“Like Ragweed” Mark 4:26-34

Jesus tells parables to kick start our brains into thinking in a new direction.   This is never more evident than it is in Mark’s Gospel, where just a few of those parables are recorded but where they also carry their most enigmatic punch.

The parables Jesus tells do not so much answer questions as raise them.

So, this first parable, “The Kingdom of God is as if someone were to scatter seed upon the ground and would sleep and rise, night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he knows not how.  The earth produces of itself…”

This is what the Kingdom of God is like, Jesus says.

It happens by itself!  It happens mysteriously.

Which prompts us, (or at least people like me,) to say, “Then what am I doing pounding my head against a wall as a Pastor then???”

Why am I up here preaching, and going to all these meetings, and fretting about stewardship and pink walls and art pieces if the Kingdom is supposed to grow all by itself?”

If the Kingdom is supposed to grow by itself, why isn’t this place busting at the seams with people?

There are two things that I think this parable has to say about that.

The first one is easy for us to get.   The truth is, growth is a mystery.  It does happen on its own.

I put a whole package of seeds in my planter box for parsley, anticipating a thick tangle of the herbs by now.  What I have instead is a few sprigs here and there in the window box.  Some seeds grew, some did not, and I know not why.   The seeds all looked the same to me when I put them in the ground.

So, part one of what Jesus is saying in this parable is that the growth of the Kingdom of God is indeed a mystery, and really not ours to control.

That should jar you a bit.

We can’t force seeds to grow.

We can’t force people to be good disciples either.

We can’t guarantee that everyone we meet will be followers of Jesus, no matter how much we plead with them, or how much we provide for them, or how much we nag at them, or how much we love on them or how much we want them to be faithful.

This is a painful thing to acknowledge.

Sometimes this hits very close to home.  We have kids, we brought them to Sunday School, we did everything right, and yet they are not taking their place in the church.  They have their own call, their own pathway, their own way of doing Kingdom of God.

Our great temptation is to go after them with everything we’ve got.

Our great temptation is to think that if we just have the right program, or the right building, if we just used the right kind of music in worship, the right brand of communion bread, maybe put in a full-service coffee bar with latte’s – people would come back, or stay around and grow.

But the truth is, Jesus says, the Kingdom grows by itself, and there is no sense losing sleep over who isn’t here.

That jars us a bit.

Instead, Jesus says, be ready for the harvest!

Watch and see what does grow, see it mature, and then be ready with the sickle when it is time to gather the grain!

We can’t determine in whom the Word of God might take root, but we can certainly gather up the harvest when they bear fruit!  We can reap what they have to offer to the life and mission of this congregation and the Kingdom as it unfolds here.  We can rejoice when they bear much fruit!

So part one of what this first parable has to say to us is that we can’t force anyone to grow into participating in the Kingdom.  Don’t waste time and effort in trying to make someone “get it”, instead be ready to receive the ones who do!   No matter how surprising the “who gets it” might end up being to you!

But there is a second parable in this Gospel lesson for today, and we should spend some time with it as well, because it also has something to say about our assumptions about the Kingdom of God.

The choice of a Mustard Seed and plant is a curious one for Jesus if the point he wanted to make was that the Kingdom was going to be impressive.  There were better examples of impressive plants out there for him to use, quite frankly.

Jesus could have chosen the Fig Tree, which also has small seeds but that grows into something substantial and useful.

Jesus could have chosen the great Cedars of Lebanon if the point he wanted to make was that the Kingdom of God was to grow into something strong and sheltering and impressive.

But he chose the Mustard Seed, a shrub, a bush that is pernicious in the fields of the middle east, and not always a welcome plant.

Let me re-tell this parable in a way that I think will help you see what Jesus is doing.

With what can we compare the Kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?   It is like Ragweed, which, when scattered on the ground is the smallest of all 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.”

Ragweed!  Pastor that’s awful stuff!  It grows where you don’t want it to grow!  It irritates the nose and eyes and makes the news nightly for the way it makes people miserable!

That’s the point.   It is invasive.  It is persistent.  It is not terribly attractive.  It is an irritant.

