What We Plant, a sermon on Mark 4:26-34

Jesus also said, The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.

Jesus also said, With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 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.

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. (Mark 4:26-34)

The Mystery of a Seed

A seed is a mysterious thing. A kernel of corn. A grain of wheat. A mustard seed. Each seed contains instructions for how to reproduce itself. Not only that, each seed contains the instructions for the next generation to do the same. In other words, a seed stretches into the future, generation by generation. A seed also stretches into the past. Each seed contains the memory of the failures and successes of previous generations. This is the miracle of replication.

The farmers in Jesus’ day would have been awed by such a thing. Today we might fancy that we understand genetic coding. After all, we learned about DNA in high school. We grasp how a seed reproduces itself. But understanding some basic biological facts is quite different from grasping the mystery of the seed. How are to we understand a mechanism that ensures the continuity of life across generations?

Seeds are foundational to life. Even a child can grasp their importance. As a child did you shiver through The Long Winter with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her family? During that season of blizzards, the starving town of DeSmet, South Dakota had to eat its seed wheat. The implications of that were enormous. Come spring, there would be no planting. Come summer, there would be no growing. Come fall, there would be no harvest.

As the Apostle Paul reminds us in Galatians 6, We reap what we sow. And we fail to reap what we fail to sow.

The Scripture & Border Politics

In the past week the Bible has been quoted in the news media. Even as we read about immigrant families detained at the border, their children ripped from them, we read justifications citing scripture. Jeff Sessions, the United States Attorney General, cited Romans 13:1, Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.

It’s not the first time that this single verse has been planted into the soil of American life. This verse was used in the 1850s to protest the abolition of slavery. After all, the abolitionists were breaking the law. Which authority must a person obey? Similar questions were raised when our country was only an infant, breaking away from the lawful authority of Great Britain. Following Mr. Session’s logic, shouldn’t our forebears have abided by the governing authorities?

Any single verse can be plucked from its context to justify a person’s actions. This is called proof-texting. After all, the Bible is a big book and it’s not difficult to find a verse which can be twisted in such a way to prove whatever you want to say. Proof-texting is not an adequate way to approach scripture. It is reductionistic and unfaithful. Whenever a single verse is plucked from its context, the crop it produces is diminished. When a single verse can produce rotten fruits, our method needs to be questioned. What kind of crop was slavery? Rotten and evil. Yet the Bible was widely used as justification to continue slavery. What kind of crop is it when people treat other human beings the way they would not want to be treated? We must reject any reading of a text which suggests that we violate the Golden Rule.

The antidote to proof-texting is simple. The antidote is to keep reading. The Bible is full of seeds to plant, and by their fruits we shall know them. As has been pointed out by many in the past few days, one only has to keep reading in Romans 13 verses 9 and 10: Love your neighbor as yourself. Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.

The Kingdom of God is like . . .

The lectionary text for today, these verses from Mark 4, tells us what the Kingdom of God is like. The Kingdom of God is a place where love flourishes. The Kingdom of God is already but not yet meaning that we see this Kingdom only in glimpses, Yet we have been entrusted with the job of worker in this Kingdom. We are to look for signs of the Kingdom and to cultivate them.

Mark 4:26-29: The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.

Some day a sickle will slice through the planet. Our works will be harvested, and we will be held to account for what we have planted, or failed to plant. What kind of seed are we planting? Science has led us to ever more complicated discussions about seeds, with important ramifications. We can now tinker with the genetic code of seeds. You’ve probably heard of heritage seeds, seeds that stretch back hundreds or even thousands of years, and GMO seeds (genetically modified organisms).

Global Seeds

In Norway there’s a seed vault for heritage seeds of all kinds. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault began in 2008. It stores seeds from around the world as a hedge against some future global crisis. The world has faced agricultural crises before — think of the Irish Potato Famine in the late 1840s. A million people died in Ireland, a million more left the country and came to America, destitute. (The current situation is not the first time America has faced a crisis of immigration.) In the Seed Vault there are seeds for 32 varieties of potatoes from Ireland’s national gene banks. That is a fact worth pausing over. Great minds around the world know that we must work together to keep the world’s children from crisis.

The world cannot be dependent on a single species of anything. To do so is to invite catastrophe. The Seed vault is a global effort, containing seeds from the US, Canada, Switzerland, Colombia, Mexico, Syria and the Netherlands. Wikipedia tells us that the seed bank stores more than 930,000 samples of seeds, which represent 13,000 years of agricultural history.

The seeds in that vault are like the seeds in these parables. Each of the seeds that the farmer scatters summarizes millennia upon millennia of evolution. Each seed contains a promise of future plants for as long as the earth will last.

The farmer in the parable can trust the seed to grow according to the promise sealed in it. He or she MUST trust the seed to grow, for what else can a person do? The future lies in the seed and not in the farmer’s doings. It’s a humbling experience to grow seeds. One can only water, weed, and wait. Yet, Jesus used this metaphor to describe the coming of God’s kingdom. Which is really rather remarkable. A seed represents something we can’t control but upon which we depend. A seed looks simple, but it is complex. It represents relationships between water and soil and air and sunlight and farmer.

Any kingdom work depends on a balance between our part of the work and God’s part. One of the important decisions a farmer makes is deciding which seed to plant. What seeds are we planting today? Which seeds are we protesting? By their fruits we shall know them. By our fruits we shall be known.

Let us keep silence for a few minutes as the Holy Spirit seals this word to our hearts.

~ a sermon I preached at Hermon Presbyterian Church (Bethesda, MD) on 6/17/18. If you’re curious to see other ways I work with scripture, you will enjoy my newest book, The #MeToo Reckoning: Facing the Church’s Complicity in Sexual Abuse and Misconduct.


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