So one day, Jesus said to his disciples, “the Kingdom of Heaven is like 3x squared plus 8x minus 9.” Thomas looked very confused and asked Peter, “What does the Teacher mean?” And Peter replied, “Don’t worry, it’s just another of his parabolas.”
I apologize for the mathematical humor this morning, but whether it is parabolas or parables, they can sometimes be hard to figure out. When it comes to teaching, Jesus is not a lecturer who gives the class material to memorize and regurgitate for the test. He is really not a 1-2-3, a-b-c, organized outline kind of guy. Jesus teaches by telling stories - sometimes funny, sometimes moving, sometimes obtuse, often challenging, often provocative.
Jesus’ parables often turn conventional wisdom on its head. They are stories for the hearers to ponder and contemplate.
We read several parables his morning, and they have to do with sowing seeds. First, there is the parable about the different kinds of soil. Seed is scattered along a path, where birds eat it. On rocky soil, where it sprouts but can’t put down roots and withers in the sun. Some in the weeds, where it gets choked out. And some on good soil, where there is a tremendous harvest.
Jesus’ disciples ask him what it all means. And they get a response about how the various types of soil are like various people. The story answers the question of why people respond differently to the Word. And then Jesus goes right into the next-parable. About setting a lamp where it can be seen. About bringing things into the open. About sharing. About generosity.
I think that the first parable, about sowing seed in different kinds of soil, is illuminated by Jesus’ words on generosity. Think about it for a moment: what kind of farmer sows seed along a path? Why would anybody plant seeds in gravel? Who would scatter seeds in the middle of a bunch of weeds?
Farming today is a high-tech business. Computerized equipment and GPS technology allows farmers to drop one seed per hole and to apply exactly the right amount of fertilizer exactly where it is needed. It is highly efficient. You don’t waste seeds, you don’t use more fertilizer than you need, you save on costs and you maximize both the harvest and your return on investment. The farmer in Jesus’ parable does just the opposite — wasting seeds, sowing seed whether or not there is any realistic chance of growth.
This is not at all the way to go about farming. And in Jesus’ day, if you ran out of seed, you didn’t just head down to the store and get another bag or call the seed company and have them deliver. You had to save seeds from the previous year’s harvest. You had to carefully gather seeds and store them safely for the next year’s planting, making sure they didn’t spoil or that varmints didn’t get into them. Seeds were precious. If you lost them or they went bad, you could be in big trouble.
Seeds were precious, and Jesus tells a story about this guy just tossing seeds all over the place, pretty well throwing them to the wind. The farmer is totally inefficient, even irresponsible, throwing seeds everywhere. We call it the parable of the soils, but to me the bigger story is the sower. And this is reinforced with Jesus talking about generosity and warning about stinginess.
If the seed is God’s love, then there is plenty to spread around. It won’t run out. You don’t have to carefully hang on to a part of last year’s crop in order to have love to plant. Like the farmer in this parable, we are to sow seeds of love everywhere and just recklessly, indiscriminately share the Good News — even in places where a harvest seems unlikely.
Jesus tells more stories about seeds and planting. The kingdom of God, he says, is like somebody who throws seed on a field and then just forgets about it. The seed sprouts, it grows, and they have no idea how this happens. They just plant the seed, and later on, there is a harvest.
Mary Ann Bird was born with multiple physical problems. She was deaf in one ear and had a cleft palate. Her nose wasn’t straight. The teasing words of her classmates left emotional scars.
At school, there was a hearing test each year, and Mary Ann dreaded it. In those days before an audiologist came to the school, the hearing test was pretty simple. The teacher would call each child to her desk, and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other. The teacher would whisper something to the child like “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” This was “the whisper test”; if the teacher’s phrase was heard and repeated, the child passed the test.
To avoid the humiliation of failure, Mary Ann would always cheat on the test, secretly cupping her hand over her one good ear so that she could still hear what the teacher said.
