Seeds and the Kingdom of God, Mark 4:26-33
Plymouth First United Methodist Church, June 13, 2021
Pastor Toni Carmer
We human beings have a perception problem.
We think we understand things.
We think we have the “proper perspective” on things.
And sometimes we’re just off.
Thomas Wheeler was at one time the CEO of the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. He and his wife were driving down an interstate highway when he realized he hadn’t paid close enough attention and needed gas. So, he pulled off at the next exit and found a rundown gas station with just one gas pump. He asked the attendant to fill the tank and to check the oil, then went for a little walk around the station to stretch his legs.
When he returned to the car, his wife and the attendant were engaged in an animated conversation. The conversation stopped as he paid the man, but as he got back into the car he saw the man wave and heard him say, “It was great talking to you.”
As they drove out of the station, Wheeler asked his wife if she knew the man. She said, yes, she did. They’d gone to high school together and had dated steadily for about a year.
“Boy, you were lucky that I came along,” bragged Wheeler. “If you had married him, you’d be the wife of a gas station attendant instead of the wife of a chief executive officer.”
“My dear,” replied his wife, “If I had married him, HE’D be the chief executive officer and YOU’D be the gas station attendant.”
We think we have the proper perspective on things, but sometimes we don’t. We human beings have the tendency to get it wrong. To turn things around. To assign value and worth to things that aren’t so valuable or worthy. The flashy catches our eye, we tend to think the bigger the better. We define success with the ability to acquire and accumulate.
We know better. Well, sometimes we do, but so often we get it wrong.
It’s not so surprising then, that we do the same kind of thing when we’re talking about and thinking about matters of faith: about spiritual things. Jesus knew that, and so he told people stories to help them understand. Today we’re going to talk about two parables Jesus told describing heaven. In the Gospel of Matthew he calls it the Kingdom of Heaven, Mark and Luke call it the Kingdom of God, but they’re all describing the same thing: that which we probably most commonly call “heaven.”
If someone were to ask you to describe heaven, how would you do that?
Our first impulse might be to describe a place. We look upward, and think of a place somewhere far away, maybe where the streets are paved in gold. We might think of jewels being there, adorning the place like flowers do, making everything look pretty and bright. People who we know and love, who aren’t with us anymore here, walk around healthy and whole, smiling. Beloved pets, long gone, eagerly awaiting our attention. Chocolate in abundant supply. No need for diet and exercise. And for me, surely there’s a beach—sand and water wind and waves, and an endless supply of good books. There’s no need for sunscreen, and we all look great in a bathing suit. Others of us are hoping for mountain ranges, good fishing lakes, sporting events to participate in or watch anytime you’d like…
But here in Mark, Jesus doesn’t describe heaven as a place. He talks more of heaven as an activity. It’s not a destination but a journey. For Jesus, in the two stories we’ve read this morning, heaven has to do with planting seeds.
In other words, heaven isn’t a place where we end up, but it’s a process in which we are invited to participate.
In the first parable, we can see that our participation calls for us to scatter the seed, but what happens next is beyond our doing and our understanding. We plant, we go to bed, we get up, and it happens: the earth produces of itself. At the right time we attend to the harvest that God has produced.
We might want to argue that our participation would continue to be helpful during this process of growth to ensure an abundant harvest, providing appropriate amounts of water, light, perhaps fertilizer. And yet, we realize that we have little to do with making a seed grow.
Perhaps it feels good to hear that it’s not all dependent on us. There’s power in the seed that produces by the grace of God alone.
In the second parable, Jesus describes the Kingdom of God as being like a mustard seed. It’s the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows, it is the greatest of all shrubs and it becomes a tree.
I’ve always taken for granted that that’s true. I’ve planted a lot of seeds, and I know what a mustard seed looks like, because we can buy them in the spice section at the grocery store. It’s true. They’re a tiny seed. But I’ve seen tinier. Like a celery seed. It’s tinier. That probably shouldn’t concern us: maybe it was the smallest seed in Jesus’ day, in the place where he lived and traveled and taught. I’m not really familiar with a mustard tree. Never tried to grow one of those from a seed in the spice department, and I’ve never seen a mustard tree start at the nursery. But my guess has been that the mustard seed grows into something fairly impressive. That’s what Jesus said. And any size of big would be impressive, considering the small size of the seed.
