This is the sermon that I preached at Kingston Presbyterian Church in New Jersey. I just finished writing it (it is 2AM local time on Sunday the 14th) and I don't yet know how it will be received, but I thought I'd put it in line for a future posting. Hello to the future!
Note: This is not the sermon I actually preached - I derived a few notes from this and then preached from the notes and improvised. But this is what I based it on.
Mark 4: 26-34
This Sunday, I wanted to give you a little warning. This sermon will end with a question. I will leave it open, unresolved, something like a jazz tune maybe. I want you to take something home with you, to think about.
Does the gospel make sense?
Whether the gospel makes sense or not, I think that the world around us makes a lot of sense to a lot of people. It makes sense to economists. It makes sense to politicians. It makes sense to scientists. It makes sense to sociologists and psychologists.
For decades now, we've been borrowing billions, and now trillions, of dollars, and that makes sense. Until the consequences really hit us in the face, we tend to accumulate debt whenever we can. The average American family has a net worth of about zero dollars. That means if all of us had to pay our debts all at once, right now, on average, we'd all be destitute and homeless.
It makes sense, doesn't it? It feels like it does when I take out student loans to pay for seminary, or when I put something on my credit card. I mean, why not? I'll pay for it another day. And there really is nothing so delectable, so entrancing, as the thing I can't quite afford. The next generation iPhone! A vacation in Hawaii swimming with sharks and sea turtles! A Mini Cooper! Makes me tingle to think about it. So I can't throw around much blame for all this debt we've got.
And we keep getting into wars. Have you noticed that? You can count backwards through hour history, as a lot of history books do, and measure our past as a series of wars. Historians get a lot of mileage out of this. And it makes sense. We spend so much on all of these weapons, and sometimes someone makes us angry, or threatens us. So we get into another war. Sometimes two wars at once. And I don't know about you, but I like being safe. If someone tells me I'll be safe here in America as long as we are fighting a war over there in Afghanistan or Iraq or some other distant place, it sounds pretty tempting. It seems like a fair trade, because I don't have to go to bed listening to mortar shells or air strikes. I sleep like a baby, as they say. I count sheep, not gravestones.
It makes sense that, just like other creatures, we'd be competing all the time with each other. It would be really hard to work together, unless we were competing against some other group. Life is a competition, right? Some are on top, and some on bottom. There are the strong, and the weak. There are winners and losers. I pull up in my Pontiac Vibe at a stoplight next to a Bentley coupe on the way to the SF airport, and the driver of the Bentley and I both know what the deal is. We're both playing the same game, and he's doing a lot better than me. If I want a Bentley coupe, I'll have to steal it.
Like I said, from a very sane, rational point of view, the world makes sense as it is. There are lots of people who can tell you how much sense it all makes.
But then why do I have this nagging feeling, down in my stomach, in the back of my mind, that something is wrong? No, honestly, I sometimes feel like everything is wrong. The debt is wrong, the violence is wrong, the game I'm playing to get ahead is wrong. Not just the big wrong things, like human trafficking or terrorism – anyone can see that some things are wrong. But the everyday stuff – it feels wrong too. Do you get that, sometimes? Is it just me? Am I crazy to be looking out the window, to the horizon, for some other way, some other way to live?
It makes so much sense, but it feels so wrong.
I feel like I'm stuck in a maze, but there's no cheese, no matter how long I look for it.
When I told a friend of mine, someone who works with me at the hospital, about what I was preaching on – the text from Mark that we just read, and I read my friend the parable of the mustard seed, her face lit up and she got excited and she said - “Oh! Yeah! The mustard seed! Its nonsense, you know.”
I hadn't really heard this take on it before, to be honest. Maybe I should have, but when the mustard seed has been preached on in the past, that I've heard, it's all about this little seed that becomes this big bush, all about how little, humble things can become tremendous things with time and some care.
Apparently, it is also nonsense.
