SERMON for 14 June 2009
II Corinthians 5: 6-10; 14-17
Mark 4: 26-34
By Sharyn Hall
Three years ago, when we had the same group of scripture readings for our Sunday services, it was my task to create a children’s sermon for the 10 o’clock service. I showed the children tiny mustard seeds; then I showed them a grown plant. I could not find a mustard plant, so I substituted a three-foot hibiscus bush (also called the Rose of Sharon). In the gospel, it says that the mustard plant grew so tall that birds could shelter in its branches. I made birds out of construction paper, and we wrote names of people who needed God’s protection on the birds, and hung them on the tree. The bush became a visible symbol of God’s kingdom.
After the service, we removed the birds, and took the hibiscus bush home to be planted in our garden. The next morning we looked out the window and the bush was gone! Someone stole the whole bush, pot and all! Once I got over the shock, I realized that someone stole, not only a three-foot hibiscus bush, they also stole the kingdom of God! That thought has generated more ideas about the parable of the mustard seed.
First of all, is it possible to steal the kingdom of God? If we think of God’s kingdom as a possession, then we realize that some people believe they possess God’s kingdom, God’s truth, God’s salvation. We all have encountered people who are convinced that they have the means to salvation, and unless we follow their lead, we will perish. We could say that they have stolen God’s kingdom from anyone who does not agree with their idea of salvation. People with this rigid belief exist in all religions, and unfortunately their attitude can lead to prejudice, injustice and violence, the very opposite of God’s kingdom.
In today’s gospel parable, Jesus teaches his disciples that the kingdom of God is not created by human hands and is beyond human understanding. The seed of grain in the ground is watered and tended by human hands, but that would come to nothing without the mystery of God’s creative spirit. The caretaker of the plant does not see, and does not know, how the grain grows.
The parable of the mustard seed further illustrates this point. Many mustard bushes grow wild, without the benefit of human care. The amazing growth of a mustard plant from a tiny seed is a mystery. In the parable of the mustard see, Jesus reminds his disciples that God is in charge. God is growing God’s kingdom, seed by seed. This does not mean that humanity has no role in nurturing God’s kingdom. Men and women have work to do to nurture the seeds, but the unseen miracle of growth is a matter of faith.
With today’s scientific knowledge, we might be able to explain how the seed evolves into a bush, but why a mustard seed produces a mustard bush is yet another question. How would the disciples of Jesus understand this parable? They would be familiar with mustard seeds and mustard bushes; what would this image tell them about the kingdom of God?
Without our knowledge of botany, they might be more willing to accept the hand of God in the transformation of seeds into grain and plants and bushes. They more readily accepted God’s direct role in their lives, in their livelihood, and in the natural world around them. They were vulnerable to the changes of the seasons. They were powerless against ruthless overlords, and they longed for a kingdom of their own.
Jesus assured them that with God, amazing things could happen, but they must have faith, return to God’s ways, and then the kingdom of God would grow and transform their lives. God’s power to transform life was everywhere around them. They could see the results in plants and grain, and birds and animals. They needed to have faith that God’s power also was working in the human world, even if they could not see how.
The passage from St. Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians echoes this teaching of Jesus. Paul’s writing can seem complex and unclear at times, but in today’s reading, there is a direct statement of faith to that early community of Christians. Paul says, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” If they needed to see Jesus to believe, they would never have faith, for it is by faith that they can believe in Jesus, and in his message of hope in God’s kingdom.
We may remember that it was Thomas who would not believe in the risen Christ until he saw the marks of crucifixion on the hands and feet of Jesus, but it was to Thomas that Jesus gave one of his most encouraging statements of hope for those of us who have not seen Jesus, and yet believe in him. ‘Do you believe in me because you have seen me, Thomas?’, Jesus asked. ‘Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.’ The words of Jesus are for all of us who believe because of faith. (A lovely new hymn in our hymn book, #244, has the same thought)
‘We walk by faith, not by sight.’ This is Paul’s message in our reading today. This is what Jesus is saying about the kingdom of God in the parable of the mustard seed. We do not see what makes the seed grow into a bush, and we do not see what makes the kingdom of God grow in the world around us. We may believe that God’s hand makes it happen, but we do not see God’s hand.
Like the mustard bush, we may see the result of God’s work, if we stop to take notice, but if we do not take notice, if we do not open our eyes and minds and hearts to the possibility that God is creating miracles every day in our world, we not only will miss the wonder of God’s work, we will miss participating in the ongoing, neverending creation of God’s kingdom.
How will we recognize the signs of God’s kingdom? Look for signs of justice, acts of compassion, stories of courage, words of hope, visions of beauty, - the list goes on and on. Once Jesus was asked, ‘When will God’s kingdom come?’ His reply was that God’s kingdom is here among us. We can not possess the kingdom of God. The kingdom is God’s creation. Our task, our privilege, our calling from Jesus, is to help it grow.