Seeds for the Future
a message by the Rev. Dr. Bruce Havens
Arlington Congregational Church, U.C.C.
June 13, 2021
Mark 4:26-34 NRSV
26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
In the interest of transparency there are many things I am not good at. One of those things is auto mechanics. I had two older brothers who were car nuts. They both had real skills at mechanical stuff. Not me. I have always been thankful for Jon Lyon here at ACC because any car stuff – he is my go-to guy! Another thing I am no good at is gardening stuff. I not only don’t have a green thumb I have been known to be able to kill off a plastic plant. So when it comes to talking about seeds, and gardening and all that stuff in the Bible I am way outside my comfort zone. But it is a powerful metaphor for the life of faith, and it is there in Scripture so when it comes up, I don’t want to just skip over it.
So this morning I want to talk about the topic of “Seed for the Future.” Any seed planted is a prayer for the future. It is a hope for things to come. Faith and hope are tied together because both are always future oriented. As Paul said in Romans, Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. So when Jesus uses the metaphor of a seed, or tells parables about seeds it is clearly about the future.
Now the fact that Jesus uses seeds as the focus of many of his parables tells us that he is talking about something that is planted now, but will produce in the future. But more importantly, is that in using a parable to share his meaning, Jesus is intending to disrupt our expectations about the future. We sometimes misuse and misunderstand the way parables function in our faith. Too often we talk about them as if they are the same as a fable or a moralistic story.
Rev. David Lose, [www.davidlose.net, June 8, 2015], asks the question, “What’s the difference between a fable and a parable?” He says, “I think answering this question is crucial if we are to preach this passage. You see, a fable is primarily didactic, a clever story meant to offer some insight into and instruction about life – think Aesop’s Fables for a moment. A parable, on the other hand, is intended to be disruptive, to interrupt what you thought you knew and not just teach you something but actually to confront you with a surprising and often unwanted truth.
“Fables are handy when you want to give kids some good advice or teach them some moral or practical lesson. Who doesn’t remember the lesson of “The Tortoise and the Hare” (slow and steady effort pays off) or “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” (honesty is the best policy)? Parables, on the other hand, are useful when the truth you want to share is difficult – whether difficult to hear, comprehend, or believe.
“Parables, as Eugene Peterson has said, are in this sense like narrative time bombs. You hear them – tick – wonder about them – tick – think maybe you’ve got it – tick – and then as you walk away – tick – or over the course of the next day or so – tick – and all of a sudden the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home – boom!
“And so the first parable might be about the wonder of faith or the need to be ready to bring in the harvest. Or it might be about our complete inability to control the coming kingdom, to dictate whether we (and others) believe (or not). This second possibility is uncomfortable because it leaves us vulnerable. God’s kingdom comes apart from our efforts, cannot be controlled or influenced, and can only be received as a gift. In this sense, faith is apparently a lot more like falling in love than making a decision. Because kingdom-faith, like love, is something that comes from the outside and grabs hold of you, whether you want it to or not.
“If this is true, then how are we to regard those who do not seem interested in our sermons, congregation, or the Kingdom of God? The members who have ‘fallen away,’ the family members who opt to golf on Sundays, the friends or co-workers who think our attendance on Sunday is nice but seem to have no interest in why we go? Are these folks objects to be targeted, persuaded, and cajoled into faith? Or are they mysteries to be understood and loved, part of the fertile soil that God may be working apart from our efforts. And perhaps the faith we hold, the bits of the kingdom we have perceived, can only be offered with delight, no strings attached, with the same enthusiasm and generosity of a child sharing a dandelion ripe for blowing.
“The second parable tells an even more difficult truth. Perhaps it is about how God can grow small things into grand ones, although that feels a bit like a fable. Or maybe, just maybe it’s really about the kingdom’s penchant for penetrating and taking over our lives, sometimes against our better judgment. Mustard, after all, was a lot less like a flowering shrub that we might plant around the edges of our property as an accent than it was an invasive weed, something you want to keep out of your garden and lawn at all costs because it runs amok easily, gets out of hand, and nearly takes over whatever ground it infests.
