June 14, 2015
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
Peter Larson of Lebenon, Ohio tells this story: Stuck in a dead-end job and strapped for money, Kyle MacDonald came up with an improbable plan: starting with one red paperclip, he would trade on the Internet until he exchanged it for a house.
First, he traded the red paperclip for a fish-shaped pen. Next, he traded the pen for a doorknob. He traded the doorknob for a Coleman stove. He traded the Coleman stove for an electric generator. He traded the electric generator for a Budweiser sign and a keg of beer, which he then traded for a snowmobile. Exactly one year and (only) 14 trades later, MacDonald finally reached his goal: he exchanged a part in a Hollywood movie for a home in Saskatchewan, Canada. The true story of Kyle MacDonald is told in his book One Red Paperclip, and could be made into a movie - all because of one red paperclip.
Personally, I’ve had a long fascination with the spice saffron. I haven’t tasted much of it, but it’s so interesting. One does not “make” saffron; it is harvested - from a certain type of crocus when it is in bloom. Those little tiny parts inside the blossom, the stigmas and styles, are carefully plucked by hand. When they dry, they turn into delicate, deep-maroon with a hint of deep yellow/orange, thread-like bits. Because of the delicacy and intensive hand harvesting, it is more expensive, pound for pound, than gold.
And yet, just a pinch of these threads crushed in a mortar and pestle is enough to flavor a dish of paella, a Spanish dish with rice, seafood and some vegetables, infusing an entire dish for 12 - with a bright yellow and heady, earthy aroma. In what may well be one of his top ten most famous parables, Jesus tells us that the TKOG is like saffron, effecting something as great as a house, beginning with a paperclip.
In quickly getting to the heart of the matter, the writer of the gospel of Mark begins with John’s and Jesus’ baptisms, calling of disciples, and then right into Jesus’ ministry, including healings, teachings, sabbath-breaking and questionable behavior with folks considered to be “on the edge” of cultivated society. When he gets to this particular day, I imagine Jesus to be in a place, perhaps somewhat like the north side of Upper Herring Lake, with the big barn and beautiful orchard that slants down to the water, giving the crowd an elevated view of Jesus, the lake, and the cleared field at the south end of the lake. The next time you’re out that way, stop for a moment on the road, and imagine Jesus standing before the crowd, motioning to the field across the lake.
26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”
33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
Thank you, Reagan. One of the joys of going to Minnesota a couple weeks ago was driving through all the farmland, including all of Wisconsin. Most all the crops were in; the corn was out of the ground but a few inches in beautiful, artistic rows, the soybeans were promising, and the winter wheat was about halfway ready for harvest. It was hard to not stop and cheer on the fields, “Come on guys, you can do it! Grow well and tall! You all are so beautiful and handsome!” I say those sorts of things to the gardens around the church fairly often, but there’s not the constant risk of zooming cars and I can watch for people with white jackets and nets coming to take me away.
There is, in both of these little parables, a mighty big punch. Even with our modern technologies, it is still mesmerizing to watch time-lapse videos of sprouting seeds: “the roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that” as Robert Fulghum reminds us. Without shaming itself or beating itself up, that which looks as incapable as a tiny seed becomes great creations of life, aspiration and beauty. And while we look up and down and follow Jesus’ hand in the direction of the field, perhaps we miss the main point of these two parables: TKOG.
The Kingdom of God. That phrase, that theological understanding, that seed of truth was such a big deal to the writer of Mark’s gospel, that it is woven throughout other phrases, understandings and truths. Of the nineteen times when Mark uses the word “kingdom,” all but four of those times “kingdom” is used, followed by “of God.” When we remember that Jewish writers repeated words or phrases to make big points, we begin to see part of what made the writer of Mark tick.
The Kingdom of God is like…. Knowing what you know of God and the Bible, how would you finish that phrase - in your own words? What would you think important enough to keep at the back of your mind when making your illustration? In fact, do that this week: think about how you would finish “The kingdom of God is like….” Maybe bring it up at lunch today if you are eating with someone else. Bring it up in a conversation you may have with a family member or friend. I so wish I could be a little fly on the wall, listening to all those comparisons! In fact, if you are able to have such a little conversation, and you remember, tell me about those conversations. The worth of those conversations then becomes even more valuable.
