Proper 6B

June 11, 2012

  • The Lectionary Gospel

    Mark 4:26-34

    Author: Scott Hoezee

    Comments and Observations

    The news has been abuzz lately with stories about “Nanny” Michael Bloomberg.   In fact, an anti-Bloomberg group took out what must have been a very expensive, full-page, full-color ad in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago showing a doughty older woman towering over New York City wagging a finger.   The head on the woman’s body was, of course, Mayor Bloomberg’s and the text of the ad went on to wonder what Nanny Bloomberg would do next to control people’s lives.

    In case you have missed this story, what gave rise to this whole kerfuffle was the Mayor’s decision to limit the size of sugary soft drinks that could be sold in New York establishments.   In an age of obesity, the Mayor wants to curtail the needless intake of huge amounts of calories from outsized drinks.   He may have a point: at Seven-Eleven in recent years fountain drinks have included  “the Big Gulp,” one of the largest fountain drinks anywhere. Better yet, there is the Super Big Gulp and the Extreme Big Gulp served in a cup that looks like a NASA rocket booster and containing 54 ounces of soda (that’s 1.3 liters if you are curious, and if it is a non-diet soda, you are looking at about 700 calories of soda pop or close to 35% of a normal adult’s preferred total daily caloric intake).

    So the Mayor wanted to keep things small to keep waistlines from swelling from such needless empty sugar calories, and not a few people are hopping mad.  That full-page ad in the Times wondered if next up the Mayor would limit the width of a pizza slice or the height of a cheeseburger.

    Americans like things big and we are suspicious of those who suggest small is better.

    Churches these days are not much different.   Church Growth is all the rage and the quickest way by which a given church’s success get sized up—literally—is through a headcount.  Indeed, one of my students recently told the story of a megachurch pastor who spoke at a conference in which he bragged about the number of baptisms they’d performed and how many members they have.   He even told a story about Rachel, one of the first persons he baptized at this church but then went on to admit “I have no idea where Rachel is today!   But we’ve added so many more since!!”   (The student was preaching on the Parable of the Lost Sheep and made the comment that “God counts by ones.”  Nice touch.)

    For Jesus, when it came to talking about and describing the kingdom of God, generally speaking he claimed again and again that the kingdom, though the grandest, boldest, brightest reality of them all, will nine times out of ten look small.

    The kingdom of God is over and again that small thing that all-but gets lost in the hubbub of the wider world. The kingdom is not advertised on some glitzy neon sign towering over Times Square but rather it’s the treasure buried under Times Square. It’s not an expensive jewel displayed under plate glass and bright lights at Saks Fifth Avenue but it is the pearl of great price that someone just happens to stumble upon in a bathroom trash can at Saks.   The kingdom does not call attention to itself like a marching band coming down the street with brass and drums blaring but is instead the yeast that disappears into the larger lump of dough, the tiniest of all seeds that vanishes almost the very moment it hits the soil.

    We know this, but we have a hard time holding onto this message in this society. We want to Super Size the gospel.  We want some sizzle, some flash, some of the trappings of what defines success in the rest of our size-crazed culture.  But Mark 4 claims that we must never forget that none of our external looks, none of our savvy strategies, and none of our various attempts to stay current finally makes the difference.  Because if we become too focused on technique, we may be tempted to retool the one thing we must never retrofit: the simple gospel that Jesus is the Son of God who saves us by his death and resurrection. That core message must never change, and we must never try to change it just because people deem it old-fashioned, out of step, weak, vulnerable, silly, or inadequate-looking given the challenges facing the world today.

    Questions to Ponder/Issues to Address

    Like the message they convey, the two parables in this part of Mark 4 are mighty small.   This is no Parable of the Prodigal Son that takes up the better part of a whole chapter.  Jesus manages to convey something about the smallness of the kingdom via two stories that are themselves pretty tiny.   And yet, like the seeds also depicted, these small little parables pack a punch.   They capture the very kingdom mystery and (apparent) weakness Jesus is highlighting.

    The kingdom is finally a mystery.  It’s like a farmer who tosses seed out onto a field and then walks away. He sleeps, he gets up. Days come and days go but somehow, even as the farmer is doing apparently nothing, the seeds grow. In verse 28 you read the phrase “all by itself,” and in Greek that is the word automate, from which we get our word “automatic.” Automatically, mysteriously, without any apparent outside assistance, the seeds just grow and suddenly the day arrives when you’ve got a whole field of wheat ready to be harvested.

