[Jesus] 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.
Pastor Marc's sermon on Third Sunday after Pentecost (June 14, 2015) on Mark 4:26-34. Listen to the recording here or read my manuscript below.
I’d like all of us to try something a little different to start off today’s sermon -. Let’s take 30 seconds to scan through this reading from gospel according to Mark - and find those words that jump out at you. What are they - and shout them out loud as you come to them.
Give space, time for the words. Wait to see if anyone says shrub. I doubt it - so continue with that.
Now, how many of us were struck by the word shrub? It’s an odd word to notice really. I’ve read this passage more times than I can count and “shrub” has never jumped out to me before. But this week - it did. And maybe it’s because I’m now living in the garden state - and I’ve got a dozen overgrown shrubs in my yard that I have no idea what to do with. And that’s because shrubs are - they’re kind of a background plant. They frame what we’re looking at - shaping an image of the landscape that can be beautiful, or just okay, or something downright scary. Shrubs are these mid-size lawn decorations that we see when we look out our car windows and into the wider world. And maybe it’s because of it’s size - that’s why the word “shrub” struck me this week. Because even the greatest of all shrubs is no where near the height of the average tree sapling. Shrubs can be big - but they’re not that big. They’re not that mighty or strong. And I think that’s kind of the point of Jesus’ words today. There’s something about the kingdom of God - about God’s presence and love that can’t be measured in strength or in might; it can’t be compared to a mighty oak or an everlasting Sequoia, towering and covering all things. God’s love and God’s presence is something else entirely.
Now, Jesus’ words today come to us after he’s been on a boat. A large crowd has gathered around him. They can’t hear him speak or even really see him - so he gets in a little boat, anchors just off shore, and lets the water reflect his voice so that all gathered along the shore can see and hear him. And while on the boat, Jesus tells a parable - a short story with a point - about a farmer who throws seeds all over the place. Some seed lands on rocks, others among thorns, and some lands on the sidewalk so nothing grows. But some of that seed lands in good soil and it grows, and grows, and grows. Jesus’ disciples ask him just what is he talking about. And so Jesus explains it - explaining this parable of the sower to be all about God’s word being thrown all over the place. But Jesus follows up his explanation with more parables - including these two we hear today about shrubbery.
Now, I tend to not experience mustard in most seed-like form. The mustard I partake in usually comes in a plastic yellow tub or is splattered on a hot dog. But when Jesus speaks today, he has a specific plant in mind. He’s thinking of a mustard shrub that, well, isn’t well behaved. This isn’t a plant that grows nicely, leaving other plants alone. The plant Jesus has in mind is basically just a giant weed. It shows up in your garden unexpectedly, quickly pushing out the beautiful flowers, as it gobbles up space, territory and sunlight. This isn’t a plant that anyone wants around - and it is definitely not a plant that anyone is actually planting and growing. It’s the creeping charlie, the kudzu, or if you’re in my backyard, the wild grape vine, of Jesus’ world. It’s the kind of plant that we spend tons of money and time trying to get rid of it. We do all that we can to just get it away from us - away from our gardens, our lawns, from all the things we’ve carefully cultivated, grown, and maintained. And that - Jesus says - that’s what the kingdom of God is. It’s not a towering tree that can’t be cut done; it’s not a well groomed or beautiful vegetable garden or an amazingly meticulously well planned plot of roses. The kingdom of God is invasive. The kingdom of God is a trouble maker. The kingdom of God is annoying. because it’s going to get inside of us - push us around - get into our stuff, our plans, our expectations, and undo all we’ve laid down. And God’s kingdom, as it gets inside us, uprooting our expectations and plans - it doesn’t just leave us there; God’s kingdom grows, branching out, giving us a space to rest - a place to nest and call home, no matter where we find ourselves.
Yesterday, I went into Manhattan to meet with one of the few connections I have to my old life as a freelance web designer. When I graduated college and moved to New York City, building websites was my plan. It was my career - a skill I had stumbled into but one that I enjoyed, found challenging, and it actually paid the bills too. And I’m still a part of one of the projects I worked on in my past life. So after taking a jitney into Manhattan across the George Washington Bridge, I did what I always use to do: jumped on the A train to meet my team in Midtown. And the whole journey went just like it use to be. They were power washing the station so the subway platform was more humid than it needed to be. I was surrounded by tons of people so when I got on the train, I didn’t get a seat. And there was construction going on somewhere in the subway system so the train was running local, and, at every station, it seemed like it was being held in the station by the train dispatcher for reasons that I’m not sure even even God really knows. And as I stood there, gripping the subway pole, living out my old daily life once more - I saw the kudzu - the shrub of the gospel. There’s nothing towering about our daily commute, nothing mighty about going through our daily life on the journey God has called us on. We have our starts and stops, we’re surrounded by people we know and people we don’t. And it always seems like there’s some kind of delay or unexpected detour that takes us someplace we didn’t plan to go. We can feel like we’re caught by the wind - being drawn through life in unexpected ways by forces we sometimes don’t see or even fully understand. But through our daily living, the kudzu of God - the creeping charlie of God’s presence - the wild grape vine of God’s love is with us. Because God decided to get invasive. God decided to step into our world. God decided to live a human life, to walk with us, to be Jesus to us - no matter where life takes us, even to a city in a state called Georgia 900 miles south of here.
In a bit, we’re going to live out that truth of the gospel - by doing a very hard thing and say goodbye to two families who are, very shortly, going to find themselves living a new life in a new place. Words can’t fully express what they mean to us - and what blessings we know they will be in the new communities they’ll call home. [9 AM: Goodbye to the R. Family] [10:30 AM Goodbye to the B. Family]
Y’all live your faith out loud - showing us how to live out our faith too.
And maybe that’s why it’s fitting that today, of all days, is the day we hear about this invasive, kudzu, wild grape like kingdom of God. Because this isn’t a kingdom that we sow. The shrub that God grows isn’t something that we somehow plant or grow all on our own. We’re not called to plant the kingdom of God - but instead, to live that Kingdom out. To live out our faith - our love - our hope. To share the gifts God gives us with the people around us, and with people whose names we’ll never know. We’re called to live out God’s love, to spread that love in all that we do and say; and to bring hope to the hopeless, justice to the oppressed, food to the hungry, and be a presence with the lonely. And to do that - we’ve gotta be a bit like kudzu too. We’ve gotta get out into our communities and neighborhoods, into our networks of friends and family, and be that love - be that hope - be that presence. Because we know that the world needs more of God’s love. And we know what God’s love looks like in what the [R./B. families] have done in their time with us. And now as they, like the birds in the branches, head to new places - let’s be like those birds too - finding our nest and home in God, knowing that no matter where we fly, no matter where the wind takes us, no matter what God’s love drives us to do, our home, our nest, our God, - is never far away.
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