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The Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker The Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker

The Rev. Stephen McKinney-Whitaker is pastor/head of staff of United Presbyterian Church in Peoria, IL

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Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

United Presbyterian Church, Peoria, IL


Labor Day and the Kingdom

September 02, 2011

Can I be honest? I’m not real excited to preach on Mark 4:26-32, especially before Labor Day. I’m just not sure we, and maybe I really mean I, will like what the text has to say. I think it might give us a message we don’t want people to hear. It’s a dangerous text, especially for our impressionable youth.  I fear what the results of this text could be.

      What we have here in this text are two parables about seeds. Seeds seem innocuous enough, but if we have learned anything from the Gospels, it is that looks can be deceiving. God is constantly confounding our expectations. The first parable is about a farmer.  Farmers are usually known to be some of the hardest working laborers in the world.  They rise with the sun and work through the day tilling and cultivating the land so that in a few months time they may harvest what they worked so hard to tend and nurture.  Yet, in this parable the farmer’s work ends after scattering the seeds.  Here is a farmer who walks out one morning with a sack over his shoulder like Johnny Appleseed slinging seeds left and right for about an hour and who then goes inside to enjoy a cappucino and a book in his Lazy-Boy recliner before drifting off to sleep for the night.  And that’s it for the farmer! His job is done; he doesn’t fertilize, or till, or water, or weed. There’s no de-tasseling! Randy spends more time on the grounds of this church than this Farmer does in the fields that are his livelihood! The famer goes about his day browsing Facebook and playing Sudoku and while he sleeps every night the crops grow, first the stalks, then the heads, and finally the grain.  

Do you see why this is a dangerous text?  This certainly isn’t one championed by Max Weber with which to invoke the Protestant work ethic.  Rather, this seems like the perfect passage for the prosperity preachers.  You many have heard them on the radio, or seen them on TV, or even read their books.  They preach that God wants you to have abundance and that if you give God a chance then God will give you, well, whatever you want.  This is the perfect passage if you want to preach on prosperity because God delivers an abundant harvest to a farmer without expecting the farmer to do anything more than sow a few seeds and reap the profits.  Is this the message we want the youth to hear?  “Just throw a business together and toss out a few business cards, then wait a few months and get ready to sell the business for a multi-million dollar profit!”  This is a dangerous text.  It lowers our expectations of work while raising our expectations of reward. Great Labor Day message right?  See why I’m not that thrilled to share it with you?

But I am not just concerned about the economic and labor implications this text has for us; I am worried about the ever-present threat of complacency.  I do not need to convince you that most Christians and most churches struggle with evangelism.  We find any excuse we can to evangelize less and this passage offers us the perfect one.  Jesus defines the ‘seed’ in another parable of a sower, as the Gospel, and so we are inclined to do so here as well.  If the seed is the gospel, we place ourselves in the boots of the farmer and so we scatter some seed left and right, or we pass out some pamphlets, invite someone to church in passing, say “God Bless You” in parting, and then call it quits for the day.  We then point to this passage and expect that the seeds we planted during our witness-filled day will grow into a fruitful Christian faith and we’ll reap the harvest by adding ten, twenty, or thirty more names to our church roll. Done!

This is a dangerous text because we are tempted to believe that God will do all the heavy lifting for us.  Jesus tells us to give him our burdens, and the church certainly sees evangelism that way, so we can sleep well at night knowing God will use our actions and words of that day and grow those seeds of the Gospel we planted.   Do you see why I was reluctant to preach this text this morning?  Complacency, laziness, and passing the buck all lay hidden in this passage ready to pounce and swallow us up like a stalking lion.

The second parable, that of the mustard seed, is just as dangerous.  The smallest seed when planted grows into a huge tree which provides shade and shelter. This isn’t the passage to read to someone considering investing in the stock market because they may assume that with God on their side their tiny little investment will grow so large that it will provide a new home and enough left over cash to provide all the luxuries one needs to relax and enjoy life, shade and shelter. 

