Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Interim Pastor

Rev. Millie Myren, Support Minister

Morgan Park

 Baptist Church

11024 S. Bell Avenue 

Chicago, IL 60643


Sermon June 14, 2015

MARK 4:26-34

26He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth

Today we hear two parables of Jesus from the first gospel written, the Gospel of Mark. Parables, as we may know, are teachings from Jesus which try to illuminate the unknown by using something known. All of Jesus’ many parables teach about the realm of God; about who God is and how God works in our world.

Parables make up more than a third of Jesus’ recorded teachings. They are analogies – sometimes in the form of a short story – that attempt to explain the unexplainable. As the great Scottish Biblical scholar, William Barclay wrote: “A parable is an earthly story with a heavenly meaning.”

I think I hear someone asking: which Gospel contains the most parables? I’m glad someone asked that. Luke’s Gospel contains 24 parables. Matthew’s Gospel contains 23 parables and Mark’s Gospel contains 8 parables. Ten of Jesus’ parables are recounted in multiple gospels. John’s Gospel is unique in that it contains no parables.        

Let me add something about parables from the minister and spiritual writer, Frederick Buechner: “Jesus (often) speaks in parables, and though we have approached these parables reverentially all these many years and have heard them expounded as grave and reverent vehicles of holy truth, I suspect that many, if not all of the parables were originally not grave at all but were antic, comic, and often more than a little shocking.”

Sisters and brothers, Jesus was something of a country bumpkin. He was not an urban child – familiar with the nuances and sophistication of the city. In Mark’s Gospel Jesus goes up to the big city of Jerusalem just once in his entire life. He goes up to Jerusalem to be killed.

Rural life: farming, taking care of sheep, planting the seed, harvesting the grapes, working with wood; such were the dynamics of the world into which Jesus was born and the world in which he grew to adulthood. Jesus’ wisdom came not only from his sharing in divinity; his wisdom also came from how deeply he saw into things. He looked at everything and everyone with a way of seeing that escapes most of us.

But here’s the thing: the way Jesus saw into things – the way Jesus saw into people – is how he wants us to see. Jesus uses parables to trick us into seeing differently than we normally do. Jesus was a master of the parable.  

The truth, brothers and sisters, is that we normally see in a shallow way. We look at things and often only skim the surface. We look at the surface of our own Lake Michigan and fail to grasp the abundance of life swimming therein. We look at the surface of the ocean and imagine we’ve glimpsed all that is contained in its vastness. My beloved Beth and I can no longer look at the ocean without thinking of whales – ever since we sailed among the humpbacks off of Maui and listened to their songs.

We, humans, are, for the most part, surface skimmers. We don’t look deeply at things. We don’t look deeply at each other. We are content with surface appearances. And usually - that’s all right. We don’t need to go deep into everything. Who has the time or energy to become an expert on everything and everyone? That’s what eternity is for!

And the truth, brothers and sisters, as I’ve mentioned more than once, the truth is that the deeper we go into anything, the more complicated and complex it becomes. Yet Jesus’ parables are a kind of shortcut into the depths of reality and the depths of the divine.

As Professor Marcus Borg argues in Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: “The appeal (of the parables) is not to the will – not ‘Do this’ – but rather ‘Consider seeing it this way’ … The parables do not appeal to divine authority … rather their authority rests in themselves – that is, in their ability to involve and affect the imagination. (They invite us into a deeper reality.)

“Jesus used parables to invite his hearers to see in a radically new way. The appeal is to the imagination, to that place within us in which resides our images of reality and our images of life itself.”

In other words, sisters and brothers, the parables of Jesus are meant to transform the way we see things. Again from Borg: “As a teacher of wisdom, Jesus was not primarily a teacher of information (what to believe) or morals (how to behave), but a teacher of a path of transformation.”

Wait - I think I hear another question – a path of transformation from what to what? I’m glad someone asked that: A path of transformation from the wisdom of the world to the wisdom of a life centered in God. And, you may well ask, what is the wisdom of the world? The wisdom of the world is the wisdom that undergirds a life that is self-preoccupied.

Brothers and sisters, I believe the most prevalent and damaging addiction in our world is the addiction of self-preoccupation. This is the addiction fueling the many millions of so-called “selfies” – photos of one’s self – that are taken each and every day. Now, please understand, I’m not arguing against taking “selfies.” But look deeper into this world-wide phenomenon! Do I really need to post on “Facebook” what I had for lunch?

I believe self-preoccupation lies behind many of our world’s ills. Self-preoccupation is an all-pervasive social norm. Self-preoccupation is busily at work when I’m constantly comparing myself to others – to see how I measure up. Self-preoccupation is off and running when I believe I must have an opinion – and often a strong opinion – about whatever is happening around us.

The Affordable Care Act – I have to be either strongly for it or strongly against it. Our policies in Iraq – I need to have better ideas about what the U.S. should be doing there than our leaders. Global warming – I and I alone know the real truth and I’ll be glad to dazzle you with that truth even if you don’t ask!   

And even if I don’t know that much about something – self-preoccupation demands I have a strong opinion about it anyway. Self-preoccupation pushes me to take a stand on one side or the other of every issue.

Want to know what the Black Hawks need to do to win the Stanley Cup Monday evening – I’m your man! Want to know how the coaches of the Cavaliers and the Warriors are faring in the NBA Finals – just ask me! Is American Pharoah as good a race horse as Secretariat – I have the inside scoop! Get the idea?

Self-preoccupation is also being generated when I constantly criticize this, that and the other! As if God Almighty has given me the job of telling everyone what they’re doing wrong. Want to know what the president is doing wrong, what the governor is doing wrong, what the mayor is doing wrong, what the pastor is doing wrong – just ask me and I’ll give you an earful! Good Lord, I don’t know how the world has gotten along for so long without me!             

Yes, Jesus was a country bumpkin. Galilee was where he felt at home – the boondocks of Palestine. He couldn’t claim any college degrees. He was not possessed by the inflated egos and the academic arrogance infecting so many of the highly educated. No, he knew about simple things but he knew about simple things in an incredibly deep way. And he wants us to know about simple things in deep ways.

Basically, in the parables, Jesus is teaching us how the old world is vanishing and a new world is being born. How is this happening? It’s happening without our knowledge. It’s happening like seed sprouting in the ground. God is deeply involved – deeply engaged in the slow but inevitable process of bringing a new and better world to completion. The parables teach us this again and again – often with a healthy dash of humor.

Look at the parable of the mustard seed – which we just heard. This mustard plant is not necessarily what we imagine it to be. The mustard plant Jesus is talking about is the black mustard plant – which was a noxious and fast-spreading weed. So Jesus is telling us – the kingdom of God is like a weed – a weed that will overrun your fields if you let it. It’s like kudzu in the south. So what are we to make of this parable once we know this? It’s not so easy to understand!

Let me end with something from Buechner: “(Our world) is a world of magic and mystery, of deep darkness and flickering starlight. It is a world where terrible things happen and wonderful things too. It is a world where goodness is pitted against evil, love against hate, order against chaos, in a great struggle where often it is hard to be sure who belongs to which side because appearances are endlessly deceptive.

“Yet for all its confusion and wildness, it is a world where the battle goes ultimately to the good, who (will) live happily ever after, and where in the long run everybody, good and evil alike, becomes known by his or her true name … That is the fairy tale of the Gospel, with, of course, one crucial difference from all other fairy tales  … the claim (of the Gospel fairy tale) is that it is true (and will, one day, come to pass.)”

Brothers and sisters, I stake my life on the incredible fairy tale of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I pray you do as well! Amen!