Sermon on Mark 4:26-34 for Pentecost +3, Year B, June 14, 2015
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.
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.
Our question today is this: how can we know what God is calling us to do and to be?
But before we get to that I wanted to mention something practical and helpful. I just discovered that scientists tell us that eating nuts reduces risk of death from multiple causes. That is good news for people like me who like to snack on nuts, at least the ones I am not allergic to.
At this amazing point in history we know a lot that has never been known before about health. We know that diseases are caused by bacteria and viruses and about how important vitamins and antioxidants are, such as those found in nuts.
We know a lot about agriculture too. We now know that the ancient prohibition in the Hebrew Bible against sowing a field with more than one kind of seed is a bit of iron-age thinking that needs to be left in the past (Lev. 19:19). Planting a garden with what the Iroquois called the “three sisters” corn, beans and squash, is actually beneficial. The beans grow up on the corn stocks and fix nitrogen in the soil, and the squash acts as a natural mulch and ground cover. Now we know.
Seed Parables and Knowledge
We read two short parables about seeds, which is probably what got me thinking about agriculture and modern science and the new things we know. The parables both reflect an ignorance of how plants grow, and admit to that ignorance.
The farmer does not understand how it happens. They used to believe that the earth operated automatically. The phrase “The earth produces of itself” actually literally means, “automatically.” I am quite sure that they did not mean “mechanistically.” I bet if you pushed them, they would happily tell you that God was behind this automatic process. Non-Jewish people would probably have a separate god for the different aspects of the process like the rain god, the sun god and various other fertility gods. Jews gave credit to the one Creator God. But God seemed to do it automatically; you plant seeds, and they grow.
But though they knew nothing about the importance of nitrogen in the soil, or the antioxidants in nuts, they did know some things about agriculture. They knew about how many bushels you could expect to grow in your field in an average year. They knew that some of the seed you tossed would land where it could not grow, like on the rocks (there is another parable about that). They knew that the pesky birds would eat some of the seeds before they could grow.
They knew that different plants grew to different sizes, and that the size of the seed was not a great predictor of the size of the mature plant. Mustard seeds are quite small, but the plant grows taller than wheat, which has larger seeds.
“puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
So, when they heard this parable of the mustard seed that produced this gigantic tree, they knew that Jesus was talking about something with a deeper meaning.
These parables would have brought up all kinds of questions for the people who were listening to Jesus. How could the kingdom of God, the God of the entire universe, the Creator God, begin tiny and insignificant like a little mustard seed? Was not the kingdom, “the age to come”, the “Day of the Lord” supposed to burst forth like a blaze of lightening or something equally dramatic?
Daniel pictured the coming of the kingdom like a huge rock rolling down a hill, smashing and demolishing a statue, the icon of the empires of the world. How could Daniel’s rolling bolder be reduced to a mustard seed size?
And, how could anything that started so small and insignificant grow up to become an enormous tree? As a matter of fact, does not that tree-description sound familiar? Does it not sound like those magical trees that show up in the prophecies of Daniel and Ezekiel as symbols of the incredible abundance in the “age to come”, the kingdom of God? Well of course they do. The allusion Jesus is making to those prophecies is transparent.
So what is the point then? What does it mean that the kingdom of God begins, counter to expectations, so insignificantly, and grows to become so great?
When we think about the question we started with, “how can we know what God is calling us to do and to be?” the answer is right here. God is calling us to catch the vision of the kingdom of God and to join in with all our hearts and souls.
“Kingdom”? or “Realm”: God’s Dream for the World
God is instead inviting people to have a vision of a world that runs by different rules than the world of aggression and acquisition. It is like a separate realm operating below the surface of the kingdoms of the world. It is a realm in which people respond to a higher calling.
It is like a movement of people gathering momentum and building strength, not in response to authority, but in response to a tug on the heart that says, “this is the right way; this is good; this is how it should be”. In other words, in response to the call of the Spirit, the call of God. It is saying a trusting “yes” to God in spite of the risks and the fear.
So the realm of God starts small like a mustard seed because it starts invisibly in each one of us as we respond to the invitation.
“Come, follow me,” Jesus said.
Do you remember how simple his message was? He said, (in the version you probably are most familiar with)
“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
Which means exactly this:
“The moment is now, the realm of God is here, change your thinking and trust this message.”
