Proper 6B, June 14, 2015

June 15, 2015

Seedy Possibilities
Mark 4:26-34

4:26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” 30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 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.” 33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Today’s scripture lesson provides us with two curious images of God’s kingdom. And one thing that occurs to me is that these images aren’t very helpful if you expect to extract a lesson from them. They don’t really provide any kind of instruction on what we are to do if we want to gain access to the kingdom of God. If you are looking for some clear guidance on what you need to do in order to abide in God’s Kingdom I think the message is to not get in the way.

And I suppose that’s somewhat informative – don’t get in the way of how the kingdom of God is taking root and shooting upward. I’m reminded of the wise advice my friend, Rev. Lewis Chesser, was known to provide to people who weren’t sure what they needed to do. He would say, Don’t just do something – stand there!

Clearly part of the message of this first parable is for us to not take our role in the establishment of God’s kingdom too seriously. The farmer’s job was to scatter the seed and then do nothing until it was time for the grain to be harvested. He did have a role to play, but according to Jesus the ground did all of the work of producing the crop.

I think Jesus was pointing to the fact that we are pretty helpless when it comes to guiding the spiritual world. Parables are funny things. They point to profound truths, but the truths they identify aren’t always easy to see. The easy thing to see in this parable is how little the farmer did, and that’s not very good advice for a farmer. I think most farmers would tell you what kind of crop you will get if you don’t engage in the endless work of preparing the soil, applying fertilizer, warding off pests, and irrigating the plants. The truth is you won’t have much of a crop to harvest if you don’t do anything but scatter the seed and wait.

I can testify to this. I planted some snow peas in my one little raised bed this year. I half-heartedly constructed a trellis for them to grow on that was about half as tall as it needed to be, and I basically ignored them for several weeks. Consequently I harvested about a dozen small pods last week. They were good, and they are a testimony to the resilience of plants to produce fruit under unfavorable conditions, but my plants were pretty pitiful looking. Clearly Jesus wasn’t offering advice on how to be an effective farmer, but I’m sure there’s something in this story that can help us be more present to the Kingdom of God.

I think the lesson has something to do with how we view the Kingdom of God – which is not just different from the powerful institutions we encounter on earth, it’s also different from the way we often imagine God’s kingdom to be. In fact I think what Jesus is wanting us to understand is that God’s kingdom isn’t anything like the kingdoms of earth – which often do give shape to our understanding of the kingdom of God.

And I think the problem Jesus was addressing with this parable is our tendency to want to give some familiar shape to God’s kingdom. As much as we might think we would enjoy the life of this farmer who simply throws out the seed and waits to see what happens – that’s not how we generally operate. I think we are more inclined to want to make sure our endeavors turn in to something we can be proud of. We aren’t as good at letting God’s kingdom flourish as we are at trying to turn God’s kingdom in to something that will get the attention of our peers.

I’m thinking Jesus is providing some unsettling advice in this parable. He’s really not telling us how we can be more effective in our work as good United Methodists who will get more people to show up on Sunday mornings and give more money. God’s special agent in this parable throws out the seed, goes home and goes to bed. This may be somebody’s idea of excellence in ministry, but this is not what I’m hearing from headquarters that they want us to be doing.

I really don’t sense that this parable provides us with very good advice on how to improve our vital statistics. You will not find in this passage the seed of a powerful program on effective evangelism – unless you are willing to let go of how you measure such things. And I actually think that’s what Jesus wants us to do. Jesus wants us to see that the fruits of God’s kingdom grow without our help and in ways that are beyond our control.

We can’t make them grow – nor can we keep them from growing. We may not see how richly bountiful the heads of the grain really are, but just because we don’t see them doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. Jesus didn’t tell this parable to provide us with instruction on how we might work more effectively – he told it in order to help us see things differently. There is a bountiful harvest to be experienced, but it’s not the kind of fruit we generate by our own toil.

