Mark 4:26-34 – The Power and Danger of Hope
One of the first times I can remember watching The Wizard of Oz was soon after my parents purchased our first color television set. I was able to witness the transition from black and white to color and back again, and the story seemed to take on a whole new depth and meaning.
Technicolor added visual depth to an already remarkable story. I especially remember the visit to Emerald City, and the “horse of a different color.” But most of all, I remember that making the story come alive in this new way also increased the very real fear I felt at various times during the movie.Every time they turned around, Dorothy, Toto, and their new friends were faced with one terrifying situation or another. Despite their fear, however, somehow, some way, they hung on to a semblance of hope, and this hope kept them going; it kept them moving onward even when things seemed hopeless.
If they had been standing alone, any one of these characters may have given up and given in to hopelessness and despair. But together, they felt stronger; together, hope kept them moving forward, facing the next challenge; together, they gave it their all, because they trusted that if they faced their fears and persevered in following the Yellow Brick Road, their hope would be realized.
A few decades after our friends successfully made it out of Oz and Dorothy discovered that she had never truly been alone, another blockbuster film hit the screens: the Hunger Games. Like Dorothy searching for the wizard, the main characters in this film were up against seemingly impossible odds.
At one point, the mastermind of the horrifying games of survival of the fittest and the strongest after which the movie is named declared, “Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear… But for that very reason it is as perilous for a dictator as it is useful: A little hope, is effective; a lot of hope is dangerous." The dictator, you see, counted on the individual bit of little hope inspired by personal strength resulting in a dog-eat-dog sense of survivalism inspired by desperation. Yet, those who ultimately persevered and won the day were those who bonded to work together to defeat the evil around them.
Looking at today’s scripture texts, we find that it is hope that Jesus points us to.
Jesus has been speaking in parables to explain the kingdom of God is like; a kingdom where hope wins out over fear. In today’s text, Jesus likens the kingdom of God, the kingdom in fact inaugurated with the coming of Jesus himself, to the tiny mustard seed.
I would hazard a guess that mustard is not a seed or plant common to most of us here today. Living in the Mid-Atlantic when I think about mustard, I think about all the wonderful varieties of mustard found in grocery and gourmet cooking stores and websites. We don’t really think about the nature of the plant this condiment comes from. But this was a plant people of Jesus’ time would know about.
Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, sown upon the ground, the smallest of seeds, yet when it grows up it becomes so large that it is able to shelter birds as they nest in its shade.
We might think this would be a good thing, right? Yet, the original listeners to this parable probably think Jesus is joking. Mustard was a pesky, even somewhat dangerous plant. Because it was invasive, it was even outlawed.
It’s this kind of mustardly behavior that threated crops and vineyards of Jesus’ time and made the plant undesirable; for these are plants quickly take over and choke out other, preferred, plants.
It makes you wonder what on earth Jesus was saying when he compared the kingdom of God to a plant that takes over where it is not wanted, gets out of control, and attracts those who are not necessarily welcome! (birds)
And Holy Flying Monkeys, what is Jesus thinking when he says this plant is what the kingdom of God is like?
Here is the good news that doesn’t look at first glance like good news: Like the mustard plant, the kingdom of God can’t be controlled.
The kingdom of God comes about at God’s will and like the “invasive” mustard plant, God will not be contained or defeated by any other powers, no power on earth is stronger than God.
The kingdom of God will draw in and shelter those who might be considered undesirable –
the HIV infected,
the poor and needy, and most of all - the sinner – in other words, all of us.
The kingdom of God has come to take over,
to overturn the status quo,
and to transform the kingdoms of the earth.
Now, as you can imagine - for those who benefit from the status quo, this is not good news.
But for those who were outsiders in their own communities, ostracized by society, or otherwise disenfranchised, this is very good news.
For the early church, struggling through fear, this gospel was great news.
For us, today, who sometimes feel beat up, like outsiders, like pretenders, this is likewise very good news.
This is news that gives hope.
These are words that we can trust, sent by Jesus to invade the
most fearsome corners of the world
and of our very lives.
The kingdom of God conveys hope; the only thing more powerful than fear.
A little hope is effective;
a lot of hope is dangerous.
Jesus gives us is maximum hope.
Yet we might ask, how is it that this hope is as perilous as it is useful? Who might find it dangerous?
How about the powers that subjugate the marginalized; those that benefit from exploitation of the powerless; those who enslave the weak and overpower the poor.
The hope Jesus offers is dangerous to those who deal in fear-mongering: like unscrupulous leaders, drug lords, terrorists, both domestic and foreign; like those who promote fear and hatred toward targeted groups of people; corrupt officials in public and private arenas who prey on those who live without hope.
The good news of this gospel, my friends, is that even more than the mustard plant is hard to control, the kingdom of God cannot be controlled. It cannot be restrained. It cannot be contained. And Jesus makes us part of that kingdom
Therefore, we shall not fear. If there is nothing else the past couple of Sundays have reminded us, God’s own Spirit comes to give us great strength and the gifts to bless this kingdom in Jesus’ name.
If our friends from Oz had given in to hopeless despair, they would never have kept going, overcoming obstacles in their way, defeating the darkness in their world.
They never would have discovered the gifts they had already been given.
The good news in this gospel is that God is here, giving each of us the gifts we need to anticipate, participate in, and to offer hope in this kingdom of God. God is here like the mustard plants, growing, spreading, and blessing those in most need of love and mercy, of protection and shelter, of compassion and generosity.
The kingdom is at work here in the thousands of meals prepared, given out and delivered to the lonely and to those in need not just of food but of the love and prayer that goes out with it. The kingdom is at work here in VBS packets being assembled for the children who will learn more about Jesus in a couple of weeks despite our need to do so online.
The kingdom work at Zion includes utility, rent, shelter, and other assistance given to our Helping Hand fund, as well as donations given through your generosity to abused women and children, men and women rebuilding lives after prison, the homeless now being sheltered, at-risk children being provided safe activity for the summer through the Lutheran Camping Corporation, the Wittel Farm Food Growing Project, and more.
As disciples of Christ, when we share the love that God first showed us in Christ, we are like mustard plants, participating in the kingdom work, providing Christ’s hope in the world.
The kingdom of God is spread through soup kitchens, blood that is donated, and prayers said for loved ones and strangers alike each week here in worship and daily in our homes.
The kingdom of God is at work with every smile shared, every kind word spoken, and every card sent to the lonely, the sick, and the homebound.
God’s Spirit fills us with hope, and when we live in hope, we get things done. When we live in hope, joy follows, as we help those who need to experience the blessing of this kingdom work.
When we remember the indiscriminately shared, sheltering love of God demonstrated in the example of a simple, small seed, we learn what it is to live in hope, trusting that God’s full, technicolor love will grow the kingdom as God has always done.
God will continue to scatter seed, continue to invade the dark and stormy places of the world. As part of that work, we share hope that is stronger than fear, driven by the grace of God, who frees us to turn the black and white of the status quo into the brilliant, life-giving, life-sustaining colors of the kingdom of God.
May God grant us each hope stronger than fear, more powerful than any power on earth, and more dangerous than we can dare to imagine. Amen.