Thursday, June 21, 2018

Mark 4:26-34 "Inch by Inch, Row by Row"

         Sometimes we call it the Kingdom of God.  Less often now in these post-modern days, we refer to it as the Kingdom of Heaven.  At other times, we just say “The Kingdom” and we know – kinda, sorta – what it is we are talking about:  “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” 
         There you have it!  We read about it – “The Kingdom”, I mean - in all four of our Gospels.  We pray about it whenever we even whisper the Lord’s Prayer.  We listen to preachers prattle on in worship about it.  The words slip effortlessly off our tongues…the kingdom, the kingdom, the kingdom. 
         But what do we really believe about this Kingdom that we read and pray and speak of so nonchalantly?  Are we like the pastor and her congregation who had this conversation when they found themselves in the midst of a severe drought:
PASTOR: “There is nothing we can do but pray for rain. Go home, pray, believe, and come back next Sunday ready to thank God for sending rain.
Seven days pass, and it is the following Sunday.
PASTOR: “We can’t worship today because you do not believe.”
CONGREGATION: ”Pastor, but we prayed - and we do believe.”
PASTOR: “Then, where are your umbrellas?”
         Ah, when it comes to the Kingdom, most of us left our umbrellas at home, I suspect, not knowing much at all about this Kingdom that we say we believe in and continue to read and pray and listen to our preacher prattle on about.  But just what do we believe about this Kingdom?  And can we really believe anything at all about it if we really do not know just what it is?  
         Succinctly put then:  What is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom of God’s dream?  That is a rhetorical question, I guess.  I mean, how are we supposed to know what the Kingdom is all about when clearly Jesus’ disciples did not have a clue, and they were with him 24/7?
         Surely that is why Jesus – being a good rabbi and all - told them little stories about the Kingdom of God’s dream, so they would know what to expect when God’s reign on earth began.  He presented them with little puzzles that we call parables, so they could begin to focus their efforts on preparing the carpenters and shopkeepers they knew and the peasants they met along the way, prepare them for the Kingdom’s inevitable arrival. 
         In his three or so years of ministry, Jesus spun a series of tales:  The Kingdom of God’s dream is like an old stooped over cleaning lady who searches her entire house, turning everything upside down and inside out until she finds a coin she has misplaced. 
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like wedding feast to which all the oddballs and down-and-outers are invited – while the rich and famous folks find themselves left outside not knowing what they are missing – until it is too late. 
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like a father who welcomes home his misguided son, the young and impetuous one who left in a huff years before and lived the good life until he gambled all his worldly possessions away in Las Vegas. 
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like…..
         And then one day, Jesus was walking with his followers in the spring of the year.  The sky was a milky blue.  The sun shone warm upon their faces, and he had just told them a story about a farmer who tossed seeds hither and yon, seemingly oblivious as to whether they landed on rocky soil, amongst the weeds, or on fertile ground.  Jesus explained that little story in detail to the twelve who were hanging on his every word.  After all, most of them were illiterate fishermen or brain-bound tax collectors and could not be expected to know the ins and outs of a farmer’s life.
         And as the warm wind gusted playfully about the little group, picking up the dust on the road and swirling it into tiny funnels, Jesus, perhaps overwhelmed by an ancient sense of creation spirituality, continued in this agricultural mode and told his friends two more parables about the Kingdom of God’s dream.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream, Jesus taught, is like a farmer who faithfully sowed his seeds – inch by inch, row by row - trusting in the sun to shine and the rain to fall.  And as the farmer slept at night, deep beneath the ground, in the dark, the seeds cracked open one by one and quietly began to sprout.  And the sun shone, and the rain fell.  And the farmer slept peacefully night after night - trusting, always trusting.  And far below the ground, the seeds – unnoticed – germinated – inch by inch, row by row.
         Then one morning, the first green shoots broke through the soil and found the sun.  And leaves appeared, and the stalks grew tall, and wheat formed, and the harvest was good, and the poor had bread to make it through the winter.  The Kingdom of God’s dream is like that, Jesus said – not like a bulldozer tearing up the field, but oftentimes so quiet and unobtrusive that you cannot even see it growing – but it is, and you cannot stop it - and then one day the harvest comes, and there is enough to go around. 
         The Kingdom of God’s dream, Jesus continued (just in case the disciples still did not get it), the Kingdom of God’s dream is like a mustard seed.  And his followers snickered at that analogy because a mustard seed was awfully small and because they lived in the Kingdom of Caesar’s Rome, which, as everyone with half a brain knew, was awfully big, and it would take something more substantial than a mustard seed to free them all from the domination system that had oppressed them for centuries. 
         But no, Jesus assured them.  The Kingdom of God’s dream really is like a mustard seed – and you know about mustard seeds.  Inch by inch, row by row, they grow into shrubs that, before you know it, come up to your waist and, if you do not watch out, they will spread - like kudzu in the South – or Japanese knotweed here in Maine. 
         Try as you might, Jesus implied, you will not be able to stop the Kingdom of God’s dream once it gets a foothold.  It will quickly get out of control and – beware – it will have some mighty dangerous invasive properties. 
