Call me a cheater, I don’t care. It’s a day of rest, so I’m putting up my sermon of this morning. I wrote the sermon, so I think it counts for this writing project, and we’re working on getting sermons up on the Calvary blog regularly anyway, so we’ll try it here:
A Mysterious Kingdom
I’m dying of curiosity, as is the rest of the pastoral staff, to know how much of our secret agenda you congregation members are aware of.
Oh, sorry, you didn’t know we had a secret agenda?
I’m disappointed in you—you all should know us better than that by now. Our secret agenda is, of course, to help create church members who are biblical scholars of the highest caliber. See, if you’ve been coming to worship regularly for any length of time, you will have learned some tools and strategies for approaching the text that will put you at the top of the class if you ever decide to become a professional biblical scholar . . . or at the very least Calvary will definitely win if there ever is some kind of competition for the most biblically astute lay people or something like that.
Anyway, all that is to say that, whether you know it or not, you know a lot about the Bible; you hear more of it at Calvary than you would in many other places of worship (have you noticed that we read four scripture lessons every single week?); you are pushed to read and engage the text in ways that have, in many circles, been reserved for the realm of the academy or professional clergy.
So, if you have already clued in to the secret agenda, you may have noticed that today, in week three of our series on the kingdom parables of Jesus, we’ve chosen a parable in the Gospel of Mark . . . following week one’s study of a parable in the Gospel of Luke, and week two in the Gospel of Matthew. There’s method to our madness, because the kingdom parables of Jesus are sprinkled throughout all the Gospels and even some texts circulated by the early church but not included in our Bibles, like the Gospel of Thomas. Though found in various different Gospel accounts, many of these parables are the same—either the Gospel writers were so influenced by Jesus’ words that they all made sure to include them in one form or another . . . or maybe Jesus ran out of sermon illustrations and just used the same ones over and over and everybody remembered them.
Either way, you can find many of the exact same parables or variations of parables that are clearly the same or at least very similar, in all four of the Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. As you now know if you didn’t before, we all want to be careful students of the text, and as such we would always be sure to consider the writer’s style and agenda when we are looking for what Jesus might have meant when he chose to use the specific parable.
Today we’re in the Gospel of Mark, two verses toward the end of chapter four. Mark is the shortest Gospel, only 16 chapters, and the first one written; in fact, Matthew and Luke base most of what they wrote on the Gospel of Mark.
Biblical scholars might describe the Gospel of Mark as terse, hurried, or urgent—Mark’s writer uses the word “immediately” over and over again, and if you read it all the way through you get the sense that Jesus is rushing from one thing to the next, urgently attending to his mission. Why? Because it’s JESUS who has a secret agenda in the Gospel of Mark—a kingdom of God agenda!
My friend Jim describes Jesus in Mark’s Gospel like Harrison Ford in the movie The Fugitive. Remember that movie? Harrison Ford breaks out of prison, where he is serving a sentence for a crime he did not commit. The law is after him, though, so he moves from scene to scene, trying to solve the murder as fast as he can before the law catches up to him and he loses his chance to clear his name.
Jesus is rushing in Mark. He has a mission in the first half of the Gospel: to teach his disciples about the kingdom of God, to get them ready to take over when he is gone. So, for the first eight chapters of the Gospel of Mark Jesus rushes around from one place to the next, teaching at a staccato-like pace, hurrying, hurrying, hurrying, trying to make sure he gets them ready for what he knows is coming.
After chapter eight the entire Gospel shifts in topic and in pace and Jesus turns his face toward Jerusalem and what’s ahead there. Remember what happens in chapter eight? That’s the part of the Gospel when Jesus is again quizzing his disciples on what he’s come to teach them, and the Apostle Peter finally gets it. When we read Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, it’s almost like Jesus can finally take a deep breath and relax a little, knowing that the disciples finally understand this idea of the kingdom of God that he’s been rushing from here to there to try to imprint on their psyches.
Thanks to Mark’s concise Gospel writing, we readers can immediately know that in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ whole, entire agenda is the concept he calls the kingdom of God. In chapter one verse 14, in fact, the very first words of Jesus recorded by Mark, he talks about . . . you guessed it: the kingdom. He was preaching in Galilee and virtually the first words out of his mouth are: “the kingdom of God is at hand!”
So, knowing what we do now about Mark’s version of events, and about how important the kingdom of God is to Jesus’ ministry in Mark, we turn to chapter four, where Jesus is enjoying a brief period of popularity—so much so, in fact, that he has to get into a boat and push off into the lake a little bit because the crowds are getting so huge and overwhelming. From the deck of the boat, Jesus talks for almost this whole chapter about the kingdom of God, using various iterations of his favorite parables—those having to do with seeds, growing, gardening, agriculture. Who knows if all of them were part of the same illustration or unique unto themselves, but our parable today, the parable of the seed in verses 26-29, is one of the shortest and most concise.
The kingdom of God, Jesus yelled from the deck of the boat, is like a man who casts seed on the soil. He goes to bed at night and he gets up in the morning, over and over again, and somehow . . . he doesn’t know quite how . . . the soil produces a harvest. When it’s ready, that man pulls out his sickle and gets to work, harvesting the grain that has mysteriously grown from a handful of seeds and some furrows of soil.
This is a curious parable, because, unlike some of the other agriculturally-themed parables of Jesus, this one does not either mention or assume much expertise on the part of the farmer.
In other words, this would be a parable about me, not Harold.
It’s almost like the man in this parable wakes up one day and has this great idea: “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a garden? I am not a farmer myself, but I’ve seen plenty of people do it!”
So he goes down to Home Depot and peruses the garden section.
He turns those little wire seed pack display racks around and around to look at all the different things he might plant.
