Sunday’s sermon: A Seedy Kingdom Comes

pando forest

Text used – Mark 4:1-34

 

AUDIO VERSION

 

 

  • I want you to picture a scene with me this morning. So close your eyes, and be ready to be transported.
    • Ground beneath you: rough and uneven → gravel, dirt, covered in scrubby undergrowth → large rocks poke out of the ground here and there as the ground gently slopes away from you
    • Surrounded by tall, slender white tree trunks reaching for the sky
    • Feel a gentle breeze blow across your face → breeze sets the delicate saw-toothed leaves all around you quivering and shaking, producing a pleasant, insistent, delightfully unmistakable rustling sound → As you look around you, it looks like the whole forest is shivering – like it’s quaking.

    • This forest that you’ve been temporarily transported to this morning is no ordinary forest. It’s a place called the Pando Forest. And apart from being a vast and beautiful grove of trees, the Pando Forest is special for another reason: in terms of mass, it is the largest single organism on the planet because all the trees are, in fact, one.[1]
      • Spans 107 acres in Fishlake National Forest (central Utah)
      • All 47,000 trees are genetically identical → natural clones from one single, male aspen tree
      • All share one single root system → Quaking aspen trees can reproduce by sending out seeds, but more frequently, they reproduce by sending up little shoots from the central root system.
      • Weigh an estimated 13 million pounds
      • Trees that have been reproducing in this way for more than 80,000 years
        • Means this particular organism probably started growing sometime around the end of the last ice age
        • Oldest currently living trees = 120-150 yrs. old
      • A beautiful, giant, tranquil forest – a family of trees that spans not only acres but also millennia … all interconnected through one, central, sustaining, life-giving source. Hmmmm … what could that possibly have to do with our faith, friends? 😊 Let’s take a look at our Scripture reading this morning and see if we can figure it out.
  • Today’s passage from Mark = admittedly a fairly large chunk of text – It actually encompasses all but the last seven verses of chapter four. But as we continue to work our way through the Narrative Lectionary together, it’s interesting to take a broader look at some of these stories that we’ve studied in a closer, more chopped up manner before. Reading a large portion of text like this gives us the opportunity to look for the wider themes that Jesus keeps returning to throughout his ministry. It gives us a chance to look at the forest instead of the trees, if you will. → theme for today’s section of text = Kingdom of God and … seeds
    • First time in Mk’s gospel that Jesus really talks about the Kingdom of God
      • Brief mention in passing just after Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan – text: Jesus came into Galilee announcing God’s good news, saying, “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”[2]
      • But this is the first time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus really gets down to the nitty gritty and starts talking and teaching about and trying explain the nature and the significance of the Kingdom of God to the crowds and the disciples.
    • Got a lot to work with within these parables all about seeds and kingdoms, so let’s examine them a little more closely individually
  • 1st parable = parable of the sower
    • Basic breakdown
      • Jesus tells of a farmer who went out to scatter seed → seed falls in four different places
        • Path → eaten by birds
        • Rocky ground → shallow soil = no roots
        • Among the weeds → choked out by weeds = wither
        • Good soil → grow and produce anywhere from 30-100 fold
      • Later (away from the crowds) Jesus explains parable to disciples
        • Path/birds = those who hear God’s word but then Satan comes and steals the word right away
        • Rocky ground = people who hear God’s word joyfully at first but have no depth in their spirits for that word to take root → first hardship makes them lose faith
        • Among the weeds = those who hear God’s word but let the trappings and distractions and worries of this life overwhelm and ultimately swallow up their faith
        • Good soil = those who hear God’s word and embrace it → let it take root and grow in their hearts and lives
    • Now, we’re going to come back to that idea in a minute, but first have to address a challenging couple of verses in this text.: When they were alone, the people around Jesus, along with the Twelve, asked him about the parables. He said to them, “The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables. This is so that they can look and see but have no insight, and they can hear but not understand. Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven.”[3] → It’s a bit of a thorny passage (pun intended), right? It seems like Jesus is drawing a line in the sand here. Some are in. Some are out. And that’s not only “just the way it is,” that’s actually the intention. To be honest, friends, this is one of those passages that scholars have wrestled with and tried to pick apart and parse out for centuries – from Paul in Romans to Augustine to modern-day theologians and biblical scholars. Some talk about free will. Some talk about things like predestination and divine foreknowledge. And basically, it’s still one sticky, tangled mess. So unfortunately, I’m not going to have some silver bullet answer to make the uncomfortableness of these few verses magically disappear this morning.
      • Concurrence = Jesus is loosely quoting the prophet Isaiah here → As part of his call story, Isaiah hears God say, “Whom should I send, and who will go for us?” Isaiah says, “I’m here; send me.” And God’s command is, “Go and say to this people: Listen intently, but don’t understand; look carefully, but don’t comprehend. Make the minds of this people dull. Make their ears deaf and their eyes blind, so they can’t see with their eyes or heart with their ears, or understand with their minds, and turn, and be healed.”[4]
