"With many such parables, he spoke the word to them. He did not speak to them except in parables."
The words of Mark seem to summarize the preaching ministry of Jesus. Time and again in the gospels, Jesus gathers a crowd of followers together and speaks to them, not in propositional assertions, creedal statements, or enumerated lists but through these vivid and memorable narratives. A sower went out to sow. A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho. There was a man who had two sons.
The parable was such a powerful tool for Jesus because through it he transformed everyday, mundane events and objects-a mustard seed, yeast mixed with flour, a net thrown into the sea, a landowner who went out to hire laborers-into sacred channels for divine truth. Parables do not explain God's kingdom. They describe it in ways that are accessible to hearers.
And yet parables are not merely descriptive. They are transformative. They reframe our vision of those ordinary events and objects. And so, each parable has a punch line, a moment of revelation, a surprise turn that shocks and sometimes even offends listeners. Often the story is going along exactly as we would expect, nothing remarkable: a shepherd is trying to keep track of one hundred aimless dumb sheep, and, of course, one of them gets away, gets lost. But then, the punch line comes: the shepherd leaves the ninety-nine sheep behind to chase after the one that is lost. And in this surprise turn at the end, we see clearly displayed the difference between our world (practical, moderate, rational) and the kingdom of God (extravagant, unrestrained, imprudent).
The turning points in this Sunday's two brief parables are impossible to miss. Mark's fourth chapter begins with Jesus teaching a large crowd alongside the lake. His topic, as always, is the kingdom of God. His method, as usual, is imaginative storytelling. He makes several attempts to capture God's kingdom with an appropriate narrative or image, and then we come to the pictures that occupy today's reading. The kingdom of God is like one who scatters seed not knowing whether or how it might grow. The kingdom of God is like...a mustard seed.
I can imagine the surprise of the crowd at this unlikely selection. Perhaps they were expecting Jesus to say that the kingdom of God is like a fortress, like a city of gold or, if the agricultural arena was preferred, a forest of mighty redwoods. But no, we heard the teacher correctly, the kingdom of almighty God is like a tiny seed. We've arrived at the punch line.
Like the parables that precede it, this image is interpreted a variety of ways. Usually, interpretations center on God as the sower, the seed is the gospel message, and we humans as the dirt. That is, we are called to be fertile ground, good dirt for the growth of God's kingdom. It is a powerful image and one that challenges us to more faithful and intentional discipleship.
But the power and beauty of a parable come in the range of meanings that we might find within each story. And so, I want to suggest another possibility. It's the one that intrigues me most for the church in 2018.
What if for us, here and now, these two parables are not so much a description of what God does to us, but rather a prescription of what we are called to do for God? What if we are not the soil but the sower? What if we are the ones to whom these precious mustard seeds have been entrusted? This reading shifts the church from passive recipient to active planter of the kingdom of God.
Understood this way, the parable offers a powerful promise to those of us who have the courage to sow the seeds we've been given. The promise is this: growth will come. That part is not our business and certainly not under our control. The sower scatters and then sleeps. And growth happens. The sower doesn't even know how.
So it is with us. We just plant the seeds we've been given. We tell stories. We offer genuine invitations. We share joy and pain. We do our part. But we do not get to decide which seeds will grow into towering trees and which will rot in the soil.
All of us have heard or said something like, "I don't believe he will ever be in the church again, not after what happened" or "it's a lost cause, just focus your attention somewhere else. Be more practical." But we do not get to decide when the soil is just right for seeds. We just scatter and plant and pray. Sometimes, the growth is immediately recognizable. Sometimes, it comes so gradually you don't see it at all. And then, a blossom appears. It happens. And so, we are not permitted to give up on anyone. We are not allowed to be selective in our sowing.
A few years ago, at the church I served in Atlanta, we decided to launch a group for young adults. "Group" might be overly generous. If statistics were to be believed, this was not the most practical or efficient use of our time and energy, especially in the mainline church, but we sensed the need to offer something for the demographic that we saw least often, and so were determined to try. I gathered two members of the church who fit the description and asked them to lunch. I would prepare and lead the discussions, but they would need to issue the invitations. And we started. That was the Fall of 2014. The group has grown and its reach has expanded, but what moves me the most are the relationships that have been formed and the faith that has been grown because of the seeds planted nearly four years ago. In my final gathering with the group this Spring, I looked around at individuals who had found in this invitation what they most needed for this part of their journey of faith. I saw planted seeds that have grown into towering trees. I saw a community that would provide nourishment and strength for years and even decades to come.
Each time I read this parable, a favorite children's song returns to my mind. I've been singing it as I wrote this sermon, though I'll spare you that particular pleasure. "The Garden Song" was written by David Mallett, but the voice in my head is always John Denver:
Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
All it takes is a rake and a hoe
And a piece of fertile ground.
Inch by inch, row by row
Someone bless these seeds I sow
Someone warm them from below
Till the rain comes tumblin' down.
This is where the parables of the scattering sower and the mustard seed meet the story of the church and our journey of faith. We are called to courageously and joyfully sow seeds, to scatter what we have been given, trusting that God will bless the seeds we sow.
"Day1" describes itself as the voice of the mainline Protestant churches. In our time, one would be forgiven for believing that this voice has faded to a whisper. The once influential role of our churches and leaders has been weakened by internal division, lack of innovation, and outside forces. I also wonder if we have been overly selective in our seed-sowing practices.
Maybe we can hear in this parable a challenge and a promise. Here it is: We are not finished yet. We have seeds to scatter. We have a story to tell of a God whose grace is more powerful than all that seeks to divide or separate us. We have a story to tell of a Lord and Savior who calls us to actions of compassion and mercy and justice in the community and far beyond. We have a story to tell of a church that is large enough for people on all ends of every spectrum, a church whose mission is grounded in deep and sound theology, a church that takes the Bible seriously as the living word of God. We have a story to tell of a God who is still alive and active in the world and in our lives, who awakens us and calls us and commands us and compels us. What marvelous seeds you have been given to sow. What a terribly tragic shame it would be if you choose to put them in your pocket or scatter with too much discrimination or fear. What a loss to the community and to the work of the kingdom if our story goes untold--if our future is compromised by caution.
When he died in 1862, the naturalist, author, and philosopher Henry David Thoreau left behind a dozen notebooks containing unpublished essays, poems, and reflections. One of those essays is the result of a meticulous scientific study revealing how wind, weather and animals move seeds about to produce new plants. Always able to discover the truth and lesson in nature, Thoreau wrote, "Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders."[i]
Two things I know are true. Without the planted seed, there will be no growth. But, if we sow the seed of faith that we have been given, small as it may seem, if we indiscriminately and extravagantly spread God's grace, we can expect wonders. It's all about having faith in a seed.
[i] Henry David Thoreau, as quoted in Faith in a Seed: The Dispersion of Seeds and Other Late Natural History Writings, Island Press, 1993, p. xvii.