But you know what? I’ve learned that a mustard seed actually grows into a shrub. They usually grow only about a foot tall. It’s possible they can grow into a tree, sometimes 6 foot tall, I guess. But mostly they’re shrubs. So, an exceedingly small bird might rest in its branches, but your average-sized bird probably ought consider landing elsewhere.
So, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a…bush.
There are some Bible experts who think Jesus was poking fun at an image of the Babylonian empire, described in the Old Testament book of Daniel. There, Babylon is described as a great tree whose branches extend over the whole earth so that “birds of the air nested in its branches and from it all living things were fed” (Daniel 4:10-12).
A great, impressive tree used in the Old Testament as a symbol of Babylon…and Jesus is now making this comparison to a little bush. Jesus announces, “The kingdom of God is like a shrub.” That would throw the 1st century Jesus follower off a bit, wouldn’t it? It would be a bit unexpected. Might cause them to smile and scratch their heads.
I think that’s the point: Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of God is not what we expect. It’s like this, rather than like that.
Our reaction is similar to what it would be if Jesus were to come to our church today and tell us, “You are doing a wonderful job, you are making a difference in the community in the same kind of way as the street department. They come by and pick up the weeds you pull and other garden refuse twice a week.” Ok. How do you respond to that? Or, “This church is doing great. When you speak your voice is like the roar of a huge mouse.”
Wait, what? Thank you for noticing?
Perhaps this is a reminder that God doesn’t look at things in the same way we look at things. We measure greatness with size, numbers, volume. Perhaps God measures greatness in terms of faithfulness.
Perhaps on this day, at this time, at this season in our lives, as we worship in a building other than our own, with maybe 40% of those with whom we worshipped alongside 3 years ago—maybe this is a word of encouragement for our church and for all churches who still believe—in the midst of everything that has happened—that Jesus Christ is the hope of the world—and we are the way God is bringing hope into our community and our world.
We don’t feel so big. We don’t feel so powerful. And yet, Jesus is telling us that the Kingdom of God will sprout and grow as we scatter seeds. Even when the seeds are the smallest of all seeds—like a mustard seed. By the grace of God it will grow…into a bush…into something useful and good.
Think about where we have been planting seeds…Where you have been a part of scattering and planting seeds.
This morning I think about the work team who reported to us this a.m. How their work at the Midwest Mission Distribution Center scatters seeds, making a difference for individuals and communities who are in need of assistance….
I think of our Children’s ministries: each week children are sent a special worship bulletin geared for them to help them learn about Jesus/to learn about our faith. Our Youth and Education team who work to remain in contact, offering resources, and who are planning a special day in a couple of weeks to bring children (and perhaps their families) together.
I think of the Men who had another breakfast yesterday, inviting men from the UCC to join them, as they build relationships…
I think of the Community meal, the food that is being offered, the relationships that are offered, and how that might someday grow as we’re able to come together again…
I think of the beginning relationship with Trinity, as we keep in mind small ways that we might relate to one another that can help us all to better relate to this community…and I think of the relationship we’re building here with the UCC, ways in which we might partner, as well.
I think of the financial offerings you give to our church, to the different basket ministries each week to participate in supporting different missions and ministries in our community and our world…
(What am I forgetting?)
Sometimes we feel that we’re so inadequate, so small, sometimes we’re not convinced we can do much. But, isn’t it helpful/isn’t it encouraging to know that the growth/the end result—is God’s doing, and not dependent upon us? Our job is to keep scattering seed…to be faithful…and God will bring about the growth.
Remember the silly story I told you at the beginning of this morning’s message. Sometimes our perception is off. We think it’s about us and what we can do. Really, it’s about God and what God can do. Our God is big enough to do some pretty amazing things.
May we be faithful in our seed-scattering. Amen.