Sunday, June 17, 2012

God's Bamboo Kingdom

Sermon based on Mark 4:26-34

Jesus taught with parables all the time, they were especially helpful in illuminating what the Kingdom of God is like. There are several reasons why parables are such an effective teaching technique, I just want to mention two today:

1. Stories are easy to connect with, remember, and share. A parable is often a short story that connects with the audience - it contains familiar scenarios so that the listeners can picture what is happening in their minds. A short story also has the benefit of being easier to remember and to share with others, thus the teaching gets shared with more than the original audience. 

2. Parables are different from regular stories in that parables often contain surprising or shocking imagery or outcomes. Parables were not only to teach and instruct, but also to frustrate, to challenge, to transform.

Both of the two short parables today are about seeds and growing. Those are things that Jesus’ audience would have easily related with. These days, the only plants I have regular interaction with are orchids - and they are air plants and very different from anything you would plant to eat. They are surprisingly hard to kill, even when I forget to water them.

As a kid, my parents had a very large vegetable garden and my family regularly ate from that we grew. I have memories of Dad plowing the field, and then he would instruct my brother and me what seeds to plant and where. Some seeds were large, others were tiny. Some you had to be careful about putting enough space in between seeds, others were not so particular. I remember after all the work that went with planting, there was the excitement and then boredom of waiting for them to grow. Some plants grew more quickly than others, some took so long that I had forgotten what we planted by the time they did sprout. Still others never grew at all. It was a big mystery to me. Why did some grow and others did not? Did we do something wrong? Or was there something wrong with the seed itself? I had no idea.

In Jesus’ first parable today, he said, "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. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." (Mark 4:26-29)

What is Jesus saying about the kingdom of God in this parable? He is relating it to a common experience of farmers - where there is much uncertainty about the growth of crops. As a farmer, there is much you can plan and prepare for, but there are always some unknowns and some things outside of your control. Likewise, the kingdom of God is something that we can make some preparations for but it is largely out of our control and there are many unknowns. In the parable, it is the earth that does much of the mysterious work of growing the seeds. In the kingdom of God, it is God who does much of the mysterious work. In the end, when the grain is ripe, the farmer better be ready to harvest - or else all that work goes to waste. We do not know when the kingdom of God will be ripe, or will be totally here transforming a new heaven and a new earth - but when that day arrives people will be ready for whatever comes next.

Jesus’ second parable today is the familiar mustard seed.
He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is 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." (Mark 4:30-32)

This parable is often discussed with the interpretation that it means that from small beginnings come large results. This is certainly true. What seems small at first can grow into something much larger. It is true about plants, about our faith, about the church, and about the kingdom of God. However, there is a twist to this parable. Remember that I said that parables were stories that often contained an element that was frustrating, surprising, or challenging? Jesus’ audience would not have been surprised that tiny seeds turn into large plants, they observed that all the time. What they also observed was that most forms of the mustard plant are pesky weeds that no one wants. They would have been surprised that Jesus was comparing the kingdom of God with a weed.

The mustard plant was not only a plant that grew where it was not wanted - it was also very hard to control. Think of bamboo. If you google “bamboo in yard” at least half of the results are warning not to grow it in your yard or suggestions on how to get rid of it. Bamboo is invasive and very hard to control.

When Jesus compared the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, he is not just saying that out of something small comes something great. Jesus is also saying that God’s kingdom grows like an unwanted, uncontrollable weed. God’s kingdom shows up in surprising and unexpected ways - including some uncomfortable and distressing ways.

I have a project for us this summer. I am starting a bulletin board in the parish hall, which will be up sometime this week. I will call it, “Surprising Growth of God’s Kingdom”. On this bulletin board, I would like for us all to post pictures or articles or notes that we believe are examples of how God is acting in surprising and challenging ways in the world. Many of you will be going away for vacation - take that as an opportunity to see what God is doing in other parts of the US and the world. Keep your eyes and ears open for the unexpected ways that God’s kingdom is growing.

I’ll give you an example - I will post an article on the board to get us started. This article is entitled, Ethnic minority turn to Jesus asmore 'affordable' option, found in The Phnom Penh Post, a Cambodian newspaper. The article talks about the Jarai, who are indigenous minority residents in the Ratanakkiri province of Cambodia. What is surprising is the way in which the church is growing in this place, but in a way that seems bizarre to our modern American way of thinking. Apparently, most Jarai have practiced a mixture of animism and Theravada Buddhism. When someone gets sick in this community, the people believe that some god was responsible and in order to get well you have to sacrifice animals. This can be very expensive for a people that are desperately poor. In Somkul Village, it is cheaper for the very poor to become a Christian and use western medicine than to continue with traditional beliefs and methods. People are converting to Christianity because it is more affordable. This is not like the so-called “prosperity gospel” that you hear about in the US - where preachers tell people that God wants us all to be rich. People are not converting to be rich, but rather because they are too poor for their traditional system.

This might seem strange to us in our comfortable, educated community in northern Virginia. But it shows that God works through what is available and what connects to people – even superstition and poverty. God is transforming this community with the gospel and providing better health and prosperity.

So, for this summer - take pictures, write notes or find articles that make you think about how God’s kingdom is taking over aspects of our world. These examples don’t have to be grand or obvious; they can be small simple things too. Your example can show ways in which God has brought hope to the despairing and comfort to the afflicted. But keep your eyes open in particular for the ways in which God’s kingdom challenges our hopes and afflicts the comfortable. Working together, I hope that by the end of the summer our bulletin board will become a harvest of pictures and testimony as to how the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed (or bamboo) - uncontrollable and breaking into our world in surprising and often uncomfortable ways.

Inspiration from "Mission Possibleby David Lose

New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.