Mustard grows wild in Galilee. It pops up in cultivated fields, and it is as big a nuisance there as any weed you might like to compare it to here.

This is what Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to – intentionally!

In the Northland where I live, a few years ago there was a ragweed plant that took root in a highway median at Prairie View Lane and Barry Road.  It grew there all summer long.  I marveled at it.

It grew out of a crack in the pavement.   Surrounded by blistering hot concrete and brick, no other vegetation around, dependent upon whatever water there was already under the pavement or that would trickle down through the cracks.  It was a most improbable sight.

I watched it get taller and taller – and no one took notice of it, not even the workers on the road.  It would have been a simple matter to slice it off, but they ignored it.

I watched as birds would jump underneath it for shade, for relief from the scorching heat, looking for insects.   For them it was a place of refuge amidst the whir of traffic.

For me, and other allergy sufferers, it was just an irritant.

I wish I had taken a picture of it.

It was the perfect example of the Kingdom of God, taking root in the most unlikely of places, growing without apparent reason, providing a refuge for those few unlucky creatures that found themselves in a most in-hospitable place.  It was a plant having an effect on others far outside the range of the place it occupied.

Is that what Jesus is telling us the Kingdom is like?   If so, that requires some re-arrangement of our own expectations.

The Kingdom becomes a place that is never really as safe, or as permanent in this world as we might like it to be.

The branches are big enough to give you some cover sure, but not big enough to build nests in that will last year after year.    It is not the nesting place of Eagles, perches from which power and majesty can be projected.   It is the nesting place of those who want to stay out of the line of sight of such predators.

Those who come underneath it for shelter are still within easy reach of all the hazards of this world.  You’re “on the ground” so to speak, and subject to the dangers of this world all the while you’re under this Kingdom.

Is this what Jesus is saying?

If so, we may have to re-arrange our thinking about this Kingdom into which God has called us

I thought the Kingdom was going to be a place that was safe.

Instead, it appears that perhaps it only offers a bit of shade, a bit of cover and respite in the midst of an always dangerous world.

I thought the Kingdom would be marked by success and security.

Instead, this parable makes me wonder if the Kingdom of God is instead a rather transient thing in this world?

Is the Kingdom of God something that will grow where ever it finds opportunity?  Could it even be seen as a nuisance to those who do not seek or appreciate the shelter it gives?

I thought the Kingdom would be a grand and glorious thing, eventually taking over all the other realms of this world and of this life.

Instead, could it really be a weed?

Oh, weeds will take over if allowed to grow.   They are marked by their persistence and hardiness, but not necessarily their beauty?

Is this what Jesus has in mind for the Kingdom of God?  A Kingdom that takes over because it eventually chokes out competing growth?

Is the Kingdom of God really known best for its ability to grow in the toughest of conditions instead of looking for the best places to grow?

If so, what does this have to say to us?

I read these parable of Jesus and have to wonder if it wasn’t Jesus’ point to shatter all our cherished expectations about being a part of a Kingdom that looks like this world.

This is how it appears to be with God.  In the birth of Jesus God shattered the expectations of a world looking for a savior in a military leader like David, and came instead as a baby born of a refugee family, forced to flee from threatening powers and rulers, doing his work on the fringes of society.

Could it be that God is shattering expectations still?

What cherished assumptions about the Kingdom will we have to give up in order for it to grow in us?

The Kingdom of God is like ragweed?

If it is, then may it infect and infest all my otherwise well-planned gardening.

May I not be too hasty with my hoe when God is scattering the seeds of the Kingdom in my life and in my community

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“Resting Heart Rate” Mark 2:23-3:6

I’ve been wearing one of these fancy “FitBit” devices now as I’ve been engaged in trying to improve my overall health.

Grandkids will do that to you, make you want to stay around longer.

Anyway, this little marvel counts my steps, lets me know if I’ve gone up inclines or stairs.  It monitors my sleep cycle reminding me to get adequate rest.  It even tells me the time and date.  It will also monitor my heart rate, which is a useful tool for seeing if you’re working hard enough to get your body working on improving your stamina during exertion.

