Harvest Time - A Sermon for Pentecost 4B (Mark 4)
We just finished studying the Gospel of Mark in the Wednesday afternoon Bible Study. Our group discovered that Mark is full of surprises. His gospel proclaims the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mk. 1:1), but for some reason Jesus tries to keep this news a secret. Even though the disciples spend their days and nights with Jesus, only the demons seem to recognize him for who he is.
When you read Mark, it’s difficult to set aside stories from Matthew, Luke, and John. We want to read into Mark’s story what we know from the other gospels, but if we do this, we won’t hear Mark’s version of the story. There is one word that stands out. That word is “immediately.” Mark’s story moves quickly. He rarely stops to let Jesus catch his breath. He starts with the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan at the hands of John the Baptizer. Mark doesn’t have an infancy narrative. His family appears only once and they come to take home, because they thought he had lost his mind. Jesus’ story starts at the Jordan, where he hears the voice of God declaring: “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” This is where the good news of God’s realm begins. This is where a seed gets planted that in time will bear fruit. It starts small, but it will grow over time. Then, you have to be ready to put the sickle in and take the harvest.
Since Mark is more interested in action than words, we rarely hear Jesus’ voice. While Mark tells us that Jesus spoke only in parables, there are only two collections of parables in Mark’s Gospel, one of which is found in Mark 4. That chapter has four parables, three of which are seed parables, while the fourth parable warns against placing your lamp under a bushel basket. This morning we’re focusing on two parables, the Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed. While we didn’t read the “Parable of the Sower” (Mk 4:1-9), it sets up our parables. If we’re going to understand these two parables we need to know how Jesus uses the word “seed” in these three parables. After he tells the “Parable of the Sower,” he explains it to his disciples, and he tells them that the “seed” is the “Word” of God.
We’re fortunate that Mark gives us this key, because without it we might be just as confused as Jesus’ original audience. Now that we know what the sower sows, we can look at the other components of these two parables. The first question has to do with the identity of the sower. Then you have to deal with the soil and the harvester in the first parable. Then, there is the matter of the Mustard Seed, which starts small and grows large enough to provide safe shelter for the birds.
When it comes to the identity of the sower, we have several options. The Sower could be God, or it might be us. There could be other options as well. For our purposes, I’m going with the idea that each of us is the sower. The task of scattering the seed upon the land belongs to each of us.
Then there is the matter of the soil, which plays an important role in the first parable. If you look at verse 28, you will hear Jesus telling us that the “earth produces itself.” The NRSV uses the word produces to translate the Greek automate. Isn’t that interesting? It seems that Jesus is telling us that when the sower sows the seed, which is the Word of God, upon the soil, it will automatically start fulfilling its purpose. Even if the sower doesn’t understand how this happens, nature takes its course. At some point, the stalk emerges, and then the head, and then finally the mature plant emerges. Amy Jill Levine points out that when it comes to the “when” and the “where” of the kingdom of God’s arrival, we need to understand that “the when is in its own good time—as long as it takes for the seed to sprout and dough to rise. The where is that it is already present, inchoate in the world. The kingdom is present when humanity and nature work together, and we do what we were put here to do—to go out on a limb to provide for others, and ourselves as well” [Short Stories by Jesus, p. 182]. When the plant ripens, the harvester needs to go out and “immediately” put the sickle to the plants, and bring in the harvest. Don’t wait. Get out and take in the harvest. In Mark’s view, there is no room for procrastination.
Even though Mark tells us that the seed represents the Word, there is more than one variety of seed in the world. Different seeds produce different plants. Pine cone seeds produce pine trees. Cottonwood seeds produce cottonwood tries. Corn produces corn. Maybe that applies to the realm of God. Different seeds produce different facets of God’s realm. When it comes to the mustard seed, it might be the smallest of all seeds, but given time it will grow into the “greatest of all shrubs.” According to Jesus, it fulfills its purpose when it puts forth branches so that the birds can make nests in its shade. It might start out small, but it has a purpose, and that is to provide safe nesting space for the birds. Yes, small seeds can become great things. It just takes time.
If each of us sows seeds, what kind of seeds are you sowing? Are they gospel seeds? Do they reflect God’s values? The good news is that the soil is ready to receive the seeds we scatter upon the land. These seeds will bear fruit, but the fruit depends on the seed.
We live in challenging times. Even though the economy seems to be getting better, and the nuclear threat seems to be diminished, we still seem unsettled. For one thing, there is a growing coarseness in our society. Seeds of discord and hate are being sown in our midst. It’s easy to get sucked in, but we don’t have to play that game. We have in our hands, seeds of the kingdom, ready to be sown. These seeds produce a message of love, mercy, justice, and peace. I believe that the soil is ready to receive the message. People are crying out for a different word, and I believe that Jesus has given us that word.
One seed being sown this week concerns the government separating children from their parents at the border. Religious leaders have been speaking out, letting the government know that these are immoral actions. When the Attorney General tried to justify his policies by quoting from Romans 13, people of faith from the Roman Catholic Church to Southern Baptists to Disciples of Christ, have let him know that this is a misinterpretation that can lead to evil things. Yes, a seed of the kingdom has been sown.
Rick mentioned another seed last Sunday at the Table. He mentioned that June is Pride Month. He reminded us that many LGBTQ folks and their families have found themselves excluded from the Table, and many have heard hateful messages coming from Christian communities. It shouldn’t surprise us that many have concluded that churches aren’t safe spaces for everyone, but I believe our decision, which wasn’t easy, to become an opening and affirming congregation has sown a seed of hope. It may take time for that seed to fully mature, but I do believe the soil is producing something special. We see this emerging plant symbolized by the rainbow flag flying by our sign. John McCauslin planted that seed, which I believe is a sign that a seed of the kingdom has been sown in our community. It signals that this is a place of welcome to everyone who has experienced exclusion. It is a seed of welcome, which is an expression of God’s realm.
These are but a few of the seeds that have been sown. Other seeds might include a kind word spoken to a person who feels alone and abandoned. Recently I was walking with a friend who is running for political office. We were doing a bit of canvassing in a Troy neighborhood, and one of the people we talked to was an older man who spends his days and nights caring for his bedridden wife. He shared with us how being a care-giver can be lonely. He spoke of his concerns about the price of medicine. Maybe all we accomplished was listening to his concerns, but I believe that a seed of hope was planted in his life. There are many varieties of seeds that we have at our disposal to scatter across the land so that the Gospel might take root. We just need to let them fall on the soil, and the soil will do its part. At least that’s what Jesus says!
The communion hymn for today is “Seed, Scattered, and Sown.” It reminds us that when we gather at the Table, and share in the Bread and the cup, we share in our Lord. The Lord’s Table is a sign of God’s realm. It is a reminder that seed has been scattered and sown, and now stands ready to be harvested and turned into the “Living Bread of God,” which is itself a sign of God’s realm on earth as in heaven.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
June 17, 2018