Mark 4: 26-34
It’s pretty hard to miss. Today’s readings are about growth: growth of cedar trees, growth of faith, growth of seeds, and growth of the kingdom/reign of God.
In Mark’s gospel, there are two connected parables about plants. The first is about planting seeds. The farmer sows the wheat seeds, for example, at the right time, in properly prepared soil.
Once the planting is done, the farmer can stay up late, and get up early, but he – or she – will not see the seedling burst through the shell of the seed and begin to grow. It is only with slow-motion cameras have we been able to see what that looks like.
Given the right conditions, the seed will grow and eventually produce fruit – grain – to be harvested. Between sowing and harvesting, the farmer may apply some fertilizer, and pull out the weeds, but the actual growth of the plant is God’s doing alone.
In comparison to the controlled planting of the seeds into the field, the growth of the mustard seed is uncontrollable. The mustard seed in the parable is not the spice, but a weed that becomes a bush. Like all weeds, they grow wherever the wind has blown them, or where a bird has dropped them.
I give thanks to the Tuesday evening Bible study class for their help with Florida plants. One of Florida’s invasive plants is a shrub called lantana. It is similar to a desirable shrub, planted in gardens, with beautiful little yellow flowers growing on it. However, the invasive version of the shrub takes over wherever it is growing, killing other plants that are in its way. It is not sturdy enough for nesting birds, but it does get large enough to be a great nuisance in our yards.
It grows large enough that Jesus might have used it in his parable if he were speaking today. He is exaggerating:
“It is like a lantana 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.” Jesus’ crowds know that birds would not nest in the branches of a mustard bush, and they would get the joke.
While the crowd may have laughed at Jesus’ joke, they may or may not have thought his point about the kingdom of God was at all funny. Jesus is saying that the growth of the kingdom/reign (R-E-I-G-N) of God is uncontrollable, inevitable, and invasive. The leaders, who love to be in control, will not be able to stop the coming and growth of the reign of God. Jesus is saying “Caution: The reign of God may be hazardous to the status quo.”
Let me remind you about my use of the word reign for the word kingdom in scripture. When we say kingdom, we imagine a place, a geographical territory: France or Great Britain, for example.
Or we think of heaven, the place we will go after we die. Perhaps we get this idea from Matthew’s gospel, where Jesus speaks of the kingdom of heaven coming. In this case, heaven is a substitute for God, out of respect for the holiness of God’s name.
Let’s be clear. The phrase “the kingdom of God” refers to God’s total sovereignty – or reign – over all the earth. When God reigns, life on earth changes. The crippled are healed, unjustly-jailed prisoners are set free, the deaf hear and the mute speak. And, the poor and oppressed have good news preached to them – which implies that the wealthy are probably not going to hear Jesus’ message as good news. “Caution: The reign of God may be hazardous to the status quo.”
We can turn to almost any page in the New Testament and see evidence that the reign of God has come near. People are healed, demons are cast out, the lame walk, the deaf hear. More and more, Jesus challenges the powers that be, the scribes, the priests, the Pharisees, the Saduccees. They are not good shepherds for the people, they are not taking care of the poor and oppressed in their community. “Caution: The reign of God may be hazardous to the status quo.”
In the centuries since Jesus, we see signs of the reign of God. Followers of Jesus went from being an unknown sect of Judaism, to a persecuted group, to a legal religion within the Roman Empire, to the dominant religion. “Caution: The reign of God may be hazardous to the status quo.”
Christianity spread all over Europe, into India and Africa. Even when Islam arose, Jesus was included as a prophet just under Mohammed in importance. Christianity moved into the Americas, and into most parts of Asia. Belief in Jesus has spread like lantana. “Caution: The reign of God may be hazardous to the status quo.”
The reign of God changes the culture. Just in America, belief in Jesus has influenced the spreading of our national borders, and has lifted human rights to center stage. Though the battles have been emotional and hard-won, belief in Jesus has forced us to end slavery; give women the right to vote; give people of color and women the right to serve as pastors and bishops; become more aware of the changes the industrial revolution has had on God’s good creation.
Disabled people have access to buildings and restrooms and braille signs and interpreters for the deaf. Lesbian, gay, and transgendered people are more welcomed in our culture and our churches. “Caution: The reign of God may be hazardous to the status quo.”
If we are paying attention, we can see that all sorts of things are happening in the church, and in the culture that do not look like the status quo. If the church is going to continue to be Jesus in our particular place and time, we must learn the ways of the culture and be as invasive as lantana. We must use technology. We must pay attention to the younger generations. We must be on the lookout for little opportunities.
For example: The other day, I was on my way here after lunch. There were three girls in the yard across the street shouting and waving signs: “garage sale”. I parked my car at the church and walked across the street. The girls were selling some no-longer-needed toys and little stuffed animals. We chatted for a bit – a younger sister was at a Vacation Bible School somewhere. I bought two of the stuffies, and talked about the shoeboxes we fill. I told the girls I was the pastor across the street, and that we’d love to have them come to church here.
I took the time to be invasive, to get to know them, to introduce myself, and to invite them to come and see. We have a number of babies here, and a number of teens and young adults. How would the culture of Hope change if Jesus sent those girls and their friends to us? We say we want children here. Are we ready and willing to embrace them? Are we really able to embrace a change from the status quo that a having number of children would mean? Isn’t that what Jesus is telling us he wants?
This week, be on the lookout for opportunities to be invasive. Tell someone about Jesus, and how the reign of God changes lives and cultures, including ours.
Please pray with me. Holy God, you have planted us here, and we have taken root. You have fed and nourished us, and we are happy plants in your kingdom. Lead us to plant seeds everywhere, and help those new seeds to grow. And help us to accept the changes that occur as your reign invades new territories and new hearts. Amen