3 Pentecost, Year B, June 17, 2012
Mark 4: 26-34; Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason M. Haddox
“He did not speak to them except in parables.”
The crowds have come to Jesus, seeking out this wonder-worker, this healer, this teacher from Galilee. Word has gotten around, and they are actively pursuing him. And his chosen teaching tool is not a three-point lecture, nor a Power Point presentation on an overhead screen. He tells them stories. Stories about the Kingdom (or, “kin-dom”) of God. Parables.
Over and over he begins: “The kingdom of God, the kingdom of heaven is like…a farmer sowing seeds in a field. It’s like a tiny plant that grows up big. It’s like a man who had two sons…”
We have to be careful with these stories. Because sometimes we get parables mixed up with proverbs. A parable is not a proverb, or a morality tale. Jesus’ parables are not a religious version of Aesop’s Fables, where there is a single definitive point, intended to help the hearers live better and wiser lives.
A parable is something else altogether.
A parable is a gift. It is simply given—you don’t buy it or take it away from someone else—it is given to you. You may not even want it, just at that moment.
A parable comes in a certain sort of package or box—perhaps very beautifully wrapped. But perhaps it looks really old, and it’s a little banged up at the corners too. Parables are often very old, and they get passed around a lot, and sometimes the edges get knocked off in passing.
A parable has to be unwrapped. It is not obvious right away what might be inside the box. We have to look at it, and take the lid off, and see what is there inside. And even when we think we’ve figured it out, there may be more inside a parable than we can see, just then. We can come back and look at it again later and see something totally different.
Jesus tells two parables this morning, both of them about the kin-dom of God.
First, it’s like someone who goes out and plants seeds in a field. That’s all. The seeds begin to take root and grow—because that’s what seeds do. The farmer watches the seeds grow, but he has no idea why or how this happens, only that it does happen. He watches, and waits, and then when the time is right and the grain is ready to harvest, he steps forward to take part in the work at hand.
This kin-dom Jesus talks about has something to do with watching, and waiting. It has to do with being attentive to subtle changes, and knowing when to stand back and get out of the way, and when to step in and start gathering what is now ready to be gathered. It has to do with not trying to control or rush the process, but being alert to what is going on, ever so quietly, right under the farmer’s own nose.
The parable of the mustard seed is perhaps one of the best known of Jesus’ parables. A tiny seed, planted in the earth, takes root and grows to become “the greatest of all shrubs” and shelters the birds of the air in its branches.
Here’s the problem. A mustard plant is a scraggly, pernicious weed. It will take over your front yard, your back yard, your fields. Jesus is comparing the kingdom of God to the first-century Palestinian equivalent of kudzu.
It’s not a pretty thing.
Somehow, the Kingdom is like a weed that gets out of control if you turn your back on it. And takes over every square inch available. And gives shade and shelter to all sorts of birds and critters and creepy-crawlies. If you leave it alone, it will become as tall as a tree. When it is in flower, it is beautiful with yellow-gold blossoms. But mostly it just looks lanky and leggy and drab.
Jesus knew about lanky and leggy and drab. He himself was a living parable of the Kin-dom, in whom there was (and is) always more to see and discover; who cannot be reduced to a single sound-byte bottom line definition or meaning. And who, at the last, when he hung on the cross, showed in his life and death and resurrection just what this Kin-dom of God was all about.
This dominion of God to which Jesus points, over and over again, is not what his hearers expected—at the time, or twenty centuries later. Neither a political reform of the existing order, nor a total revolution and overthrow of the powers and social structures from top to bottom, the Kin-dom of God is something else altogether.
It works by its own mysterious potency and power, in its own time. We don’t get to control or manage it—only to let it be what it is, and prepare our own hearts (that is, our whole selves) to see it appear.
When we see it—in whatever place, or person, or situation, or manner—we are invited into the mystery. We are invited to rise up and help harvest the ripe grain; we are invited to climb into the branches of the tree where birds and beasts and all sorts of God’s critters are to be found. And they, and the tree of life itself, probably won’t look quite the way we think they should.
So take “should” out of your vocabulary, at least for now. Because we don’t get to control, or manage, or decide what God’s kin-dom will look like.
It’s not up to us. It’s bigger, and deeper, and wider than we can even imagine. And higher, and broader, and grander. But it’s also smaller, and quieter, and lower. So we have to keep our eyes open for it. We have the chance to look for it, and discover it, always and everywhere. For it is all around us, for us to see as Christ sees. For us to be the Body of Christ, in our own place and time.
May it be so for us; may it be so among us. Today, and tomorrow, and all the days to come.