“So also with God’s kingdom. If it were sold in a box, it would likely have a warning – “use only in moderation” or perhaps even ‘maybe hazardous to your health.’ But that’s just it, the kingdom isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold, used diligently but carefully. It’s a new reality that invades, overturns, and eventually overcomes the old one. It’s a word of promise that creates hope and expectation, leads people to change their jobs to share it, and to leave behind their old ways to live into it. The kingdom is dangerous because you just don’t know where it will take you or what you will do when it seizes hold of you.
“And those birds that are attracted to its shade? I used to assume this was simply a cute picture, a bush large enough to shelter woodland creatures. But given that in the parable Jesus told just before these two (the parable of the sower) the birds are the ones who snatch away the seed the farmer sows, I’m not so sure. These birds might be the undesirables, the folks decent people avoid, the ones we prefer to keep on the other side of our street and, preferably, outside our homes. Yet across Mark’s Gospel it just these people who flock to the kingdom Jesus proclaims.
“We who have achieved a relative amount of education and position and income and status don’t like much to think about this, but the original followers of Jesus were, in the eyes of the culture, all pretty much losers – lowly fishermen, despised tax collectors, prostitutes and criminals, lowlifes loathed by the religious establishment. Maybe that’s the way the followers of Jesus have always looked to the rest of the world – those people desperate enough, lowly enough, to find hope in Jesus’ message that the kingdom.”
Rev. Lose sums it up by saying, “So here’s the thing: I don’t know how these parables and this sermon will sound to the most established of our congregation. But I do know how it will sound to everyone – established or not, longtime member or first time visitor – who is struggling, who does not feel accepted, who wonders about the future, or who has experienced significant loss or rejection. Because in these parables Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of God comes of its own…and comes for us. The Kingdom Jesus proclaims has room for everyone. It overturns the things the world has taught us are insurmountable and creates a new and open – and for this reason perhaps a tad frightening – future.”
The politics of our age seem to be working hard to make us afraid of the future. Our own individual health issues may seem to make the future seem scary. Changes at our church – the pastor leaving – can make the future seem scary. Normally all that is good reason for fear. But the parable comes along and disrupts our fears. It tells us the future isn’t in our hands and that’s not a bad thing. We aren’t in control. That’s not a terrible thing.
What we can do is see ourselves as seeds for the future. One of the strangest things about church is that it is intended to be a forward-looking change agent. Christ never said “build a church,” although he reportedly appointed Peter to be the rock upon which he would build his “ekklesia.” That word did not mean a Cathedral or a brick and mortar and sliding glass door mid-century facility. An ekklesia was a gathering of people in community. He never ordered his followers to keep things the way they are.
Yet most churches today are focused on a building and on holding on to the past. When things change we resist, rather than look for ways to change things. The early Christians knew the world was not the way God intended it to be. They knew that following a leader who challenged the religious leaders, riled the political leaders, and told stories that disrupted people’s assumptions was not the safe way to go. But they believed that God intended a new world, a new reality, a new way of living for all people so they began to live it themselves and invite others to share in it. They planted seeds that ultimately overturned the most powerful empire the world had ever seen to that point in history.
You and I have an incredible part in this story of the work of Jesus Christ. We don’t have to have green thumbs or be great at gardening. The Master Gardener will see to the fulfillment of the harvest. Our job isn’t to complete the story. But the best we can do is to continue to nurture the seeds planted by our Lord and Savior, nurtured by prophets and apostles since that time, and plant more seeds today. We, in fact, are the seeds of the future. Our every decision should be about how we can plant the seeds and nurture the seeds of a community of love and faith for the next generation. We should be more committed to what will serve their spiritual needs than our own.
Paul, the Apostle, wrote once that he was simply the one who watered the seeds others had planted; he tended the garden that others had sown. We are heirs of that mission. We are the seeds of the future and we have a Lord who promises the future will be blessed by his resurrection life and presence. Let us be about planting the seeds of the future church now. AMEN.