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Eden Evangelical Lutheran Church ~ Munising, Michigan

Power Packed Parable - REMIX - 06/13/2021

Jesus 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 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.

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.

Secrecy is an important theme in the Gospel of Mark. One could argue Jesus was being cryptic in his telling of these parables. The Jewish citizen and the Roman solider would probably hear them in different ways. Jesus worked tirelessly with his called disciples to deepen their understanding in his private time with them. He didn’t really act like he was trying to keep his teachings secret though.

If Jesus wanted to remain secret, he wouldn’t have gone on a preaching tour, he would have stayed home. He wouldn’t have called poor and naked fishermen, publicly 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, and even more so, 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 worshipping only God and loving neighbor.

One commentary 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 fitting example of Jesus’ ability to help us look into those carnival mirrors and begin to understand what we are seeing.

When the parable of the mustard seed 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 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.

This parable tells us, quite plainly, whether Jew or gentile, first century or 21st century, in the Kingdom of God we should expect to see small, ordinary, unassuming 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. And what does that say about the kingdom of God … how we are cared for… how it comes to us even in our tastebuds and desire to feel good?

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.

I think about the cheery little kindness rocks I spied as I hiked Pictured Rocks on Memorial Day … tiny, encouraging little gifts for strangers that inspire photography and appreciation for this beautiful creation God has made for us … and us for it.

Or look at the cool crosswalk stencils Vicki and Vinny have painted around town. It’s such a simple idea and contains so much brightness, beauty and reveals their deep love for this community.

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. It’s not that far off from the invasive mustard plants we deal with, though our variety doesn’t typically grow large enough to provide home space to birds.

The point is, this parable offers up a ridiculously goofy, week-loving ideas. It would be like me going to my neighbor Margaret and her beautiful front lawn, where she diligently roots our all the dandelions.

“Hello, Margaret,” I’d say. “The kingdom of God is like this dandelion gone to seed. They are small seeds indeed, with the ability to cover your whole lawn with leggy yellow flowers in one season! That’s how fast the kingdom of God covers your whole life!”

Margaret would probably see the kingdom of God in that carnival glass. She’d also probably laugh at me while she bent down to root that dandelion out anyway.

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 mustard seed, he says. It’s not the perfected, upgraded and genetically modified soybean or corn seed farmers must use 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 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 or the lofty branches of Ezekiel’s noble cedar.

Rather, it is small and powerful. It is like the examples set by followers of Jesus. It demonstrates what it means to be loving and righteous and Christian in this world. It’s an ordinary way for us children of God, and an incredibly powerful example for all those we influence, knowingly and unknowingly.

The mustard seed inspires us to see differently the old pier pylons and common slabs of sandstone. To see how they are combined with ordinary bread and wine and water to create our table and font. Places where we powerfully receive God’s Holy Spirit into our lives. All these are common and often unassuming materials – that old lumber and familiar sandstone, the ordinary people who gather around them – all planted here to powerfully transform lives – in small ways

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 God’s power and the kingdom we’re already standing in. 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 ~ contact@edenonthebay.org

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