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Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 14, 2015

I like to read mystery stories. What I like best about them is the protagonist gathering clues to the mystery and then coming up with an answer. So many things in life don’t have an answer or must be worked out slowly that it is nice to have loose ends neatly tied up.

Jesus tells mystery stories about the kingdom of God called parables. But they don’t have neat endings. They are designed at best to show a glimpse of the kingdom. Some are more mysterious than others. We are not among the designated group of disciples to hear Jesus’ explanation of the parables, so we have to wait with the mystery. It is as if Jesus is telling stories he doesn’t want readers to understand, though he does tell them to pay attention to what they hear, so they might understand something of what he means by the kingdom of heaven.

Of course the greatest parable of God’s kingdom is Jesus (Fred Craddock). God has sent him to earth to show in his person what the kingdom of God is like – a state of peace and grace, a place to come home to. It is not like life on earth because Jesus continually gets into trouble for acting as if the kingdom already exists on the earth – and it does in him. Jesus performs miracles of healing and exorcism, teaches and calls the people to repentance – to turn around from what they are doing and see the kingdom that is right there among them. Jesus feeds thousands of people with just a little food. It is certain that the kingdom of God is about overwhelming grace, and the desire to make the people of God whole.

Jesus tells two parables about the kingdom in today’s lesson. They were preceded by a third parable about casting seed on different kinds of soil, which he explains to his disciples. We are in on this explanation and hear about the kind of soil that produces good yield for the kingdom (believers who seek and do the work of God) and the kind of soil that is antithetical to producing believers because various negative influences are involved. The soil is a big part of the work of the parable.

That goes for the next two parables too. They are about things the listeners can understand in an agrarian society. The first is a little odd. A sower sows seed, but is not aware of how it grows. He doesn’t seem to weed or water, but just goes about his life during the day and night as he watches the crop grow. Why doesn’t he do what the soil needs to make it more productive? And who is the sower? Just any farmer? Us? God? The disciples? What is clear is that the crop grows anyway without any help or understanding from the sower. But the sower knows when the harvest time has come and he harvests the grain that will feed people. So we have a sower that knows to plant and knows to reap, but does not do anything in between.

The second parable has a sower too. And again we wonder who it is. But in this case the mustard seed produces a very large bush without any effort on the sower’s part that is big enough for birds to nest in. It is a shrub and not a mighty tree, with which the Israelites had compared their hopes for God’s kingdom. Perhaps Jesus is trying to begin a new story to tell what the kingdom of God is really like, a spiritual kingdom, not a physical one (Jon M. Walton).

As mysterious as they are, there are certain things we can know about the kingdom of God from these parables. First the kingdom of God is our work, at least to sow the seeds. Perhaps it is those random acts of kindness the bumper sticker talks about. Perhaps it is broader work on behalf of others. But it is not frenzied work. These parables are gentle in their telling, not at all hurried or rushed. We sow the wheat seeds. We sow the mustard seeds.

Even though we do the work of seed sowing, the growth of the kingdom is up to God’s grace. The kingdom will grow in God’s time, not our time, until it is visible and ready to harvest. The kingdom will grow in the way it does to produce the mustard bush. Both follow God’s way of creation, and sometimes the kingdom sneaks up on us and we are surprised by what is there.

The kingdom of God is growing by God’s grace in a prison I read about in the Washington Post. Planting and harvesting their own seeds is helping the prisoners’ morale because it makes them feel like they are doing something to contribute good to the world. The kingdom of God is surely growing there.

The kingdom of God keeps unfolding. The wheat seeds do what they are supposed to do. The seed and the earth produce the stalk and the head, then the full grain. I’m sure the mustard seed produces stems and limbs and leaves in their order as well. And this doesn’t just happen one time. The kingdom of God is growing everywhere and it grows at different speeds, depending on who has ears to hear and eyes to see. Jesus lets us know about the kingdom when we are ready to hear.

The kingdom of God starts from tiny little seeds, inauspicious beginnings. Jesus’ activities were enough to bother the religious authorities but they were just blips if that on the screen of the Roman Empire. Within those modest beginnings, the tiny seeds, there is much fruit waiting to be produced to bring wholeness and reconciliation to the world.

The kingdom of God brings forth a large harvest to feed people that are hungry – hungry for the word of God, hungry for liberation, hungry for salvation. That farmer who harvests the grain will make it into bread for a hurting world and spread the kingdom even further.

The mustard seed shows us that the kingdom of God is broad in its reach. It invites the birds to make their nests in its shade. It is a place where they can find a home. And it is a place where we can find a home – Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slave and free. There are no limits to God’s kingdom generosity.

So we do know something about the kingdom after reading these two parables, but we know only in part, because God’s kingdom has not yet come. Just as we don’t know everything about Jesus, God’s parable, we don’t know everything about the kingdom life that we are to lead.

But one thing we can be sure of. The kingdom of God is growing within us as well as on the outside. If we are disciples of Jesus, then we are becoming more and more kingdom people.  We are giving more, we are loving more, we are learning more by studying the Scriptures and parables like these. But we are not to turn achieving the kingdom into our job. It is our desire, but it is God’s grace that accomplishes the work while we sleep and rise and do not necessarily feel the kingdom growing within us until we see evidence of its working in our lives. When we end up feeding people – physically, emotionally and spiritually – or when we become more inclusive, we can be sure the kingdom is unfolding.

God’s kingdom is a mystery and we do not have Jesus’ explanation to help us along. But we can sow and we can look for the harvest and we can reap. We can also rest and reflect and let God do God’s work, which is much more than ours. The kingdom of God is among us and within us. Let those who have ears and eyes look and listen for its manifestations.

AMEN.

     - Rev. Ann Barker

 

Works cited:
Fred Craddock, Preaching  through the Christian  Year B (Harrisburg, PA: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), p. 311
Jon M. Walton, Feasting on the Gospels: Mark, Theological Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2014), p. 136