Sermon 17 January 2016: “The Parable of the Sower, Lottery Tickets, Wrestlers, & the Kingdom of God”

Text: Mark 4:1-20; 33-34

I left my house Wednesday morning to head over to church for a meeting and while I was driving down the road, I realized I forgot my coffee!  Well, like a lot of you I certainly can’t function without it, so I stopped by the local Wawa (convenience store) to grab a cup.  As I walked in, I noticed something that I hadn’t really paid attention to in all my trips into the store, despite the fact I’ve walked by it plenty of times.  But it was right there, in big, bold letters: POWERBALL.  The Powerball Jackpot was up to 1.6 billion dollars and I thought, “Why the heck not?”  So I went up to the machine, put in my 4 dollars and bought two tickets for the big drawing on Wednesday night.  I bought my coffee, jumped in my truck, and resumed my drive to church.

Now like a lot of people who bought lottery tickets on Wednesday, I asked my self the big question, “What am I gonna go if I win?”  And so I started planning out this pretty elaborate plan of all the things I would do with the money: I’d pay off Kelly’s student loans; make some of those renovations to the house back at the farm; Kelly and I would give to a couple of congregations and causes we care about; we’d probably set up investments to take care of our families for generations to come; and I thought, that motorcycle that I really don’t need but really want….that wouldn’t be a problem convincing Kelly…..

As I think about it, I had logically planned all this out as if winning the lottery was all but a done deal, which doesn’t really make any sense at all.  The odds of winning were about 292 million to 1, and as the numbers came out at 11pm that night, those plans really didn’t make any sense as I looked at my ticket and not a single one of my numbers got drawn.

Parables are stories or examples in which there’s a hidden meaning or message behind them.  Jesus used parables to teach the crowds all sorts of things during his ministry.  Those parables often didn’t make a whole lot of sense to the folks listening to them.  In fact, they didn’t even make sense to Jesus’ disciples either, which prompted Jesus to sometimes explain them to them, like he did in today’s story.  Yet even then, Jesus’ words continued to make no sense to them.  And the problem, I think, was this: if you think about parables, at least from a conventional sense, they don’t make a whole lot of sense.  In fact, you run into some pretty significant problems.

In today’s parable of the sower, Jesus’ explanation gives us an idea of who’s who in the parable: God is the sower, the seed is the Word of God, the Word made flesh, Jesus.  And Jesus is sown across all kinds of soil, soil that perhaps we can think of as ourselves.  Yet, the sower doesn’t seem to pay any attention to where’s the seed’s being sown and that seed seems to get wasted.  In terms of effectiveness, the Word of God is only about 25% effective.  And what does it mean that the Word of God goes unheard, and doesn’t always have the power to change things?  Then there’s the whole matter of the soil: it can’t change, it doesn’t get fertilized or worked so it can produce good fruit.  The implication is that if we’re the soil, we can’t change, and what does that mean that there might be some of us who don’t produce a good harvest?  In the parable of the sower, Jesus is describing what the Kingdom of God is like.  This is the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that Jesus has proclaimed has come near in Chapter One of Mark’s gospel.  Yet it’s a Kingdom that doesn’t make sense, at least in the conventional ways we think or understand.

What then, do we make of this parable and the Kingdom of God?

I know I talk about them a lot, but if you’ll indulge me once more, I’d like to tell you another story about my wrestlers and wrestling team I coach.  This past weekend, our team won yet another tournament…but this time, we beat one of the best teams in the state by about 30 points.  Not expected, but not the story that matters this morning.

The story I want to tell you happened just before one of my wrestlers was about to wrestle his match for 3rd place.  It’s sort of convention that wrestlers will prepare for their matches by going off to a secluded corner, not talking to anyone and with a serious look on their face as they mentally prepare for their match. And it’s convention that you’ll see wrestlers moving around, warming up their bodies, shadow wrestling in that corner as they prepare themselves physically as well.

Well, my wrestler was no different…yet while he prepared in the corner, this other young man began to make his way through the crowded gym, joking around with everyone.  This young man, who happened to be mentally handicapped, picked my wrestler warming up in the crowed, and with a lot of excitement, made his way over to my wrestler and began striking up a conversation with him, and attempting to wrestle around with him.  I overheard a bit of the conversation, and this kid was asking my wrestler all sorts of questions, exclaiming that he too was going to be a great wrestler himself, and wanting to show him some moves.

Now convention would have allowed my wrestler to politely blow off this kid, or pass him off to someone else.  No one would have blamed him since he was about to wrestle a match in 2 minutes.  But my wrestler did something unconventional: he struck up a conversation with this kid.  He wrestled back with him and joked around a bit until the final buzzer sounded on the match before his, I tapped him on the back, and told him “you’re up,” and he headed out onto the mat to wrestle.

He made the kid feel important.  And I saw right there….the unconventional Kingdom of God.

The good news is that God has sown Jesus into all places of the world, and the Word does takes root and flourishes, but in the unlikeliest of places, the unlikeliest of people, and in all sorts of unconventional ways.  The point Jesus is making about through parables like this one today is that the Kingdom of God is an unconventional thing, and works in unconventional ways. As Jesus’ disciples, maybe we’re simply called to listen…and to tune ourselves into where this unconventional Kingdom of God breaks into the world and in our lives.  As Jesus’ disciples, perhaps it’s simply our job to point it out and take part in the Kingdom of God when it makes itself known and comes near to us.  And when I think about what it means to be church and when I think about our church, there have been a number of ways the unconventional Kingdom of God has shown itself in my time with you all.

Maybe you remember two years ago, when we took part in God’s Work, Our Hands weekend by hauling a bunch coolers full of bottled water downtown, and giving them away to people who were walking around the Farmer’s Market on that 90-degree day: The Unconventional Kingdom of God.

Or maybe you’ve provided food or helped back meals for elementary school kids as we’ve worked with Faith Lutheran, Suffolk on their Micah’s Backpack feeding program, which provides food over the weekend for kids who may not have things to eat when they go home: The Unconventional Kingdom of God.

Or maybe you took part in the Unconventional Kingdom of God this past summer,  as a tour of the Portsmouth Colored Library Museum and Emmanuel AME Church downtown, which was a hiding place for slaves on the Underground Railroad, was organized by one of our members and people came together to reconnect to the history of race and civil rights in our country, so that we might address issues of race that plague our country today.

And then there were four women this past summer who never thinking this would be there thing, accepted the invitation to attend Synod Assembly this year.  These four women, two from each congregation, traveled together and endured a lot of sitting on uncomfortable chairs, but a relationship between them took root, ideas were shared, and a monthly book club where folks from both congregations have taken part has grown.  The Unconventional Kingdom of God.

And you have learned to share…..you’ve learned to share when for years you’ve never really had to consider sharing with any other church.  And in sharing things like pastors and secretaries despite some of the growing pains fruit has been produced out of that endeavor.

God has sown seeds of good news in this place: in unlikely, but fertile, soil.  And as we take time to recall some of these ways the Kingdom of God has come near, we can hope knowing that God continues to sow Jesus and that as God’s disciples, if we just open our imaginations a bit, tune ourselves into the Word of God still speaking, this unconventional Kingdom of God comes near….all we have to do is look for it.  Amen.

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