Sunday, June 17, 2018

The uncontrollable kingdom Mark 4:26-34

“The bus dropped us off at the southeast corner of the Temple Mount and our guide, John, led us down a path to the ruins of the ancient City of David. Along the way, we came across a mustard plant. John stopped the group to show us what a mustard seed plant actually looked like. He pulled a pod off of the plant, opened it up and passed it around for all to see. The seeds where so small you could hardly make out the individual kernels. There were hundreds of seeds! And then John quoted Jesus: ‘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.’

Naturally, in a group of clergy, we all got hot and bothered about finding a mustard plant and by the time the group had passed by this particular plant, there were very few pods left on the bush! I still carry my pod with me every day, after eleven years, in my computer bag. The pod has long ago disintegrated but many of the seeds remain in a small plastic bag: a reminder of my time in the holy city of Jerusalem.

The parable of the Mustard Seed is a very dangerous lesson if we know anything about the mustard plant. Pliny the Elder was a Roman author who lived in the first century of the Common Era, He wrote about his experience with the mustard plant in his encyclopedic Natural History[1]: “Mustard… with its pungent taste and fiery effect is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, when it is sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.[2]

Mark doesn’t have that many parables but the few he has are truly impactful.
This passage concludes an extended string of parables that start in Mark 3:23. When we look at all of Jesus parables in mark together we can see a way of experiencing Jesus’ continuing ministry as the proclaimer and originator of the, though we do not know when or where, of the reign or “kingdom” of God. One commentator states “In the parables Jesus divulges enough to keep us from throwing up our hands in dismay later in Mark each time we encounter a disciple’s blunder or a command to keep Jesus’ identity secret.”[3]

So, what are Parables? Parables are stories used to compare two things alongside one another to provide metaphor, contrast, or reflection –"usually a reflection similar to the distortions that appear in a funhouse mirror”[4] Jesus’ parables, no matter how long or how short have a way of making his audience re-evaluate their beliefs and their assumptions. The parables do not tell anyone definitely what heaven is or what the reign of God is supposed to look like, but they make us want to seek new ways of looking at the world and encourage us to see those glimpses of the kingdom around us.
Here mark introduces two parables where Jesus is saying the reign of God is like this. Yet just to make all things clear he puts forth two separate images. Jesus speaks about seeds (a common metaphor for formation and education in ancient contexts).  He uses these images to illustrate God’s kindom is coming and it will come whether you like it or not.

The first parable is of the growing seed.

“No other Gospel contains this parable. Probably because it’s boring. Its plot has all the suspenseful drama of an ordinary elementary-school life sciences textbook. There are no surprises. Everything proceeds according to plan. Jesus simply speaks about seeds and what they are supposed to do. They grow and produce. Moreover, they grow and produce without your help or your intricate knowledge of germination or photosynthesis or palea, thank you very much.”[5]

In other words, the reign of God is coming, its taking root, it is growing.  It will grow with your knowledge of it or without. It will grow among you to whom Jesus is speaking, it will grow among the poor and the outcast, it will grow in the empire in spite of the empire.  The kingdom of God is a natural thing as natural as a seed growing.

I always think of our little mustard flower that can be found just about anywhere in America. However, the one Jesus is addressing is a different variety. The mustard plant can grow into a shrub especially the south African variety which is often what is found in the area of Jerusalem. There is a picture of the shrub shared in our story on the cover of your bulletin.  It can get to be quite a healthy and pervasive plant.

John Dominic Crossan, in his book Jesus A Revolutionary Biography states that “the mustard plant is dangerous even when domesticated in the garden, and is deadly when growing wild in the grain fields. And those nesting birds, which may strike us as charming, represented to ancient farmers a permanent danger to the seed and to the grain. The point, in other words, is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three, four, or five feet in height. It is that it tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas, where they are not particularly desired. And that, said Jesus, is what the Kingdom of God was like. Like a pungent shrub with dangerous take-over properties.[6]

In other words, the reign of God will take root -- whether in the world, in imperial society, or in someone’s heart, Jesus does not specify. It will grow gradually and automatically (the New Revised Standard Version renders automate in Mark 4:26 as what the earth does “on its own”). It will grow perhaps so subtly that you won’t even notice, until at last it produces its intended fruit.

