July 30th – Joan Priest – with audio

8Mark 4:2-20

 “Listen Up!”

     “Listen! a sower went out to sow,” and right here Jesus begins to recite his very first parable.  Jesus used these brilliant picture stories, these extended metaphors, simple images, to explain something unexplainable, the Kingdom of God on earth, the way of God here and now.  He used the familiar – it’s like a pearl, the biggest, most beautiful pearl you can think of.  It’s like buried treasure, if you were digging in someone’s field one day and found treasure.  It’s like a sower who goes out to sow seed.  And yet, I don’t know about all of you, but I find most of these parables well, kind of confusing, and confuse the disciples they did, every single time he told one! 

     So, when the disciples were alone with Jesus they ask him – so, what’s with these stories Jesus, we don’t understand them, why are you using them?  And here in this passage in Mark, Jesus explains why he speaks in parables.  He states, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;12in order that – then he quotes the prophet Isaiah – ‘they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.’” Oh, that explains it!  Now I get it!  Wait, what?  Even his explanation of why he tells parables, is confusing!  But what the disciples didn’t ever quite understand is that these parables were supposed to be confusing. How easy would it be if we had all the answers, if we were told just exactly what and how to believe, how to serve God, what precisely God was like and what God expects of us!  These pictorial images were meant to cause us to stop and really think. 

     And we know that stories with vivid images work – think about the word beauty, what comes to mind?  It means nothing until we think of a beautiful face or a gorgeous flower.  Or the word, good.  It means nothing until we think of an act of kindness or a blessing given.  Now think about what Jesus was trying to describe, the Kingdom of God, the way of God.  Something that they couldn’t and we can’t ever fully understand.  So, he uses their experiences to open their minds in a way they could understand, but to also confuse them a bit.  Why?  Because we can’t ever come close with our words to describing God.  So, with each story or parable Jesus told, we get merely a glimpse of wonderful mystery of God. 

     Listen up!  A sower went out to sow seed . . . but this parable, unlike some of his others – like the wheat and the tares, the bride and the bridegroom – have you ever studied those?  This parable actually seems pretty straightforward, right?  These listeners were mostly farmers after all, here is a picture of what happens when people listen to God’s message, the good news of Jesus: God is the sower, God’s Word is the seed, we are the soil, so, a sower goes out to sow seed and . . .

     Some seed will fall on the hard, trampled path, so as soon as the farmer leaves, the seed is either trampled on or the birds swoop down and gobble them up.  These seeds are like people who hear the word of God, but don’t try to understand it, it makes no difference to them; the forces of the world, the adversary, takes away the word from their heart; so that it becomes hidden.  Maybe these are a little like some scholars or maybe some radicals who know the word, can recite the word, explain all about the word, through interpretation and critique, exegesis and critical analysis, but do not absorb the word into their hearts, into their lives. 

     Other seed will fall on rocky ground, huge rocks which form a layer of dirt over them, appear quite good but the soil is actually so thin that the seeds sprout quickly and as soon as the hot sun hits them, they wither away.  Anyone who is a gardener in the state of CT, can relate to these seeds, what is it my husband says about the CT state flower?  Oh, yea, it should be called granite. Or in the case of where we live in Lyme, sand, all sand and rocks.   These seeds are like people who at first hear and receive the word of God with such joy that they listen eagerly, sign up quickly, but it just doesn’t take root, it’s just fluff without the costs involved, they believe for a while, but the first time they are challenged or tested, the first time they fall on really hard times, or are offended, that’s it, they leave the faith. 

     Other seed will fall amid the thorns, thorns which grow with them and eventually choke them.  These seeds are like people who hear the word, absorb the word for a while, start out with good intentions, attend church, volunteer, but then as they wander on their way, they are choked or distracted; tempted by all of the attractions and business of the world, or they are so taken up with worries and cares of life, duties and responsibilities, that they stop listening, stop trying to live each day as a disciple of Christ. 

