Third Sunday After Pentecost 2015

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34

Jesus 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.

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Jesus said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”  In today’s gospel reading Jesus goes on to use two agricultural metaphors to help his followers understand what the kingdom of God is about. The parables are designed to both enlighten and mystify. He first compares the kingdom of God to the way in which a farmer might scatter seed on the ground, and the seed grows and develops, and is then harvested.  Jesus then compares the kingdom of God to a tiny mustard seed that eventually grows into a great shrub and provides a home for the birds of the air.

Like most parables, the meaning is obtuse, mysterious, subject to many interpretations.  But since most of Jesus’ listeners, 2000 years ago, were farmers, or at least lived close to the land, farming illustrations made sense. The people knew about seeds and planting and the harvest.  Like some of you, I’m a gardener.  So the farming analogies speak to me as well, since I have some acquaintance with the world of agriculture.

But for most 21st century Americans, who get their groceries entirely from the store, not from the ground, a farming parable isn’t likely to resonate.  I’m inclined to think that if Jesus was alive and instructing his disciples today, he would use all together different kinds of parables. He might say something like this:

The kingdom of God is like Facebook, or Twitter, or Snapchat.  An idea germinates in the dorm room a college student and it blossoms and spreads and a new method of communication is born. At first there are dozens of users, then hundreds and thousands and then millions of members worldwide use the latest mode of social media to disseminate new thoughts and startling innovations.

Of Jesus might say, the kingdom of God is like the Bentonville School District.  It starts out very small with only a few students, but children come with their parents from around the country and the world.  And the boundaries of the district expand into the countryside.  And the athletic teams and the music program and the academic endeavors all flourish.  The high school grows so large that it must finally split into two, dividing the east from the west.

Or Jesus might even say, the kingdom of God is like Walmart.  A shopkeeper running a small five and dime on the Bentonville square, decides that he can be more competitive if he buys merchandise in large quantities and sells his products cheaper than anyone else.  And he prospers and builds more stores and buys and sells merchandise at the far corners of the earth.  Until one day the company employees almost as many people as the Chinese army.

Or Jesus might say, the kingdom of God is like All Saints’ Episcopal Church.  A church planter came to town without a single friend in the county.  Preaching and teaching a gospel of inclusion and acceptance, before long the people begin to arrive.  People who hadn’t found a home in the hundreds of churches in the county, found sanctuary at All Saints’.

Or if Jesus lived among us today he might say, the kingdom of God is like our interfaith vision.  A few people from around the world gather in Bentonville – people who bring the faith of their forefathers and mothers with them.  And they seek a place to worship God in the way in which they are accustomed, and in a place of harmony and peace and safety.  And a small band of Christians and Jews and Muslims, sharing the same sacred space, present to the world an example of how people of God, holding different beliefs and demonstrating their love for God in different ways, can live in harmony together.  And their gathering looks like the kingdom of God.

Of course the kingdom of God can’t be reduced to a story about the latest killer app, or schools, or Walmart, or All Saints’ or even the interfaith project.  The nature of the kingdom of God remains shrouded in mystery. That’s why even Jesus had to resort to parables in order provide his disciples with the foggiest notion of what God’s kingdom was ultimately about.

Yet, interestingly, in Mark’s gospel, the kingdom of God analogies are all about growth and fluidity and change.  Seeds are sprouting, grain is ripening, branches are extending, birds are building nests, the harvest is plentiful.  And so it was with the early church in the days in which Mark was composing his gospel story.   And so it is with us today here in Benton County.  And for that we can be grateful.  For those of you who have moved here from abroad and from other parts of the United States, change is at the heart of your very existence.  So it is that in the kingdom of God, as illustrated in Mark’s parables, nothing remains the same.

Hence, our desire, in an ever changing world, to root ourselves in the eternal changelessness of God.  But like the kingdom of God, God also is an unfathomable reality.  God is a reality that we can only point at with words.

We sometimes make the mistake of confusing our particular religion with the reality of God.  I once told an elderly monk that I thought of God as the yolk of the egg and that religion was the eggshell.  And that without the shell the egg within would spill out and slip through our fingers and there would be no way for us to grasp the essence of God. The rather jaded old monk told me that the analogy might be true, but that it was his experience that too many Christians mistook the shell of religion for the essence of God.

The Dalai Lama sometimes says that God is the water contained in the teacup and that religion is the tea leaf.  The tea adds color and flavor and richness and enables us to experience and enjoy the presence of God. But we tend to forget that the essence of God is in the water itself, not the particular variety of tea we add to make the beverage more palatable.

We speak of God and the kingdom of God with parables, analogy, and metaphor, reminding ourselves that the reality of God and God’s kingdom is not limited by the inadequacies of our language and our religion. And so we share Jesus’ own perplexity,  “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?”

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