The St Martin’s sermon link site takes you to this blog address. Therefore, from time to time to time I will post sermon contributions from other preachers at St Martin’s. This last Sunday, Linda Griggs, St Martin’s Director of Christian Formation delivered the sermon below.
My mother once told me that if you want to keep a baby occupied and quiet, just give her a long piece of scotch tape. It will keep her busy for hours as she puzzles with it, getting it wrapped around her fingers, peeling and sticking it from one hand to another.
I have no memory of my mother actually doing this, Thank God. But I never fail to think of this image of concentration and puzzling when I begin to ponder the parables of Jesus. There are days when I think that Parable Wrestling should be classified as an Olympic sport.
“Parable” is a term that has come to specifically connote many of the teachings of Jesus; comparing difficult concepts to everyday images so that they (ideally) would be easier to comprehend. Yet while the images of God, or the Kingdom, are given more concrete form as Jesus speaks of shepherds and sheep, or farmers sowing seed, or houses built on sand or bedrock, they are not always a whole lot clearer for being made more tangible. If they were, there probably wouldn’t have been endless commentaries from countless points of view written about them over the centuries.
It was in a New Testament class that I first heard the word, “parabolic” used in the context of Biblical scholarship. Prior to that I’d only known of it from geometry class, describing a kind of curve.
When Professor Collins said that, it was as though she had just given me a big piece of sticky tape: I couldn’t stop wondering, how could Jesus’ teachings and the study of geometry be related?
But it does make sense when you think about what parables do. First, think about a parabolic mirror, microphone, or antenna. They’re specifically shaped for the purpose of focusing radio, light, or sound waves. In the same way Jesus was trying to focus his hearers on concepts that were difficult to grasp. Second, if you look at a parabola and the way it curves, you start out in one place, and following the curve you will never return to the same place. Jesus’ teachings were intended to take us to a different place—getting us to see things from a different perspective. Parables are an invitation to a journey of change.
Our Gospel today invites us into a world that is in some ways familiar to us; a world of tension, mystery and promise.
The author of Mark probably wrote just after the middle of the first century, between 60 and 70 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Nero. It was a time of fear and persecution for early Christians. The followers of The Way, as they were called, risked their lives to practice their faith—even using the clandestine symbol of the fish to identify each other nonverbally: The image could be easily drawn with a stick on the ground and then quickly erased with a shuffle of feet if someone suspicious came along. This secrecy, this fear of the authorities, shows how Christianity was countercultural in this period—all the way into the fourth century.
The author of Mark reflected these tensions in his work. For example, he uses the word, “immediately”—or the alternative translation, “at once” all the time—no one saunters or moseys in this Gospel—everybody moves with alacrity—boom, boom, Boom! This sense of urgency reflects a pervasive tension throughout the entire narrative. Tension in Mark’s world; tension in Mark’s gospel.
We see this tension specifically in today’s passage when we look at its context within the fourth chapter narrative as a whole. These parables about seeds and farming and soil and dirt that we hear today are actually sandwiched between descriptions of Jesus on the water.
In the beginning of the chapter Jesus is so pressed by the crowds at the Sea of Galilee that he is forced to get into a boat and teach from there. So we see this sharp juxtaposition of Jesus forced into a boat, where it sits bobbing gently offshore, fish swimming below, seagulls crying above, as he tells stories about farming and sowing and harvesting. And then at the end of the chapter, on the other side of this scriptural ‘sandwich’, Jesus decides to take that boat to the other side of the Sea, a journey that results in a violent storm that Jesus calms after being roused from a sound sleep by his terrified disciples, who he then rebukes for having too little faith.
Sea versus land. Calm versus storm. Faith versus fear. Tension, tension, tension.
And mystery. Even using the most concrete imagery, many parables end up being murky and mind-stretching. There is a pervading sense of hidden or secret knowledge in Mark’s Gospel, knowledge available to only a few insiders. Jesus explained the meaning of his parables in private to the disciples, leaving everyone else to wrestle with the images by themselves, “as they were able to hear it.”
The first parable we heard today describes the eternal mystery–of life itself: “the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain…” The farmer need do nothing until the harvest, and then he “at once”—immediately—springs into action with the sickle.
How do we compare this to the Kingdom? Is this a portrayal of the boundless and effortless grace of God, which comes to us, sprouting, growing and yielding without any effort on our own part? Is the Kingdom a place of rest and trust, which is in contrast with our usual need to give God instructions about matters that belong in God’s hands?
Or should we look deeper still? Taken by itself this image of grace is gratifying and comforting. But what of the harvest? Is God the farmer who wields a sickle of judgment? Perhaps. Or are we the farmers, called to a harvest of fruits of compassion, reconciliation and justice that we have been called to sow?
Is this vision of the Kingdom meant for the distant future, or right now, or both, now and not yet? There is more than one mystery here, and there are many, many possible answers. And how we see them and wrestle with them is woven in with our own tensions and perspectives as individuals and as a community.
And with these mysteries come promise; the promise of the mustard seed. “The smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” This simple contrast of small and large offers the comfort of knowing that our smallest efforts, our smallest selves, even, can grow prodigiously into something wondrous. Even the most miniscule effort that we expend is a dense package of Kingdom Potential. That’s the promise.
But wait, there’s more! The tiny seeds of the Kingdom are here right now—waiting to grow—in God’s own time—into—what? What Mark describesis not a grand and statuesque oak or beech tree, but a shrub. A great weedy shrub.
A bush. When I read this image I can’t help but think of the huge azaleas in my backyard near the birdfeeder, fairly vibrating with life and energy from all the sparrows, jays, titmice, cardinals, finches, chipmunks and squirrels flitting and scampering around in there. A shrub. A raucous, joyous, song-filled inclusive sanctuary: That’s the Kingdom of God. That’s the promise.
So given all of this, what does our parabolic journey look like, then? We need to begin at a point where we acknowledge our context of tension. We have our own tensions of competing priorities and values, compounded with the added tensionsof whatever burdens or brokenness that we carry.
And then there are the cultural/political tensions of life in our society and world. We find that going to Church is increasingly countercultural. Many things compete for our Sunday time. It often seems to be a luxury to attend to our spiritual well-being/formation with the same level of discipline that we apply to our physical, intellectual or financial well-being. It is vitally important to understand that all of these things are connected! Our spiritual well-being can be a point of parabolic focus for all of the other well-beings in our lives. Our acknowledging of this tension—this need—(this yearning? ) for focus—becomes the beginning point of the journey.
From there we can engage the mystery. Who are we? Whose are we? What is our calling? What is our relationship to God and Creation? How do we live out our Baptismal Covenant to worship, repent, proclaim the Good News and respect the dignity of every human being? How do we live a Christ-like life and model it for the next generations? What should we pray for? Why do we pray?
These questions are just an tiny example of the bountiful harvest of mystery waiting for us, and we need to be ready with the sickle of our questions, doubts and uncertainties. The answers are important, but not necessarily the main objective. The best answers are the ones that lead to more questions. Live them. Engage the mystery.
And that engagement—that mystery—is the seed of promise; that dense package of Kingdom Potential that God invites us to tend and nurture in ourselves, in our children and in our communities.
God gives the growth.
“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.”