Sermon for 3rd Pentecost -
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer. -
Jesus liked to teach using parables, stories that told sometimes difficult truths using examples that were familiar to his listeners. Jesus’ parables are among the most popular stories in the Bible – think of the ones we know well – the Good Samaritan, the Prodigal Son, the Sewer and the Seed, the Lost Coin, the Lost Sheep, just to name a few. At least two of these, the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son, are so well known that they have come into common language – even people who are not Christian or have never attended Christian worship know what is means when one is called a “Good Samaritan” or a “Prodigal Son.”
Those of us who have grown up in the church have heard and loved Jesus’ parables from our childhood. Unfortunately, their familiarity may have domesticated them too much for us. You see Jesus told his parables to share difficult truths. His examples would have shook up, even shocked, his listeners – the hated Samaritan is the only one who helps the mugging victim, a shepherd leaves 99 of his sheep unattended to find just one, a father appears to celebrate a son who is lazy and wasteful and useless. It may be hard for us to see how radical these stories would have sounded to his listeners.
Scholar David Lose points out that Jesus described the Kingdom of God in parables because he knew that his teaching was both unexpected and radical – God’s unconditional love for people here and now was not something that people expected to hear from a Rabbi. The people expected Jesus to talk about the law and following the law. Instead, Jesus spoke of God’s conditional love for people. Jesus knew that his listeners could not take it all in at once. So, Jesus spoke in stories, parables, that carried his important teaching.
Eugene Peterson, whose paraphrase of the Bible, The Message, is very popular among Christians, has said that the parables are like narrative time bombs. Peterson says you hear a parable – tick – wonder about it – tick – think maybe you understand it – tick – and then you walk away – tick – think about it over the course of the next day – tick – and all of a sudden what Jesus really meant sinks home – boom – almost overwhelming you with its implications.
Here is what I mean – look at the two short parables in today’s Gospel lesson. The one is about scattering seeds on the ground, but it is not the more famous parable of the sewer and seeds. The other is the better known parable of the tiny mustard seed.
The first – the seed scattered and harvested – is often interpreted to be about the wonder of faith or the need to bring in the harvest of belief. However, what if it is not about those interpretations but is rather about our complete inability to control the coming kingdom of God and to dictate whether we and others believe or not!
This parable tells us that God’s kingdom comes no matter what effort we make or do not make. God’s kingdom cannot be controlled or influenced, it can only be received as a gift. It is more like falling in love than making a decision. Kingdom-faith, like love, is something that comes from outside and grabs hold of you, whether you want it or not!
Thus, this parable tells us that our role is not to target, persuade or cajole others into faith. Ready or not, God’s harvest is coming. Our role, as suggested by Jesus’ first parable today, is to offer the faith to others, no strings attached, and allow God to do the rest.
Vicar Scott and I talk about this often. All too often, pastors feel burdened by the responsibilities of ministry. This parable tells us that it is not a pastor’s responsibility, or any of us, to bring others to God. Our responsibility is the invitation. God provides the rest.
Then, there is the second parable. I like its traditional interpretation, that even faith as small as a tiny seed can grow and thrive. That’s certainly appealing to me when my faith does not feel very strong or big.
But, perhaps, this second parable is again about God’s action in our lives and the wildness of it, how God can sometimes take over our lives for good, even against our better judgement. The gardeners among us know how the mustard plant can take over a garden or a lawn – it spreads out of control easily, it gets out of hand, it nearly takes over whatever ground it infests. In my study for this sermon I saw photos online of mustard plant shrubs the size of small buildings in many areas of the Middle East.
And in this parable, Jesus is telling us that that is how God’s kingdom works, too. God’s kingdom does not come in a box. It is not a commodity to be bought or sold, to be used diligently and carefully. No, God’s kingdom is a new reality that invades, overturns and eventually overcomes. God’s kingdom is a word of promise that creates hope and expectation, leads people to change their lives, to leave behind old ways and live into it. God’s kingdom is even dangerous because it is unpredictable – one does not know where it will take you or what it will do when it seizes hold of you.
Scholar Lose wonders aloud about the birds in this parable, the ones who can now nest in the shade of the large mustard shrub and its branches. Lose suggests that, considering Jesus’ earlier parables, especially in Mark’s Gospel, that these birds might be so-called undesirable people, outcasts in Jesus’ time, people that decent folks try to ignore, “lowlifes” at least in the eyes of the religious establishment.
Mark’s Gospel continually makes it clear that the people who flocked to Jesus were just these sort of “undesirables” – lowly fishermen, despised tax collectors, prostitutes and criminals, lowlifes of all sorts – people desperate enough, lowly enough, to find hope in Jesus’ message of God’s kingdom.
I very much like our congregation’s welcome statement: in our “who we are” statement we say, “We are people: Young, old. Single, married, divorced, widowed. Poor, working-class, middle-class, well off. We are preschoolers, elementary school-ers, middle school-ers, high school graduates, college graduates, Ph.D.’s, GED’s. We are straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender. We are Black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, Arab, Norwegian, Swedish, German and more. We are people like you.”
What this statement says to me is that whether judged by society as desirable or not, God’s kingdom comes to all and all are welcome here at Mt. Olive.
And, I believe the central point of these two brief, lesser known, parables of Jesus is this: The Kingdom of God comes on its own, without our help, and it comes for us all. The Kingdom Jesus proclaims has room for us all. It overturns what the world has taught us and creates a new and open, sometimes even a bit frightening, future.
Our task, then, is to believe this promise and remember it.
Kris and I had the privilege of attending member Leslie Timms’ graduation from the California Institute of Technology, Cal Tech, this past Friday. The commencement speaker, Dr. Genevieve Bell, an anthropologist who is a Vice President at Intel Corporation, said many wonderful things in her speech, but this one stuck with me – Bell said “If you choose to live in something larger than yourselves, you have to remember that is what you are doing.”
We Christians have chosen to live in something larger than ourselves, the love of God for humankind and what that means for our lives here on this earth. Our task then is to believe God’s promise, remember it and live it.
God’s kingdom comes for us all, has room for us all. This is good news, perhaps the best news, for anyone who is willing to admit his or her needs and shortcomings. Without any action on our part, God’s wildly growing kingdom comes to each of us, as an unrequested gift of hope and salvation and love.
Ready or not, God’s kingdom is coming, is here, for us all.
Thanks be to God.
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
Ready or Not, the Kingdom of God is Coming
Sermon for 3rd Pentecost
Written by Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer.
June 13/14, 2015
Mt. Olive Lutheran, Santa Monica, California