Noticeable

The audio on this recording is pretty bad. I apologize for that. It looks like our lectern microphone is having some issues and that’s generating a lot of static.

A few years ago, I gave a sermon at Mariah’s church. It was a sermon about holy impatience for the kingdom of God and the messianic banquet. It was about getting the party started. It was a masterpiece of homiletics.

And in that sermon, I said that I don’t wear a tie unless it is absolutely necessary and it is never absolutely necessary.

I also said that even if only God can fill every stomach, we can share our food. And even if only God can slake every thirst, we can share our wine. And even if only God can swallow up death and wipe away every tear and take away all disgrace, we can make sure everyone has access to healthcare and comfort the downtrodden and act gracefully.

But the part that people remember to this day is that I do not wear ties. People still mention it when I visit. It is the thing that people there know about me.

A few weeks ago, on the last Sunday of 2019, I told you about the Narrative Lectionary: the list of readings, one for every Sunday and every holiday, that takes us—and other churches all around the country—through the whole story of the Bible every year.

And I told you that it means that you can’t blame me when the readings have hard words; you have to blame the people who chose the readings for the Narrative Lectionary. And I told you that we were going to spend the next few months—through Easter Sunday in April—reading through the gospel according to Mark.

What I did not tell you was that using the Narrative Lectionary means that I sometimes have to preach on a passage like this… with a really hard word right in the middle.

In today’s reading, Jesus tells a parable:

There once was a sower who scattered some seed. Some fell on the path and the birds ate it. Some fell on rocky ground, and it grew, and then it withered and died. Some fell among the weeds, and it grew, and the weeds choked the life out of it. And some fell on good soil, and that worked well: it grew and bore fruit.

And then… the disciples ask about the parable. Mark doesn’t tell us what they asked. Maybe it was as simple as, “What’s up with the parables?” Maybe it was something more complicated.

And Jesus answers them: “I tell you about the kingdom of God in plain language, so that you will understand. And I tell other people about the kingdom of God in parables… so that they won’t.”

And that’s a hard word. But it’s also the kind of word that Mark likes. Throughout Mark’s gospel, Jesus is telling the people who recognize him as the Messiah not to tell anyone else. Even on Easter Sunday, when the women go to the tomb and discover that Jesus isn’t there…  and an angel tells them that he has been raised and to go tell Peter and the others… they run away… and they tell no one.

It’s like Jesus said, one time, don’t tell anyone about this thing. And Mark took it… and ran with it… and made it the center of his gospel.

I understand the impulse. It feels good to be on the inside… to be in the room where it happens… to be in the know… to have something that no one else has.

It feels good to hear, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables.”

There are companies and institutions and campaigns and movements and even churches who will try to sell you that idea for a whole lot of money, or a whole lot of time, or a whole lot of energy, or whole lot of loyalty, or whatever.

But here’s the thing: as soon as Jesus is done saying that, and as soon as Jesus is done explaining the parable about the sower and the path and the good soil to the disciples, Jesus undercuts the whole idea of a secret.

Because he says this:

No one brings a lamp in and hides it under a basket or under the bed. If you bring a light in, you use it to light the room. If you take a light out, you use it to light the world. So that everything that’s hidden can be found, and everything that’s secret will be seen.

And then he tells them about the kingdom:

The kingdom is like someone threw seed on the ground and it grew. By itself. Just kind of growing. The stalk, the head, the grain. And when it’s ready, he goes and harvests it.

Or it’s like mustard. It is a small seed when it is sown. But when it grows up it is a shrub that’s so big that the birds come and nest in it.

Or it’s like this. Someone spreads the good news.

And some people are the path. They hear the good news, but it is snatched away from them immediately.

And some people are rocky ground. They hear the good news, but they don’t have any roots, so they wither away at the first sign of trouble.

And some people are in the weeds. They hear the good news, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things choke it out of them.

And some people are good soil. They hear the good news and they accept it and it grows and they bear fruit. And not just a little bit of fruit, but a lot of fruit. Thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.

And none of those things… lamps on stands, grain that is ready to harvest, giant mustard shrubs, plants that bear fruit a hundredfold. None of those things sound like secrets. All of those sound noticeable.

There are those who will say, “The kingdom of God is secret. And I have it. And you don’t. But you could. If you come with me. And learn what I know. And believe what I believe.”

But the truth is that the kingdom of God is not about knowing. It’s not even about believing. At least, it’s not about the kind of knowing or the kind of believing that you can spell out plainly, with bullet points and diagrams, at a fourth-grade reading level.

The kingdom of God is about living… and doing… and loving. And it can start out small. It can start out almost imperceptible. It can start off a little bit hidden. But as it grows…

Well, it stops being small. It stops being imperceptible. It can’t be hidden anymore. It becomes noticeable. It becomes obvious.

In fact, the kingdom of God is like this:

It is like someone took a seed and planted… here. And we care for it. We keep the birds away and we clear away the rocks and we tear up the weeds and we cultivate good soil. And it grows. Little by little. And at first, we might not even see it. But then there’s a stem and a leaf and a stalk and a flower. And as it grows, it grows big. And the birds that we once kept away come and nest in its branches. And it bears fruit… and so many seeds that they just spill out… and they get everywhere.

And some places where they fall, they just fall. And other places where they fall, they grow. And the kingdom gets everywhere.

And the kingdom of God isn’t secret at all, and it’s everywhere, and you already have it, and you’re already in it, just look around.

It is the light by which you see everything.

Sometimes, I have to preach on a passage like this… with a really hard word right in the middle.

“I tell you about the kingdom of God in plain language, so that you will understand. And I tell other people about the kingdom of God in parables… so that they won’t.”

And that means that if the kingdom of God is a secret, then it’s only a secret because we’re keeping it. And we can only keep it if we pare it back and hem it in. And that is not the business we’re in.

We are not in the business of keeping secrets.

We are in the business of proclaiming the good news. Of sharing the flavor. Of lighting the lamps and sowing the seeds. Of professing the love and proclaiming the good news.

We are in the business of growing love. We are in the business of letting love spill out.

And that is a good business to be in. Amen.

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Now available from Wipf and Stock’s Cascade Books imprint, Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

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