Sermon: “The Kingdom of heaven is Like…”
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
I Samuel 15.34-16.13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5.6-17; Mark 4.26-34
Last Sunday we read how the scribes from Jerusalem accused Jesus of demon possession. In response, Jesus presented a parable in which he asked, “How can Satan cast out Satan?” (Mark 3.24; NRSV). We noted how Jesus emphasized that the miracles he performed took place through the power of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, one who attributes the work of the Holy Spirit to demons is guilty of blasphemy. We further considered how the work of the Spirit writes a letter on our hearts which others can read and how we are treasures in clay jars through which God’s grace is extended to more and more people thereby increasing thanksgiving to the glory of God.
Today’s gospel lesson sets forth two somewhat puzzling parables concerning the kingdom of God, or the reign of God: The Parable of the Growing Seed and the Parable of the Mustard Seed. As you may recall, Jesus placed great emphasis on the kingdom of God, beginning many parables (no less than eleven) with the words, “The kingdom of God is like….”
Why? While it may be argued that the kingdom of God has been present since creation, we see its apocalypse, its unveiling, more fully in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Something new was being made manifest. Jesus was emphasizing this fact and giving clues to the crowds through parables while sharing more fully with the disciples. As the gospel reading notes, “With many such parables he spoke to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples” (Mark 4.33-34; NRSV).
Mark 4 begins with the Parable of the Sower who indiscriminately sowed seed on the path, on rocky ground, among the thorns, and on good soil. The seed sown on good soil increased thirty, sixty, and even a hundred-fold. This parable points to God’s generous nature, for God sowed even where there was no reason to expect any return.
In the Parable of the Growing Seed the farmer sows then day after day sleeps and rises without tending to the seed. The farmer does not know exactly how the seed sprouts and grows but given the nutrients of the earth and sufficient water, the seed produces fruit, and when grain ripens, the farmer sets about the harvest. The farmer has little to no control over the growth and ripening process.
This is the way it is with the seeds of the kingdom which are sown within our souls. We must trust God that God’s transformative work will be accomplished in its own time; we must be humble and patient. We must permit the seeds to grow at their own rate. All that we can do is to prepare the soil – to be receptive God’s work within our lives. This parable serves to remind us of the need for humility and patience in relation to God’s reign. God brings about the fruits of the Spirit in God’s good time. If we become impatient, we are likely to impede the process for we focus on our self-centered desires instead of placing our trust in God.
A certain degree of freedom comes with the realization of our need to be humble, to trust, and be patient. While we are called to sow faithfully the seeds of God’s word, we are not responsible for the harvest. The Spirit of God brings the harvest. We are called to be faithful. When someone reminded Mother Teresa that she could never successfully meet the needs of the dying in Calcutta, that her work only met the needs of a few, she replied, “I am not called to be successful … I am called to be faithful” (Dennis Hamm, SJ; https://liturgy.sluhostedsites.org/11OrdB061321/theword_hamm.html). We are faithful when we live our lives to the glory of God in a manner that permits others to see God at work in our lives.
In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, Jesus begins by asking a question: “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, yet … 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; NRSV). In Jesus’ time, the mustard seed was recognized as the smallest of seeds, about the size of the head of a pin. We now know that other seeds are smaller, e.g., the petunia, the begonia, and the orchid (John Foley, SJ: https://liturgy.sluhostedsites.org/11OrdB061321/reflections_foley.html ).
Parables are meant to make us think, to make us reflect on things. Those who heard this parable may have thought Jesus was joking, for they would have been familiar with the comparison of worldly kingdoms to great trees such as the majestic cedar (http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-b/proper_6b/ ). For example, in Daniel 4, King Nebuchadnezzar described his dream to Daniel (Belteshazzer) as follows:
Upon my bed this is what I saw; there was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. 11 The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. 12 Its foliage was beautiful, its fruit abundant, and it provided food for all. The animals of the field found shade under it, the birds of the air nested in its branches, and from it all living beings were fed (vss. 10-12; NRSV).
Nebuchadnezzar relayed how a messenger from heaven informed him the tree was to be cut down, but its stump and the roots were to remain. Daniel’s interpretation revealed that King Nebuchadnezzar was the tree.
Instead of the image of a majestic cedar, Jesus chose the image of a mustard seed. Was Jesus jokingly contrasting his other-worldly kingdom with the worldly kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar? We cannot say for certain, but we can see that something truly significant was to come from the “smallest of all seed.” Jesus’ kingdom, the kingdom of God, though starting out small, was to grow mightily. As one commentator has put it,
In choosing this metaphor, Jesus seems to be saying, “The long- expected intervention of the reign of God is showing itself in ways that are more ordinary and more present than you think. In fact, it is beginning here and now in my healing and table fellowship. What's more, from these small beginnings will grow the worldwide kingdom stemming from Israel and envisioned by the prophets” (Ibid.).
One might ask, how does all of this relate to us? In the Parable of the Growing Seed, we are called to humility, trust, and patience. God is still working in us, bringing us into God’s kingdom through transforming us more and more into God’s image. We must patiently permit the process to come to fruition. In the Parable of the Mustard Seed, we are reminded that God’s Word, sown in our souls, takes root and becomes something astonishing – a new creation. The fruit of God’s word provides shelter and rest. We are also reminded that the kingdom of God, though small in its beginning has grown, is growing, and continues to grow into a worldwide kingdom in which all things shall ultimately be made new.