Mark 4:21-34, NRSV
He said to them, ‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light.Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’ And he said to them, ‘Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’
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.
Preached Sunday, September 2, 2017 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
I cry at least twice a week. It’s not really any sad stuff that makes me cry—at least not regularly. It’s the happy stuff—the beauty of the world that brings tears to my eyes. This week, it happened while I was listening to NPR. It’s part of my morning routine, while I cook breakfast, to listen in. And a story came on about the flooding in Houston and the roll social media has had in the recovery efforts. Now we all know that places like Facebook, while our go to place to post pictures of our kids and meals, is also the place many people fight it out. From politics to religious beliefs and everything in between, even the most docile of folks have been known to bare it all online.
But in this story, after relating all the damage the flood waters had done and giving all the statistics, the reporter began to talk about the relief efforts. “People have been posting on Facebook all week,” he began “They post where they are or what they need help doing. And others, many of whom don’t even know them, just show up to help. One user posted that his mother needed help. Five strangers showed up to pull carpet.”
I stood in my pajamas in the kitchen and cried for a solid minute and a half. That was a glimpse of the kingdom of God—a realm where people show up.
I’ve been longing for the Kingdom of God for some time now. Nearly every week, it seems like there’s some event—global or just next door—that dominates the headlines. And while sometimes those are good headlines, more often than not, they’re devastating ones. A few weeks ago it was the terrorist attack in Barcelona, then that abhorrent rally in Charlottesville. Then Hurricane Harvey and the flood. And, you know something, it’s my job—it’s my call—to proclaim God’s faithfulness. It’s my job to tell you of how God shows up time and again, of how the rainbow Noah saw hanging in the sky after the Flood is the same symbol of God’s faithfulness today as it was then.
And then we turn on the news and encounter stories of such loss, such tragedy, that we just aren’t sure about anything anymore—and anything includes God’s faithfulness. And that’s when I long the most for God’s kingdom. It’s something we pray for every week—for God’s Kingdom to come. For centuries, this very congregation has said the words, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” together. I’d say we’re pretty good at praying for it. I just don’t think we know what it is.
Jesus’ disciples were no different. They’d heard about God’s kingdom from Isaiah—they, like all good Jews of the day, were ready for it. They’d heard Isaiah’s prophecy:
In the last days, the mountain of the house of the LORD will be established as the chief of the mountains, and will be raised above the hills; and all the nations will stream to it. And many peoples will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that He may teach us concerning His ways, and that we may walk in His paths. For the law will go forth from Zion, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. And He will judge between the nations, and will render decisions for many peoples, and they will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war. (Isaiah 2.2-4)
And one of our perennial Advent texts for Isaiah reveals the role of the Messiah in that coming Kingdom:
For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this
So Jesus’ followers are expecting that: they’re expecting the mountain house of the Lord (Jerusalem) to be established as chief among the nations. And that the Messiah will judge between the nations and that swords will be beat into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks and war won’t be studied anymore. That’s a kingdom, that’s a realm, I could get behind.
And it’s definitely the one Jesus’ followers were behind. But it seems that while they were longing for the right thing—God’s realm—the way they thought it could or should or would look was a little misguided. The truth is that we often miss the point of our faith because we’re too busy paying attention to the coulda/shoulda/wouldas. Coulda/shoulda/wouldas steal joy.
So there’s this one perception of what the kingdom of God could/should/would be like, and Jesus is trying to, simply put, fix it. Jesus is preaching from a boat to God-knows—get it—how many people in Galilee, and he begins to tell them a series of parables in an effort to explain what the kingdom of God is like. We them the “Kingdom of God parables” because they nearly uniformly begin with this phrase: “The Kingdom of God is like.”
Now there are several of these, but my favorite is the one about the mustard seed. Mustard seeds show up a couple of time in gospels. The most prominent is Jesus’ teaching what it means to have faith like a mustard seed—that even a little faith can move mountains. This is not that teaching. This time, Jesus is uses the mustard seed to describe the kingdom of God.
And I’m here to tell you the people who heard this first would’ve thought it weird. Look at your mustard seed. This mustard seed is everything the Kingdom of God isn’t supposed to be—namely, it’s small. We think of God’s realm as expansive and regal and dominating and authoritative. We think of it as date palm trees and majestic steeds and chariots and crown and royalty.
It turns out that the Kingdom of God isn’t anything like that. God’s realm is like a mustard seed. But here’s the thing about seeds—what you plant isn’t necessarily an indicator of what grows. Look at the picture you were handed with your seed. That is a picture of Mustard plants outside the gates of Capernaum—Jesus’ home base on the shores of the sea of Galilee. Now Mustard plants don’t grow tall and regal. They’re not stunning in their beauty. They’re shrubs.
But there are two important attributes Mustard plants carry. (1) They’re hearty and (2) they’re persistent. From the tiniest of seeds comes this plant that just doesn’t give up. So when Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, what he’s saying is that you don’t see it until you see it everywhere. And that no matter how you might try to distance yourself from it, you’ll keep encountering because it doesn’t give up. And that even the little spark of fatih you carrie can reveal to you time and again, over and over, God’s realm. It doesn’t shrink back easily. It persists. And while it might not have shine and glamour of what the world offers, it comes with it’s own beauty—a yellow flower that speaks to God’s creative majesty.
Last week, we talked about what it means to be dirty, that is what it means to be the dirt. This week, let’s think about seeds. The thing about mustard plants is they just show up. And the truth is, so much of what we do as a community of faith is show up. That’s why we host vigils and funerals for folks who aren’t ours and parades and costumed christmases and collect hundreds of backpacks. It all speaks to our faith, because faith in action looks like showing up.
A few weeks ago, we sold BBQ at Bike Night. Now, here’s the thing about that night. It wasn’t about the fundraiser. Yes, that’s great. But the reason we do it, is so that our doors are open. Next week, we’re selling pies at the Great Tomato Festival. But here’s the secret—it’s not really about pie. It’s about giving our community the opportunity to interact with our congregation. It’s really about showing up.
Every time we show up, every time we say “we’re sorry” or “we’re here” or “we love you,” what we’re really doing is planting a seed. And while we don’t have any control of what grows from that seed, we know of the One who does. And what’s grows is beautiful and hearty and persistent. Just like, it turns out, the Kingdom of God. Amen.