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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost - June 18, 2006

Jesus spoke in parables.  That was his primary mode of teaching.  Some of them we like, The Good Samaritan, The Prodigal Son; they’re classics to the point where even people who know very little about the Bible are familiar with them and familiar with the messages of love thy neighbor and unconditional forgiveness that they convey.  Other parables of Jesus are much less well known, their messages less clear, sometimes even disturbing.  

The two short seed parables in today’s lesson would probably fall somewhere in between.  The parable of the mustard seed is quite familiar, the parable of the seed growing secretly, a bit less familiar; but, while it’s always a bit risky to state with certainty what Jesus meant a parable to say, I think both of these are intended to convey a message of hope.

We have not had readings from Mark for awhile now, but a quick review of the first three chapters has Jesus performing a number of healings, healings which are received very well by some, but very quickly opponents also begin to show up, opponents who question what he is doing, when he is doing it, how he is doing it and who he is hanging around with.  Some people declare him to be the Holy one of God; others see him in league with the devil; quite a contrast. 

One can easily imagine those first disciples (who are called in chapter 3) and others who were amazed by what they saw Jesus do, wondering what was going on.  Why wasn’t everyone on board?  Shouldn’t the scribes and the Pharisees be impressed with Jesus?  Shouldn’t they see him as the Holy One of God?  After all they’re the religious experts; they should recognize the authority of Jesus.  If Jesus really had the authority he seemed to have, there shouldn’t be all this early opposition to him.  And, if Jesus was ushering in this Kingdom of God that he talked about, where was it?  On the surface everything seemed pretty much the same, people behaving in the usual ways, fighting about the usual things.  In light of all this one can imagine Jesus’ early supporters looking for some reassurance.

Jesus response was quite fascinating.  We might have expected more miraculous deeds.  Overwhelm them with so much power that all questions are eliminated.  But Jesus didn’t take that route.  Maybe we’d expect him to provide some kind of socio/political explanation about those raising questions, pointing out the fact that they’re just trying to preserve their own self interest, concerned about threats to the established order of things and their own place in that order.  Jesus didn’t take that route either, although plenty of biblical scholars and preachers have done so over the past 2000 years.

Jesus didn’t do either of those things.  Instead, he basically said, “Let me tell you a few stories.”  He started with the parable of the sower who scatters seeds so that some lands on the path, some lands on rocky soil, some on thorny soil, but some on good soil that produces a harvest that exceeds all expectations.  Then he told these other two seed parables, the first where someone scatters seed and then as the days go by he watches as a plant appears and grows, producing grain until it is finally ready for the harvest.  The one who scatters the seed doesn’t know how it happens; all he knows is that it does happen.  Then there is the mustard seed parable where a tiny, tiny, insignificant seed grows up and becomes a large shrub, large enough that its branches are suitable for birds to make their nests.

In telling these parables, Jesus didn’t really explain anything, he just invited his listeners to think about these images, images that invite trust and hope despite challenges and questions, images that provide encouragement despite what seem to be overwhelming odds.  Even more, it’s an invitation to imagine a world where God is the decisive agent, able to do surprising new things.  He didn’t offer close analysis, he told stories that encouraged imagination. 

I don’t really know what it was like in Jesus’ time, but such imagination is missing to a great extent in our world and in our faith.  The dominant view in our world is that things are pretty flat and predictable, that nothing really new is possible, that whatever we think of as new is actually just a reworking of that which is old, that which has already happened before.  We’re not encouraged to imagine anything different, to think that something really new could happen and if we do we’re probably encouraged to get real. 

Even in our faith we get sucked into this mindset.  We profess faith in God but it’s not really a God who we see as active and involved and doing new things in our lives.  God may have done amazing things a long time ago, but that doesn’t happen anymore.  We’re too sophisticated and rational and logical to expect much from God.  We claim the Bible as our sacred scripture but we mostly read it or hear it as ancient words saying old things to people of another time or, even worse, we read it as saying exactly the same old things to people today as if nothing has changed in 2000 years.  We can’t imagine it as a living word saying not old things, but new things to people of this time. 

Imagination is central to much of the Bible.  Many of the stories, much of the poetry of the Old Testament is an invitation to imagination.  It’s not a history book, it’s not a science book.  It’s a book, a collection of books about the presence of God in the world, active and making a difference in new ways. 

In the New Testament, in the stories about Jesus and the stories from Jesus, like these parables, the pattern continues.  These stories are about new gifts, new possibilities, a way out of no way.  The Bible has always spoken about new possibilities that offer more than that which is easily predictable or easily explained.  Jesus parables are full of surprises that upset the order of what is expected and predictable.  There are new gifts to be given.  But it takes imagination to perceive this.

The church and it’s preaching and teaching have frequently served to promote this lack of imagination, again largely by taking the imagination out of the Bible.  There’s a tendency to make the Bible a closed, settled book of answers, although even a casual reader of the Bible can’t help but notice that the text is open and unsettled, sometimes contradictory, always subject to questions.  The text, like the God portrayed in it, resists our efforts to settle everything and answer all the questions. 

This question of how we understand and interpret the Bible is at the center of every controversial issue the church faces.  In a way though, it’s kind of funny that many persist in shying away from reading the Bible with imagination, afraid to interpret it in new ways.  It’s kind of funny because, as I said, for the most part, Jesus didn’t do that.  If he didn’t do that, what makes us think we should?  Jesus accepted the Old Testament scriptures of his time but he consistently offered new interpretations of them.  Frequently he did it by telling stories, open ended stories that made people think about trust in things that they didn’t fully understand, to believe in a God who is active and present in their lives, whose steadfast love outlasts every circumstance that seems to threaten it, and who is always ready to give new gifts, surprising, abundant gifts of well being.

If it’s not oxymoronic to talk about faith and certainty in the same sentence, I would say that one thing I am certain about in my faith is that the God of the Bible, the God revealed in Jesus, the God we call Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the God I believe in is a God whose steadfast love outlasts every circumstance that seems to threaten it and who is always ready to give new, surprising, abundant gifts of well being. 

That’s what I can say with certainty; God’s love will see us through, and remember…that love is often made known through other people; we need to be conscious of ourselves and others as agents of God’s love.  God’s love will see us through; and new gifts will come to us, even out of what may seem like the most tragic of circumstances.  This certainty doesn’t come out of wishful thinking, but out of remembering God’s activity in the past, for Christians, especially as we remember Easter, the ultimate story of new gifts and new life when hope seemed to be gone.  We remember that story and imagine new possibilities.

          In his life and in his teaching, that is what Jesus invites us to imagine; that in him there is new creation as St. Paul says.  That’s our certainty.  There are other churches that will give you certain answers to all your questions because they’re pretty sure that they’ve got it all figured out.  Personally, I’ll go with the imagination of Jesus and the certainty that it invites.
 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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