Sermon by Keith on Mark 4:1-34
There is something wrong that happens every year about this time. No, I’m not talking about the snow and colder temps. I actually really like this time of year when life slows down and a good book and hot cup of coffee make for a nice day. But here is the problem: As I stand there looking out the window at the blanket of snow across the backyard with that cup of coffee in hand, I hear the mail get delivered into our mailbox. I go grab it, and inside is a seed catalog or two.
How many of you have been getting seed catalogs lately? Now, after having perused the catalogs a couple of times, when I stand at the window, the calm of winter isn’t there anymore. My mind has rushed to spring and potential of the gardens. Which raised bed will I plant the green beans this year? What kind of green beans will I plant? I wonder what the kids will want to plant in their bed this year? As I stare out the window, I no longer see just drifts of snow, I can see in my mind new shoots of growth coming up through the snow. I see abundance! The potential for new growth takes root right if front of my eyes.
Maybe that’s what Jesus wants us to see in these parables about seeds and the kingdom of God. If you look hard enough, maybe you can see the Kingdom of God taking root in places and ways that you never would have expected, even in the most extreme and outlandish conditions.
There are lots of definitions about parables, but a new one I came across was from CH Dodd. He suggests that parables were used to lead listeners from a concrete and common experience into an uncertain and mysterious reflection that result in new insights. That’s what we see going on in the parable of the sower. There are the birds, rocks, and the scorching sun that everyone had known and experienced. There is the planting of that year’s crop. But every time I’ve ever read these words, I have a bunch of questions for Jesus, like, “What’s wrong with this guy? Why is he throwing valuable seeds on the rocks and among the weeds?”
Then I have to remember that Jesus sometimes takes the ordinary to the extreme to make a point about God and about ourselves. Everyone listening to his words would know how the farmer would plant his seeds; probably many of them had done it themselves. The farmer would walk in the field, taking handfuls of seeds, and broadcasting them out upon the soil before plowing. The irony of this parable is Jesus has the sower casting seeds in places that no prudent sower would ever cast his seeds. It would be like trying to plant a wheat field on the back side of Mt. Emily. You just don’t do that. You plant down in the valley, where the ground is level and fertile and it is easy to water. So the question that comes up is what is the purpose of this parable that takes planting seeds to an extreme?
The reference at the end of the parable to an incredible, extraordinary yield is clearly an encouraging message. And those references to those seed eating birds, the rocks, and the scorching sun all suggest opposition to what the sower is doing. There is no suggestion that the qualities of the seeds vary. The seed that is cast on the rock has the same potential as that cast on the good soil. It is the reception of the seeds that varies.
The parable describes both the generosity of the sower in sowing seeds and difficulties encountered by the seeds. The reception of the seeds is where the problems occur. No wonder Jesus ends this parable with the exhortation to hear, to listen and be receptive soil.
For me, there are many levels of good news to be harvested in these seed parables. What’s God up to? God is up to his usual graciousness that goes beyond our expectations. God is willing to plant his kingdom here, there, and everywhere with the hope that it grows into something big and marvelous. The Kingdom of God is for everyone, everywhere. God is the sower who cannot be bound by the limits of human activity or imagination. We cannot raise a garden bed around God’s actions.
Furthermore, the seeds of God’s gracious action spread beyond where we would expect them to be, even beyond where we might wish them to be. We may want to limit the sowing of the seeds into just certain fields belonging to certain landowners, but the scattered seeds from God’s arm spill out beyond any limits we can place on God.
But there must be a response. This is where we come in. All the seeds that God has thrown hither and yon have the potential to grow huge and spread like the mustard seed and produce beyond our imagination.
The problem isn’t the seed or the sower. I could never say or believe that God wastes his love and grace on someone who isn’t receptive to that love and grace. Even if people turn and reject the Sower, God just keeps lobbing that love and grace upon them. God can’t help it. That’s the very nature of God. And it is even a gift of God when our very lives hear God’s call to discipleship, growth, readiness, and receptivity which call to us from this parable.
There are mysterious connections between God’s actions and our actions, between God’s initiative and our obedient response. Martin Luther, the Reformer, once said that the learned tongue, the ready ear, and the prepared heart are all related. All are necessary for fruitful discipleship. Without a learned tongue, discipleship is misdirected. Without a ready ear, discipleship is paralyzed. Without a prepared heart, discipleship is resisted.
Clearly, worship, study, prayer, and fellowship are part of that life of discipleship that helps us grow and flourish is ways we may not understand, but there is also an invitation in this parable to walk with God and sow in places that we might never expect a response to take place. We share God’s love and grace with people whom we might think of as rigid and unreceptive. We go places that might seem unproductive not because of our labor, but of the potential of the kingdom of God to take root and flourish.
This weekend, we remember the civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, who continued to go places with a message of equality that is promised to all of humanity that got him hosed, beaten, and attacked. He could have stayed in his home church preaching about it, but he went out to some of the thorniest, hardest places in the south and cast seeds of God’s love and hope until a whole country responded.
We, too, don’t say it is wrong to share the good news with that group because they look or act or vote differently, or are hard, crusty, or just too stubborn to receive what God wants to give them. We need new eyes, eyes of the Sower who is willing to throw kingdom seeds everywhere.
We don’t look out and see hard, rocky ground or hungry birds or thorny ground anymore. We know the power and potential that is hidden away in the seeds of God’s grace and love that have been planted in us and that we want, no, we have to share with others. Seeing with the sower’s eyes changes how we view the world. It changes our actions and our hope.
There are no longer lost causes, but only abundant possibilities. We see the Kingdom of God growing and expanding in truly unexpected and amazing ways. Amen.