Text: Mark 4:26-34June 17, 2012
I never cease to be surprised by the unexpected ways God blesses our lives. It happened to me once again about a week ago. I stopped by the parsonage to pick up the mail. It was the usual assortment of bills, credit card offers, and post card advertisements. Nestled among this assortment was a letter, hand addressed, with a return address of Pohar, P.O. Box 113, Utica, Illinois, nothing of which was immediately recognizable to me. I tossed the letter on my desk. Sunday evening I remembered the letter, so I went to my study and opened the letter. What a wonderful surprise! The letter was from a former student, Donna Lewis then, whom I taught at Marseilles High School. She reminded me of whom she was, even though I immediately remembered her, a bright but painfully shy girl, who endured four years of math with me, and was the valedictorian of her graduating class. The she told me what has happened since then. She wrote that she went to college but dropped out after the first year, married and is the mother of three and the grandmother of two. She reassured me that she did very well in her college math classes for which I am grateful.
Then she said some very nice things about me and reminisced about our classes and the other students. She said that what prompted the letter is that she had recently seen the bumper sticker that reads, “If you can read this…thank a teacher.” She apologized that she never had thanked me and wanted to do so now. It was a wonderful letter, a surprising blessing, one that I will treasure. It is always amazing to me how the seeds we sow can take root, grow, and bring wonderful results. One never knows except when someone like Donna tells us, how what we do touches a life and makes a difference. For me, there are few greater joys than to receive such a letter. You sow seeds and let the grace of God do its work and are blessed when you can rejoice in the results.
I think this is a great reminder on Father’s Day. Among the responsibilities we who are fathers have, I believe, is to teach your children the faith. You and your spouse are the principal disciple teachers for your children. It is your responsibility. Don’t leave it to your wife or the preacher or the Sunday School teacher, or the Youth minister. You are responsible for teaching the biblical story, what Jesus said and did, and what is expected of a Christian. And you are to live in such a way that your children see close up what it means to be a disciple. If you need help, then get some. Get your….self into a Bible Study and learn. I am thankful for what my dad taught me and for how my fathers in the faith—pastors and lay people, even a Bishop or two—have nurtured me in the faith and shaped my discipleship. We sow the seeds. This is our calling.
This calling becomes quite clear in the two parables Jesus tells in our text from Mark 4. Here Jesus is teaching the disciples and the crowd about the kingdom or reign of God, this New Order of Life God is initiating in Jesus. Parables are Jesus’ favorite way to witness to this New Order and call people to live in it. In the first parable, commonly referred to as “The Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly,” Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is like a farmer scattering seed on the ground and then simply going abut his life, sleeping and rising. The seed sprouts and grows and the farmer has no idea how. It just will.” He goes on the say, “The earth produces itself. The farmer neither hastens nor hinders the process. And when the harvest is ready, the farmer brings in the crop.”
Note that the farmer does nothing between sowing and harvesting. He just goes about his life. Jesus’ point is that the harvest comes about without any contribution from the farmer. It just will. The earth produces itself. So it is, Jesus says, with God’s Kingdom. It will come to fulfillment not by human effort, but by the gracious work of God. Just as the farmer does not know how the harvest comes, so the faithful do not know how God’s New Order will come—but come it will, we can be assured of that. Jesus calls the faithful to trust the promise.
In case his listeners didn’t get the point, Jesus offers a second parable, one we know as “The Parable of the Mustard Seed.” “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?” asks Jesus, “It is like a mustard seed which when sown is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, but when it grows it becomes the greatest of all shrubs, with branches so large that the birds can nest in its shade.” The point here is the contrast between insignificant, almost imperceptible, beginnings and immense results, not growth or development. The ancients had no such concepts. “So it is with God’s New Order,” says Jesus, “It may be insignificant now, hardly noticeable now, but be assured that God will bring about great results. There will be a New Order. It will happen—It just will. So, keep faith in the promise.” Again the seeds are sown and God will bring the results.
So what did you hear? Both of these parables speak a refreshing Word of Hope to us, from somewhat different perspectives perhaps, but a Word of Hope nevertheless. This Word of Hope comes first from a correction to a frequent misinterpretation of Jesus’ teaching and then as a proclamation of the hope Jesus offers. The Parable of the Seed Growing Secretly makes it absolutely clear that God’s Kingdom, this New Order for Life, comes completely apart from human effort and understanding. Put simply: We, you and I, do not build the kingdom as we are frequently urged to do. The farmer does nothing to hasten or delay the harvest. Just so, there is nothing you and I can do to hasten or delay, create or build God’s New Order. That is a misinterpretation. The New Order does not depend on our cleverness, even our faithfulness or commitment. The New Order is a result of the grace of God.
The Memorial Service at Annual Conference is a special moment for me, as I remember friends and colleagues who have finished their course in faith and now rest from their labors. Bill Obalil, a long-time friend and colleague, joined John Maxson and me at the service. The second hymn contained a line, repeated several times, that said, “We are building the Kingdom.” Each time we sang that line, I wanted to shout, “NO WE DON’T! WE DON’T BUILD THE KINGDOM! IT IS A GIFT!” The second time we sang the words, Bill recognized my anger, my face gave it away, and he said, “I agree. This is heresy!” I nodded and replied, “We witness to the kingdom. God builds it.” He answered, “Amen!” Yet, I am sure many of you have heard references to building the kingdom in song, in prayer, in sermon. It is bad theology. It simply is wrong and it leads to despair because no matter how hard we try, we cannot build the kingdom. It is God’s Work and God has promised it will come—It just will. Our work is to trust the promise and let God do God’s thing!
This does not mean we sit back and do nothing. Not by a long shot. We are called to sow the seeds—to love the neighbor, to feed the hungry, to care for the poor, to work for justice. We sow the seeds, God takes care of production. The promise will come to fulfillment. It just will. The seed has encoded in its DNA all of what it will become. So God’s Word, the seed of the New Order, has encoded in its DNA all that the New Order will be. And it will be, it just will. We can count on it. So we have hope!
The Parable of the Mustard Seed also points to the hope Jesus offers. As Jesus scores the point that insignificant beginnings, such as the minuscule mustard see, will come to great results, like a mustard shrub, so the kingdom now barely visible, long delayed, even opposed by the world, will come to full expression in God’s good time. Even in these seemingly insignificant beginnings God is at work. Even in what seems like a promise going nowhere, God is at work. Even in difficult moments when nothing seems to go right, God is at work. Even in times when we feel stuck, passed by and passed over, forgotten, God is at work. It may not be in ways that are abundantly clear or that grab headlines, but nevertheless God is at work. Resurrection has happened. The harvest will come. The promise will be fulfilled. It just will. It is a matter of grace.
Our response to the promise is to sow the seeds—to clothe the naked, to forgive 70X7 times, to love even the enemy, to turn the other cheek, to work for peace. These are witnesses to the New Order, acts of hope.
This is our call—to sow the seeds, trusting that God in His gracious ways will fulfill the promise and bring the harvest. The New Order will come. It just will. We can stake our lives on it! Thanks be to God! Amen!