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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Pentecost 6/14/2015

I’m going to tell you a secret. That’s a good way to start a sermon isn’t it, because if you weren’t paying attention before, you’re paying attention now; you want to know what the secret is. We like secrets even if we live in a world where it’s harder to have them with so much more information being out there, with things said and done in private that become public knowledge, with the various forms of social media and other online activities making privacy and secrecy something of an illusion. Despite all that, we all still do have secrets, perhaps things known only to family and close friends, but also things, secrets, only we ourselves know and while there might be reasons for those things to be revealed, there are probably better reasons for keeping them secret; not everyone needs to know. Now you’re probably not paying attention anymore because you’re thinking about your own secrets that not everyone needs to know.

In this year B of the lectionary during which Mark’s gospel is featured we haven’t heard from Mark for awhile, but today we do and we will for the next couple of months. With that being the case, before getting into the secret of today’s gospel reading, it’s good to be reminded that Jesus’ first words in Mark were “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near.” The kingdom of God has come near.

Mark is very much about the kingdom of God but it’s a term that always needs clarification because when we hear it, it’s hard not to think about it being a place, perhaps the place we go when we die; that tends to be the default setting in our brain when we hear “kingdom of God.” But the kingdom of God is not a place. It’s a term used to refer to the reality of God’s presence and power in the world and in the lives of God’s people. In the person of Jesus, the kingdom of God took on a more immediate dimension as in and through him the many powers of this world that oppose God’s presence and will were directly and dramatically challenged.

And yet…when Jesus talked about the kingdom of God there was always an element of hiddenness, an element of secrecy about it and today’s gospel reading is a good example of that. What we had were two very short parables. The first one began with “The kingdom of God is as if,” and then Jesus told the Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly. Then you get, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God” and Jesus told the parable of the Mustard Seed. After that it says, “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables.”

He did not speak to them except in parables; by their nature, parables have an element of secrecy about them. Explanations can be suggested, they’ve always been suggested, but a parable is intended to remain unsettled. Part of the intent is to disturb the listener a little bit, to provoke thought and imagination, but not necessarily to have the listener “figure it out.” The fact that Jesus uses parables to talk about the kingdom of God indicates that this kingdom, by nature, has an element of mystery about it, that it is something that can’t be approached straight on but only through images and glimpses such as those provided in parables. As inquiring people we probe for answers, we want to “figure it out,” but we perhaps come closer to the reality of the kingdom of God when we become more comfortable with secrets not revealed.

So, having said all that, now let’s see if we can figure out these two short parables!! I said I was going to tell you a secret! If I just leave the parables in the realm of mystery the sermon is over, right? I have to say more, perhaps not to figure them out but maybe to see what secrets we can find.

The first of the two has traditionally been known as “The Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly” which immediately raises the idea of secrecy and mystery. On the surface it’s pretty simple: seed is scattered, the one who scatters goes on with life and…lo and behold, the seed grows. When the grain that’s produced is ripe the farmer moves in for the harvest.

Central to the parable is the fact that the seed grows despite the fact that the farmer doesn’t know how or why and despite the fact that the farmer doesn’t do anything except “sleep and rise, night and day.” These days of course it’s different; farmers and gardeners know much more and are much more active in managing the growth of their crops. At that time though, it was more about just waiting for the process to unfold. There was more of a sense of growth being caused by the creative power of God and with that, more of a sense of secrecy.

We’re dealing with a parable though and remember it started with, “The kingdom of God is as if…” so, lest we get distracted from that, this is kingdom talk it’s not about ancient farming techniques. Staying focused on the kingdom, what this suggests is that claims about the kingdom of God have always been problematic. I tell you that it’s not a place but that it has to do with God’s presence and power in the world and cynically any of us might think, “That sounds great, but show me some evidence of God’s presence and power in the world because I sure don’t see much; quite the contrary in many cases.” From this parable you get the idea that people in Jesus’ time may have had the same kind of response when he talked about the kingdom: Where’s the evidence?

This parable responds to that question with encouragement to be patient; in time, like the seed, the kingdom will emerge. It’s a reminder that there is an element of mystery and secrecy about the kingdom which means, despite the lack of evidence, we can trust that it will come. That means we can get on with life because in ways that we may not understand, working through us and in other ways, God will make it happen.

With this parable and really with any parable, it’s important not to try and make it answer questions that aren’t being posed. There is an interpretive danger in wanting to make parables full blown theologies when by definition their scope is limited. The parable of the seed growing secretly encourages trust that God will bring in the kingdom; it encourages patience. However, despite the farmer’s apparent lack of direct activity in helping to bring about the growth of the seed, the parable is not a call to do nothing. That’s an example of trying to make a parable address a question that isn’t being posed.

The Seed Growing Secretly is about the secret of the kingdom and trusting that the secret will be revealed. The Mustard Seed parable then affirms the fact that the secret will be revealed and it will be revealed in a big way just like the tiny mustard seed becomes the greatest of all shrubs. Looking at the size of the seed you wouldn’t think it could happen, there’s no evidence that great growth is possible. Again, it’s a call for trust in the process.

All of which provides some explanation but I haven’t exactly revealed the secret of the kingdom of God. The kingdom remains largely hidden but the message is that it will be made known so these little parables provide encouragement especially for those times when evidence is lacking. That seems to be what we’re supposed to take away from this but then we’re teased and thrown off a little by the last verse: “He did not speak to them except in parables, but…he explained everything in private to his disciples.” After I preach about how we perhaps come closer to the kingdom of God when we live with secrets not revealed, we get this indication that Jesus did explain things, at least to a few people, his disciples. It sounds like they knew the secret.

You kind of wish that last verse wasn’t there, because it leaves you wanting to know what Jesus told the disciples; it keeps you off balance, but maybe that’s what it’s supposed to do. But you know what? They must have been really good at keeping secrets, because here we are, still trying to figure it out.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

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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welcomes me, and whoever
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