     The best seed is the seed that falls into the good ground, the well-ploughed land where the soil is deep and the seeds take root and grow and grow, sometimes bringing forth fruit one hundred-fold!  These seeds are people who have a good and honest heart, spiritual believers who are ready and eager for God’s message, they hear it, hold onto it tightly, take it in and their lives are forever changed.  Who bear the fruits of the spirit, bringing forth – what our children learned in Sunday School all year – the fruits of:  patience, kindness, joy, self-control, faithfulness, gentleness, love – one hundred times over.

     This all makes perfect sense, right?  We should all be like good soil, take in the word of God and bear fruit. Simple – I get this one! But when you really study this parable, as I have this past week, really study it, it actually doesn’t make sense at all!  God is like the sower?  What kind of farmer scatters seed just anywhere – not a smart one!  And the word used here for sower is similar to a tenant farmer, which was not a wealthy farmer who could waste a bunch of seeds, this is a poor farmer where every seed counted.  God is like this, really?  God sews seeds all over the place, on terrible soil, wasteful places, where it is doomed?  This is as if God is standing in BJ’s parking lot throwing seed where seagulls fly about, trucks trample through, carts run everywhere, and God expects some seeds to grow there?!  And what kind of preacher is that?  Who preaches the word to people who don’t listen and maybe never will.  Why doesn’t God just make us all hear the word, receive the truth in our lives and force us bring forth good fruit! 

     Do you ever think, if I were like Jim Carey in the movie “Bruce Almighty” or George Burns in the movie “Oh God” –  if I were God, if I had God’s power, I could do such a better job!  Everyone would believe!  I would certainly prevent us from ever going to war, there wouldn’t be any trouble with the Russians, the President would have been . . . let’s not go there . . . there would definitely be peace on earth; there certainly wouldn’t be any starving people, terrible criminals, and diseases like cancer; I know I’d have figured out a way to prevent all-natural disasters, stop tectonic plates from moving, volcanoes from erupting, tidal waves from destroying.  A wise God wouldn’t just scatter seed all over the place.  Or would God?  

     Would God, would our God who gives us free will, who gives us this planet to protect and take care of ourselves, and all who live here, who believes in us always, no matter how many times we fall short; would this God continually reach out and try to touch our poor unbelieving, wavering hearts, hoping that one day, one day something will seep in and grow, something would bring us just a bit closer to understanding this kingdom of God?  Yes, our God would do that.  Okay, I admit it, maybe God is better at this than I am. 

     Besides, anyone who knows about planting, knows that part of the process of creation, of growing, is kind of hit or miss, you must give plants freedom for each to grow in its own way, try many different methods to help things grow; sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, it’s always a mystery.  Its why my rogue cucumber plant that just appeared in the middle of the walkway is producing the best of the crop and why suddenly all my carrots died.  The fact that my husband and I can grow tremendous things in our huge boulder-filled sandy back yard is a God-given miracle!   

     So, I ask you, what is going on in your life that keeps the word of God from living in you, taking root and growing?  Or is it?  If not, how can you turn over the soil of your soul so that it will receive and nurture the word from God which can give you new life?  Our lives are filled with well-trodden, overlapping and sunbaked roads like the inner terrain of this parable.  There are many soils inside our spirits, places where sometimes seed is impossible to take root, when our minds are shut off and we become self-focused, where weeds of fear and doubt choke us of hopeful messages, where we become obsessed with that latest craze and wander away.  There are times when we are filled with great joy at the power of the word proclaimed, commit ourselves to Christ, serve faithfully in the community, and there are times when the power of suffering, chaos, and pain causes us to fall into great disbelief, and we quickly forget that hope and grace.  While our faith is full of weeds, it is also full of the possibility of new life; moments when we pull off a good harvest of God’s word.  God knows this is possible and constantly turns our weakness into strength.  This parable about how, God’s seeds of faith and hope are continually being sown all around us.

     So, one day when my daughter was about 12 or 13 she turned to me and said, “you know mom, I don’t ever want to have kids.”  I said, “well, why not?”  She said, “because I’ve watched you mom and they are WAY too much work!” 