         Some would say that, as much as you want the Kingdom of God’s dream to come on earth as it is in heaven, you really want it only in very small bits and in carefully controlled doses – even if you could control it – which you cannot – like Jesus’ first parable emphasized.  Simply put, the Kingdom of God’s dream is coming – whether we like it or not.  Inch by inch, row by row.
         And about those birds that built their nests in the mustard shrub?  Jesus assured his disciples that you would not have to look far to realize that the mustard bush was big enough for all sorts of disparate birds of a feather to flock together – Muslim and Christian, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor.  Imagine!  So here is another thing about the Kingdom of God’s dream, Jesus declared:  It is big enough for everyone.
         In the end, the point that Jesus made to his disciples if they took the time to puzzle through the parables is that (as Lutheran pastor Jonathan Davis speculates) “the Kingdom of God is not the same as the kingdom of Rome.  It doesn’t look like power and strength. And sometimes, we just can’t see it.  It’s like a seed, growing slowly underneath the soil, where the gardener can’t see what’s happening beneath the surface.  But other times, when we do see it, it just seems so small and insignificant, like a mustard seed, that we don’t recognize the kingdom of God that was hidden within it.”  But in the end, there will be a harvest beyond our wildest dreams.  There will be a world invaded and overrun with compassion and justice.
         OK, we might say, that is all well and good – but surely it is a wee bit polly- anna-ish.  After all, who can deny it? Sometimes we seem so small, and the world seems so big.  Sometimes we seem more like voices crying in the wilderness, fearful that we are not heard. 
         Look at what goes on around us!  Our senators and representatives talk and talk and talk – and each day every word they speak on the floor is carefully recorded in the daily Congressional Record – so many words, so many pages.  The White House issues thousands of pages of policy initiatives.  Words, words, words. The United Nations and the G7 cobble together pages of solutions to the world’s problems.  Such a huge output of words, so many thousands of documents – all designed to make the world a better place! 
         And yet here we stand in the footsteps of Jesus, raising up sixteen chapters– a thin volume – that we call the Gospel of Mark, making our audacious claim that, though we certainly do not deny the role of government, the message of Jesus ultimately holds the meaning and secret we are all searching for – compassion, peace, reconciliation, justice – inch by inch, row by row.
         Sometimes we seem so small, and the world seems so big.  And yet, all we are asked to do is plant seeds and trust that God will do the rest.  Inch by inch, row by row.  As United Church of Christ pastor Kate Huey reminds us:  No matter how ‘small’ and powerless we may feel (or be told that we are), no matter how unlikely or unqualified we may seem to others, we can still feel the power of God's spirit at work in us, and dream the dream that God has for this world. We look around and see the influence and effects of others (for good or ill), and we realize that we too can be a blessing in our individual lives, and in (and through) the life of our communities.”
         Sometimes we seem so small, and the world seems so big.  And as our church right here in Raymond, these days sometimes we seem smaller than ever.  And yet….
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like a tiny acorn that grows into a strong and sturdy oak tree.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like a stone that is tossed into a pond and you watch in wonder as the ripples created spread further and further from the center – and you can do nothing to stop them.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like Linda and Caryl helping to pack up Pauline’s apartment and get her moved into Casco Terrace.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like Martha working week in and week out at the food pantry.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like Chloe and Robbie’s stepmother doing a one woman bottle drive and raising over $500.00 for our Pilgrim Lodge Scholarship Fund.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like Brenda not resting on the laurels of retirement but plunging into being our Treasurer.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like Cherie generously volunteering to share her love of music and her piano skills when needed.
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like five amateur wood butchers going to Maine Seacoast Mission to skirt a trailer and, perhaps more importantly in the long run, to befriend a disabled and hardworking young man and his mother. 
         As Presbyterian pastor Stephen McKinney-Whitaker reminds us:  The Kingdom of God starts off small and grows of itself, independent of our tricks, trends, and tampering. It grows in ways we cannot see and cannot know, until it breaks forth from the ground and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, big enough for people to come from east and west and north and south, from left and right, from uptown and downtown, to sit at the Table together.”
         The Kingdom of God’s dream is like this congregation when we are at our very best – when we take the time to plant the seeds – over and over again, day in and day out – even when it seems to make no difference.  The Kingdom of God’s dream is like this church family when we realize that church is not about what we get out of it but rather what, through it, we are able to give.  The Kingdom of God’s dream is like this faith community – but only if we are seed planters – planting seeds of justice, peace, reconciliation, and radical welcome, seed planters who trust that when those seeds are planted, God will do the rest – and we will be unstoppable – like kudzu, like Japanese knotweed.  Inch by inch, row by row.


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