Just as important as monitoring when the heart rate goes up however is the feature of monitoring your “resting heart rate.”

“Resting heart rate” is important.  It lets you know that you’ve recovered from your exertion and that you are back in the realm of maintaining balance and health.   Your heart, (as it turns out) doesn’t like to keep working at peak rate.   It seeks that “resting rate” and the rhythm of life that rate affords and provides.

For some reason “Resting Heart Rate” made a connection for me with this somewhat obscure Gospel reading for today.

Jesus is at odds with the Pharisees over proper keeping of the Sabbath, the proper keeping of the “rest” prescribed by God in the third Commandment.

Jesus and his disciples were well aware of the Sabbath laws concerning both the events in the field, and the man with the withered hand in the Synagogue.   It is not the case, (as is so often recounted incorrectly) that the Pharisees are just upset with the activity of Jesus or his disciples here, plucking grain as they walk, healing on the sabbath.

No, what really upsets the Pharisees is that (having pointed out) Jesus’ transgression of the sabbath law, Jesus didn’t just apologize and amend his or his disciple’s actions.

Instead, Jesus assumes and presumes the role of teacher.   He counters the Pharisee’s citing of the Sabbath laws with an argument from scripture as to how such laws should be open to interpretation and mitigating circumstances.

Jesus, in other words, sets himself up as a more reliable authority on the matter of the Sabbath than the Pharisees.

This is what ticks them off.

“What’s the point of Sabbath, if it’s not really restful?”   Jesus implies.

What’s the point of keeping the Sabbath if you’re so wrapped up in making sure the Sabbath laws are legalistically adhered to that you can’t “rest” from being a Pharisee and rendering a judgment to someone about something?

What’s the point of Sabbath if it cannot give the man with the withered arm what he most needs, which is a break from the deficit this affliction causes him?

He can’t really celebrate Sabbath (a break from work) if he can’t work in the first place, and he can’t work if he doesn’t have an arm, and so let’s put balance back into the equation, shall we?

“Stretch out your hand….” Jesus says to him.

These two stories told in tandem reveal the central concern.  The Pharisees are quick to point out what they feel others are doing wrong, and they are far too silent on rendering any kind of helpful interpretation of the Sabbath law that would lead to better health in the community.

What both grieves and angers Jesus (we are told in no uncertain terms,) is “the hardness of their hearts.”

“Hardness of their hearts” is a phrase that ought to have rung in the ears of the Pharisees.

Who was it that had a “hardened heart” in their history?  Whose “hardened heart” brought about the giving of the commandments in the first place?

Was it not Pharaoh, with his insistence on work with no time for rest or for worship?

Was it not Pharaoh who had a hardened heart when it came to managing the population problems of Goshen, with his “just kill the males born, lest this people become too great” policy.   Pharaoh’s cold, calculated approach to a people that made of them just another commodity rather than God’s beloved creation.

It was Pharaoh who was quick to point out offenses and transgressions and who was slow to consider the consequences of his own actions upon himself, his own people and the people of God.

Jesus calls out the “hardness of heart” of the Pharisees, and as such then introduces once again the heart into the matter of Sabbath laws.

The Sabbath was created for humankind, not humankind for the Sabbath.  This matter of “rest” is important not just to God as some legal requirement, but God knows it is important for the overall health and wellbeing of people.

It was God who had first rested from the work of creation as a conscious act of taking in what God had done, providing space for gratitude.

God had declared that rest was “good”.   It gave one perspective from which to move forward.

After the flight from Egypt, God had commanded rest and sabbath, precisely to break what was the “perverse economy of Pharaoh,” as Walter Brueggeman puts it.

Pharaoh, who heartlessly exacts and extracts, more and more, without giving anyone time to rest, to worship, or to consider what they have done.

“Resting” in God’s economy provides a rhythm of life.

“Resting” in God’s economy is not commanded because it’s something you do for God, something required of you, or something God expects out of respect for God.