     Listen up; mothers and fathers!  There once was a sower who went out to sow.  Isn’t this explanation of God’s word, isn’t this parable, also a lot like parenting?!  We scatter seed, we throw out words of wisdom, advice, and council; we teach, preach, discipline, and guide, and a lot of the time, it feels like our children and sometimes our grandchildren, just aren’t getting it.  There’s a reason why there are books out there like “Yes, your teenager is crazy!” (which actually I highly recommend to any parent of a teenager, it’s very comforting). 

     We must admit that at times we try a bit too hard to control our children, force them to grow in the ways we want them to, only to realize we must give them freedom to grow, freedom to figure it out for themselves, to mess up, fail, gain confidence, mess up again, use their imagination, develop that crazy brain, and develop some kind of common sense.  We know there are times when our words seem to fall upon a path only to be completely forgotten, gobbled up by whatever takes over their lives, usually it’s their iPhone, twitter, blog, or dance, hockey, art classes, soccer, you name it!  We scatter and scatter our words – – hey, wouldn’t it just be easier to skip the three kids who just can’t seem to ever get it right and just concentrate on the one who seems to be absorbing all we are teaching, the one who seems perfect – today that is!  Why do we keep trying and trying?  Helping them make that volcano science project, reading the same book 10 times in one night, explaining how to do a math problem over and over again, driving them to visit 25 different colleges, why do we do it? 

     Because every once in a while, we wake up on Mother’s Day – or Father’s Day – and see that precious child in the doorway with that tray of soggy French toast and that beautiful card still wet with paint – and we sigh – and think we’re doing okay with this parenting thing, they get it, they appreciate us, they are growing and learning – until we go downstairs to the completely destroyed kitchen.  But we had that one moment!  ** Every once in a while, they turn to us and say, like my daughter did when she finished college – “I get it mom, I understand all of the sacrifices you and dad went through for me to make it.”  And we smile.  Until they ask if we have any money, again.  But we had that one moment!! 

     A week ago, my daughter and I went to the play, Dear Evan Hansen.  It is a musical about a high school senior with a social anxiety disorder who finds himself amid the turmoil that follows a classmate’s death.  It’s extremely powerful.  This young man is raised by a single mom who is always trying to help him.  Scattering seeds.  In the end, she sings a song called “So Big, So Small”, some of the words go like this:

     “I knew there would be moments that I’d miss and I knew there would be space I couldn’t fill and I knew I’d come up short a million different ways and I did and I do and I will, but like that February day, I will take your hand, squeeze it tightly and say your mom isn’t going anywhere, your mom will stay right here.”  (1)  Wow – I can’t even read the words without breaking down.  Sowing seeds of love.

     Inside each of us and each of our children and grandchildren, are all kinds of soil.  God calls us to be good soil, to simply try our best to live by God’s word, but God also knows we are busy confused people – we have businesses to run, children to raise, careers to develop, families to take care of; we live in a world where there is tremendous entertainment to distract us; and hardship and suffering all around us. 

     Like those first listeners, they too had serious doubts, moments of questioning, they needed assurance that God would always be with them through it all, always sowing new seeds of hope; for “was not Jesus’ sacrificial death the ultimate throwing of the seed far and wide?  From the death of that one man, has not a life come forth that has changed the world?  Does not the seed of that sacrifice, of that forgiveness, of that victory over the powers of sin [and death] – plant itself in the human spirit?”  (2) God isn’t stingy with the seeds, God scatters them everywhere – for God’s love is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, so that we might grow in faith and love.  And God will not stop sowing seeds, until the entire world, God’s entire kingdom, blooms a hundredfold.

     So, in my garden there is growing the plant from the seeds of a 600 lb. Pumpkin.  We shall see what grows.  Listen up!  There once was a sower who went out to sow seed . . .  Amen.

 

  • “So Big/So Small”, from the Musical “Dear Evan Hansen”, Music by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul.
  • Fearon, Dr. Dana, “God’s Failures and Successes”, 6/9/1996.

 

 

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