He chooses the packet with the most colorful picture, mouth watering at the thought of a bacon, lettuce, and home-grown tomato sandwich.
He stands in line, pays for his seeds, and goes home to plant them.
Day after day he gets up in the morning, pours some water on the spot where he buried the seeds, then forgets about them.
And then, one day a little sprout shoots up—who knows how?—so he keeps dumping water on the same spot—maybe he even goes out and buys a watering can, just to look professional.
And life goes on—work, vacation, all the regular things of life, all the while watering when he remembers and glancing with amazement at the plants that seem to grow several inches every single day.
And before he knows it, that man walks out one day and there are little yellow blossoms on those plants, blossoms that turn, miraculously, into tiny baby tomatoes. And, seems like overnight, when he wasn’t even looking, those baby tomatoes grow big and fat and round, then red, ripe and ready to be part of that sandwich he imagined so many weeks before in the aisles of Home Depot.
Jesus says that THAT’S what the kingdom of God is like—a man who doesn’t know much about farming at all, who doesn’t even know how to plan an orderly garden, and who certainly could not tell you how the seed goes from the colorful packet in the aisles of Home Depot to the most delicious BLT sandwich you have ever imagined.
Nope, couldn’t tell you.
But he goes out there anyway, digs a hole in the ground, covers that seed, and goes on with his life. Why? Because, even though he doesn’t know how, he believes that if he plants that seed and waters it with care, somehow, some way, the thing he most wishes for will miraculously come to be.
The kingdom of God is always coming to be, because of, in spite of, us. God’s agenda in this world is always in process. The powerful, transformational hope that God has for this world is happening when people like you and me—people who can’t explain how exactly we could ever dare to imagine that this world might be infused with kingdom qualities like peace and justice and wholeness and grace—go out into this world anyway, believing the kingdom is on its way.
I think Jesus is saying you might have to be a little crazy, to hang on tight to possibilities this world has long dismissed, to be part of what God is creating right here and now.
I was trying to remember when it was and I think I’ve finally decided it was sometime in sixth grade when my best friend Tracy and I saved enough of our collective allowances to finally place an order for the sea monkeys we’d been looking at on the back inside cover of our Archie comic books.
Why children who are growing up in Hawaii with the ocean practically in their backyards would have such a burning interest in mail order aquatic life I cannot say for sure. Looking back it seems rather ridiculous. But the ads caught our attention: Amazing Sea Monkeys! Create an aquarium of playful, fun creatures that will amaze your whole family! Just add water and you will have INSTANT LIFE!
Our mothers did not agree with our decision to spend our allowance on such a ridiculous thing. All those ads in the back of the comic books were hoaxes, anyway—after all, did we really believe that X-ray glasses worked? They didn’t think so.
But we prevailed. For $1.25, plus $.50 shipping and handling, Tracy and I did order our very own sea monkeys. When they came I can remember: we dug out an old fish bowl and carefully followed the instructions on the package—add the contents of the enclosed packet and lukewarm water. And do you know that our mothers were dead wrong . . . the ad in the back of the Archie comic was right; we believed it and now we had a whole bowl full of jumping, swimming, somersaulting sea monkeys, a whole family of playful, fun creatures that amazed us for . . . not all that long, as I recall . . . before we moved on to our next big adventure.
Until recently I never bothered to try to find out what those sea monkeys really were (turns out they are some kind of dormant brine shrimp, in case you were wondering). But the real excitement and anticipation for those of us who were twelve at the time came from reading those ads in the back of the Archie comics and knowing, just knowing, that when that little packet arrived and we added water as directed, those sea monkeys would spring to life. It never occurred to us to ask how or why or if or when . . . we just believed it would happen.
I read this kingdom parable in Mark and think about my unwavering faith in those sea monkeys, and about Jesus telling the story of the man who didn’t really know how the harvest came to be but just went out there and planted the seeds anyway, and I confess that lately I have been having trouble believing.
Lately I find myself practically unable to listen to the news. Since the oil spill in the Gulf began, every time a news story about birds soaked in sludge or balls of tar washing up on white Pensacola beaches or people on the very edges of poverty losing their only viable livelihood comes on, I’ve noticed I’m quick to turn off the radio, or leave the room, or flip to another section of the paper. The despair I feel when I see those stories almost overwhelms me. Put them together with terrible stories of continuing war in Afghanistan and unjust and appalling immigration laws in Arizona and out-of-control abuses in the child welfare system . . . sometimes I just want to hang up my boots and go home.
I believe that God is here and that God wants healing and hope for this world. I believe it . . . I’m sure I do.
Most of the time.
But the real truth is that on the hardest days I just can’t seem to see exactly how that might ever come to be. This world seems too broken. The pain all around me is too sharp. The sadness I see and I feel is too, too heavy.
Kingdom of God?—peace, hope, justice, salvation?—it’s a great idea. I want to believe it, really I do. But some days I just can’t see how we’re possibly going to get from here to there.
Jesus said: the kingdom of God is like a man who casts seed upon the soil. And he goes to bed at night and gets up every morning . . . and the seed sprouts and grows.
That man does not know.
But somehow, out of that soil a little sprout shoots up . . . then blossoms . . . then bears fruit, the most delicious fruit. And that man goes out into the garden where he planted that seed and harvests the crop that he knew would come to be.
The kingdom of God is like the person who faithfully, dutifully, ridiculously, lives believing that God’s healing, hope, and promise for this world can come to be and, in fact, IS coming to be, even in the face of everything in this world that screams it is not.
The kingdom of God is coming to be in your life and mine when we have the courage to live believing, that this mysterious kingdom of God is on its way.
Do you believe?