June 13, 2021
"Something God Alone Can See … and Do"
Pastor Scott Landis
The parables of Jesus are sometimes compared to a Zen koan. The koan is a kind of riddle employed by a Buddhist teacher – posing a question that really has no final answer. For example, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?
The genius of the koan AND a good parable is its invitation to mystery. Both the parable and the koan force us to sit with a spiritual question in much the same way we preachers hope a good sermon will do – eliciting more questions than answers. Something to think about on your way home or over lunch.
The story that we read today is a portion of Jesus’ first extended speech in the gospel of Mark. The parables, as are often the case, are agrarian in nature. Earlier in the chapter Jesus spoke of seeds scattered onto different types of soil and the result of so doing. Unlike MOST of his parables, Jesus interpreted this one so that his listeners knew exactly what he was talking about by stating explicitly what the seed and the four soils represent.
In the parable that followed – the parable of the mustard seed – Jesus takes a more typical approach. Like the koan, this parable invites us to ponder with little direction given. So, when you hear it, you may scratch your head – wrinkle your nose – and wonder – what the heck is he talking about? In short, this parable invites us to mystery and to consider the God who, more often than not, confounds human understanding. [Pause]
The context in which this parable is told is important. Mark was writing to a community that did not know how to respond to the crisis they were currently facing. The Romans had fully taken over their land and existence. Their ability to practice their religion in freedom and safety had vanished. By the time these words were written – the temple had been destroyed and Jesus was gone. They had to consider their options:1. Should they take up arms and try to fight for their rights – their freedom – their dignity? Suffice it to say, the odds were NOT in their favor.
2. Should they say nothing and try, as best they could, to fit it and become one with the Roman state as their Jewish religious leaders wanted them to do? In other words – “don’t make any waves.” This would have been the most sane approach.
3. OR – should they put their complete trust in God as they awaited the arrival of God’s kingdom here on earth? Surrendering THEIR desire in order to wait upon God? This might be noble – but was it wise?
The parable (and actually there are two complementary parables) centers on this idea of the coming “Kingdom of God” (which was commonly believed to be God’s reign on earth – when all earthly rulers would be subject to God’s “theocracy” or God’s governance).
While the two parables ARE complementary, they offer two very different illusions regarding the kingdom’s arrival. The first describes the fact that its arrival has absolutely nothing to do with us – or with those first disciples who were trying to determine their next steps. The second, demonstrates how God can work with the smallest thing to do something beyond our wildest imagination.
Jesus offered these words as a source of encouragement and hope that would be needed in his absence. He knew the challenges that awaited them, and he wanted them to remember these words as words of hope in a dark and uncertain moment that was forthcoming. [Pause]
The first parable, while humorous in example, describes an important truth. The farmer plants the seed in the ground. He goes to bed and forgets about it. And then, “viola,” the miracle of growth occurs – he has no idea how. It just happens. Oh, we can explain it scientifically – taking into account the water, soil/nutrients, sunlight and all that – but, in the end, it’s a miracle of sorts – as the seed dies and a miracle of rebirth unfolds. [Pause]
I remember when we were about to have our first child. On one of our pre-natal visits to the Doctor, after we had asked all of our questions, (and, believe me – there were quite a few a fist time parents) the Doctor said to Janet, “You know, I can explain to you scientifically and medically all that is happening in your body right now – but actually – none of us has any real idea how it all comes together. The why. It’s a miracle. Only God knows.” Somehow, that made a lot of sense to me – and was strangely reassuring.
The kindom of God, Jesus said, is not of our doing. This is God’s work. Despite all that you see happening around you. God is germinating a new seed of possibility – of hope. Our kuleana is to trust in the sure and certain promises of God – God has got this – harvest time is coming. [Pause]
And in the second parable, we are given another teaching on the kindom of God. Like a mustard seed (or pine nut as in Peterson’s translation) it will likely germinate from the smallest of intentions. There is nothing too small for God to work with. Even the smallest of seeds can grow into an enormous tree. Once again, our kuleana is to trust in the sure and certain promises of God – God has got this – harvest time is coming. [Pause]
Before I began my sermon today, I wanted us to sing one of my favorite hymns in the New Century Hymnal. Natalie Sleeth has written hundreds of beautiful anthems some of which have been recast as hymns for congregational singing. I was first introduced to “In the Bulb there is a Flower” years ago by a colleague who asked me to officiate at her father’s memorial. While it was unfamiliar to me, she said this hymn gave her a great deal of hope in a time of deep sorrow.
Its words convey the same theological message that Jesus hints at in these seed parables we read today. That there is potential, possibility, growth, in fact – a miracle is occurring in places we cannot see – but God can. In the bulb – a flower. In the seed – a tree. In the cocoon – a butterfly. In winter – spring. All of which take time to germinate, and all of which God alone can see … and do. None of this is of our own doing. Like the farmer, and my doctor – we know not how or why – it’s a miracle. [Pause]
What is left unsaid in this parable about the Kingdom of God is that it is not some future event or physical place. Jesus is not promising a kind of eutopia where we all live in harmony with one another singing one song. No, in other sections of the gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that the Kindom of God is NOT something they have to wait for – or some place they have to travel to. It is not out there [point outward] or up there [point heavenward] it is instead right here [point inward]. Jesus told them that the kindom of God was within them. Talk about a koan!
To borrow a few words from Natalie Sleeth’s hymn:In our end is our beginning;
In our time, infinity;
In our doubt there is believing;
In our life, eternity.
The whole of our spiritual lives is occurring not as some future event – but right now and right here within our very bodies.
Think about that mystery for a while – and, perhaps, on your way home. If, in fact, the kingdom of God is within me – and within you – and within the one sitting next to you. In fact, if the kingdom of God is, indeed, within each one of us – just as Jesus said, doesn’t that change the way we treat each other? Doesn’t that give additional motivation to live as Jesus commanded – to love not only God – but also our neighbor as we love ourselves? And isn’t it much easier to love ourselves if we truly believe that we hold God’s kingdom within us?
Like I said. It’s a koan. It’s a parable. It’s a mystery. But think about how beautiful – that reality.