One year Mary Ann was in Miss Leonard’s class. The day for the dreaded hearing test came. When it was her turn, Mary Ann was called to the teacher’s desk. As she cupped her hand over her good ear, Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper.
“I waited for those words,” Mary Ann wrote, “which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.” Miss Leonard did not say “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” What she whispered was, “I wish you were my little girl.” Those words changed the way she thought of herself, really did change her life, and Mary Ann went on to become a teacher herself, a much-loved person of inner beauty and great kindness.
We are sowers of seeds. We simply sow the seeds, and the Kingdom of God grows and flourishes in ways we cannot imagine.
Jesus tells another parable, about a mustard seed. It is a familiar parable – maybe too familiar. Nathan Nettleton suggests that Jesus is actually telling a joke here, making a parody that we tend to miss because we are unfamiliar with the culture surrounding the story. Jesus’ story parallels one of the visions of the prophet Ezekiel:
Thus says the Lord God; I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar... On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest creatures of every kind.Israel is depicted as a mighty cedar tree which grows from a tiny cutting. This mighty tree stands proudly on the mountaintop and its branches provide shelter. Israel is seen as strong and powerful and a place of blessing and refuge. This vision of Ezekiel was a point of pride for the people, something to make Israelites feel good about themselves and their nation.
But Jesus turns this story on its head. Instead of being like a cutting from a cedar tree, the Kingdom of God is compared to a mustard seed. A mustard seed doesn’t grow into a mighty cedar; it grows into what is at most a shrub, and is generally regarded as a weed. The familiar prophecy from Ezekiel demands a mighty tree, but Jesus gives us a weedy shrub.
The kingdom of God is not like the biggest tree on the mountain. The world will not stand back and admire its branches. The work of the kingdom will mostly be seen as small and insignificant. Signing up for the kingdom of God is not about glory and honor. A mustard shrub, a weed, is not highly regarded.
But here’s the deal: you just can’t get rid of mustard. It’s a noxious weed that will not go away. It refuses to die. It just grows and spreads, and sometimes your best efforts to get rid of it only make it spread more. In saying that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, Jesus is really saying that although it may appear small and insignificant, it cannot be stopped.
A few summers ago, we planted some geraniums in a pot. Just to liven things up, I added a little vine to the mix. By the end of the summer, the geraniums were doing OK, but the vine was just going to town. It was doing so well that we decided to bring it in over the winter. The vines had spread 2 or 3 feet, so we gave it a good haircut and brought it in.
It made it through the winter and we put it back out on the deck the next summer. This time it was all vine, forget the geraniums. Again, it grew and grew. And then sometime in July, we were surprised to see a little blue flower. We didn’t know that it was going to flower, but it did.
We brought it in again for a second winter. Then this past summer we set it out on the bench on our deck, and the vines hung down 3-4-5 feet. And in the middle of the summer we had several little blue flowers.
Well, this fall, we thought about maybe bringing it in, but it seemed like we would never have a hard freeze, so we kept putting it off. Plus we now had Harry, our cat, and chances were Harry and the vine would not coexist very well. We thought maybe the vine had had a good run and it was time to let it go, but at the last minute we brought it in. I gave the vine its annual haircut but it looked like it was maybe too late - the leaves did not look very good and apparently they had started to freeze. And yes, Harry did try to dig around in the dirt so this probably wasn’t going to work anyway.
We were about to just pull the roots out and save the pot for next summer when we noticed some new growth in the middle of the pot. So instead of its usual haircut, it got a crew cut, leaving only this new growth. And because of Harry, we put the plant in the basement, on top of an old refrigerator, near a window well.
