Won’t you join me in a word of prayer?
Almighty God, once again, as we have gathered together, we ask that You might hold us, that You might cover us, keep us, and that You would fill us for all of the places that You are preparing to send us. We ask this in Your wonderful name, Amen.
With many similar parables, Jesus spoke the word to them as much as they could understand. For just a moment, I want to remind each and every one of us that there is someone worth listening to. Just a few moments ago, the gospel was read. It was read out loud, and it was read both in Spanish and in English. To some, they heard simple words that are credited to the author of the gospel book we know as Mark. To others, they might have heard an account taken from a book that, for centuries, has been revered for its spiritual, philosophical, theological, and historical as well as religious offerings, and additional content. But if you join me for just a moment, if you were listening intently and carefully, what we heard was the words of a man whose coming into this world so transformed the world, that even time had to recognize the significance of his coming by identifying itself when standing on one side as BC, and when standing on the other side as AD or CE. This man we know as Jesus, Mary’s baby. Jesus, bright morning star. Jesus, our savior.
It is his words that we are listening to in this moment. And while we are not often listening to those who are close to us, stop listening to those that are around us, or even pay no attention to those who are in association with us in one form or another, Jesus is someone worth listening to. It was only a few years ago that it became popular for countless persons to ask, “What would Jesus do?” But what amazed me then, and still amazes me in this day, was that while the question was often asked, it was asked by those who never took the time to listen to what he said. I want to know what he would do, but I’ve never paid attention to what he said. We heard not just any words, a few moments ago, but we heard Jesus’s words. While these words were spoken centuries ago, they are still reverberating in this present moment and I wonder how intently we are listening. Sometimes I wonder how intently I’m listening?
Think about it for just a moment. The year was 2002, almost 20 years ago now, that one major telecommunications firm and network crafted a phrase and a tagline that brought profound attention to their corporation, to their products, to their services, and even to their network. The phrase became so much a part of our everyday communication that close to 20 years later, it is still widely used across our landscape and through a myriad of human interactions. There might be some who are listening to me in this moment that will immediately identify with the phrase, made popular by this now recognizable pitch man, and of course company. As he stood at the intersection of life’s hustle and bustle, seeking to communicate and make connection, when holding his cell phone to his ear, he asked that simple question, “Can you hear me now?” Even in this current context, it is a question that rises out of the texts while listening to Jesus’s words.
I must admit that after a year of COVID confinement, we are now beginning to swing the doors wide open once again. We’re swinging the door’s wide open to reconnection and making new connections. We have experienced and are still navigating our way through an infectious pandemic, continued historical racism, economic disparities, and the otherness treatment of immigrants, while still debating fundamental and foundational values that we say are truths that we hold as self-evident. Over and over again, we find ourselves listening to and discussing a frighteningly familiar, unsettled subjects. And I have to wonder, with the talk of new normal, how truly are we going to be different? How truly are we going to be transformed by the season we have just been experiencing, and the faith that we claim as followers of this man named Jesus? Jesus’ words have been read and now that we have arrived at this point on the journey, I borrow the phrase and the question, not to gain cellular clarity, but to check our spiritual vitality. After wrestling with the gospel, I find myself looking out at our current condition and looking within, at my own current disposition. And I’m hearing God asking after all that we have through, “Can you hear me now?”
Now, after 600,000 deaths. Now, after heightened awareness of historical racism. Now, after seeing families living on the edge of economic collapse, while at the same time experiencing food and housing insecurity; now, can you hear me? I hear the spirit in this moment as I feel the presence of those who will be here shortly in days to come. And he’s asking us, “Can you hear me now?” After Jesus was speaking to his disciples and the crowds, we are reminded through the reading and prayerfully, our hearing, that Jesus employed the use of parables for teaching, for preaching, and instructing. Jesus did this with the purpose of moving individuals to decision and moving them to action, that they would provide a witness that the kingdom was present. And that through his disciples, the world, not could be, but that the world would be transformed.
Jesus was not the first to use parables, as this use of parables was already a long tradition and was a familiar method to all throughout the Mediterranean world. However, what we’re able to conclude is that Jesus was a sage of this style of communicating, and perhaps its most gifted author of all. As you are able, I hope that you will listen to all of his words that are in that fourth chapter of Mark. But Jesus in almost rapid fire succession in that chapter, shares with us a series of parables, one after the other, we hear the parable of the sower, the parable of a lamp on a stand, and arrive at the gospel reading and Jesus’s words that were read for us, both in Spanish and in English. And here we arrive at the parable of the growing seed, and the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus shares these parables in order that the lessons would be learned, and the actions would be carried out. But the lessons cannot be learned, and the actions will not be carried out until we, as Jesus stated earlier in that fourth chapter, consider carefully what you hear.
