Sermon by Rev. Canon Patrick P. Augustine, D.Min., Rector on Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 14, 2009, at Christ Episcopal Church, La Crosse


Mark 4: 26-34
Theologian Sallie McFaque, in her work Speaking in Parables summed up the essence and expertise of Jesus as a parable-teller when she said: “We are not told about the graciousness of God in a parable, but are shown a situation from ordinary life which has been revolutionized by grace.” Using these “riddles of the kingdom” to instruct—or to disturb—and always to evoke a faith response, Jesus disclosed “kingdom truth” to whoever received it.# In our gospel reading we have two such parables on “Kingdom seeds.”
The farmers in the crowd heard Jesus saying:
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how (Mark 4: 26).
These Palestinian farmers knew how difficult it was to grow any good crop, let alone to have seeds growing by themselves. Lack of rain, land infested with swarms of insects, rocks and stones presented major challenges to grow crops. An old Arabic tale illustrates the point:
When Allah was creating the world, he entrusted all the stones to two angels, giving each a bagful. As the angels were flying over Palestine, one of the bags broke open, and half the stones intended for the whole world spilled onto the small area.
The purpose of these parables was not to offer tips for improved agribusiness. Jesus is relating the truth about the Kingdom of God to his disciples. These are his followers who will have a challenging job to grow the seeds of the good news of the gospel. The story is warning against looking down on the small beginnings of the great work God was to do in Jesus’ Galilean ministry. It can function as a warning, too, against looking down on the small beginnings -- a moment of vocation, two or three people meeting to pray and plan – that often, today, herald the start of some great new initiative that God has in mind.
Yesterday I was reading the interview of the Bishop of Peshawar in the Church Times. Bishop Rumalshah said:

“We are 100,000 CHRISTIANS living in the most dangerous part of the world in the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. In this volatile setting, Christians — 85 per cent of whom work in menial jobs --- provide care for all in need. We are trying to recreate God’s love as we have experienced it in Jesus Christ, and those people of God are the Taliban and al-Qaeda and Christians, whoever they are. This is our heritage through mission, and it is our privilege. Our three or four health centers are services in diakonia.

He spoke of the work of six Lutheran women in a hall that they share with an al-Qaeda camp. They are working in an area where even the bravest of the brave would shudder to go. We clean the wounds of the children, and that gives us the right to be of service there.

Yet the Church faces great problems: Legal discrimination against me on the basis of my religion — that I cannot tolerate. . . That is a crime against humanity, and that is what is being done to us. We are in the impossible situation of a slow death, a slow suffocation by prejudice, despite all our service. It is the challenge of our times. How do we co-exist in a situation of majority Islam? Our destiny is to exist as a Church and a people of God to encourage reconciled relationships. My challenge is that our destiny is to embrace the enemy — to smell the sweat of the enemy — and that is why God has supported us and places us there. We have not gone underground, and I am proud of that.”
Jesus said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground ((Mark 4: 30, 31).
Mustard seeds grow into something like a shrub. But then this story gets even more absurd, because this shrub-weed takes off, and grows, and grows and, like in the Jack and the Beanstalk story, becomes a tree – which Jesus describes as the greatest of all plants, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
There was the zinger that Jesus slid in – the low growing shrub that became a high-growing tree with such large branches that even the birds can nest in it – this is no random description. This is Ezekiel’s tree – the tree pictured by the prophet as a symbol of the nation of Israel, planted and tended by God: (Ezekiel 17)
22 Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out…
23 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.
24 All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the LORD.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree…;
I the LORD have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
Here is the point: Jesus has been out with Galilean peasantry; people of low social status. But looks can be deceiving. Behind these rag-tag faces, God is at work. The mustard plant may look like a shrub-weed in the beginning, but it’s not over ’till it’s over. This little low-lying bush has been purposefully planted – it’s not a volunteer – there has been a gardener at work here. It is going to become a huge tree, big enough for the birds to make their homes.
Now get this: Jesus is not saying only that this small group of marginalized people will win the “Israel’s Got Talent” show, although that would be amazing, Jesus is saying something even greater. This group is not just going to be any big tree – this is THE tree! Ezekiel’s tree! This is the fulfillment of God’s plan for the nation of Israel!
Despite appearances, the secret is that God is at work in that dirt, and what is growing will become magnificent. It may be easy to despise what we see with our eyes today, but do not be deceived, God is at work. There are several different levels on which we can see this truth, from the global and historical to the modern world and even in our own personal lives.
First globally, the Good News of the Kingdom of God that started in such a small, insignificant way has been quietly having its effect in this world. Through the example of the work of a small Christian community in the heart of Al Qaeda camps in the Northwest Frontiers of Pakistan; through the ministry of the Sisters of Charity in the gutters of Calcutta. And, locally, through the dedication of our own parishioners who are working with the Salvation Army in the summer “Feed the Kids” program; and through the ministry of Place of Grace. There are programs for education and health care, and countless ways in which the lives of millions of people are better off throughout the world now because of the work and ministry of the disciples of Jesus Christ.
Jesus is saying to his church this morning: Remember who your God is and what he has promised. Realize that this small beginning is the start of God’s intended kingdom revolutionized by the grace of God and the kingdom that will eventually offer shade to the whole world.

(I have borrowed thoughts from several books and other preachers)
Tom Wright, Mark for Every one
Lamar Williamson, Jr., Interpretation, Mark
Klyne Snodgrass, Stories with Intent
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man
Synthesis June 15, 1997
Llyod J. Ogilvie, The Communicator’s Comentary, Mark
R. Kent Hughes, Mark Volume One

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