A sermon preached on June 13th, 2021 based upon Mark 4:26 – 32 entitled, “Catching a Glimpse of the Kingdom of God in Ordinary Places.”
At the center of Jesus’ teaching was something he called the “Kingdom of God” – saying it was close at hand. As central as the Kingdom of God was to his message, it is striking that he never gave a nice, concise definition of exactly what he meant by it. It sounds like a place – a special community of people who are all doing God’s will together. Instead of offering us a definition, Jesus used parables to talk about the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and the parables give you the impression that it’s not so much a place – at least a place in this world – as it is an experience. It’s something we can catch a glimpse of if we can manage to look at life in a different way than we normally do.
Our Gospel reading this morning includes two such parables of Jesus.
As is the case with all parables, these two take place in ordinary settings – in this case from agricultural life – suggesting that this mystery we call the Kingdom of God is right here in the midst of ordinary life, if only we have the eyes to see it.
So listen now as I read from the Gospel of Mark in the 4th chapter beginning with the 24th verse. Listen for the surprising word of the Lord.
(Jesus) also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
Let me pause simply to note that whoever the gardener in the parable doesn’t do very much. He scatters the seed, and then waits for the harvest. Typically, a gardener does a lot weeding and watering and such, but not apparently this one. Clearly, he isn’t running the show.
The mystery of the move from seed to harvest takes place hidden from sight down in the soil – it takes place while the gardener is sleeping. Apparently, when it comes to the Kingdom of God the part we play is quite limited.
It’s God’s doing, really – a mysterious gift of some sort.
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet 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.” (Mark 4:26-32)
We’ve often heard Jesus speak about mustard seeds, so this is probably familiar. But one thing we may have overlooked is the fact that in those days people didn’t generally plant mustard seeds, because the shrub that came forth from them was essentially a weed that could take up space meant for other seeds.
So that’s odd.
And then there’s the part about all those birds.
In another parable Jesus told shortly before these two, a Sower scatters seeds and the seeds that don’t get lodged deep enough in the soil, at which point these nasty birds fly down and gobble them up. This is the reason farmers put up scare-crows – to keep these troublesome birds away.
So, in this parable there are two generally unwelcome things for a gardener – an overgrowing mustard seed shrub and a big flock of birds – who together somehow express something in which Jesus invites us to catch a glimpse of the kingdom of God.
Jesus told lots of parables, and only one took place in what we might think of as a “holy” place – that being a temple. As I mentioned before, the rest – these two included – occur in very ordinary settings with things happening that would be utterly familiar and commonplace to Jesus’ listeners.
This general observation is important to note, because at the very least it suggests that if we’re looking for this mystery referred to as the Kingdom of God we would do well to look in very ordinary places, as opposed to some place we might think of as “holy.”
Several years ago, Tom Miceli invited me to play on an old guy softball team he manages. I have a modest amount of athletic ability as evidenced by my offspring Bobby and enjoyed playing softball when I was younger, and realizing I needed more fun in my life, not to mention exercise, I took Tom up on the invitation.
I did so, however, with some degree of trepidation.
Signing on to play on the team took me out of my comfort zone.
There are a variety of ways I could talk about my trepidation.
First off, though my Sunday morning presentation might suggest otherwise, I am actually by nature rather shy, and this team had been around for a while so most of the guys on the team had already bonded. Going into a group of people where everybody knows each other and I’m the new person isn’t easy for me. I worried whether I would fit in.
Since the founding members of the team had been primarily of Italian-American, they had – with intentional humorous self-mockery — adopted the name “Stallions” for the team – as in “Italian Stallions.” It’s a joke because the name suggests the team is made up of a bunch of studs, when in fact the team has a long history of coming in last place.
Nonetheless, I don’t come from Italian heritage.
Then there was the whole peculiar business of my being a pastor, which in and of itself has a way of setting me apart — in some ways valid — but in other ways something of a problem because people tend to assume all kinds of things regarding pastors that aren’t necessarily true, for instance, that profane language (of which there is plenty on a men’s softball team) causes a pastor to get all bent out of joint. As far as I can tell, the majority of my teammates don’t go to church, and those who do, probably attend a quite different kind of church from the one I pastor.
For a while I tried to keep the fact that I am a pastor a secret between Tom and myself, but these things have a way of getting out over time, leading a couple of my teammates to feel obliged to apologize to me every time they would let rip some curse words.