Time and time again, throughout all that has been experienced this past year, I have heard many, both in public and in private, discourse say, “God is trying to tell us something.” Throughout this past year, both in public and in private, and in many encounters I have said, and I’ve heard others lift even out of quotes from the scriptures, to say, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the spirit is saying to the church, not the church that has been inside, but the church that has been operating in the world.” Jesus gets to this moment and wants them to consider this, that the kingdom of heaven is like. Jesus’ words and parables share a picture that gets painted onto the canvas of our heroes’ imagination. And even in this moment, there’s already a picture being painted in your mind, the kingdom of heaven is like.
The first parable, or what is commonly referred to as similar to, Jesus shares and tells the story of a man that scatters seed on the ground night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows. And he doesn’t know how it happens. All by itself, the soil produces grain. First the stalk, then the head, then the kernel in its head. And as soon as the grain is right, he puts a sickle to it, and because the harvest is come. Then Jesus goes on and he continues to speak, as if to invite then the listeners’ participation, we hear Jesus present to them a rhetorical question that continues to stir their imagination. And Jesus says, “What shall we say the kingdom of heaven is like?” What parable should we use to describe it now? Just like many of us, and just as you have used your laptop or digital device over this past year, you’ve been so glued to screens that have become part of our lives, for those that were listening, a picture popped up in your spirit. The picture gets painted and is the result of considering carefully what we hear. Jesus goes on to paint a picture of the kingdom and said it’s like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed. And he says, “Yet when planted it grows and becomes the largest of all the garden plants, and with such big branches that even the birds can perch in its shade.”
Well, there are numerous points that I could lift and point out, but I point out and remind you that there are some takeaways in this. And both of these parables reveal to us, there is work to be done in the kingdom. I know those who have heard me before say, “There he goes again: there’s work to be done in the kingdom.” As we are preparing to come out of this, we have to be careful that we have not minimized our sacrifice, but maximized our convenience. That all of a sudden, now we have to be careful that we are not focused on receiving blessings without trying to be a blessing. That we have focused on our own deliverance without having any discipline. That we have focused on reconciliation without repentance. That we are focusing on commitment without conviction. That we, of all things, have focused on having a form of godliness, but lacking the power thereof.
If we do the work, the blessings are not just for us. But even through this parable, we recognize that the blessings are for those who have encounter with us. We don’t make our own shade, but we create shade for others who are burning under the burning oppression of heat in our culture. The gospel writer tells us that Jesus always spoke to them in parables, but he spoke to them as much as they could understand. As much as they could hear. As much as they would be intent upon grasping. As close as they would be paying attention. And in that moment, and even beyond the moment, that question was circulating even then, that in this form I raised today, after all that we’ve been through, can you hear me now? The kingdom of heaven is like. One new testament, scholar noted, “The purpose of a parable is to strike the imagination, to peak the curiosity, to make the listener reflect, and to work, to work, to work, to arrive at the meaning, but only so that the lesson will be more deeply ingrained upon the mind.” And let me add, deeply ingrained in our heart. The parables and the teachings were not shared to tickle our ears, but they were shared so that the meaning would be engraved in our minds, and burning in our hearts, and seen in the work of our hands. When Jesus was alone with his disciples, he explained everything to them. And reading the gospels, we are able to appreciate here, the significance of both public and private moments. Each of these moments are essential to our growth and our understanding, as we work on behalf of the kingdom. And if we’re listening closely, we’re able to see that there are miraculous possibilities and potential that God is trying to bring forth from us, as God is working through us. We hear important truth, in private and public moments. We’ve had some private moments, and now we’re grabbing again, the public moments. And the question is, can you hear me now? I’m not sure who’s listening to this morning, but we’re called to be faithful, knowing that God is working, even when we can’t figure out how God is working. There are some things that take place out of sight, and all I need to do is trust.
Let me tell some, I enjoy going to the theater. Not the motion picture theaters, but I’ve learned how to enjoy going to the live theater. But I catch myself at times not focusing on what I should be focusing on. And I end up missing important points. I end up having to lean over to my wife and ask her, “What did they just say?” because I get distracted and my concentration is not on what is happening in front of me and on the stage. I start trying to lean over, to see if I can pay attention to what is happening just off stage, or can I get a glimpse backstage? I miss key lines. I miss key scenes that would make the story rich for me. That would help me follow along. That help me to know the meaning, the story that helped me to unpack the encounters. And for us, sometimes it’s not our call to focus on what’s happening backstage, because God’s got that all taken care of, but to pay attention to what is happening in front of us. Lives are in need of us. Love is needed from us, and I’m looking forward to the possibilities of what may be able to be achieved as the community realizes what Dr. King stated years ago, “We’re caught in an inescapable network of mutuality tied in a single garment of destiny.” What affects one directly, affects us all indirectly. And after parable, after parable, after moment, after moment, what I wonder is: can we hear him now?