The Perplexing Parable – Mark 4.26-34

June 14, 2015 – 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

Introduction – Chapter 4 of Mark’s gospel opens with Jesus teaching by the sea. A big crowd has gathered and Jesus teaches them in parables. And two of the parables are these: from Mark 4 beginning at verse 26.
READ Mark 4.26-34

Last Sunday we talked about forgiveness—one of the most important characteristics of the Christian life and one of the hardest things we do. This morning we hear about the relatively simply task of scattering seeds.

As we think about these parables together, it’s helpful to keep in mind that parables have multiple meanings. There are lots of layers to these little stories Jesus tells. And they are the kind of stories that you can read one time and hear a particular meaning and then come back another time and you’ll hear something different and you read it a year later and you’ll hear, again, something different. And all those things you hear in the parable are all part of its truth.

One writer has described parables as “comparisons…that take ordinary elements of our experience ([at least ordinary in Jesus’s day,] farmers, seeds, etc.) and put them together in an odd way that challenges our ordinary ways of thinking and leads us to look at the world afresh.”[1] That’s the invitation every time we hear these parables.

Have you ever been on I-64 westbound just before the I-264 junction and seen the field to the north of the interstate? For as long as I’ve lived here, every year there is a crop growing there but I have never seen anyone in those fields. The plants grow in tidy rows and each spring get taller and taller. And at some point someone will come along and harvest what has been grown. It happens every year.

Now I don’t know who it is that tucks little seeds into the earth in the spring but those fields—to my eye—seem to be like the ones in Jesus’s parable: The seed is scattered. The seed sprouts and grows. The earth produces of itself, Jesus says. That phrase “of itself,” in Greek, is similar to our English word “automatic.” It happens without the effort of the person who scattered the seed.

If you have farmed or gardened, you know that it takes a little bit more than just putting seeds into the ground. There is watering and fertilizing and weeding and weeding and weeding and weeding. But, any gardener knows, the seeds’ germination and sprouting is a mystery we have no control over. We can set up a good environment for growth but, truthfully, we can’t make any seed sprout and grow.

Wendell Berry says it this way:

The seed is in the ground.
Now may we rest in hope
While darkness does its work.[2]

The seed scatterer waits for the moment of harvest when she gathers the results. The harvest surely comes. And the activity of the one who scattered the seeds neither hastens nor delays the time of harvest. “That’s what the realm of God is like,” says Jesus.

If you think of the small, fledgling community to whom the gospel writer was writing 2000 years ago, this was probably good news to hear. The early Christians at the time of Marks’ gospel were being persecuted. They were waiting for Jesus to return and he had not yet. In the midst of those struggles, the image of the realm of God that grows, takes root, flourishes and brings to harvest, seemingly without regard to particular human interventions, must have been a relief. We scatter the seed but it doesn’t depend on big human successes, the parable seems to say, for the realm of God to be manifest.

One student of this chapter in Mark suggests that the parables encourages us “in our common vocation as witnesses to Jesus Christ. Mark’s aim is to equip the church to scatter the good news of God’s reign, then to scatter the good news again, then to scatter it again and again and again —to sow gospel seeds everywhere and be done, to let it go and to let God grow.”[3]

Sometimes we think we have to do everything. We have to figure out everything. We have to make sure everything happens.

I’ve heard people say that there are, ultimately, only two sins: trying to make God small and manageable and trying to be God ourselves. This parable says it is not by the farmer’s efforts that the seeds grow. Perhaps a reminder that we not only shouldn’t try to be, but we also can’t, be God.

The reformer, Martin Luther, once put it this way:  “While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer, the gospel runs its course.”[4] Despite his responsibilities as a preacher, teacher and reformer, Luther could quietly drink his little glass of beer, knowing that God is the one who brings all things to pass. The good news is that we are not slaves to the events of this particular hour, rather, we are servants of God who created this world and everything in it.

Mark focuses his teaching on a church “that is bone weary because it is misconstruing its vocation…The more contentment the church finds as servant (rather than master) and as steward (rather than owner), the more effective the church’s ministry, the more effective our ministry.”[5]

If we read the story of Frog and Toad [6] in light of the parable, our gospel parable would seem to tell us that after Toad planted his seeds, he could have taken a five-day nap and still those seeds would have begun to germinate. Maybe sometimes the seeds are frightened. Certainly the process of growth can be frightening—and it can be exciting.  But we know that growth happens. And Jesus tells us the growth of the kingdom will happen whether or not we shout or read stories or play music or whatever else.

Maybe the parable is suggesting that even our worst efforts will not stop the growth of the kingdom of God.