Thankfully though, before long my teammates got past their habit of apologizing.
Beyond the pastor thing, there is also the fact that I am aware that I am not your typical older American male, by which I mean I’m what you might call “touchy-feely” — an inadequate, shorthand expression that’s not exactly on the mark but gets the point across – that point being I am generally of the opinion that men should allow themselves to be more vulnerable – more expressive of their emotional life, their insecurities and such – than masculine stereotypes tend to allow.
And as far as I could see,“touchy-feely” isn’t an expression you would ever use for my teammates.
Life being what it is I am sure that all of the men on the team have their own particular heavy burdens they carry – burdens of which I haven’t a clue because such things aren’t talked about at the games. Any touchy-feely fantasy I might have of teammates sitting around sharing such things wasn’t going to happen.
And, I came to realize — it shouldn’t, because part of what we’re doing there together is leaving our troubles behind. For a time, we’re becoming like children, “playing” a game. Becoming like children is something of which Jesus spoke favorably. We’re there together for the simple purpose of enjoying the comradery the game allows to happen.
Tom deserves a lot of credit for shaping this atmosphere that makes it “play” and not some kind of life-or-death competition, which occasionally is the impression we get from some other teams, particularly when the possibility arises that they might actually lose to the worst team in the league. Our team doesn’t play in the summer, and one summer I signed on to play on a different team with a different manager, and it had an altogether different atmosphere. When we committed errors, the manager felt obliged to point out we’d committed errors – as though we didn’t know already. One season on that team was more than enough for me.
On the team Tom manages, we would love to win a game – we are not devoid of competitive spirit — but losing isn’t going to keep us from having fun. And when our pitcher can’t find the strike zone and walks several batters in a row, nobody is anything but supportive. We appreciate the fact that the pitcher takes on pressure that no other player carries and we’re grateful that he’s willing to carry that pressure so the rest of us don’t have to.
It has often occurred to me that there are certain subjects that if they were to come up I’m pretty sure my teammates and I would have significant disagreements – possibly passionate disagreements. I’m talking about the kinds of political disagreements that have been so divisive in our country, fueling a whole lot of rage.
But thankfully we don’t come together to argue politics – we come together to play a game of softball. And because of that, I get to see the real goodness that is a part of who these guys are – their kindness — how encouraging they can be — their self-deprecating humor and humility, their capacity for joy. If we were ever to get into a political argument, these qualities would probably not get much opportunity to be expressed by any of us.
With the exception of Tom, these are guys who it is highly unlikely would ever show up in our church, and beyond that, guys who in general I probably would never have opportunity to spend any significant time with, and yet there we are in the late Spring, and sometimes the Fall, spending 90 minutes together once – sometimes twice — a week.
Players are pretty loyal to the team. Some drive quite a distance to get to the games, and occasionally games are scheduled pretty late in the evening, which means sleep gets sacrificed.
Something quite beautiful happens there that inspires such commitment — something mysterious that is hidden inside a simple softball game that draws us together each week.
As time has passed, I’ve come to realize that my original concern of whether I would “fit in” was totally my issue, not my teammates’. As long as somebody isn’t acting like a “jerk” during the time we’re together – and to date nobody has — everybody on the team is accepted and encouraged. Grace is present, and it’s always been up to me whether I would recognize and accept it.
So, I’ve gone on at some length to tell you about my experience with the old guy softball team because I think maybe I’m catching glimpses of the Kingdom of God at our games – that mystery Jesus was pointing to when he talked about a great shrub – a weed really – with branches large enough for there to be room for all of the birds – those often annoying, seed-devouring birds – to come and find shade together from the wearing heat of the day.
And if I can catch glimpses in my old guy softball game, maybe you can catch glimpses in the ordinary settings of your lives as well. One of the keys to keep in mind — Jesus’ parables suggest – is that they aren’t something we have much control over. They come as gifts, but require a willingness to receive them – eyes that are open to see them.
So maybe like I needed to loosening up is what is called for. Be attentive in ordinary places – like maybe when you’re out shopping, and somebody looks like they could use a friendly word, and some sort of momentary soul connection happens. Or maybe you can’t find what you’re looking for, and you ask for help from some bored looking person and see a delight suddenly sparkle in their eyes as they come alive with an opportunity to show forth the grace that is hidden within them.