But Jesus goes on to describe two things that are well actually funny.  The whole point of the mustard seed and the way it grows… Some of Jesus’ listeners must have groaned or chuckled. Imagine him speaking today of thistles or ground-ivy or better yet dandelions.. But bigger. And more useful, since mustard has a range of medicinal qualities. In any case, the reign of God apparently isn’t much of a cash crop. Yet it grows. It is not easily eradicated. Good luck keeping it out of your well manicured garden or your farmland. Better be careful what you pray for when you say, “Your kingdom come...” 

The second point is Jesus describes it as the greatest of shrubs well…. It can grow dense, but it is hardly magnificent. Jesus must be grinning as he speaks. He is not aiming to impart insights about the relative worth of shrubberies but to shock people into a new way of perceiving greatness.
And once the seed is planted there will be no control over it.  It will grow naturally, it will grow willfully, and it will grow with the help of humans or without.  Perhaps that was the sin of Rome trying to control where the spirit leads.  Trying to benefit from kindom of God as opposed to being servants within the kingdom of God.

This parable contradicts the other parable f the seed where it falls on different soils and hardly survives in this message mark is saying it is the nature of God’s reign to grow and to manifest itself. That’s what it does. As a lamp belongs on a lampstand (Mark 4:21-22), God’s reign, like a seed, must grow, even if untended and even if its gradual expansion is nearly impossible to detect.

At first glance this story seems to bring comfort and well assumptions one already knows of the kindom of God. This points out that something very small will eventually morph into something much larger; also, something that appears obscure and insignificant will turn into something public and grand. Yet there is more: the reign of God won’t just grow for the sake of looking pretty, but creatures will find that it provides them shelter and security.

Not a majestic home or a pretty home but a secure home.  Those flocks of birds those are not what one wants near their farm or gardens because they will eat and pick at the crops and plants.  The landowner would be shoeing them away trying to protect his crop.  Protect his world as he knows it.  Not wanting to share with he uninvited guest and yet…

“so too it promises to upend a society’s ways of enforcing stability and relegating everyone to their “proper” places. The reign of God will mess with established boundaries and conventional values. Like a fast-replicating plant, it will get into everything. It will bring life and color to desolate places. It will crowd out other concerns. It will resist our manipulations. Its humble appearance will expose and mock pride and pretentiousness like a good burlesque show.”

There are story after story in the gospel of how Jesus walks and acts and does what this vision of the kingdom of God is.  In and through parables we get glimpses of this wild, out of control, kindom that is always seeking out new ways.  Gods reign is upon us and yet often we choose to look the other way, or worse yet we tend to look backwards.

We are all guilty of it.  When the spirit starts moving we panic.  We pull out all the old excuses …we have always done it this way…well we did this in the past and it worked then so lets focus on what we did not move forward…do not change. We do this as individuals, as congregations as association and conferences and even as denominations.

Heck they even do it the old testament. “You may remember the story of the Hebrew nation escaping from slavery in Egypt. Moses led them out, God parted the Red Sea to get them to safety, and they began to cross the wilderness back into the Promised Land.

The problem that occurred really began when the folks began to miss what they had in Egypt. According to the complainers, they had it made in the shade when they were slaves. They had pots full of meat, cucumbers, melons, garlic, leeks, and onions (and some good mouthwash, I hope).” [7]
We can find resistance in that other famous movement known as NIMBY. Not in my back yard.  It is fine if as a church you want to feed the hungry, shoe the children, clothe the poor.  But do not do it at your church it will attract the wrong kind of people.

You can hear the concern expressed and the wild kingdom of god moving in this short article from the los Angeles daily news.
“On the second night after his church opened its parking lot to people living out of their cars, vans and other vehicles, Glenn Nishibayashi noticed a mother and daughter using one of the spaces.
He was interested in knowing how the previous evening worked out for them, and went over to inquire.

