Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 14, 2015
Preacher: The Rev. Bret B. Hays
When I was in seminary, I was known for many things, one of the most benign of which was Moxie, the soda. I would always bring some with me whenever I came back from visiting my parents, who lived in Connecticut at the time. I introduced my friends to the beverage, claiming it had psychoactive properties. I told them about how I wrote my papers. Get all my notes and sources organized, then procrastinate until the night before the paper is due. Then, I told them, I would drink a whole bottle of Moxie and black out. Then I’d wake up the next morning on the floor of my dorm room, and the paper would be done. That’s not a true story, but I really did tell it, as a joke. I wasn’t thinking of the fact that God can actually work that way in the world, and in this way God accomplishes greater things than seminary papers.
One of the requests for sermon topics was the background and the context of the Gospels. We don’t know a lot about the origins Mark’s Gospel, but we do know it was the first of the four canonical Gospels to be written, a time when the energy and zeal of the Christian movement was fresh. While the Gospels were written in part to preserve the memories of the eyewitness disciples of Jesus, the first generation of Christians that was starting to die out, Mark is still early enough to weave a diverse treasury of stories and recollections into a compelling narrative, a story with propulsive urgency, fearless provocation, and a sense that the spiritual world is not merely near, but in constant interaction with the material world. Mark’s Gospel is the smallest, but it packs a wallop, just like these two parables, just like a mustard seed, just like a bottle of Moxie. In both these parables, Jesus uses the ways of nature as a metaphor for the ways of God.
First, Jesus talks about a man who scatters seed, rather than planting it. The language suggests the man might not even recognize the seed for what it is; the man might even think he is littering. And then he would sleep and rise, and then notice that precious food had grown up around him. He wouldn’t feel like he had done any work. But he recognizes the value of the product that has grown up without his intention, or understanding, or even his attention, and he harvests just the same as a competent farmer would.
Then Jesus talks about a specific kind of seed, a mustard seed, a tiny speck, easy to overlook, that grows like a weed, surpassing any expectations as it bursts from the ground and thrives, not only for itself, but also to give a home to other beings, birds that would have eaten the seed if they had had the chance.
These brief parables might well express the feeling among the earliest Christians of astonishing, yet inevitable, growth of their movement, both in attracting new members and in maturing into a stable, sustainable community that could do great works of mercy for both insiders and outsiders. It might have felt like the Holy Spirit was making all the progress for the Church, and the Christians only had to welcome the new families she brought into the community. Jesus also emphasized that God’s will was being done not only with no help from human beings, but also largely outside our knowledge. We might find this message strange. Aren’t we supposed to do something? Jesus did talk about how his followers are supposed to live their lives, but right now he is focusing on what God is doing, and it’s a relief to be reminded that God doesn’t need our help to bless the world with life and growth and grace.
Another thing I was asked to talk about in a sermon was whether, or how, the Gospels could be read as political documents. It depends on what you mean by political. I don’t think any of the Gospels were written with the intent of swaying popular political opinion, but they definitely have political aspects and implications. This passage isn’t a bad place to start talking about the political nature of the Gospel. Here Jesus is talking about God actively changing the world, no matter what human beings do, or don’t do, know, or don’t know. Even though he didn’t talk about specific political goals, the implications of a message of divine intervention are profound. This community which was growing out of Judaism would have shared the Jewish love of, and longing for, justice, freedom, and peace. The news that God is beginning to do a new thing, that God is bringing this new reality into the world, could only bring great joy and encouragement.
The Gospel does exactly the same thing for us, and just as it did for ancient Christians, it gives us a new understanding of ourselves and our role in the world. Knowing who God is, and that God is blessing the world, gives us purpose and direction, as well as hope, confidence, boldness, maybe even moxie. By living in tune with the ways of God, so closely in tune that they become our nature, the world will receive through us the things it needs, sustenance and peace, while we don’t feel like we have been working. The result of living our faith in this zealous spirit could be labeled “political,” but I think that’s too limited a word; “world-changing” feels more appropriate
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