The time is now – not in the future, but already, today. Change your thinking; how? In every way that it would have to change if it were really true that Jesus came to demonstrate and to teach something real. Change your thinking from the standard way of thinking.
So, are you feeling like a lost sheep or a prodigal son or daughter? Change your thinking about a wrathful angry God, and embrace the loving, God who searches and finds and welcomes all the lost ones back into the family.
Change your thinking from the standard concept about what is important in life, as Jesus taught us.
A person’s life does not consist in the abundance of their possessions.
Rather, consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. Consider the birds of the air. In fact spend a lot of time in silent consideration of the present moment, in other words, in meditation, and live in the moment, trusting that your Heavenly Father knows what you need and will provide it for you.
Change your thinking about other people so that you can open your hearts to them. They will offend you; forgive them. They will hurt you. Forgive them. They will even damage you. Forgive them anyway. It is not okay that they act badly, but do not let their actions poison your soul with hate and vengeance. Rather, wish for them redemption and healing.
Change your thinking about people who are different. Don’t make them all out to be a threat, but rather, welcome them. Get to know them. Ask them questions and find out how they look at life. You may be shocked at how much you have in common – how you both want the same things: love, respect, safety, to have a meaningful life and a happy family. You may find out how different you are, how you see the world in such different ways and categories, but you will also learn, by welcoming the stranger, that “different” does not mean “enemy.” You will learn that when hostility becomes hospitality, the impossible becomes possible, and God is present.
“Repent” Jesus said, or rather, “Change your thinking” because the time has arrived and the kingdom of God, the realm of God is here.
Why can you not see it? Because it begins small like a seed in the heart. It begins invisibly like the sprout before it climbs above the surface of the soil. But it is there, it is growing. It is producing changes that the eye cannot see from day to day, but over time, growth is happening.
It is like the changes that happen for people who practice contemplative prayer or meditation or yoga; not evident after one or two days, or weeks, but real, and substantial, and cumulative over time.
And eventually, people who answer the call to follow Jesus, to embrace the vision, to trust that the realm of God has arrived, and who live by the values of that realm, experience an abundance of goodness and peace.
The little seed that looked so tiny really does grow up to become a great tree. The tree is so big that there is even room for the birds to nest. And instead of needing to drive them off with scare crows to ensure they would not eat your seeds, you leave them be.
They can stay because there is enough. Enough even after they have eaten their fill, because the realm of God is when people believe that scarcity is not the operating assumption, but rather abundance.
It is a realm, therefore, of sharing food with the hungry. There will be enough. In God’s realm, the stranger is invited into the supper table and given a seat. The oil does not run out in the jar, nor the meal in the bowl. The five little loaves and scant two fish become a feast for a multitude when they are received with gratitude and broken and shared.
In God’s realm there is justice for all, and no one is rejected. This is an amazing vision of the world – so unlikely, given our experience of the world around us. I love what John Dominic Crossan said recently in an interview:
“The extraordinary thing is that anyone ever came up with a vision of a just world because you sure don’t get that looking around, not in the first century, not a thousand years ago, not today.” (Religion for Life podcast)
And yet, this is the Jesus-vision of the realm of God. Where the little mustard seed sized moments have enormous implications. Like the mustard seed moment when we treat a black person with respect and dignity as we ask them for help at Lowe’s, or when they check us out at the grocery, and it becomes for them a reason to lift their heads up that day.
In the realm of God, the little mustard seed-sized action of accepting and affirming the young person who is gay may prevent a suicide. Where the mustard seed-sized actions of one person with one vote helps get laws passed and gets people elected to keep us from ruining this planet for human habitation.
How can we know what God is calling us to do and to be? By answering Jesus’ call: “Come, follow me.” Embrace the good news that the time is now; the realm of God is here. Trust that God is doing something incredibly important and join God in changing every form of thinking needed to follow the Jesus-way.
So, specifically, each of us is invited to hear this as an invitation to ask the question: what is God calling me to do and to be in God’s realm?
What Christian practices do I need in my life to sustain me spiritually as I walk this path of following Jesus?
How can I become more involved in a community of people who encourage each other on this journey?
What direct action can I participate in to live into the vision of justice?
How can I add one mustard seed of goodness into my life, into my family, my community, my nation, my world?