Sowing Mystery

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church in Boise, Idaho

January 19, 2020

Mark 4:1-34

Today we have yet another story of Jesus teaching the large crowds. This crowd beside the sea was so large that he got in a boat and put out from shore a ways so they could all see and hear him.

And he starts with a parable. Jesus loved to teach with parables and he is the person I think of when I hear the word. But he was not the only teacher to use them. Parables teach lessons, but they do it in a way that requires interpretation and understanding.

There may be a clear message in the parable, but it is left to the hearer to figure out how to apply the message and where they ‘fit’ in the story.

Which makes the parable of the sower very odd.
Because Jesus explains it.

As soon as he tells it, and as soon as he says he tells stories in parables so people will hear but not understand, he then tries to help them understand.

The use of this parable as a teaching tool to a large crowd suggests to me that Jesus was not seduced by the crowds that followed him, because as soon as he has mega church numbers by the sea shore, he tells them a story about how the seed is sown in lots of places, but only a few of them will yield any harvest. Mega crowds will not translate into mega disciples—and Jesus knows that from the start of his ministry.

As Jesus explained, some think they are excited about receiving the seeds, but it turns out, they are rocky ground and the seed can’t develop deep roots. Others are not very good at sheltering and protecting the seed, and birds eat them. In others, the seeds take root, but then get choked out by the weeds of the world and the lures of wealth, and they don’t grow.

Jesus knows, and he is telling this large crowd, that while he is the seed who is generously and liberally offered to all who have ears to listen, he knows it won’t take root in everyone.

He also knows that for all of the weeds, and rocky places, and unprotected paths, there are also places with good soil, who will hear the word and accept it.

That’s where the fruit is born.

A hundredfold.

On one side, we hear this parable and we think—we want to be good soil. We don’t want to choke out the Word of God. We don’t want it to burn in the hot sun. We want to be good soil.

Nothing in the parable, however, suggests Jesus has a 5 step plan for bad soil to become good soil. This is not a how-to parable. It is a description of the Kingdom of God—full of thorns, weeds, seed eating birds, hot sun, and even good soil.

Maybe it is a how to parable, actually, but not about being good soil but how to be good sowers. If we are the sowers of the Word—then we are supposed to share God’s Word EVERYWHERE. Not only in what we think is the good soil. We aren’t supposed to withhold it from places where the rocks are too plentiful. We are supposed to throw it to the people we think are in the weeds and the thorns. We are supposed to just leave it on the path as we walk it, even if birds may come along behind us.

Jesus tells his disciples, after he tells this parable—-“To you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God”. Our translation changes the word to ‘secret’—the secret of the kingdom of God—but it is the same word as ‘mystery’.

The reason I think that word translation matters is that a secret is something meant to be kept hidden. A mysterion, on the other hand, is not private knowledge. It is a mystery that is made clear through revelation. We can only know it because God chooses to reveal it.

Jesus is telling his disciples, and the ridiculously large crowds, and he is telling us, that the kingdom of God is mystery, as is the way people receive, or don’t receive, that mystery.

He continues with that theme later in this passage. Starting in vs 26. The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground. The farmer goes to bed. He wakes up. Days go on. And seeds sprout and grow. He does not know how. It’s a mystery. 

I mean, you can take classes and can understand the biology and botany of what happens when a seed dies, and germinates in the ground, and sends up shoots. We may get it on that level.

But we don’t know why seed one grows like a weed and seed two never pushes through the soil to find light. We don’t know why one person who hears an invitation to church takes you up on it and the next person doesn’t.

We don’t know why some people hear the Word and are convicted by it and transformed to begin a journey of faith. And we don’t know why others, who hear the same Word, walk away unchanged.

The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and eventually some of it grows, and the sower does not know how. The Kingdom of God is a mystery.

And our task is to throw the seed of the mystery of the kingdom of God around liberally, extravagantly even. Our task is not to hoard it and parcel it out in small doses to the people or places we think look like they have good potential to be good soil.

Jesus did not hoard the Word. Even though he knew full well that most of it would be trampled underfoot, or be scorched by the sun, or choked out by weeds. He threw those seeds everywhere. He never told the crowds to stop coming—not because he wanted to feed his ego and be a celebrity, but because he knew that in those crowds, somewhere, were people with ears to hear. And he was never going to turn them away.

The Kingdom of God is mystery. Both in who responds to it and in why God chose to set it up that way in the first place.

