January 17, 2016
“A Sower and Seeds”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
4 Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land.
2 He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:
3 “Listen! A sower went out to sow.
4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up.
5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil.
6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away.
7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain.
8 Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
9 And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables.
11 And he said to them, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;
12 in order that
‘they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’”
13 And he said to them, “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables?
14 The sower sows the word.
15 These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.
16 And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy.
17 But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.
18 And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19 but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing.
20 And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.”
21 He said to them, “Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lampstand?
22 For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. 23 Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
24 And he said to them, “Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.
25 For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.”
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.
There once was a little girl who lived on an isolated farm with her family. Their lives were simple; they worked hard, and made do with little.
Every morning she woke early with the sun and headed out into the fields to work. Each morning as she looked out to the west, very far away she could see another house, and the house had golden windows.
The little girl wondered often about that house and what it would be like to live there. How grand it would be to live in a place like that.
One day she had had enough, and early in the morning she packed up her meager belongings, and a little food and water, and set out to the west towards the house. She walked all day.
And when the sun was setting and sending out long shadows across the fields, she arrived at the house, to find it was an ordinary farmhouse on an ordinary farm.
A little boy met her, and she said to him, “I have traveled all day towards the house with the golden windows, but they are not here, what have you done with them?”
The boy was surprised, “This is not the house with the golden windows. Look, it is behind you. I see it every day when I return from the fields at the end of the day. And I often wonder what life must be like in such a house.”
The girl turned around and looked and saw . . . her own house, far in the distance, lit up by the setting sun. All along she had lived in a house with golden windows and she had not known it.
My grandfather Sonstegard would tell that story to us when my sister and I were little girls. And it is a wonderful fable.
All stories are not alike. A fable and a parable are two very different things.
Fables entertain, teach a lesson, bring an insight. They are straightforward. They are instructive.
Parables, on the other hand, are disruptive.
They often involve common, ordinary, simple things – a farmer, soil, seeds, weeds, birds – but they are never simple. They are meant not just to teach us, but to confront us. They are surprising, sometimes offensive, sometimes mysterious, sometimes confusing.
So if you read some of these parables and feel like you just don’t get it, it isn’t you, that is the nature of parables. The truth the parable is trying to communicate so often feels hidden, mysterious.
This is how the writer of this account of Jesus’ life, Mark, understands the whole of the Gospel and Jesus Christ. One theologian says that all of Mark, the whole book, is a kind of parable – telling the story of Jesus but in a way that confronts us and keeps things hidden.
If you read through Mark, and I encourage you to, you will find that Mark’s faith statement about Jesus, and the kingdom, and God, is that these are a mystery. And that Jesus himself keeps things mysterious.
What God is up to is sometimes, maybe oftentimes, secretive, behind the scenes, difficult to see or understand.
But, I think if I were writing about what God has done in my life, I would write that I don’t understand everything, I don’t always understand why things happen, why pain or suffering happen, why situations resolved in ways that were surprising or unexpected, why my heart changed in surprising and unexpected ways.
The end of our passage today tells us that the way Jesus taught was through parables, and only parables.
Parables are useful when the truth you want to share is difficult to share or overwhelming.
Jesus, in the poet Emily Dickinson’s words, must “tell all the truth but tell it slant . . . . the truth must dazzle gradually or every man be blind.”
Because the kingdom of God is something you cannot absorb all at once.
And we have to have a certain amount of patience when it comes to letting parables do their work on us.
Karoline Lewis, one of my favorite commentators, writes that “Jesus tells parables not for explanation but for exploration. Not for answers but so as to engage the imagination. Not for certainties about faith but for discoveries about how faith works.”
Mark includes for us a parable that occurs nowhere else in the other accounts we have of Jesus’s life in our Bible.
Matthew and Luke don’t choose to include the story, but their faith statements about Jesus take them in different directions.
This parable is often called the parable of the seed growing itself, and it is nestled in between two parables that are probably familiar to some of you, the parable of the sower who in a reckless manner spreads an abundance of seed in places where no seed should go, and only those seeds that take root in good soil, produce a good harvest . . . .
and the parable of the mustard seed, where the kingdom of God is compared to the tiniest seed on the earth which grows into a large and invasive weed.
The parable of the seed growing itself describes the kingdom of God, what God is doing in our midst, and it tells the tale of someone who scatters seed, let’s say it is a farmer for that is who would scatter seed in Jesus’ day.
And this farmer would rise day in and day out and do absolutely nothing to help his investment along – no weeding, no watering, no protection – and the earth still gave forth life.
The plants grow and produce grain, and the farmer has nothing to do with it, and in fact the farmer finds this whole business surprising – how does this happen?
Yet, the farmer can see that something wonderful and mysterious and miraculous has taken place – the face of the earth has changed – it is now green and good.
The kingdom of God is sometimes like that, Jesus tells us.
How is this good news for us?
The whole point of Mark’s account of Jesus life is tell us about one thing and Mark tells us what this is in the very first verse: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the son of God.”
The beginning – it is just the start of the story which has no end. It is good news – which means, as we read through this story of Jesus life, as we read what he taught we must always ask, what is the good news here?
What is the good news in a parable about the kingdom growing and bearing fruit, and we had nothing to do with it? I think that is profoundly good news, and not just for you and me sitting in this room, but for every single person.
As an aside, but an important aside I think, we must always be conscious that good news is good news for every single person, because God’s good news is for every single person.
In the Wednesday women’s faith study group, we have begun reading a challenging and powerful book by Gary Haugen, who is the founder and president of the International Justice Mission, about how the most vulnerable people in the world, the several billion people who live on $2 or less a day, are plagued by daily violence – the land of widows is taken away by a stronger relative and they starve to death – young girls will drop out of school because of the fear of being raped on the way to school – innocent men will be pulled off the street by police, accused of a crime they didn’t commit and held for years in overcrowded prisons while their families starve – families are lured into brick making factories and are killed if they try to escape.
What is the good news for those who do not know relative safety and comfort, as we do?
The good news is that what God is doing and can do and will do, is mysterious and we don’t always understand what is happening, and yet it happens without us or in spite of us. In a prison cell, in the heart of a scared little girl, in communities without hope, even there, in mysterious ways, is God’s kingdom.
This is not meant to say that we do nothing – but sometimes miracles happen that have nothing to do with us – and that is humbling – it is good for us to be humbled and expect some mysteries and some surprises.
We do not and cannot understand it all. We do not always understand why the job we are doing leaves us so empty driving us towards something else with more compassion and meaning.
We do not understand why sometimes our hearts will heal unexpectedly, unexpectedly we find we can forgive, or let go of a great resentment, suddenly we find that we are not envious of what someone else has, and contentment comes surprisingly upon us.
Sometimes our eyes are opened in a surprising way to the suffering of another human being. Sometimes the kingdom of God is right there in front of us and we have no idea how it happened.
We would really like to know to make it happen. Then we could figure it out, break it down into steps, create a process and a strategy. We would make the kingdom happen.
Instead we do many small and seemingly insignificant things – read a book that challenges us, pray for an enemy, give a little money away, pay attention to people, forgive – and we wait, and watch to see what God is doing. Amen.