|Pomme de Terre United Methodist Church|
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|"The Smallest of all the Seeds"
I am sure that there are many persons
who have read or heard the parables of Jesus, as told in the gospels,
who have wondered, "Why did he have to present all this stuff in
“When he was telling us about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God, why didn't he just spell it out for us, give us the definitive and final answer, instead of beating around the bush, making comparisons, telling stories?"
And I suppose that there may be those who suspected that Jesus didn't really know. There may also be those who suspect that Jesus didn't know how to tell us directly.
But it is my belief that the kingdom of God is beyond description in any neat, limited form. And the best way to get at it is the way Jesus did it. He asked us to use our imagination, and in the power of that imagination to see possibilities without limit. He didn't give us neatly packaged answers, but he showed us how to try to find them.
It has been said that if you give a person a fish, that person's hunger may be momentarily satisfied; but if you teach that person how to fish, he or she may then be able to find satisfaction indefinitely.
If we tell a person what we think that person should know, a limited amount of knowledge is gained; but if we teach a person how to learn, he or she can continue to learn and gain new knowledge.
And I really believe that this is what Jesus is up to in his parables. Consider the parable in the fourth chapter of Mark which begins, in the twenty-sixth verse, "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." Now if that sounds like magic, if that sounds like a miracle, it's because it IS a miracle. The sprouting and growing of seed in the earth is a miracle.
The birth of a child is a miracle. Even the workings of our minds are miracles. Where do ideas come from, anyway? All the things we read, all the things we see, hear, touch, taste, smell, sense, are like seeds scattered upon the ground. And somehow they sprout and grow. And it's all a miracle. Of course, there are those who have explanations for all of this who would say that there is no miracle to it. But the irony in those explanations is that the more we find answers, the more we raise new questions. And the answer I like the best is the one Jesus gives us when he tells us, "The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head."
"The earth produces of itself." And how we take that so much for granted: crops mature, children grow up, plans within our minds develop. But how often do we contemplate from where all this comes? In a sense, all of this comes from almost nothing.
But in another sense, for those of us who believe, it comes from the infinite power of God. For only the infinite power of God can create life out of life.
There is a well-known poem, I'm sure you've all heard it--I think the poet was Joyce Kilmer--that states, "Poems are made by fools like me, but only God can create a tree."
But I believe that's only partly true; because I believe that poems are not made by fools, but that they too are a creation of an infinite God.
And when Jesus speaks of the stalk, and the head, and full grain in the head, he is speaking of the cycle of God's creation, an orderly process. And that full grain can in turn become scattered seed upon the ground, and the cycle can continue.
It is a cycle not limited to grains, but also apparent in the generations of humanity, as families beget families. Nor is it a cycle limited to biology.
For the words we write and the words we speak, as others read them and hear them, become like seeds that grow in the minds of others.
I've often thought it sad that the first chapter of the book of Ecclesiastes has been interpreted as a pessimistic view of life. In the ninth verse we read, "What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun." But might I suggest an alternative optimistic interpretation.
What I read in that chapter is the power of the infinite God in the cycles of nature. And in God's cycles I see infinite rebirth, regeneration, and renewal.
Yet too often our view of the world is only short-term. As in the twenty-ninth verse of the fourth chapter of the gospel according to Mark: "But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." Of course, that is how the farmer must view the crop. But the farmer also knows that there will be another season and another crop. And the farmer's view is not short-term.
Yet, there is another aspect not dealt with in this parable, and that is the harvest that does not come. My father once owned a 55-acre plot of bottom ground at the edge of the Solomon River in north-central Kansas.
It's now under a reservoir created when much of the Solomon Valley was dammed up creating Waconda Lake, but I spent many hours of my youth jockeying tractors in that field.
At one period of frustration, my father said of that field, "I figure we're good for one year out of five. If it doesn't burn up, flood out, get hailed on, or taken by disease, the wheat will be terrific." And he was right. When there was a crop, it was fantastic.
And as Christians, we must have the courage, the faith, to know that there will be another harvest; that even in the bad times, God is still with us, and we must continue to look ahead.
I can remember forty years ago when I was coaching high school debaters, and they were having a rough year. After each tournament, when they were depressed with not doing well, I would tell them, "It's OK; there WILL BE another weekend."
And they didn't give up. And at the end of the season they took second place in the district tournament and qualified for the state tournament.
But why bring up these instances of hard times? Jesus doesn't talk about them in this passage! But it's the hard times that should bring to mind what we too often take for granted in the good times.
And the hard times should make us more grateful for what God gives us in the good times.
And Jesus continues, "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."
