When it comes to teaching, you’ve got to admit: Jesus is not an organized, 1-2-3, a-b-c 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, to chew on.
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 – how some can be open and respond to God enthusiastically while others seem completely closed off.
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.
In Jesus’ day, you saved seeds for planting from the previous year’s harvest. You had to carefully gather seeds and store them safely, making sure they didn’t spoil or that varmints didn’t get into them. Seeds were precious.
But 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. We call it the parable of the soils, but the bigger story may be 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.
I read a story this past week that kind of stuck in my mind. A man in Tennessee has had kidney disease for many years, and now it has gone from painful and very serious to life threatening. Back in October two different close donor matches did not pass the final tests to be kidney donors, and it was a big blow. A local TV news reporter spoke with the family about it.
A woman named Rhonda Jackson, who happened to live in the same small town, was watching the news that day. She didn’t really know the man but she knew who he was. And as she watched the news story, she somehow knew she needed to help. She said, “I think the Lord just spoke to me that day and said ‘You need to do this. You just need to go ahead and do it.” So she called the number at Vanderbilt Medical Center.
She said she didn’t want to tell anyone at first, because she didn’t want to get their hopes up if it didn’t work out. But as she kept passing the tests she reached out to the man’s wife.
And last week, when Jason Robbins arrived for his dialysis, he had the surprise of his life. His wife, children, mother, sister and other family were there along with a woman he had seen around town but did not really know. That woman was Rhonda Jackson, who had been approved as his kidney donor.
She said she was never scared because she knew this was something God wanted her to do. And in fact, Jackson even had a doctor write that down as her reason for donating her kidney. The surgery is set for a few weeks from now.
My question is, how does somebody do that? How does that happen? And I think the answer is, someone doesn’t just wake up one morning and decide to make such a generous and gracious decision. My guess is that somewhere along the way, maybe early on in life, someone helped to plant seeds of kindness and empathy and generosity and love. Someone planted seeds of a Christ-like spirit, and those seeds grew in this woman’s life so that when she heard about a man in dire need, she was ready to respond.
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 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 tiny cutting that grows into a mighty cedar, strong and powerful and a place of blessing and refuge. But Jesus turns this story on its head. Instead of a cedar sapling, 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 best a shrub, and is generally regarded as a weed.
The kingdom of God, says Jesus, 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.
Maybe 8 or 10 years 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.
The next fall, we gave it a haircut and brought it in for the winter. That year we had a new kitten, and we were worried that Harry would either eat it or get dirt everywhere, and we were right. So I took it downstairs and put it on top of an old refrigerator, near a window well. And I kind of forgot about it. Maybe two months later, I thought, “Oh no, the vine” – and I went to check on it, thinking it was probably dead. But lo and behold, it was thriving, with new growth reaching up toward the small amount of sun from the window well.
Birds are not going to make nests in it, and it is definitely never going to be King of the Forest, but this vine just grows and hangs on and surprises 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.
I sat in with the Theology Class last Sunday. There was such good conversation at Fellowship Time that they were pretty late getting started, and rather than watch the video for that week, they just visited. And somehow we were talking about Bible translations and I think Johnie mentioned the Cotton Patch Version of the Bible.
If you don’t know about the Cotton Patch Bible, it is a translation by a man named Clarence Jordan. He 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. And 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 over 800,000 homes around the world for people in need, including here in Ames. Our church is involved with Habitat. The Cotton Patch Gospels were made into a musical. The singer Harry Chapin wrote the music, and that musical is still performed, inspiring many people.
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 Theological Seminary after having Martin Luther King Jr. come speak at the school. The seminary president told him it had cost the school thousands of dollars in donations. Henlee said that it was money well spent. After he was fired he became an ethics professor at the University of Louisville, and many years later, after he had retired from teaching at Louisville, he was asked to come and teach courses at the seminary again. By then he was a kind of living legend and he was one of my favorite professors. Henlee Barnette influenced two different generations of ministers, incudinmg me, 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, in many directions, among all kinds of people. That’s the way it works. The kingdom is like a mustard seed.
I think of Rosa Parks, tired after a long day’s work, refusing to give up her seat on a bus. I think of Martin Luther King, Jr., agreeing to lead the bus boycott in Montgomery. He was 26 years old. He was young enough and the family had enough connections that if the boycott were a total failure he would be able to find another church. But these were seeds that grew and grew and grew.
In his Letter from the Birmingham Jail in 1963, King wrote, “[T]he early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” In other words, even in the face of opposition, the church was about planting seeds.
How do we sow seeds? Often, I think, it is in ways that we might not think of as seed-sowing at all:
- through friendship
- through a kind word
- through welcoming the stranger
- through encouragement
- through acts of kindness
- through speaking up for what is right and doing what is right, even when there is a cost
- through modeling integrity and faithfulness
- through deep prayer and heartfelt worship
- through our gifts of time and talent and money
So, keep it up. Don’t worry about how receptive the ground will be, don’t worry about running out of seed, don’t worry about the results. Just keep sowing those seeds. Amen.