A sermon for the fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2018
Calvary Episcopal Church, Flemington, New Jersey
The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.
In March, several of us gathered together with Mother Ann on a Saturday morning to read the entire Gospel of Mark aloud to one another. It took about an hour and a half. It’s a profound experience. You get a real feel for the urgency of the story moving forward so quickly; the Gospel of this Jesus moving toward its ending; the crucifixion and the proclamation of his resurrection at the empty tomb. Today’s Gospel lesson is from the fourth chapter of Mark, so I quickly re-read the first four chapters. It starts with John the Baptist calling for repentance and baptism. Jesus appears, is baptized, and emerges in Galilee proclaiming: “The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Gospel.” Then what we have is a series of vignettes of Jesus casting out demons and healing people and being criticized for doing so, usually for flimsy or legalistic reasons that masquerade as piety. And then we arrive at Chapter Four and Jesus starts talking about seed.
Why the sudden shift? From the outset of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God. Now he’s explaining it. The word kingdom always referred to the ruler, not to an organization or a region. You would have the kingdom of a despot, or the kingdom of a tyrant, or of an emperor. In last week’s Old Testament lesson, the people demanded a king, and God’s basic response was, “You’ll be sorry, but here you go…” The idea was, if you had an army and drove out any other army, then you were the king. At that time, it wasn’t a question of whether a dictatorship or a democracy or some other form of governance would prevail—the question was who would be the ruler. So when Jesus proclaims the Kingdom of God, he’s talking about the Rule of God, pre-empting the authority of the rulers of this world.
Jesus starts by demonstrating God’s rule—casting out the demonic forces that spread hate and distort our views of the world, and healing the sick and those who suffer. In today’s passage, he explains what it all means: “The rule of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow.” God is ruling and the seed is growing, but it’s growing of itself. It arises and it is not under any particular control. These little bits of nothing, that make up just a smidgen of what you would grind up to make your daily bread or breakfast cereal, they are alive and they are free. Scattered on the ground, they sprout, take root, and grow. The planter does nothing to make it happen. Now some of us have gardened, and even farmed, and we know many things go into having a successful crop—removing weeds, making sure there is the right amount of water, and so forth. But the seeds grow of themselves, their life is free. And so it is with the rule of God. Life is free, it is abundant, and it doesn’t appear because we control it.
Another thing. The Rule of God doesn’t work out like we expect it to. The second parable in today’s Gospel is also about seed—but it focuses on the single mustard seed—small, but when it grows… it grows and grows… and the mustard plant becomes huge, among the biggest of annual plants, big enough for birds to nest in. All from one very small seed, confounding the expectation of our human intuition. Our human intuitions often lead us astray. We make quick assumptions, based on a couple of observations, and rely on them to make complex judgments. That is dangerous if we don’t adjust those judgments as we go along. In today’s Old Testament lesson, the prophet Samuel was instructed by God to go clandestinely to anoint one of Jesse’s sons as the new king. After arguing a bit with God, Samuel follows instructions and goes to see Jesse and his sons. Samuel follows his intuitions and assumes that the tall, strong, good-looking, confident eldest son is the one that God was talking about. He makes the assumptions that we are all inclined to make. But God calls Samuel to something deeper and much less obvious. After going through all of the candidates that anyone, including Jesse and Samuel, would have thought were appropriate, none of them was actually the one called to be anointed to serve as King of Israel. It was the little kid, who had been detailed to stay out with the sheep, the least likely candidate, the one who violated all the intuitions and assumptions of those who thought they were discerning. The truth is much deeper than our impulses and the rule of God is not about how we feel about things, or what we choose in order to feel good about ourselves.
The Rule of God is the rule of love—not coercion or control. It is the rule of life growing healthily according to God’s design and not our intuition. God’s Rule is the rule of hope and freedom, not of desolation and violence.
This week we have seen things in the news that are problems stemming from human intuitions that coercive control and intimidation can solve problems. When children are taken from their parents, that is a violent act. The purpose is to control, intimidate and deter people—it is to terrorize people. We have a name for that. This kind of thing happens, not when people decide that they want to be evil, but when they decide that their intuition to control and coerce will be the shortcut to making everything fine. It is not the Rule of God. It is the temptation against which Jesus teaches us to pray: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.” The demons which Jesus cast out are those temptations to evil that embed themselves in people and institutions. They terrorize people and become barriers to trusting the God of Love.
The Kingdom of God is here, like seed scattered in the fields and growing to maturity. At that time God will harvest it, God will harvest the harvest of love.
St. Paul said it this way to the community at Corinth this morning:
For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away: See, everything has become new!