The story is told of Napoleon telling Pope Pious VII, whom he held captive for five years (because he had a quarrel with the Pope over the relationship of the church to the French government), ”I will destroy that church of yours.” Pope Pious replied, “I doubt it. We priests have been trying to do it for eighteen centuries and have not succeeded.”

Over the years, we Christians who are the church, have tried our best to humiliate the church, betray its character, bring it low in the world’s eyes. We have not succeeded because Jesus is the church’s Lord and the Holy Spirit is its life-giving guide.[7] The church’s structure, its form, its location may change but the church as the witness to the coming reign of God will not be destroyed either by our most malicious or indifferent efforts.

And that’s good news. Whether we’re a community of faith 2000 years ago wondering what happens now that our rabbi has been crucified. Or whether we are a community of faith in 2015 wondering what it is God wants us to do and be in this time and place, trying to meet the needs of a diverse collection of folks, wondering how the Christian community is still relevant for our post-modern age.

We’ve all heard lots of sermons urging us on to faithful living, pursuing justice, promoting peace, loving our neighbor.  And all of that is important and necessary.  Yet…maybe there is a time for hearing the good news that the work of God is the work of God. Maybe there is a time for hearing that the purposes of God, the reign of God, will come to be. We scatter the seeds of the good news and there will be a harvest. We scatter the seeds and they will grow into a place where all will find refuge, and a place where there is room for everyone.

This is what we call grace. The future of the world, the reality of God’s reign does not depend, ultimately, on what we do or don’t do. We scatter the seeds. We rise and sleep, night and day. The earth produces of itself. The seeds sprout and grow. The tiny seed becomes a place of sheltered rest for all.

There are plenty of times when we have been, and will be, reminded of the work we are to be about as Christ’s disciples. But for now, maybe there is a chance to hear a word of grace:  Jesus’ parable seems to say we scatter seeds and the reign of God comes on its own–with or without our help! In the midst of all our activity, in the midst of our scheming and planning, in the midst of our frantic efforts and great undertakings, there is still another stream of events moving forward. While we run from one place to another, while we work and while we worry, even while we sleep, the seeds of God’s realm sprout and grow and mature until the harvest is full.

Those seeds are sprouting in your life and mine. In the life of Central Presbyterian Church. Even in the life of the Presbyterian Church (USA)—as beat down as it seems to be sometimes— and in the church universal. And that is good news.

* * *
1. William C. Placher, Mark, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 70
2. Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, (Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1998), 131.
3. Richard I. Deibert, Mark, (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1999), 31-32.
4.  I can’t remember where I first heard this.
5. Deibert, 32.
6.  Arnold Lobel, Frog and Toad Together, “The Garden”, Harper & Row, 1971 was read for the Journey.
7.  Proclamation 5 Series B, Gerard S. Sloyan.

The Need for Forgiveness – Mark 2.1-12

June 7, 2015 – 2nd Sunday after Pentecost

The gospel reading is at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry in chapter two of Mark’s gospel. Jesus has called his disciples and then teaches in the synagogue in Capernaum (a town on the north side of the sea of Galilee). He casts out an unclean spirit from a man and the word about his power to heal begins to spread. He heals a woman and then people start bringing lots more people who are ill to Jesus and he heals them. So many people start coming to him that Jesus can no longer go into a town openly or he will be mobbed. So he stays out in the country but even there people find him and want his healing.
Then he goes back to Capernaum where the gospel writer describes him as being at home.
Read: Mark 2.1-12

A friend of mine was talking about the gospel of Mark a few weeks back [1] and suggested that when we hear about a “house” or “home” in Mark that we should hear that as a clue that the gospel writer is talking about the early church and its worship.

You may be aware that scholars of the New Testament say that Mark’s gospel was the first of the four gospels to be written—it’s the oldest of the gospels. It was written at a time when the early followers of Jesus were meeting in homes for worship. They were still mostly a band of Jewish reformers following Rabbi Jesus.

So here is Jesus at home in a house. The place is packed. There’s no room for anyone more. Even the doorway is jammed. No one can get in. And a man in need arrives. His presenting need is that he is paralyzed. He, like so many others who have sought out Jesus, is in need of healing. But he can’t get in the house—(and with this home/church parallel, we could think of that as he can’t get in the church)—because it’s already jammed full of people.

So his friends carry him to the roof of the house (the church), dig through the roof, and lower their friend so that he can get to Jesus. Nobody can miss him and what’s going on. And when Jesus sees him and the faith of the man and his friends, he says, “Son, your sins are forgiven.”

Now that’s probably not what the man—or his friends—or we were expecting.

My friend who told me to listen for “home” and “house” and think “early church and its worship” also said to watch for what the story about the house is framing. And here it is framing forgiveness. That’s the center of this story. At the end of the story, Jesus also grants the man physical healing but the center of the story is about forgiveness.

