Rev. Teri Peterson
17 January 2016, NL2-19 (Epiphany 3—aha moments)
Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 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. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 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; 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.” ’
And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. 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. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 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. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 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. 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.’
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? 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.’
He 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.’
He 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.
This week, for the first time in my life, I bought a lottery ticket. In spite of the way I usually feel about the lottery, I joined the throngs of people in hoping against hope that a couple dollars would magically multiply into a billion.
It seems like human nature, almost, to want a big return on a small investment. To spend two dollars and end up with $450 million after taxes seems like a pretty good deal.
Except, of course, that the odds of winning are 1 in 292 million. And there were 371 million tickets sold for the big Wednesday Powerball drawing, with only three of those being jackpot winners. But none of that matters in the middle of the frivolous hope of winning. For just a moment, at 9:59pm, anything is possible.
What we would do with the money was a common topic of conversation all last week. It seemed like everywhere I went, people were discussing how they would spend such a massive amount of money.
I realize I move in unusual circles, but I was encouraged by how many people talked about how they would give the money away—people were discussing their favorite charities and causes dear to their hearts. I overheard conversations about malaria research, clean water, sustainable housing solutions, churches, supporting women’s education, and feeding hungry people. It was fascinating to listen to people daydream about how to be generous. It was as if, for just a moment, we imagined that we could truly be the farmer who scatters seeds far and wide, hoping that they would do some good even if we didn’t see it ourselves.
Of course, we can be that person anytime—scattering seeds of hope, love, grace, peace, and justice even if we can’t scatter checks with many zeroes. The farmer in the parable of the sower doesn’t stop to see if the ground is prepared, or worthy—he just spreads the seed everywhere and lets God, the creator and master gardener, handle the rest.
The second parable of the sower—the one where the person scatters seed and it grows while she sleeps—is only found in Mark. No one else tells this story where Jesus says that the kingdom grows automatically without our aid or intervention. Automatic is the word he uses, even—that the earth produces of itself, automatically. Because the seed was scattered, it will grow. It’s what God does—turns the scattered seeds of the word into fruit that can feed a multitude. Through the prophet Isaiah God says “my word will not return to me empty.” No matter where it falls, and whether we realize it or not, the word is at work. We may be simply going about our lives, while the seeds are deep in the damp darkness, breaking open and sending out shoots that reach down into the nutritious depths and up toward the light. It’s a mystery we cannot control, no matter how hard we try.
In fact, even the scattering of seed may have been unintentional in this second sower story. It does not seem that the person is a farmer, purposely planting a field. Instead it seems to be one of those things that happens in the course of life—a basket’s weave becomes loose, a pocket has a tiny hole, and seeds are scattered. It isn’t until they grow that we even realize they have been planted.
What if this is what the kingdom is like? Throughout our days, we are dropping seeds all over the place. Most of the time, they are unintentional. The way we treat the grocery store clerk. The expression we give the loud person on the train. The tone of voice we use with a coworker or a teacher or a student. The story about a neighbor we share over dinner. The way we respond to a racist joke or a sexist stereotype. The words we choose when we are frustrated. We know that children pick up the smallest things in the way we interact with each other. What if those same seeds are still planted throughout our lives? We never know who is observing us in the checkout line or on the train or at the library or in the parking lot. All along the way, every day, we are scattering seeds. And without our controlling them, they are growing—hopefully they are seeds of God’s love and grace and justice and peace; kingdom seeds. We won’t know until they start to bear fruit, but by then we may have moved on and never see the results…but others will. And every fruit bears more seeds, perpetuating the cycle.
Right before he tells this little story of the inadvertent sower, Jesus gives us the key to the parable: “the measure you give will be the measure you get. For to those who have, more will be given; and from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” So often this feels so disturbing and wrong. If it’s about physical resources, it is horrifying—even what they have will be taken away. If it’s about faith, it’s still awful. If it’s about God’s blessing, it’s just about the worst thing ever, to think that those who have little would have even that little bit snatched away from them.
But when we read it together with the second sower parable, it becomes more clear: The seeds we sow are also the seeds we grow. When we sow seeds of grace, we also grow in grace. Not that we receive more because of the way we approach the world and interact with each other, but that our practice of graciousness increases our own sense of grace and gratitude. The more grace we give, the more we experience. The more justice we work for, the more justice becomes a part of us. The more peace we make, the more we have.
And if we are sowing seeds of fear, or miserliness, or discord, that is also what will increase in us. When we interact with the world from a place of unexamined privilege, or from a mindset of scarcity, then we end up perpetuating injustice, shutting people out when God is welcoming them in. And then our scarcity and our fear becomes our reality—because even what little graciousness we have withers up under the scorching heat of our self-focused desires.
This weekend we remember Martin Luther King Jr, and hopefully while we remember the big dreams and lofty goals, the massive marches and stirring speeches, we also remember that he never said only big things matter. Yes, we need to work for big things—for liberty and justice for all, for an end to a socio-political system that privileges some over others, for a change to a culture in which some people are automatically suspicious. We also need to remember that big changes sometimes come through small steps. Every time we refuse to be suspicious of a neighbor, we drop a seed. Every time we stand up for someone who has been excluded, we drop a seed. Every time we write a senator, speak to someone others ignore, buy something made locally, and choose not to use violent language, we drop seeds. And the way we judge each other, the way we treat each other, the posture from which we approach the world—it will grow in us, too. If we judge each other with grace, treat every person with respect, approach the world with peace, we will soon find grace and respect and peace welling up and bearing fruit in our own lives. It may be dangerous—the world is afraid of those whose lives are evidence of a still more excellent way, and fear takes over just as surely as love. But imagine if every one of us was scattering kingdom seeds, instead of fear and greed seeds. It would add up to an amazing harvest.
Pay attention, Jesus says. Pay attention to how you listen, how you hear, how you speak, how you act. Pay attention, because those seeds you scatter throughout your days will grow in your own life as well. Make sure they are kingdom seeds. But then stop trying to control how they grow. The thing about the kingdom of God is that it is not the kingdom of me, not the kingdom of the church…it is about God’s authority in our lives as individuals and a community, it is about God’s power in the world, and it is almost never going to accord with what I think is best for me. God has a bigger picture and a greater good in mind, and God’s word never returns empty.
Like powerball, these seeds are a tiny investment with a huge return. Unlike powerball, the odds are very good, and we have already been given all the riches we could ever need. So now that we are done daydreaming about how to give away millions of dollars we’ll never have, it’s time for us to actually live the same generosity we have already experienced, and practice planting kingdom seeds with every look, every word, every vote, every interaction, no matter how small. We can scatter grace far and wide, and we can trust that God will use every seed wisely, to its fullest potential—both where it lands, and in us—to produce a harvest that will be full of glory and praise.
May it be so. Amen.