Proper 6B, June 13, 2021
The Rev. Todd R. Goddard, Pastor
Rush United Methodist Church
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
The reign of God is not “like”
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
God’s kingdom grows.
In God’s kingdom,
– the harvest –
The harvest comes to every citizen of God’s kingdom
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
And be replaced by God’s emerging kingdom.
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
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.