    Although this parable of the growing seed is among the shortest of all parables, it has proven to be surprisingly difficult to interpret. Scholars cannot agree what the key element is here: is it the power of the seeds, the inactivity of the farmer, the mystery of how seeds do what they do? What is the point here? Surely this is not meant to foster inactivity on our part. It would even be a bit startling if the bottom line here was that we really shouldn’t think much about the growth of God’s kingdom one way or the other.

    In short, don’t walk away from Mark 4 singing “Que sera, sera–whatever will be, will be.”   But more on that below.  Let’s first toggle over to the other parable.  If the growing seed parable seems to be about the mystery of kingdom growth, the mustard seed image is about the apparent weakness of the kingdom. The day will come when the results of the kingdom’s silent, steady growth will be impressive. Meanwhile don’t be surprised if the seeds you plant look ineffective. Don’t be surprised if the witness you have to offer gets laughed at on account of looking so puny. It’s the old “Jack and the Beanstalk” fable: Jack’s mother scorns the tiny beans he brings home from the market. They can never live off those! So in anger she hurls them out the window. Those beans were a non-starter, a mistake, a dead-end nutritionally and in every other sense. Except that, of course, they ended up sprouting into a beanstalk that went, in a way, clear up to heaven.

    But Jesus says the gospel message will get a similar reception. We live in a universe and in a world with huge threats to existence and with sickeningly large social and geopolitical problems. There are meteors hurtling through space, many of which would wipe out life on earth if they struck us. There are dictators harboring or seeking weapons of mass destruction, many of which threaten our survival as a species. In the Middle East but in so many other places, too, there are seemingly intractable hatreds and prejudices between and among various ethnic groups. There are diseases like AIDS galloping through Africa, threatening to wipe out the better part of an entire generation of people. Hunger and poverty loom up like a whole mountain range of daunting problems whose heights we don’t know how to scale.

    Yet in the midst of all these threats from within and from without, in the face of great sin and evil, faced with maladies that are global in scope, we Christian people swing in with no more than that simplest of all messages: Jesus saves. A Jewish carpenter’s son from halfway around the world and from over 2,000 years ago is the one we hold up as some kind of solution. And not a few folks today want to say, “Give me a break!”

    But we keep on repeating the old, old story because we believe that somehow, some way, it’s going to work. If we yoke these two parables now, we can see both the theme of how puny our efforts look and our ardent faith that even though we don’t understand how these kingdom seeds grow, they do whether we are watching or not, whether we are tending them every moment or not. They grow silently and mysteriously in people’s hearts. The seeds didn’t look like much to begin with and they grow without making much noise. If you go sit next to a wheat field a week or two after the seeds have been sown into the earth, you could sit on the edge of that field all day and throughout an entire night and you’d never hear a blessed thing.

    On Wall Street, the moment that opening bell sounds each day, there is an immediate frenzy of activity. That loud baying for money creates a cacophony that pierces your gizzard with its shrill intensity. If you were on the Senate floor during a debate, you’d feel the sizzle in the air. They say that when Lyndon B. Johnson was the most powerful Senator, he would give people what became known as “the Johnson treatment.” He’d loop one of his powerful and long arms around another Senator’s shoulders and then lean his massive face directly into the other man’s face, all the while poking and jabbing and thumping his index finger into the man’s sternum until he cowed him into agreement. Now that’s power at work!

    But a growing wheat field makes none of the noise of a stock exchange and has none of the sizzle of high-powered politicking. The Jesus whose kingdom we present jabs no fingers into anyone’s chest. He invites with gentle words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” But people don’t want quiet invitations to rest. They want powerful and inspirational promises of success. But our Lord himself said that this is not how you get into his kingdom.

    Illustration Idea

    Every day the “Congressional Record” is published and it is each and every day a very thick book detailing every word spoken on the floor of the House and Senate. Every week the Obama Administration issues a flurry of new policy initiatives, also totaling into the thousands of pages. The United Nations works hard to cobble together solutions and coalitions aimed at addressing what ails this world. Were you to bring together all the newspaper sections that record the daily activity on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nikkei Index, the Chicago Board of Trade, and all other financial markets in the world, you would have a stack of newsprint many inches thick.

    Such a huge output of words, such a thick volume of records detailing the policy efforts of governments: that is the kind of thing you expect when people seriously tackle this world’s challenges. Yet we Christians stand on the sidelines and what do we offer? The thin, sixteen-chapter little volume called the Gospel of Mark. It’s small. It’s old. And although we don’t say we could do without the efforts of government or of those involved in commerce, we do make the audacious claim that none of those things is ultimately very meaningful compared to the gospel.

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 20

    Author: Doug Bratt