Another scholar who follows the same tack of listening in Mark’s gospel for gatherings in houses and thinking about that in terms of how the early church worshiped or was being directed in its life together, says the point of this story is that Jesus has authority to forgive and therefore that is what the house meeting and the church—which is gathered around Jesus—is to be about as well: Forgiveness.

Forgiveness. It’s so easy to say and so hard to do.

But forgiveness is all over the gospels. It’s at the heart of the Prayer of Jesus. We pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” It’s part of Jesus’ teaching on judging others: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” (Luke 6.37) Peter asks Jesus how many times he should forgive—he’s hoping for something reasonable like seven times—maybe three, really—but Jesus says, “Nope. Go for seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18.22). The Apostle Paul names forgiveness “as a basic Christian virtue: ‘Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just a the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive’” (Colossians 3.13).[2]

I was googling around on forgiveness and one of the first links that turned up was for the Mayo Clinic. On that medical website in an area dedicated to healthy living, they list forgiveness as an important practice. According to the Mayo Clinic, practicing forgiveness leads to:
Healthier relationships
Greater spiritual and psychological well-being
Less anxiety, stress and hostility
Lower blood pressure
Fewer symptoms of depression
Stronger immune system
Improved heart health[3]

We tend to think of forgiveness as having spiritual and emotional benefits but according to the Mayo Clinic it also has significance for one’s physical health. Isn’t that remarkable? Maybe it’s not coincidental that Jesus forgave the man who was paralyzed and also healed him of his paralysis.

The psychiatrist and author Harold Bloomfield says, “Every day you don’t forgive, it’s as if you are ingesting tiny bits of poison.”[4] Or, one of my favorite quotes from Presbyterian and author Anne Lamott: “Not forgiving someone is like drinking rat poison and expecting the rats to die.” Which is certainly detrimental to your physical well-being!

The story of Jesus forgiving in the middle of the crowded house is a call to the church to be about the practice of forgiveness.

Buddhist teacher Ezra Bayda says, “Often the most difficult part of forgiving another is facing the fact that we don’t actually want to forgive them. Yet the process of forgiveness also requires that we experience, within ourselves, the fact that we are not so different from those we are so ready to judge.”[5] Samuel Wells says it another way: “How often have you commented on what another person said or did with horror, fury, or scorn, only to find yourself, ten years or ten minutes later, saying or doing the same thing?”[6] I know that has happened to me more than once.

I was watching a program a few weeks ago—a made up story but an excellent illustration of the rub of recognizing we are not so different from those we want to judge. One of the characters was interrogating another one about things that had happened in that individual’s family. The interrogator said accusingly, “How could you not have known?” Two days later the interrogator’s family was ripped apart by a scandal that linked them to a tragedy in a friend’s family. The interrogator, desperate for solace and support, met her friend that evening but the friend only said to her accusingly, “How could you not have known?”

How hard it is to forgive. And how easy it is to dismiss and criticize others…and then find what has made us so angry is what is inside of us as well. A wise therapist has said, “Hurt people hurt people.” And the way out of that cycle of hurt is forgiveness.

Forgiveness, ultimately, is about restoration and reconciliation. One professor of theology says the “central goal” of forgiveness “is to…restore communion—with God, with one another, and with the whole creation.”[7]

I also want to say that “Forgiveness doesn’t mean that you deny the other person’s responsibility for hurting you, and it doesn’t minimize or justify the wrong. You can forgive the person without excusing [their actions.]”[8] Forgiveness also does not mean there are no consequences for hurting others.

Sometimes forgiveness does not involve the person who has wronged you because they have died or do not admit to their actions or simply are a person with whom it is not safe to be reconciled.

Still we can extend forgiveness–even if the other person never knows it or will never accept it–forgiveness frees us to let go of the pain. It is a decision to put down the glass of rat poison and not to drink any more of it.

Many times, forgiveness is something that we can not do on our own. Like Ruby Bridges,[9] we pray to forgive. We know that we don’t want to forgive and because we know we don’t have the strength to forgive. But we want the freedom and healing that forgiveness brings—and God desires that for us and the world as well.

I’ve been reading a number of stories of forgiveness as I have thought about this sermon. I read a number of them on The Forgiveness Project website and many of the stories involve horrific and life-shattering violence. Many of the story tellers credit their religious faith and their prayer life as what propelled them to seek or to offer forgiveness. None of it came easily. But it sometimes came unexpectedly.