My friend laughed at me and encouraged me to look for images of mustard plants on the Internet. So we did. We looked at all sorts of species of mustard plants, from all over the world, including some that are native to the middle east, or that are popular with gardeners in New Jersey. What I saw were hundreds of images of these flimsy little plants, hardly worth calling shrubs. The biggest ones I saw were basically five-foot-tall weeds. They didn't cast much shade, and I couldn't imagine more than a single bird finding space underneath to nest.
I thought of the parable of the mustard seed and imagined Jesus telling it, maybe out in the countryside of Galilee. Maybe he's standing next to one of these little mustard plants, waving feebly in the breeze. He tells the parable and there's some laughter.
“Oh, so the Kingdom of God is like a tiny shrub with a few birds beneath it? Wow, where do I sign up?”
I reflected more on the first parable, of the other sower, as it were, or who I think of as the farmer. This farmer is kind of like me. I sort of have a brown thumb. I have a vague sense that plants need water and dirt and sunlight, but I don't really know how much of each they need, or where, or when. I can picture myself like this sower, tossing seeds out into the dirt, looking with mild surprise as some of them sprout, and though I don't know what's going on, I'm out there with the sickle once I see some grains. I have a brown thumb, but everyone likes fresh bread, right?
So the kingdom of God is not only like a scraggly bush, but it is also like a clueless farmer. Ready to join up yet?
This. Does not. Make sense.
Why isn't the kingdom of God like David's kingdom, with its standing army and its victories in battle and its heroic leader? Why isn't the kingdom of God like the temple, the huge stone edifice in Jerusalem to which Judeans flocked in order to enact atonement or to mark the turning of the year or to hear the high priest speak with God's voice. Those are kingdoms that make sense. Those are, I think, what people were expecting when Jesus came around.
Why isn't the kingdom of God a place that makes sense? I realized that if the kingdom of God made sense, it would be just like the world I live in now. The winners win and the losers lose. The lucky flourish and the unlucky beg and sleep on benches in the park. Some people get diseases and die young. There are escalating wars and swelling debts everywhere you look. Its a place with a lot of injustice, and a lot of grief, and a lot of things I wish were different.
The world as it is now makes the kind of sense that we expect.
The kingdom of God makes another kind of sense – and it is calling out to us.
I'll tell you a bit of nonsense, some nonsense that we've all heard before, and then I'll be finished for now. I hope I haven't taxed your hospitality too much.
A long time ago in the middle east there was this guy. When he was born some people thought he was important, and while outsiders were excited, the people in power were more interested in killing him. As this little guy grew up he showed a talent for reading and public speaking. He gathered a little group of unmarried men and women, some children, a tax collector or prostitute here and there, and this band of losers called him “teacher”. Some of them called him “the son of God”. The really crazy ones even called him “God”.
As he traveled around with this band he grew in popularity. People came out in droves to listen to what he had to say – even though, a lot of the time, it didn't make a lot of sense to them then. But all this popularity got him into trouble, and so he was arrested on trumped up charges. And all of his friends and followers freaked out and ran away to hide. They pretended the didn't know him.
He died on a cross alone.
And he went into the earth like a little seed, and slept for a short time in the utter darkness, and then, a small yellowish-green shoot came up, and caught the sunlight, and drank the rain, and spread deep roots, and it began to grow. It grew far larger than plants of its kind ever grow, so huge that it surprised everyone. No one could chop it down, it just kept growing and growing and growing, its branches so thick, its roots so deep. It didn't make any sense at all.
This flimsy plant has grown so huge, so broad, so tall, that all of us, each and every one, can find a welcoming home in its shade. There is room for everyone here, and it does not make sense, and it is true, because here we are together.
And look! We don't know why, but the seeds we sow bear fruit of their own. I know of one handfull of seeds that was sown here, so to speak, in this fertile ground, and has since grown, and continues to grow.
Praise God for grace we do not understand. Amen?