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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 Psalm 20 2nd Corinthians 5:6-10 Mark4:26-34

Two hunters fly to Kenya, where they bag six gazelles. As the crew was loading the small plane to return, the pilot says the aircraft can take only four gazelles back. “Last time, the pilot let us take six, and he had the same plane as yours,” argues the first hunter. Reluctantly, the pilot gives in and they take off. But the little plane is too heavy, and goes down. Climbing out of the wreckage, the second hunter turns to the other, “Any idea where we are?” The first hunter replies, “From the surroundings, I’d say we’re pretty close to where we crashed last time.”

Once upon a time…a long time ago…in a galaxy far, far away…there was a man who had two sons. However they begin, we love stories. At bedtime, at the movies, or by the camp fire, we love a good story. We even like a good story in church. Be honest. The last time you commented on a good sermon, was it because of the brilliant exegesis of scripture and clear expression of doctrine, or was because a story or two captured your imagination and vividly related scripture to your life?

Jesus loved a good story, too. Jesus told so many parables, some say he became one. For here in these well-known parables, we confront how the life and teaching of Jesus were one. But the parables remain what they are –alive - continually breaking open our understanding of the reign of God. They are elusive yet pointed, indirect yet powerfully relevant – like the very kingdom Jesus brings.

Listen to the Gospel reading from the Message - Then Jesus said, “God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows – he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without help: first a green stem of grass, then a bud, then the ripened grain. When the grain is fully formed, he reaps – harvest time! “How can we picture God’s kingdom? What kind of story can we tell? It’s like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it. With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots.

While Mark doesn’t give us a lot of parables, like Matthew and Luke, these readings today give us wonderful examples and the reason for Jesus’ use of parables. The secret of the kingdom is contained in parables. Of course, even when Jesus explains the stories to the Twelve, they don’t get it. The parable of the seeds and the harvest leads us directly to Jesus’ comparison of the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, or the pine nut. It builds on the earlier parable of the sower and the harvest. In Mark, we don’t get the critical advice about developing our faith the size of a mustard seed. It is, plain and simple, about the kingdom, a kingdom beyond our imagination. The parable is not about us, but about the grace of God. Max Lucado defines grace as “everything Jesus. Grace lives because Jesus does, works because he works, and matters because he matters. To be saved by grace is to be saved by him – not by an idea, doctrine, creed, or church membership, but by Jesus himself, who will sweep into heaven anyone who so much as gives him the nod.”

Here in Mark’s Gospel, there are clues in the plant that grows so large from so small a seed. We marvel that birds come to nest in the shade of this spacious dwelling. So shall the reign of God be. So shall God’s grace be. We, like the farmer, don’t understand how the sprouting and the growing takes place. Yet it becomes a harvest of life, and the tree from the seed spreads out branches to be a place of rest and song and abundance. So God’s grace spreads in and through our lives. We don’t have to do anything, just believe.

This is a profoundly pastoral side of Mark’s account of Jesus. These are hoped filled parables. God will not fail to fulfill God’s promise of salvation. It is already coming to be in this world – like the seed sown in the earth, or the remarkable growth of the tree from the mustard seed, the pine nut, silently but powerfully coming to be. Coming to us as God’s grace and connecting us to one another through God’s love.

I have mentioned before, the Rev. Becca Stevens, Episcopal priest and founder of the Magdalene community. Her story is one of abuse and loss, that will eventually become filled with love and grace and compassion. Becca was sexually abused as a child. She lost her father who was an Episcopal priest when she was five years old. Her mother raised her and her four siblings.

Her story seems to bring together a phrase from the psalm and the message of the Gospel. God may grant you your heart’s desire and prosper all your plans ……..and when thrown on the ground, the smallest of seeds becomes the greatest of shrubs. In her journey toward healing and wholeness, she discovered her walking path paved with truth that faith and healing are more about action than words. While she was in seminary, Becca was touched by the plight of women on the streets. She began to geminate an idea….a desire…to provide a safe place for women to get them off the streets, away from abuse, prostitution, drugs and violence. She found out that many times the places and people we are moved to serve arise from the places and events in our own past that have been broken. It was in recognizing and being mindful of that brokenness that moved Becca toward compassion and service.

The doors of the first house at Magdalene opened in August of 1997. Now there are 6 homes in Nashville. Over the years, about 200 women have graced the doorstep at Magdalene and have come to live as residents in the program. More than 72 % of the women have been clean and sober two and a half years after they come in. Becca’s desire…goal…passion….is to bring healing and hope to a broken community of women. She has found that part of healing comes from practical study and listening, from a pure heart and a fearless desire to reach out and ease the suffering of others. She realized that for people to heal, they needed a place to speak their truth in love without fear of being judged. We all need that.

We all need that – a place to speak the truth in love. It is here at Grace that we strive to love and not judge. It is here we strive to be the hands, heart and feet of Christ in this community and beyond. We have so many opportunities to help those less fortunate. I want to offer another opportunity for our giving. Unison has a program to help marginalized folks find housing. They are able to provide the basics but the folks need sheets, towels, cups, plates, silverware to set up their own space. They need clothes and shoes to reenter the world. We are working on a list of supplies that these folks need and will publish it shortly.

Today’s account leaves a lingering tension in the air. On the one hand, it is as though Jesus uses humble human images to tell us as much as we are capable of understanding: on the other hand, even when he “explains” the stories to those closest to him, they can’t comprehend what is coming to pass. God speaks to us in a language we can understand. At the same time, the mystery and the reality of God continually move us toward growth.

We know that God wants to be in relationship with us. God is pursuing us. That we experience God’s grace every day, even when we forget to water and fertilize the seeds we have planted, even when we lose sight of the birds nesting in our branches. God’s grace is present…God’s love carries us.

So as the Rev. Becca Stevens found out, we are to find out - to uncover, discover our heart’s desire. We are to learn, to know, to grow in our understanding of God. And in knowing, we are to scatter seeds for God to water and tend while we go about our lives. So the hope is in the question: “What is God’s kingdom like? No one answer will ever exhaust the meaning of the question, but the pulse of Jesus’ words, Jesus’ deeds, his death and resurrection points to the secret hidden from a distracted, hopeless world. This pulse is the heartbeat of God, whose rule and reign is coming with the speed of mercy and compassion. And ever present is God’s grace calling to us, claiming us and empowering us to continue to plant those seeds of kindness, compassion, forgiveness, and love. Recently, in a graduation speech, I heard that there are two important days in each of our lives, the day we are born and the day we discover why we were born. Where is God calling you? What seeds do you have to sow? Amen.

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