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.

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