults and treasuries,

Re-forging swords and hammer them into plowshares.

God’s people are called to crowd out the high and mighty,

To raise up those left behind in the shadows of dark valleys.

When the last, the least, the lost, the left behind, the other-ly abled, the widows, children, and the aged

Are raised from dark valleys

Rough places are made plain.

Emancipation is granted.

Freedom is won.

Each child of God is brought into the light

And invited to take a seat at our King’s banquet.

We test the “sorta like” stories.

We dip our toe into God’s kingdom.

What we discover

Is delightful,

Refreshing change.

A new wind is blowing.

This is Good News

The business-as-usual of this world

Isn’t going to last forever.

Not if we can help it.

Not with God as our King.

Amen.

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