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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Power Packed Parable - 06/17/2018

Jesus really chose well when he decided to make the parable one of his primary teaching tools. The Gospel of Mark doesn’t use parables as much as it’s sibling gospels, Matthew and Luke, but it’s still seems clear that Jesus used them pretty consistently. Even though they aren’t as numerous in this gospel, our reading today tells us there were more. “With many such parables he spoke the word to them …” It was a foundational part of Jesus’ teaching method.

I think it’s brilliant the way these stories draw someone in the first time  – stories often as little as a mustard seed, as stories go. And then every time that person hears it again, it’s quite possible to hear something new … you can dig a little deeper and find yet more truth … you can look at it from a new angle or perspective and get that unexpected and cool “Ah-ha moment.”

So briefly, let’s just say something about what a parable is, first by what it really isn’t. A parable really isn’t a clandestine language. It’s true that the people Jesus was talking to probably heard his parables and drew parallels between them and their own lives, their own oppressors, those they oppressed, their own experiences of God. That is what stories often do to us all when we hear them, after all. God created us to hear and tell stories in ways that help us connect and learn. That’s one reason these sacred scriptures of ours remain relevant through the ages.

Another way Mark shows us parables are not some secret language designed to inform the Jewish seeker without tipping off the Roman soldier standing next to him, is that Jesus didn’t act like he was trying to be secret. If he wanted to remain secret, Jesus wouldn’t have gone on a preaching tour, he would have stayed home.  He wouldn’t have called poor and naked fishermen, publically-despised tax collectors and women as his disciples. If he wanted to stay under the radar, he wouldn’t have healed the man with a withered hand on the Sabbath, in the synagogue and right in front of the Pharisees.

In fact, Jesus’ actions and his words – even just up to chapter four where we are today – are bold, public, radical and a host of other words you might think of as opposite of secret. So if Jesus isn’t using parables to communicate with us secretly, what is he doing with them?

It is about communication, but even more so, I suggest it is about teaching us to see differently. It’s about what we see when we look out into the world from these bodies God has breathed life into. Through these parables, Jesus seeks to prime us to start seeing things in a new, God-guided way. And it is a way of seeing that differs from the way the world teaches us to see … especially when it comes to matters of loving God and loving neighbor.

One comment I read compared it to looking into funny mirrors at a carnival. The parables show us a picture of the Kingdom of God that might make us feel like we’re looking into mirrors that wildly distort reality.

The parable of the Mustard Seed we have today is a really great example of Jesus’ ability to help us look into those carnival mirrors and begin to understand what we are seeing.

When the story first draws someone in, it may do so based on the amazing reality – when you really stop to think of it – of a small seed’s ability to transform the space around it. The seed in Mark’s parables, we come to realize as we first begin to hear them, represents God’s Word.  

Jesus is teaching us to see God’s Word coming into the world like this very small seed. What I like about the mustard seed is that it’s a perfect little orb and it’s got a perfectly smooth and very hard outer layer that protects it. Left right here and kept dry and cool, it might lay dormant and unchanged for years – waiting for a place to take root and grow.

Planted and watered, it miraculously transforms into a shrub and can even grow big enough that it provides shade and a safe place for other creatures. 

So this parable tells us, in the Kingdom of God we should expect to see small things that pack a powerful punch.

And even on that first pass through this story someone might take the parable a little farther and think of how the word of God like the mustard seed entices our taste buds when we put it on things like a Chicago-style hotdog. Or how it has medicinal benefits – it holds antiseptic properties, apparently it is good for hair growth! It can be used as a stimulant in a foot bath or prepared to treat headaches.

That would be enough to take in and consider on a first serious pass through this parable. It would be plenty to draw parallels between the parable and our lives, what oppresses us, those we oppress, our own experiences of God.

Already what was initially too distorted to make sense of in the carnival mirrors begins to make sense. We can start to see instances of the Kingdom of God like a mustard seed when we look into the world.

This father’s day I think of the very small seeds my own father sowed. For instance, through all if his struggles and demons, he remained someone who loved being part of a faith community. His small-as-a-mustard-seed example of attending worship that he showed me when I was very young played into my own call to ministry in very big ways.

Or I think of the mustard-seed like act of giving today to the 100-Good Men campaign – small gifts of ordinary dollars and maybe some loose change with the potential of doing something big about domestic violence.

It doesn’t end with that first pass through that parable though, or it doesn’t have to. As we dig into it throughout our scripture-studying lives, we might come to realize this parable is actually a joke.

Jesus is being clever and probably telling the parable with a mischievous little grin on his face.

Because the grand and miraculous mustard shrub is a weed. It would have grown everywhere in the place Jesus lived – it still does today, in fact. Using the mustard seed as the center of this parable is a lot like us creating a parable about the magnificence and wonder of the horsetail grass that keeps trying to take over our circle garden out front – about how that grass helps us see the Kingdom of God in its ability to withstand the fiercest weeding and thickest layers of mulch. How it can grow so densely and spread so quickly from one little patch that it provides shelter and safety for some of God’s treasured creations … like slugs and earthworms.

It is in that Spirit that Jesus crafts the parable of the mustard seed. The seed God sows – the Word God sows – is more like this, he says.. It’s not the perfected, upgraded and genetically modified soybean or corn seed farmers are forced to use in many cases these days. It’s not even the most precious seeds of antique garden flowers or heirloom vegetables the Smithsonian Institute helps protect and preserve.

No. Instead, to show us how to recognize these glimpses of the Kingdom of God come near right now, Jesus shows us the seed or the Word sown as a small thing. A thing that is quite common, even a little invasive in some places. It’s not what the world might deem significant or of value. It is not all-that grand looking in a world where our eyes are often drawn to the enormous eagles’ nest high and untouchable in the widest branches of an ancient white pine.

Rather, it is small and powerful. It is like the examples set by fathers and grandfathers, uncles and step-fathers, coaches and other caring men of what it means to be loving and righteous in this world. It’s an ordinary way for man of God, but an incredibly powerful example for the children he influences.

It is the act of taking the discarded pylons of long-gone piers out of the bay, and pieces of common sandstone to make a table and a font where we physically receive God into our lives, where we pray that God find ways to work through us for the benefit of creation. They are common and often forgotten materials – this old lumber and familiar sandstone – planted here to powerfully transform lives.

The deeper we go into these parables, the more we find Jesus helping us to look into those carnival mirrors and see past the distortion, past the sight the world has given us, and into the world Jesus has given us. A world that changes the way we understand what seems small or ordinary or even unwanted and gives us glimpses of the power and potential within. Amen.

Pastor Ann Gonyea

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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising Michigan ~ An ELCA, Northern Great Lakes Synod Congregation
P.O. Box 360 ~ 1150 West M-28 ~ Munising, MI 49862 ~ 1-906-387-2520 ~

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