Sermon for October 18th, 2020

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Mark 4:26-29

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.”

Jesus and His Pair of Bowls - The Growing Seed

Halloween is quickly approaching. Would you like to hear a gruesome story? One day a farmer planted a pumpkin seed. He watered the seed and cared for it very well, and soon it grew some, and grew some...

Today's parable is also about a seed that grew some. At just four verses, it's one of the shortest parables of Jesus, and the only one in our series that comes from the gospel of Mark. That's significant, because each of the gospel writers has his own special emphasis. Matthew, for example, writes to a Jewish audience, and his stories emphasize how Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Luke, on the other hand, writes to a gentile audience, and emphasizes the poor and marginalized.

Mark is the shortest of the four gospels, the first one to be written, and we're not really sure who his audience is. That's fitting, because Mark's gospel emphasizes above all else a sense of mystery--knowledge that is hidden and secret, things that are unexplainable and unknowable. And that theme shows up prominently in today's very short parable.

Another great thing about this parable is that it's pretty easy to answer our usual question--who am I (who are we) in this parable? That's because there's only one character. Verse 26: "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground." So let's see...are we the ones scattering the seed, or... the ones scattering the seed? Don't think too long about that.

A better question for us to ask is, "What does the seed represent?" The seed that we are supposed to be scattering on the ground. Actually that phrase "on the ground" is our first clue. In the original Greek language of the gospel, it's ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς, which has a double meaning. It can be taken as "on the ground," but it also can mean "across the earth" or "over the world" -- and in fact that's usually how it's translated when it occurs in other places in the New Testament. It's the same phrase that appears in the Lord's prayer when Jesus says "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done ON EARTH as it is in heaven.

Chances are, this play on words would have been recognized by people in the 1st century. What is the seed that followers of Jesus are supposed to scatter across the earth? Earlier in chapter 4, Jesus tells another parable about seed scattered in different types of soil, and after this parable, he specifically tells his disciples that the seed represents the Word, or in Greek, the λόγος. Often this gets interpreted as "The Word of God" or the Bible--but when Jesus is telling this story, and when Mark is writing it down, obviously the Bible in its present form doesn't exist yet.

Later, the gospel of John (which was the latest gospel to be written) famously identifies the λόγος as Jesus himself, the Word that became flesh and dwelt among us." But I don't think Jesus is saying "scatter me all over the earth," at least not literally.

The word λόγος actually had a more expansive meaning in Greek than just "word." It still does today. If you've ever studied biology, anthropology, psychology, technology, or any discipline ending in "ology" --that suffix comes from the word λόγος, and it means the study of something, or the idea of something. Also, the word "logic" comes from the word λόγος.

I think this is the seed Jesus is talking about. Scatter across the earth the idea, the philosophy, the concept that I've been teaching you. What is that concept? It's right at the beginning of the parable: "The kingdom of God is as if..." Spread the Kingdom-of-God-ology, if you will, or the God-logos (which, incidentally there is a word for in Greek. It's Theology).

We'll talk more later about how exactly we are to scatter that God-seed across the earth, but for now let's assume that like the character in the parable, we have done that. What do we do next? This is my favorite part: We take a nap. Go to sleep, wake up, repeat. Verse 27: "and [he] would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

Notice that the person who scattered the seed isn't exactly what we'd call a master gardener--he doesn't dig a hole or prepare the soil in any way. He doesn't water the seed or fertilize it. There's no pesticide, no fretting or worrying. He just throws out some seed in a seemingly random way and then apparently forgets about it for awhile. He doesn't understand the process, and he doesn't have to.

And if you're tracking with the underlying analogy here, that's great news for anyone who wants to grow a church, or a family, or a community to be spiritually vibrant, to reflect the kind of love and kindness that Jesus means when he talks about the Kingdom of God.

It means we all have a role to play, but our role is not burdensome. It doesn't require professional expertise, years of study or planning, constant effort, or even accuracy. You just throw something out there, into the universe, even if you don't quite know what you're doing.

Clearly the kingdom of God is not like a tomato plant. It's more like a fast-growing, far-spreading weed.

By the way, do you know how you tell the difference between a weed and a valuable plant? You pull on it, and if it comes out of the ground quickly and easily, it was the valuable plant.

Verse 28: "The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head."

The phrase translated here as "of itself" is the Greek word αὐτομάτη, literally "automatically" or all by itself. In other words, once the seed has been scattered, the entire earth and all the laws of nature spring into action to bring the plant to life. No matter how much we study this process under the lens of modern botanical science, there is something miraculous, mysterious, and magical about the genesis of new life.

Likewise, when we scatter our God-seed into the world, God and all creation springs into action, bringing it to life, making it grow and take root.

There are some things we can learn from the parable, though. It is a process, and it takes time: "first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head." We can't rush that process, nor can we slow it down once it has begun. God's kingdom comes about in God's timing, not ours.

And (here's the Mark emphasis) it's a mystery, something that is beyond our comprehension and beyond our control. That's hard for us, because we live in a culture which tells us that we have to know everything and do everything and be everything if we want to make a difference in the world. Which means we are prone to worrying about everything, as if everything hinges on us.

But Jesus tells us that our part is not performing the miraculous, not comprehending the mysterious, and not attempting to control or orchestrate the organic and divine procession of birth, growth, life and death.

We do have a role to play, and it is a humble one, a secondary, supporting role. We scatter the seed. We spread the ideas that Jesus taught:

Love one another. That's a seed. Take care of each other. That's a seed. Speak kind words to one another. That's a seed. Feed the hungry. Take care of the sick. Comfort those who mourn. All seeds.

Let those seeds fall where they may, and then go to sleep, trusting that the God of the Universe will automatically spring into action, magically, mysteriously, and miraculously tending your words and your actions, multiplying them across the world and through the generations.

I said earlier that the only thing we have to do is scatter those seeds. But at the end of the parable there are actually two more small, humble things that the seed-scatterer does, one implied and one expressed. Verse 29: "When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

What's implied is that while we wait, we watch--not anxiously, not obsessively, but just enough to know when the grain is ripe. When you sow seeds of love and kindness, be patient, but be observant. In time, you will see how your partnership with God makes the world--and your world--a better place. And that will renew your trust in the one who did the heavy lifting.

The last thing is simply this: take your sickle and enjoy the harvest. Give thanks to God for the small part you were able to play, for the Kingdom that is growing and enriching the world, and for the multitude of new seeds that you now have to scatter all over again.