No, rest is something God says you need to do for your own sake, and for the sake of your relationship with God and for the sake of relationship with your neighbor, because where there is no proper understanding of “rest”, or “sabbath” there is no proper relationship with God or neighbor.

You get cranky.

God gets grieved and angry.

People and creation suffer, when there is no “rest.”

It is here, early on in Mark’s Gospel that the matter of the Sabbath begins to show itself as a place of contention because Jesus presumes to teach on it’s importance.   For all the “rush” Jesus seems to be in throughout Mark’s Gospel, all the quick moves that Jesus makes from place to place, it is also in this Gospel that we see Jesus doing the most “resting.

Here we find Jesus’ “come away” invitations.

Come away to a lonely place.

Rest.

It is in this Gospel that Mary and Martha are contrasted, and Jesus says that Mary has chosen the better thing, to sit at Jesus feet and it is something that will not be taken away from her.

The teaching that Jesus engages in right here sets the tone for the rest of the Gospel.  Sabbath, rest is prescribed, and returned to, and modeled by Jesus over and over again so it must be important.

Teaching on the Sabbath is the first thing that sets Jesus and the rest of the world at odds with one another.   It is Jesus’ desire for balance and interpretation of this matter that becomes the heart of his message, as the Kingdom of God comes into direct conflict with the way the Kingdom of this world is ordered and executed.

So I got to thinking, Congregation, how is our “resting heart rate?”

Oh, I know all about our exertion heart rate, but much of that is modeled on the expectations of this world, and in the Kingdom of this world.

I’ve watched the blood pressures rise in this place over this concern or that, had more than one tense meeting where reminders were given of what can/should/ought to be done.   Impassioned discussions were engaged, necessary reminders of how things ought to be done in good order, but moments that made that clearly made hearts race, and not in a positive way.

Oh, we have plenty of positive heart rate raisers here as well.

I’ve witnessed the exertion of Sunday School teachers, and of TLC workers, and of Pantry volunteers, and Arts in Ministry folks decorating and planning.

I’ve seen the sweat of musicians hauling equipment around, playing and leading worship.

I’ve seen the scramble of ushers, altar guild and communion assistants.

I’ve watched the responsibilities of putting together slide shows, and providing coffee hour refreshments, and the clean up crews that assemble in the kitchen after events or in time of need.

We are a place that has put “Enter to Serve” on our doorsteps as we leave this place.  That is meant to be a reminder that God calls us to serve others in the mission field of this world, and that our service begins as soon as we exit those doors.

We end our worship with “Go in peace, Serve the Lord” as a reminder that God wants us to get out there and to get busy on the Kingdom work out there in the world.

But all this still begs my initial question.  “How is your ‘resting heart rate?’”  That is to say, how good are you at keeping the Sabbath in the way that Jesus encourages in the Gospel?

Do you take the time to retreat and to rest yourself, to “come away” to a lonely place or to sit at the feet of Jesus, or is your life just one continuous plunge from activity to activity?  (Either church related or work related or family related or… whatever.)

Do you feel able to set aside the letter of the law in order to make the spirit of the Sabbath take root in your life?

Do you pause to consider the circumstances?  Consider the lives or others, the situation they find themselves in, the mitigating factors that may be at play in the lives of that person, or do you doggedly point out the rules and the regulations and demand adherence to the economy of established practice?

If you find yourself frustrated and frazzled, could it be that you’re using your Spiritual “fitbit” only with a setting to see how much you can serve, how fast you can go, how high you can get your activity, all the while neglecting the equally important matter of “Spiritual Resting Heart Rate?”

What would it take for you to find your “resting heart rate” when it comes to following Jesus?

I tease that maybe we should have door mats made up to place at the entrances facing in that say “Enter to Rest.”

Would that remind us of some things?

Go ahead, wipe your feet before you come in.

Come on in and wipe away the weariness of this world away and its frenetic pace in confession, in worship, and granting forgiveness and finding forgiveness.

Rest here.

Be refreshed, take and eat and simply be for a bit.  Feel your heart rate descend into that resting rate that signals health and wholeness.

If you can’t find that in this place, then perhaps you should ask “what is keeping me from it?”