James Boyce of workingpreacher.org had this to say: “the kingdom is not about geography or some static place; it is about the dynamic reality of God’s presence and power within the creation and within the lives of God’s people.” The “kingdom is not about geography or some static place; it is about the dynamic reality of God’s presence and power within the creation and within the lives of God’s people.” “God’s presence and rule have taken on a new dimension and power among us - because of Jesus. In this coming kingdom other claimants to power, such as the power of Satan and the demonic, are being challenged, as the opening chapters of Mark -- and last Sunday’s gospel, for example -- have reminded us again and again.” (Last Sunday’s gospel was about a kingdom being divided against itself, Satan driving out Satan, our mothers - and fathers - brothers and sisters being those around being a force great enough to get us through life when we feel like we’re alone.
We pray for this same kingdom “to come” in the prayer that Jesus taught us, the prayer we prayed just a bit ago. And yet, in the beginning of Mark’s gospel, Jesus tells us that the kingdom is already at hand; it’s already here. In that sense, we have already been planted in the soil of God’s love, the grace of God’s mercy rains down on us, and we are already growing and stretching our leaves and branches toward the light of Christ. And if that’s the case, then take a look around your life - and see the kingdom of God.
As I was thinking about this idea, I thought about how some may feel that their lives are not so much like the promising fields along Interstates 94 and 43, US 10 and 12 and Wisconsin 29 and 73. Perhaps some are feeling like the spring fog of 2015 over here by Lake Michigan, or that the late winter snows keep coming and coming, or the effects of the drought in the west that leaves nothing with which to grow, regardless of all the sunshine. Like those parabolic scenarios, our feelings do not always reflect reality, so sometimes we have to take a step back, pull off the side of the road, get out of the car and take a long, deep breath - to “realize” the kingdom of God that is already here, supporting our growth even when we can’t see anything happening.
For those of us who don’t like surprises and have great appreciation for orderliness and structure, it’s hard to remember that God is God, and works in God’s own time and way. As much as we want to be in control, we just aren’t. Okay, so we have some controls over some things, but none of us are ready to take the God-for-a-Day test. Perhaps we can ease into God’s ability to do better, know better, has everything in hand better in this realm in which we already live.
In God’s kingdom, even if a thing is small, it has mighty potential. And in God’s kingdom, even when surrounded by blackness and feelings of being buried, the Holy Spirit is doing that which we cannot do - sometimes with surprising results. In God’s kingdom, the presence and power of God is in creation and in us, and we didn’t have to do one single thing to make that happen. (Now that doesn’t mean we can sit back and sing “Que sera, sera–whatever will be, will be,” because you all know that’s another sermon.)
There is a sense of kindness and/or gentleness in this kingdom with which God surrounds us. Our growing into this kingdom is not forced or beyond our ability to keep up. The seed doesn’t become a full grown stalk of corn overnight, under threat of being cut down because it does not perform exactly the same as the kernel planted next to it. Instead, God gives us as much as we can understand at this point in our lives. I think that’s pretty good news for us imperfect and sometimes slow-to-understand humans. There is irony - to us humans - in God’s kingdom, because what seems weak is actually strength, what seems impotent is actually potential, what looks ineffective and laughable is actually - astounding.
And isn’t it astounding - that despite their nearness to Jesus - some of them actually getting to touch the hem of his robe or to sit on his knee - some of the folks from back then didn’t realize that they were already in God’s presence - God’s kingdom - the king of the kingdom giving out hugs and slaps on the back like any of us on any given day of the week?
Though we may not get the full picture or the deepest understandings each day, we catch glimpses of God’s kingdom, and sometimes those mystical, magical, momentary glimpses are enough. When those moments aren’t enough, God gives us grace, comfort, and peace to sink into, those times of hanging out with God in a hammock or glider rocker in the backyard. So let us metaphorically put our heads back, close our eyes to the warmth of the sun, and breathe in God’s kingdom.
Holy, holy, holy God, thank you for the dimensions of our lives: the depth, the height, the breadth, the length of mind, body and soul. Thank you that you give us all we need, including the realization of your provision. Help each of us become even more aware of your kingdom - through human beings as much as through our physical environment. Help us to relax, put our shoulders back and allow us to take in all you have for us, that we might be able to help those around us, even those across the world from us, realize OMG - it’s TKOG! Help us all to sprout, grow and become all that you have seen us to be, even before we began. For all your provisions and most especially for your kingdom, all your people say, Amen.