The message here seems self-evident; but in an age when "bigger is better" seems to be the message that screams at us, sometimes the truth of scripture gets lost.
When cities measure their value by the size of their population, by the height of their tallest buildings, by the number of new construction projects; when people measure their value by the prices of their new homes and new cars; maybe we should remember some smaller things.
For example, one of the best-known pieces of propaganda to come out of the American revolution was the first sentence of Thomas Paine's pamphlet entitled "Common Sense."
That sentence contained eight one-syllable words: "These are the times that try men's souls." The best-known presidential address in the history of this country was only about three hundred words long, and delivered by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg.
One of the best-known, most reliable automobiles in the history of the industry was the inexpensive, small, ugly Volkswagen bug.
In an age when bigness is so overwhelming, when nations measure their strength by the size of their gross domestic products and their military arsenals, sometimes we forget that the most influential person in the history of western civilization was born in a stable in a tiny town to a couple so poor that when they took the child to the temple they could afford only the least expensive of the sacrificial offerings.
That he hardly traveled more than a handful of miles from his hometown, and that he lived to be only 33 years old.
Sometimes I wonder how, in the institution that is the church, we lost track of the mustard seed. Although I fully understand, and agree with, itineracy in the United Methodist Church, I have difficulty with the notion that it is a promotion for pastors to be assigned to larger congregations, as if size was something to be considered inherently wonderful.
I've served eleven congregations over the past nineteen years, and the average attendance in those congregations has been about twenty-five. But regardless of our size, I believe that there should be a sense of pride in who we are and what we do for one another. God has set no law on how large a congregation should be. And Jesus certainly did not; he had his hands full with twelve disciples. But it was enough. And although he reportedly taught thousands at a time, he never bothered to organize them.
It was enough that his words planted seeds in their minds. And his acts during his brief ministry were enough to create a movement that has continued growing for two thousand years.
There is what is called the Church Growth Movement. It is concerned with studying churches and figuring out how to make them bigger. It measures success with numbers. But although I do think such growth is important, I also think that there is another side. In my first appointment, nineteen years ago, I was located six miles southeast of Harrisonville at Daugherty.
At that time Harrisonville had twenty-two churches; and while I was at Daugherty, Harrisonville added a twenty-third congregation, the Evangelical Free Church.
Obviously, those who were attending that church were not finding their needs met by the other twenty-two congregations. But the emergence of that church also might be telling us that those folks were in fact looking for a smaller congregation rather than a larger one. Maybe the symbol of the mustard seed has NOT been forgotten by the Christian community.
Now I suspect that there will always be the very small church, with no more than a handful of parishioners, hardly enough to fill two or three pews. And there will always be the mega-church with its thousands of members.
But within the Christian community, we need to cultivate an understanding of how we are the symbolic mustard seed.
No matter how insignificant we may perceive ourselves to be, each of us has the potential, by the way we live our lives, to become, as the mustard seed, the greatest of all shrubs. Every unit within the church, every Sunday School class, can be the mustard seed.
Back in the sixties a woman by the name of Rosa Parks, an African-American cleaning woman who nobody outside her family and friends had every heard of before, climbed onto a bus and sat down. When she was asked to move to the back of the bus, she just sat there. She was tired, and she simply refused to move. And with that refusal to move to the back of the bus, she started a revolution. She didn't intend to start a revolution; she saw herself only as a simple cleaning-woman.
But she was the 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.
We should not doubt that the simplest of our acts can made a difference. Each of us, for better or for worse, DOES make a difference, in our community and especially in our church.
But how many of us harbor the attitude that we, individually, don't matter? Consider this: the average attendance at worship services on Sunday morning in this church is about 90.
What if each of those persons were to SHARE his or her church with ONE unchurched person or inactive member next week, and continue to do the same thing each week for the next year?
And what if, in this endeavor, we are successful only ONE percent of the time? And what if, as we attracted others, they joined us in this weekly practice? Well, I'll tell you, "what if." At the end of one year, your attendance would be up to about 150.
And you'd have to start making plans to build a new church, because if you keep this up for a second year you're going to feel really crowded with the 250 who will be here by the end of that year.
And when you make those plans, you'd better plan for adequate acreage for the parking lot to handle all the cars for the more than 400 who will be attending this church at the end of three years.
Why does no one believe me when I tell them these things? Do we doubt what Jesus tells us when he says that the kingdom of God is like the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs?
Each of us can affect eternity. But the only way the tiny mustard seed can become the greatest of all shrubs is for us to SOW that tiny seed. Jesus set the example. And he's waiting for us to follow.
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