Follow Jesus. It’s a good way to irritate people.

Mark 4:26-34
June 17, 2012
Steve Hammond

I brought one of my flower boxes this morning because we are talking about a couple of stories that Jesus told about plants. I wish I had a before picture. Because just about a month ago, when I planted these flowers in this box, there wasn’t much there. Four petunia plants, each with one flower on them. A couple of vines with one flower on them that barely made it over the top of the box. And just a little clump or whatever these yellow things are. And because if you want to make petunias flower, you have to pinch the first flowers off. I just did them a couple at a time. But it didn’t look like much just a month ago. Now look.

What did I do to make them grow like this. Not much. Just watered them. It’s like the guy in the story Jesus told. He just threw out some seed and didn’t do much else. But this amazingly wonderful thing happens. Botanists can tell you how it works, but it is still a wonder.

Jesus said this is kind of what the realm or the reign of God is like. The seeds get scattered and you get something beautiful, even though you didn’t do much to make it happen, nor are quite able to explain it.

Gardens, fields, and even flower boxes don’t always go well. And it just seems like something has interrupted the whole process. It seems that way with the realm of God sometimes. We don’t seem to be getting where we ought to be going.

Do you know that story in Jeremiah, where the people of Israel were under siege, and the survivors were just about to get carted off to exile in Babylon? The end was near. The people were wondering what had happened with that business about the reign of God. How could that mean anything if God’s enemies were just about to overwhelm God’s people and lay waste to Jerusalem, the city of God?

Do you remember that really odd thing Jeremiah did? Not the walking around naked thing with the yoke on his shoulders? Here at the end, when the enemy was just about to breach the walls of the city, Jeremiah gets a real estate agent and buys a lot so he can build a house. Now there’s not going to be any building going on in Jerusalem for more than 70 years. And Jeremiah knew that.

This was not some desperate act to rally the folk for their last stand, but Jeremiah’s trust that this was not the end of the story. The seed had been planted. The reign of God had not come to an end. It would blossom forth, even if at that time it was just a seed planted in the dark earth.

Kate Huey, writes this for the United Church of Christ blog(
eleventh-sunday-in-ordinary-time.html). “There’s so much around us today, as there always has been, that may press us down in spirit. We see war and hatred, prejudice and injustice, hunger and violence, the everyday grind of so many lives, the apparent hopelessness and intractability of some problems and conditions. It’s difficult indeed to know the ways of God, so often hidden from view or not detected (or noticed) by us. Nevertheless God is at work always and everywhere, bringing about God’s will in unexpected and marvelous ways, like the amazing things that can grow from the tiniest of seeds. I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau’s words, ‘I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.’”

The next story Jesus tells in Mark’s Gospel is the more famous one about the tiny mustard seed that sprouts into this amazingly huge bush. It’s a great story and it picks up on this thing we like about the little guy, the underdog, accomplishing this surprising and inspiring feat.

The people who first heard this story, though, must have really been shaking their heads. They knew all about mustard plants. They were indeed these massive plants that sprung from very tiny seeds, and took over. They were these awful weeds, that once they got established in your field or garden were almost impossible to get rid of. Mustard plants were the first century Palestinian version of kudzu, that plant that has over run the Southern United States (show the picture).

So I think that Jesus is telling us that the realm of God is something that is going to irritate a lot of people and they are going to do their best to root it out before it overtakes these nice little gardens they have grown. These gardens of racism, nationalism, sexism, and homophobia. These fields where the idea is to fence out others through religious intolerance, class warfare, and prejudice. These whole farms grown on greed and oppression where they shake their fists at God saying we don’t want you here.

This seed that Jesus tells us that God has sewn are not to make us into nice little people, in nice little churches. We’re not supposed to be nice. We’re supposed to be irritating.

Oberlin is a town that was founded to irritate people. You read the stories and you realize the Oberlin Project, that first Oberlin Project of 1833, was not well received. Both church and society in the United States wanted to eradicate Oberlinianism before it got out of hand and took over the garden. It was dangerous stuff.

How, preachers thundered from their pulpits, could those heretics in Oberlin claim that God’s salvation was open to all? Didn’t people realize, many an editorialist wrote, that working to free slaves and educating men and women, blacks and whites together would undermine the nation? This Evangelical reform movement that was springing up in places like Oberlin had to be wiped out before it was too late. Who knew what might grow from that tiny seed?

The authorities thought they had found a way to destroy the mustard plant called Oberlin by passing the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850. Oberlin, and places like it, would be violating the law if they harbored escaped slaves. And violate the law we did. Charles Finney could do his own thundering from the pulpit and he said there was not way the people of Oberlin were going to obey such an unjust law that so blatantly violated the laws of God.

It all came to a head with the Oberlin/Wellington Rescue when escaped slave John Price was rescued from the bounty hunters. This is why Nate Brandt titled his book about Oberlin, “The Town that Started the Civil War.” After the actions of Oberlin, those who wanted to preserve slavery decided the only way they could do it was by going to war.

This little seed that God planted became this big, old irritating bush right here in this town. And we are still irritating people. I just got a facebook note the other day from someone chastising me and this church for welcoming gay and lesbian people into our midst. You take some chances with some of the folk you friend.

And it turns out the anti-slavery work of Oberlin is still not finished. The other day I was listening to one of my podcasts where the person being interviewed had just written a book about people who go about re-enacting wars. He said the biggest problem Civil War re-enacters run into is that everybody wants to fight for the South, they have to make people fight for the North, with the promise that in a couple of years they can join the Confederacy.

Think about that. They think that the side that fought to preserve slavery was made up of the good guys. We’ve got some irritating we need to do.

Here in this little box of flowers the most amazing thing has happened, even though I am the one who is supposed to be tending it. Like the realm of God, it just keeps growing.

As we get ready to end up I thought I would share this reflection by Bruce Epperly, whose blog is called The Adventurous Lectionary (
“There is a quiet movement of grace in our lives. Unheralded, and mostly unobserved, changing the world not by bravado or coercion, or even celebrity status or miraculous demonstrations, but by constantly growing grace and emerging presence. The miracle is in the moment – every moment. Mustard seeds abound, seeds of grace are scattered broadly, children grow into leaders, and new creation bursts forth out of ashes. Look deeply, feel sensitively, and pray constantly. Awaken your heart, train your senses. God is moving providentially in subtle moments of growth and surprise.”

Look at us. Just this little seed. But Jesus says we can be really, really irritating if we want..