The root of these parables is that when it comes to the Kingdom of God, looks can be deceiving, God does most of the work, and it will always exceed our expectations and give us everything we need.  This is a parable about the Kingdom of God though, not a parable about the Kingdom of Earth, the Kingdom of Wall Street, or the Kingdom of Main Street.  Scripture becomes dangerous when we try to appropriate a message about one thing and conform it to what we wish the text were talking about.  Perhaps telling you my fears about this passage betrays my own desires, and I should not project them onto you.  But I know myself.  I know the temptation is always there for shortcuts, whether it be economic shortcuts to prosperity or shortcuts to church growth and stability.   The temptation is always lurking to try and do less and expect God to do more, and to give only a little and expect to receive abundantly.  I am guilty of wanting to sit at home and have the church magically filled to the brim on Sunday morning, and I am guilty of wanting to sit on my hands and hope God solves the problems of poverty, hunger, unemployment, illiteracy, injustice, disease, and everything else.  This text is dangerous because I know what it can do to me, and perhaps I wrongly assumed the same temptations lurk in the corners of your soul too.  But maybe you are like me, and have at one time or another assumed that if God wanted to solve a problem God would just do it.  Maybe you have been like me and decided to give only a small effort and figured God would take care of the rest, because after all its for the church or its for a good cause and God ought to be all for those things.  Maybe you are like me and have wanted to test God in this, and become like the Farmer, staying in, and then see if the wheat magically grows.  Maybe this is a dangerous text for you, after all, too.

When we take these parables and apply them, not to the kingdom of God, but to our jobs, mission work, activism, or anything else; these texts become dangerous.  But when we take what the text says seriously about the Kingdom of God, what Jesus says has the potential to be even more dangerous.  The Kingdom of God is at hand (Mark 1:15) and it is about to burst onto the scene and into our lives in huge dramatic ways.  We aren’t the ones ushering it in though; we aren’t doing the work.  While we may be Kingdom witnesses and Kingdom watchers, we are not Kingdom bringers.  We sleep and the Kingdom creeps nearer.  We watch and the Kingdom grows.  The dangerous and scary thing is that we are not in control.  Since we do not bring in the Kingdom or cause it to grow, we have no control over the Kingdom.  The Kingdom could sprout like the mustard seed at any time, interrupting our lives.  Without warning, what had seemed so small will become the greatest of all Kingdoms and provide shade and shelter, hope and life, peace and comfort.  Without our say so and without our permission, the proud will be scattered like the seeds of the Kingdom; the powerful will be brought down and the lowly lifted up.  The hungry will be fill and the rich will be sent away empty, the meek will be the chief inheritors, and the poor in spirit will have a Kingdom. 

The Kingdom is dangerous because it turns society on its head, it interrupts our life, and it changes the landscape of the world.  At first reading of these parables we think we have found the keys to prosperity and riches, but what we have here is the message that God is at work whether we are or not, and the day is coming when the rich will be sent away empty.  We were filled with pride in the thoughts of our hearts that we could scatter a little and reap a lot; we were filled with pride that what started out small could grow into something so large, but it is the proud who will be scattered.  This is a dangerous text because it makes us examine what we believe the Good News to be.  How we read this passage is a good indicator of where we stand when it comes to the Kingdom of God.  Are we looking for shortcuts for ourselves to the prosperity we envision and desire?  Are we looking for an excuse to let God do the work God has called us to?  Are we to be in fear of what may sprout up under our feet and change the landscape of our lives?  Or does the text cause us to watch the horizon for heaven and the ground for God’s growth?  Because the Kingdom is coming, the sickle is sharpened, and the harvest is at hand.  What an exciting, scary, and dangerous message, and what a perfect one for us to hear today.  God is at work and there is something growing in our hearts and in the world that we are not responsible for, but testifiers to, and so in the words of Jesus we pray every Sunday, “Thy Kingdom Come.”  As dangerous and wonderful and revolutionary as it is, I hope we each truly mean it when we say, “Thy Kingdom Come.”

 


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