A Sermon From Mark 4:26-34
This parable has brought visions of greatness. Think of Ezekiel 17, “Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”
The great cedar of Lebanon! God takes little Israel, weak and underdogged, and makes them the greatest of all. We’re talking world domination here. Just imagine, everywhere you go, you are in the majority, you are in charge, you reign supreme. From humble beginnings, you rise. Beginning as a tiny twig from the very top of the tree, you are planted and you grow to be the tallest tree in the forest. The great redwoods of Yosemite have nothing on you. You are the Cedar of Lebanon. The greatest tree in all the land.
Daniel says, “Upon my bed this is what I saw; there was a tree at the center of the earth, and its height was great. The tree grew great and strong, its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the ends of the whole earth. 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.” Are you excited yet?
“Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth; but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.” Ah, the parable of the mustard seed. From the smallest seed comes the greatest of all vegetable plants. Ok, so it’s no Cedar of Lebanon, but it’s the greatest of all vegetable plants! So… we’ve got that going for us, right?
Then again, there’s the Mishnah, a Jewish law book that forbade planting mustard seeds in gardens. As it would turn out, the mustard plant was the kudzu of Ancient Israel. The great mustard seed of the parable is actually an atrocious weed. And this is what Jesus chooses to compare to God’s kingdom? What happened to the Cedar of Lebanon? I liked that better than the parable of the unwanted weed.
And then there’s the first parable we heard this morning. You can call it whatever you want, but I like to call it the parable of the lazy farmer. You heard it, didn’t you? Someone scatters seed on the ground and then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. I don’t know the last time you did any farming, but there’s more involved in it than throwing some seeds on the ground. You have to pull weeds, you have to water the plants, you have to till the ground. You don’t just go out there, throw some seed on the ground, and call it a day.
Parables are almost never what they seem. There is generally something to them that digs a little deeper, that turns the tables in some way. In the case of these two, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the way they’re turning the tables.
In February, I was at Elementary Winter Retreat at Blue Lake. One of the activities we had set up for the children was prayer stations and at one of the stations they were to plant a flower seed. We told the program director about this well in advance, but, as happens sometimes, he didn’t get around to getting an area ready for them to plant. So, we basically had them throwing seeds onto the ground as an exercise in futility. We knew this, but they didn’t, so it was fine. “Yeah, go ‘plant’ those seeds out there,” in that untilled, weedy, uncared for area right over there.
I was at Blue Lake three weeks ago for a trustees meeting. I didn’t make it up there to the area where we planted, but my friend Gillian did. She sent me a text message that said, “A sower went out to sow some seed,” and then there was a picture. There were four flours sticking up from that untilled, unprepared soil. The ground where they’re growing still looks terrible, but there they are.
Have you seen the movie, Rudy? Rudy Ruettiger grew up in a Catholic, working class family that loved Notre Dame football. Rudy was a small guy and he didn’t have the grades, the size or the talent to get into his beloved school so he followed his brothers and father into work at the steel plant.
The unexpected death of his best friend motivated him to make a change. It was now or never, and Rudy chose now. He enrolled in Holy Cross Junior College, where his tutor helped him deal with his reading disability and bring up his grades. Rudy finally got accepted to Notre Dame and he was allowed to be a practice player for the Fighting Irish. For two years, Rudy was essentially a team practice dummy. Over and over again he got beaten up and bludgeoned at practice. And over and over again, there he was, doing what he could for his team. Over and over again the roster for those who would be dressing for the game was posted. And over and over again Rudy’s name was left off of it. The final game of Rudy’s final year at Notre Dame was posted. Rudy’s name wasn't on it. The team captain went into his coach’s office to tell his coach that he wanted Rudy to dress in his place. “You’re an All-American and our Captain, act like it,” his coach told him. “I believe I am,” was his reply. He laid his jersey on the coach’s desk and left. And player after player came in to offer their jersey so that Rudy could dress in their place.
A small guy with a learning disability makes the grades and gets to enroll in Notre Dame. He gets to be in the football game for only seconds. And at the end of that game he is lifted onto the shoulders of his teammates. It’s unexpected, it doesn’t look like we think it should. This is not the way the world works.
…yeah. The kingdom of God is kind of like that.
-- Rev. Samantha Lewis