Jesus followed this first seedy parable with another one. This mustard seed parable is one that we can more readily embrace in some ways. It at least doesn’t have a main character who models slovenly behavior, and it does provide this image of a really small thing growing in to a huge thing. That is an encouraging image for any struggling organization – we may be small now, but one day we may become huge! And who doesn’t like the idea of becoming huge!

On some level you might say that the Methodist Church is an example of the way in which something small can grow in to something huge. And I’ve intentionally referred to the Methodist Church as opposed to the United Methodist Church, because the UMC has never experienced the kind of growth that the Methodist Church did. Certainly there are some pockets of growth, but our denomination hasn’t been in the growth mode for the last few decades.

In some ways our religious tradition reflects this story of the tiny mustard seed that grew in to the largest of all plants. The story of Methodism is the story of how a handful of reform minded students started something that grew in to an institution that dwarfed it’s Protestant peers. When the various arms of the Methodist Church united in 1968 we became the largest of all Protestant denominations.

It’s worth noting that this very building was home to the largest Methodist Church in Arkansas in the 1940s. I’m not sure what year it peaked in membership, but Winfield Methodist Church had around 3500 members in the mid-1940s. QQUMC now has about 350 members and on a good Sunday we’ll have a little over 100 people in worship.

It’s not easy to fully embrace the glorious possibilities that this parable of the mustard seed evokes when you meet in a building that once held ten times as many people as we now have on an average Sunday. This mustard seed parable sort of make me wonder if we haven’t gone to seed so to speak.

But I’m reminded that these stories Jesus told aren’t allegories – they weren’t told in order for us to relate the political or religious events of the day with the images provided by these stories. We aren’t to relate the growth of our institution with the growth of the plant. That’s an easy place for us to go in our minds, but I don’t think that’s the right place to go. It’s natural to think Jesus was wanting us to believe in the possibility of stupendous growth of our good church when he told this parable of the mustard seed, but I don’t think that’s what he was wanting us to understand.

I really don’t think Jesus cared about establishing a new religious institution that would overshadow the sick one that dominated Israel at the time. Jesus did care about spiritual transformation, and that’s what these parables are about. Jesus wanted us to be able to see the nearness of God’s kingdom regardless of how far from the kingdom of God our institutions may wander.

I realize that I might be presenting our institutional health and life in some negative light, but I actually find these parables to be powerfully positive. What I hear Jesus saying is that the kingdom of God can grow under any circumstances. I hear him saying that you can’t keep it from growing and you can’t imagine how large it can get – regardless of the numbers that can be statistically reported.

It may well be that we have more God-loving, kingdom-dwelling Christians in this sanctuary on a below average Sunday morning than Winfield Methodist Church had on Easter Day in 1946 when this place was bursting with people. It’s hard to measure such things, but I don’t think we will ever be successful at measuring the manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth. It’s not something that we will ever be able to control or coordinate, and I thank God for that.

I don’t discount the value of measuring certain things. You need people and money to operate a church, and it’s good to keep track of how you are spending the money that people give out of devotion to God. But the truth is that people can find their way in to God’s kingdom on either side of the doors of any church – large or small.

I love this beautiful building, and I love the church that abides within this place. I believe that growth is a possibility for this church, and I hope it happens. I genuinely want this church to succeed, but on another level I don’t even think it matters. And that’s another reason it’s a good thing that I’m about to relocate – because when it comes down to it I really don’t care about the numbers. This church needs some better numbers, and unfortunately I’m not very driven to succeed in that way.

It’s not just that I’m lazy or inept. It’s also that I’m inclined to believe that God doesn’t need a giant church to spread the good news in unfathomable ways. One person who has become infected by the love of God can infect an immeasurable number of other people, and that’s why the kingdom of God continues to thrive in this world.

Churches come and churches go, preachers come and preachers go, but God has chosen to be with us in an eternally unfailing way.

The Kingdom of God is like a seed, and its growth is out of our hands. Thanks be to God! Amen.


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