“This was the first good night’s sleep I’ve had in weeks,” the woman told him.
She explained that she was more accustomed to fitful nights parked on the street, staying half-awake so she could be alert to potentially being approached by strangers or rousted by police officers.
Members of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church were initially concerned about the possible risks of opening up their parking lot to down-and-out strangers. But talking to the mother and daughter reassured Nishibayashi that their congregation had made the right decision to give the program a try.
“This is exactly what this program is for,” said the 61-year-old Nishibayashi, whose grandparents helped found the historically Japanese American church located in what is now Los Angeles’ Koreatown.

“It gets rid of that worry, so you can function so much better,” he said. “This told me we were doing exactly the right thing.”[8]  There are always new and better ways of being church.
“For many, church time is a sobering time. But for a growing number of American Christians, it’s the best time to crack open a beer.

Just ask the so-called “Church-in-a-pub” gathering in Fort Worth, Texas, which worships at the Zio Carlo brewpub and toasts with craft beer. These Sunday evening services are meant to offer “salvation and everlasting life with really good beer,” according to a recent broadcast by NPR. The creative approach appears to be working: The event attracts about 30-40 congregants weekly, and the group is looking to expand to more locations.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently deemed Church-in-a-pub a Synodically Authorized Worshipping Community.”[9]

The face of Christianity is always changing and the ways we serve those around us in need is evolving the way people come together to worship is getting radical.  The way sanctuary is expressed is always on the move.

“Twice a week, every Sunday and Monday night, around a dozen New Yorkers gather in long, candle-lit studio apartment nestled between a hair salon and some warehouses in one of Brooklyn’s latest hip neighborhoods. They’re actors, singers, seminarians and new parents, and they sit in groups of six around tables in one of the simplest and most untraditional Christian worship spaces the city has to offer.

St. Lydia’s Church has no pews, no altar, no vestments, no band or choir, and little formality of any kind. Instead, church means drums and chanting, with frequent references to Jesus; breaking bread and drinking communion grape juice; and a long, three-hour homemade vegetarian dinner punctuated by Bible readings, a sermon and frequent talk of what it means to be a young spiritual seeker in Brooklyn. The pastor is ordained in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, but the members themselves range from atheist and agnostic to evangelical, Catholic and Episcopalian.”[10]

In San Francisco ministers walk the street at night.  They stop by bars and social events to check on their congregation.  They offer counseling and a friendly face to the indigent and the affluent alike.  But their church has no walls.

“San Francisco Night Ministry, now at 54 years, is often referred to as the Church's "Night Shift."  We are engaged in over 21,000 significant conversations, and serve over 9,500 meals each year, becoming an important bridge and steady support for many people as they face the darkness of the night, but not alone.  We provide compassionate, non-judgmental pastoral care, care of the soul, counseling, referrals, and crisis intervention to anyone in any kind of distress, every night of the year between the hours of 10:00 p.m. and 4:00 a.m.  … the Night Ministry sponsors two Open Cathedrals. They are outdoor worship services -- one in the Tenderloin and one in the Mission. They are weekly worship services followed by a time of sharing food. We provide meals and we also offer an opportunity for conversation and prayer and crisis intervention. We have a wellness program, a community-building program to extend our outreach to many more people in need. We believe that our work helps to make San Francisco a city that is healthier, safer, and more stable for all who live and work here.”[11]

The kingdom of God is uncontrollable. It is as wild as the mustard seed and it thrives in the wild places; In parking lots and small apartments, in pubs and on the streets.  For us this is a place a nourishment and soul enrichment but then…then what. You have to let the spirit move, let it take control if you have a vision or a concept that seems to far out there…well form what we just heard how far out can it be?

It is never too soon to start something new.  There is no rule that says you must wait for a new settled pastor to start something.  I truly believe there is great ministry opportunity in this community you just need to follow your heart to find it. Let some of that mustard seed wildness go and let it grow into a vison of the Uncontrollable Kingdom of God here and now. Amen!

[2] Pliny, H. Rackham, W. H. S. Jones, and D. E. Eichholz. Natural History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991, 170-171
[4] Ditto
[6] Crossan, John Dominic. Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. New York: HarperOne, 1995, page 65.

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