I think much of Christianity has taken the sowing the seeds part very seriously, but has gotten confused about the mystery part. And we have totally missed the boat on who is responsible for making the seeds grow.

We think it is our job to make sure people are good soil. We think the harvest is something we’ll get credit for at some point. “Look Jesus! I sowed 12 seeds and all 12 of them grew into these great Christians here.”

Instead, God wants us to sow a powerball sized number of seeds, go on with our lives, and then see what happens.

Sower with Setting Sun, by Vincent Van Gogh

When I look back at my life, at the people who sowed a seed of God’s love in my life, it was never coercive or narrow.

It was the love of Sunday School teachers who put up with me, the little girl who always asked the questions.

It was the people from church and community who cared for me and my family during difficult times.

It was the people who offered love when I was afraid I deserved judgment.

It was the people who challenged me to be more, who saw my gifts and called them out before I had any idea they were there.

And I bet most of them don’t have a clue that what they said to me, or how they loved and cared for me, was a seed of the very word of God that would take root in my heart, I bet they don’t know that what they did was just I needed in any of those moments of my life.

They were just people who were always just throwing God’s love around, without worrying about running out of it, or worrying about whether or not the recipients were good soil for it, or worrying about making sure it took root.

They just spread it around generously, abundantly.

And some of those seeds landed in that little corner of my soul with the good soil,  where they grew and provided me shelter under their branches, where they bore fruit

A hundredfold.

that nurtured and sustained me through good times and bad,  where they produced seeds of their own,
that even now I find and am able to fling about,  passing on the seeds of God’s love that have grown in my life, hoping that they may bear fruit for someone else, somewhere down the road.

At the very least, thinking about this parable has made me want to call those people who made such a difference in my life, since they were just sowing the seeds and not waiting around for the harvest, trusting that someone else would be there for me down the road if/when the seeds grew in my life and produced fruit.

It also has me wondering if we’re generous enough in the way we toss God’s love around during the course of our lives. Do we expect a quick response from the seeds we throw? Or are we willing to just share them and trust in the mystery of God’s kingdom?

I can think of many examples of your abundant seed sowing.

The help you give to people in the community, at Grace Jordan, at the shelters and foodbanks, at PRIDE and in support of medical debt relief—it is all seed that is sown without expectation that those seeds need to belong to our garden.

As we prepare to break ground on our remodel, I’ve been thinking a lot about those who built this sanctuary, 44 years ago. Those of you who were here, while I bet you had dreams and hopes for what would come, you didn’t know for sure what the outcome of the seeds of your financial sacrifice would be. I am grateful you threw those seeds so generously back then, so we could reap the harvest today of having such a great worship space.

What will be the harvest of the remodel we’re undertaking now? What will the story of Southminster be in another 40 years?

It isn’t ours to say what the outcome will be. But we can rest in the mystery of God’s kingdom and trust that God is not calling us to worry about the growth of the seeds but to share with such abundance that people question our sanity, and then to be ready when the harvest eventually comes.

In between all of his questionable gardening advice, Jesus also says this:

‘Is a lamp brought in to be put under the bushel basket, or under the bed, and not on the lamp stand? For there is nothing hidden, except to be disclosed; nor is anything secret, except to come to light. Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

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. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.’

At first I thought that was some random saying of Jesus that Mark remembered and then just stuck in the middle of this passage about sowing seeds and harvesting things.

Of course, that’s not how Mark wrote his gospel, so I went back and pondered it afresh.

And now I’m wondering if “the measure you give will be the measure you get” is about sowing seeds.

‘To those who have, more will be given, and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away’ has always sounded harsh to me. It feels as if Jesus is saying that “to those who already have it all, they will win the powerball. And those of you who have nothing will have even that taken away.”

But that’s not quite what he’s saying.

Because it begins with another sentence: “the measure you give is the measure you get”. In other words, we all start out with something to give. And the more you give away, the more you get back.

I don’t think this is about money, or not just about money.

What if this is about how we share God’s love and throw those seeds around?

If you take the seeds of God’s love you’ve been given, and you hang on to them, waiting for the right situation so you can carefully plant them, all you’ll have is those few seeds.

If you take them, though, and just share them without regard to conditions, you’ll end up with more to share, because they will grow, and they will produce a harvest.

A hundredfold.

Friends, to you has been given the mystery of the kingdom of God. Let’s go and share it in absurdly generous ways and then see what God will do. For to those who have, more will be given. May it be so.


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