        • Scholar: Drawing from [Isaiah], Jesus describes the human state of affairs: some have been given the mysteries of the kingdom of God and some are still in the dark. Those who are not within the kingdom of God simply cannot see and hear. Jesus is not blaming. He is not even explaining. He is stating. This is the way it works – some believe because they have been given the mysteries of the kingdom. Some do not believe.[5] → And we certainly could leave it there. It’s short and sweet. Jesus is being practical – citing the words of one of the Jews’ greatest prophets. End of story.
      • Certainly possible … but let me leave you with two interesting bits to ponder from the Greek this morning
        • First: word translated as “given” (“The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you”[6]) has this connotation of giving up … of sacrifice → So maybe Jesus is hinting to the disciples that this Kingdom path is one that is both a gift and a sacrifice at the same time – something that will bring them abundant blessings and abundant hardship, something that may even require sacrifice in return.
        • Second: most disturbing bit in v. 12 (“Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven”[7]) sounds like a warning – like Jesus trying to withhold forgiveness from those who don’t understand BUT Gr. “forgiven” can also mean “turn away” or “abandon” → So what if Jesus is giving them plausible deniability? They didn’t see or hear or perceive or understand before, so when they decide to turn around, they are hearing for the first time?
    • This seedy kingdom parable certain teaches us about the fragile nature of the Kingdom of God in our midst. There are lots of things around us that can inhibit the growth of that Kingdom, both inside us and in the world around us.
      • Ties in with the parable that Jesus tells right after this (the only part of our Scripture this morning that doesn’t contain a seed/plant reference) = parable of the lamp → basic idea: BE ALERT! PAY ATTENTION! Let the light of God’s Kingdom shine in you and through you so that you are reminded of its strength and presence and so others are reminded of it as well – so it can shine in the darkness of what is around us and be our beacon of hope.
  • 2nd parable = parable of the farmer – text: Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground, then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.”[8]
    • Parable = reminder to us that while we may do the tending and the watching and some of the minor nurturing and maintaining work for God’s Kingdom, the truth growth of the Kingdom comes from God alone → We are stewards in this work. We are hired hands. We can tend and water, feed and fertilize, and we can sit and watch those fields all we want, we cannot truly control the growing. We cannot control the weather. We cannot ultimately control the rate of growth or the yields that will eventually come from the harvest.
      • Story of Luke and Andrea moving to Nepal – conversation at presbytery yesterday → They are moving to a country in which only 1.4% of the population is Christian. But they are not moving there to work tirelessly day in and day out to convert the locals for the sake of their salvation. Because that work is God’s Kingdom work to do. They are going to be God’s hired hands – to work and strive and hope and live and love alongside the people in Nepal and the student volunteers they’ll be overseeing. There are going to be a ministry of presence and attentiveness and learning. Because that is our work in God’s Kingdom, friends – to share our faith the way farmers share their crops: by attending to their own growth and their own yields and giving of their abundance after the harvest has come in.
  • Final parable = mustard seed – text (Jesus): Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when its planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”[9]
    • Parable = reminder that our faith and that the Kingdom of God are a work in progress → It is no secret, friends, that we are living through difficult times: political divisiveness; blatant hate crimes committed against all sorts of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and religion are higher than they’ve been in a decade; devastation caused by one natural disaster after another which point to the damage being done to our planet every minute of every day (sometimes damage that is unquestionably irreversible); gun violence and mass shootings are at an all-time high … the list goes on and on. And it’s a list that can sometimes feel so big, so overwhelming, so dark and traumatic and insurmountable that everything – EVERYTHING – pales in comparison … even God’s Kingdom and the work that God is doing among us. But then we are reminded that even the smallest scrap of life – the smallest spark, the smallest promise, the smallest seed – has the potential to grow into something big and lush and extravagant, something the provides shelter and food for all those creature who come seeking … even we creatures who sometimes don’t even know that we’re seeking. That is how big God’s Kingdom is. That is how abundant God’s Kingdom is. That is how generous God’s Kingdom is. And that is the Kingdom that is already at work – growing and nurturing and thriving in our world, even when we don’t see it or hear it or feel it. That is the good news in this text, friends. Hallelujah. Amen.

 

CHARGE

“If the Kingdom of God is in you, you should leave a little bit of heaven wherever you go.” – American philosopher and political activist Cornel West → So as you go from this place this morning, friends, go with those little bits of heaven, those little seeds of the kingdom. Plant them. Sprinkle them wherever you go, especially in the places in this world that need them the most. 

[1] Brigit Katz. “Pando, One of the World’s Largest Organisms, Is Dying” from Smithsonian Magazine, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/pano-one-worlds-largest-organisms-dying-180970579/. Written Oct. 18, 2018, accessed Jan. 25, 2020.

[2] Mk 1:14-15.

[3] Mk 4:10-12.

[4] Is 6:8-10.

[5] Leanne Van Dyk. “Mark 4:10-20 – Theological Perspective” in Feasting on the Gospels: Mark. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), 118.

[6] Mk 4:11.

[7] Mk 4:12.

[8] Mk 4:26-28.

[9] Mk 4:31-32.

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