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A Gospel for Anxious Times

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26He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.”

(Mark 4:26-3)

Grace to you and peace from the one who is, and the one who was, and the one who is to come:

Have you ever felt anxious? Perhaps you are feeling anxious right now? Perhaps you are anxious about the future, or your health, or financial matters, or the welfare of a loved one. Perhaps you are anxious about the future of the neighborhood, or the city, or the country. If you are anxious about anything at all, then today’s gospel reading is for you!

Today we heard two parables: one about seeds that are scattered and grow almost by themselves, and another one about a mustard seed that begins with a tiny seed and grows into a very large shrub. At first glance, these parables seem to be charming agricultural tales with not much of an oomph. But what gives them power, what gives them impact, is the context in which they were told.

We are now in the 4th chapter of the gospel of Mark, so this is still early in the telling of the gospel the way Mark presents it. And already at this early stage, trouble is brewing. It always surprises me how early in Mark the conflicts show up.

Jesus is on a preaching tour through Galilee. He heals many people who suffer from all kinds of afflictions, and some of those healings take place on the Sabbath. And this gets him in trouble with the local religious authorities. As early as chapter 3 we read how the local religious leaders seek out representatives of King Herod and hatch plans to destroy Jesus.

Next, the relatives of Jesus show up. They have determined that Jesus is out of his mind; that he has to be restrained and brought under control. Next a delegation shows up from the temple in Jerusalem. They have determined that Jesus is engaged in demonic practices, and that he himself is perhaps a demon possessed, and they have come to investigate the matters.

All these things are going on, and the group of disciples is still very new to all of this. Some disciples had been called early on, Peter and James and Andrew and John, and a little later Levi was added. But some of the other followers, – Andrew, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Thaddaeus, Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot – they were called later, just around the time when all this trouble was brewing.

The disciples might be asking themselves: “What are we doing joining up with this rabbi who is getting into so much trouble? And what about his teachings? Yes, we like to hear about the kingdom of God, and about justice, about forgiveness, and new beginnings. But with all the trouble that he is now getting into, is there any future for this enterprise?”

It is at this point that Jesus begins to tell his parables. It is as if Jesus is saying: “Yes, I know you are anxious. But look at mother nature and learn a lesson from her. Nature is going to do everything in her own good time. You cannot hurry her, you cannot suppress her. So it is with the reign of God.”

With this in mind, let’s look at the parables again. The first parable goes like this: The reign of God is like this: a sower scatters seeds on the ground, then goes to bed at night, and gets up day after day. Through it all the seed sprouts and grows without the sower knowing how it happens. The soil produces a crop by itself – first the blade, then the ear, and finally the ripe wheat in the ear. When the crop is ready, the sower wields the sickle, for the time is ripe for the harvest.

This parable has a number of interesting features. One significant feature, however, is unfortunately covered up by the translation which we are using here at St. Francis. You may or may not know that some time ago St. Francis adopted a translation which is called “The Inclusive Bible,” published by Priests for Equality. And what is special about this translation, and the reason why it was chosen, is that whenever possible this translation offers a gender-neutral rendering of Bible passages. In most cases I am really glad to have this translation, except that every once in a while, they get it wrong in my opinion, and this is one of these occasions. In my mind the more traditional translations are correct when they say: The kingdom of God is like a man who scatters seed on the ground. And that, I think, is exactly the point, that it is a man, an ordinary man, not a sower, not even a farmer.

And this man, this ordinary man, throws seeds on the ground. Now look! It doesn’t say he plants the seeds, it’s more like he throws seeds away. And not even into a field, but just anywhere on the ground.

Perhaps he doesn’t even know they are seeds. Perhaps it’s leftover from his lunch, and he throws it away carelessly. Whatever he does, it is not a purposeful planting in a field, that’s for sure. But still, to his surprise the seeds begin to sprout and grow, and he has a harvest.

Perhaps it is like the way that I am finding some potatoes growing in my compost heap. For sure, I did not plant them there. Most likely those potatoes came from some of the potato peels which I have thrown into the compost. And now, to my surprise, they have begun to sprout! And in a similar way the man in the parable who has not even prepared a field, who has not even planted and watered and fertilized, still he ends up with the surprise of a harvest.

And I sense something playful and subversive in this parable – a warning and a promise: It’s as if the parable says “God’s kingdom will grow at every chance it gets. We might set something in motion and don’t even know it. We might sleep right through most of it, and yet, it grows!”

What about the next parable? Let me read it one more time. What comparison can we use for the reign of God?… It is like a mustard seed, which people plant into the soil. It is the smallest of all the earth’s seeds, yet once it is sown it springs up to become the largest of shrubs, with branches big enough for the birds of the sky to build nests in its shade.

Well, I am not sure the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. I think I have seen smaller ones. Butlet us say here we have a pretty small seed. And in contrast to the first parable, this small seed is carefully planted into the ground. The Greek text refers to it as a “lachanon”. “Lachanon” comes from the word for digging, digging in the ground. Lachanon is a garden herb that has been planted by digging the ground, as opposed to a wild herb that plants itself without human action.

However, look around you! One look around here in California, or anywhere else in the world, will tell you that the mustard plant is no delicate hothouse plant that needs careful cultivation. Mustard plants are good and vigorous growers! You can see mustard plants all around us. They are those bushy plants with yellow flowers which you can see almost everywhere by the roadside or along ditches. Mustard plants spread on the wings of the wind, and through birds. The seeds of mustard plants will hitchhike with our hiking boots as we track through the fields. It is in the wine country, where the mustard is welcome as a cover-crop. Late winter is often ablaze with bright yellow mustard fields.

Sure enough, in our parable we also get a sense of this vigor and wildness The little the mustard seed which is so carefully planted grows into a huge shrub, so huge that birds make their nests in it.

Again, I have a hard time imagining the bird nests, but we should not doubt the strength and the vigor of the plant, and the very energetic growth from very small beginnings. It is as if the parables is saying “Don’t underestimate small beginnings! What begins small and seemingly insignificant, might well grow beyond all expectations.”

Together both parables are saying: “Don’t worry about the Kingdom of God! Even now, when trouble is brewing, the kingdom of God will not be so easily defeated. Go and do your work, do what you can, plant seeds of justice and hope, and trust God to find a way for the seeds to grow.”

I could stop here, but then I would have given you nothing but a religious pep talk. There is one more thing we must consider. We don’t know whether if the parables helped the disciples in their anxiety. The parables did nothing to stop the course of events. The conflicts between Jesus and the religious and political leadership did not go away. To the contrary, they increased, and in the end, Jesus did get captured by those who were after him all along. He was tried, crucified, and buried.

Even so, the gospel says the kingdom could not be defeated because now Jesus himself becomes a seed, a powerful seed put in the ground, which burst forth with great power. The Roman empire has long ago been defeated, but every morning people get up and begin a new day in the name of the risen Christ.

I want to count myself among them, among people who get up each morning to begin a new day in the name of the risen Christ; who trust in the power of all things rising – from tiny seed, from death, from oppression. I want to count myself among people who rise each morning into life, into freedom, into justice, and joy.