The story from Mark’s gospel reminds us that forgiveness is not only about what we do. In the story is it Jesus who offers forgiveness to a person who will not be left out. Forgiveness is not just another rule to follow but a reminder that it is what Christ is doing in our midst, on our behalf, making all things new—in your life, in my life, in our life together for the sake of the world which God so loves.

* * *

The Journey – time with young worshipers – The Story of Ruby Bridges

As we hear about forgiveness in the bible, I want to tell you the story about a girl named Ruby Bridges whose life included forgiveness.

Today Ruby Bridges is 61 years old but when she was six years old, the whole country was watching her. When Ruby was born, white children went to school with only white children and black children went to school with only black children. The schools the white children went to had new books and desks and art supplies and their buildings were new and in good repair. The schools the black children went to had old books and desks that were often broken and not very many art supplies and their buildings were often falling apart. This was because some people thought white children were more important than black children and that white children should have better schools than black children. But   the Supreme Court of the United States said that was wrong. The Supreme Court said all children, no matter what color they are, should have a good education and should be able to go to school together.

When it was time for Ruby Bridges to start first grade, her parents wanted her to go to school where there were black children and white children. Even though it was now the law that everyone could go to school together, many white parents didn’t want their children to go to school with black children. When Ruby Bridges started first grade, almost all of the white parents kept their children out of school because they didn’t want them going to school with a black child. Some white parents were very mean and said terrible things about black children. On the first day of school, a large crowd of white parents surrounded the school and yelled and threatened to hurt Ruby. [p27] Some of the white parents were so mean that the government sent special police officers to Ruby’s house to pick her up before school and take her home after school to keep her safe.

For almost the whole year of first grade, Ruby Bridges was the old child in her class at school. Her teacher was a white woman named Mrs. Henry. Every day, Mrs Henry and Ruby had their first grade class together. They did reading and word puzzles, spelling and math. They sang songs and played games and they even did jumping jacks for exercise in their class.

One day, Mrs. Henry was in her class waiting for Ruby. She was looking out the window at the mean crowd that was yelling and screaming and Ruby. She saw the police officers surrounding Ruby to walk her safely into the school building. Suddenly, Mrs. Henry saw Ruby stop, right in front of the mob of screaming and yelling people. Ruby stood there facing all of those men and women. She seemed to be talking to them.

Mrs. Henry saw Ruby’s lips moving and wondered what Ruby could be saying.

The crowd seemed ready to kill her. The police officers were frightened. They tried to persuade Ruby to move along. They tried to hurry her into the school, but Ruby wouldn’t budget.

Then Ruby stopped talking and walked into the school.
When Ruby went into the classroom, Mrs. Henry asked her what she was talking to the crowd about.

Ruby said, “I didn’t stop and talk with them.”
Mrs. Henry said, “Ruby, I saw you talking. I saw your lips moving.”
“I wasn’t talking,” said Ruby. “I was praying. I was praying for them.”

Every morning, Ruby had stopped a few blocks away from the school to say a prayer for the people who hated her. That morning she forgot until she was already in the middle of the angry mob.

When school was over for the day, Ruby hurried through the crowd as usual. After she walked a few blocks and the crowd was behind her, Ruby said the prayer she repeated twice a day—before and after school:

Please, God, try to forgive those people.
Because even if they say those bad things,
they don’t know what they’re doing.
So you could forgive them,
just like you did those folks a long time ago
when they said terrible things about you.

Near the end of the school year, a few white parents sent their children to the school. They weren’t in Ruby’s same class but they did get to spend part of the school day with Ruby and Mrs. Henry. [10]

I wonder where God is in this story?

God, thank you for Ruby Bridges and for her parents who taught her to pray and to trust you. Thank you for all the boys and girls and women and men who have done what is right even when it was hard and even scary. Thank you for loving and forgiving us so we can love and forgive others. Amen.

* * *
1. David Gambrell at the Lectionary Buffet, May 2015
2.  List of scripture passages from Marjorie J. Thompson, Forgiveness: A Lenten Study, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2014), pp45-46.
3.  http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692, accessed 4 June 2015.
4. Found on http://www.fetzer.org, accessed 6 June 2015. I’ve quoted the Anne Lamott quote that follows so many times that I don’t remember where it is found.
5. Ibid.
6. Samuel Wells, “Desired things” in Christian Century, 27 May 2015, 35.
7.  L. Gregory Jones, “Forgiveness” in Practicing Our Faith, ed. Dorothy C. Bass, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997), 134.
8. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/forgiveness/art-20047692, accessed 4 June 2015.
9.  See the story about Ruby Bridges that follows the sermon text.
10.  The story of Ruby Bridges as told here is adapted and quoted from Robert Coles, The Story of Ruby Bridges, New York: Scholastic Inc, 1995.