We sat it there and just kind of forgot about it. A couple of times we thought we needed to water it, but it was mostly “out of sight, out of mind.” On Friday morning, maybe two months after the vine had been consigned to a dark basement, I thought to go water it. And guess what: it was thriving. Lots of new growth, vines reaching toward the small amount of sun from the window well. Birds are not going to build nests in it, but this vine just grows and surprises and hangs on and keeps going. It is another parable of God’s kingdom where there is beauty and strength and power and fortitude in unexpected places. And this vine just will not die.
Clarence Jordan was born in 1912 in a small town in Georgia. From an early age he was troubled by the racial and economic injustice he saw in that community. He earned a degree in agriculture and wanted to help sharecroppers with scientific farming techniques. But Jordan decided that there was a large spiritual dimension to the problem. So he went to seminary and earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Greek. He and his wife Florence, along with another couple, Martin and Mabel England, who had been American Baptist missionaries in Burma, founded Koinonia Farms near Americus, Georgia. It was an interracial Christian farming community that was intended as a model of racial harmony. This was in 1942. Can you imagine – an interracial commune in the Deep South in 1942?
They were harassed and persecuted and threatened, not only by local citizens but by law enforcement and public officials, but they persevered in both preaching and living out the message of God’s love and care for all people of all races. Jordan wrote The Cotton Patch Gospels, a translation of the New Testament that is set in the American South. Paul’s Letter to the Romans becomes a letter to Washington, DC; Pilate is the Governor of Georgia; and so on. To capture the tension between Jewish Christians and Gentile believers, Jordan translated this “white Christians” and “black people.” The translation made the issues of racism and injustice come alive.
You don’t necessarily hear a lot about Jordan but he inspired and encouraged Millard Fuller to begin what is now Habitat for Humanity, which has built thousands of homes around the world for people in need, including here in Ames. The Cotton Patch Gospels were made into a musical. The singer Harry Chapin wrote the music, and that musical is performed to this day, inspiring many.
Harry Chapin, a humanitarian as well as musician, was influenced by Jordan through the Cotton Patch Gospel. Harry died in a car wreck in 1982 at age 39; the epitaph on his tombstone is from a song from Cotton Patch Gospels. “Now if a man tried to take his time on Earth – and prove before he died what one man's life could be worth - well, I wonder what would happen to this world?"
Chapin shared this drive to make a difference in the world with other musicians. One of them was Bruce Springsteen. Harry told Bruce that he does one concert for himself and the next one for the other guy. Half of his concerts were for charity and various causes. This had a big impact on Bruce. Springsteen said that he isn’t as generous as Harry, but he plays benefit concerts, works for social justice, and encourages other artists to do the same.
Clarence Jordan was a colleague and an influence on my seminary professor Henlee Barnette, who himself was quite a character. Henlee was fired in 1961 from the Southern Baptist Seminary after having Martin Luther King Jr. come speak at the school. The president told him it had cost the school thousands of dollars in donations. Henlee said that it was money well spent. Years later, when I was a student, he was asked to come and teach there again. Henlee Barnette influenced two different generations of ministers with his focus on the social and ethical demands of the gospel.
A kid in rural Georgia wanted to help people who were unfairly treated. He sowed the seeds, and the seeds grew in ways he would never have imagined. That’s the way it works. The kingdom is like a mustard seed.
How do we sow seeds? Often it is in ways that we might not think of as seed-sowing at all. Miss Leonard wasn’t trying to change Mary Ann Bird’s life when she whispered in her ear; she was just being herself — a kind, gracious, caring person with a heart for children, especially those in need. In simply acting in a loving way toward a child, she sowed seeds and changed that child’s life.
Through friendship, through a kind word, through a warm welcome, through encouragement, through acts of kindness, through speaking up for what is right, through modeling integrity and faithfulness, through deep prayer and heartfelt worship, through our gifts of time and talent and money, through the example of our lives and through the power of our words, we are sowing seeds all the time, seeds that may bear fruit in ways we will never know.
So, keep it up. Keep sowing those seeds, and in the ways of the kingdom, they will bear fruit in ways we cannot imagine. Amen.