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The Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 17, 2012
The Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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Jesus 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.
Surprising things can happen from the smallest of things. Helen was a ninth grade math teacher. She remembers how one of her classes was at a breaking point some time back. She was teaching them, what was then called ďNew Math.Ē Her students were working hard, but she could tell that they just didnít understand the new concepts. They were growing more frustrated and edgy with each passing day. Then one Friday afternoon Helen decided to depart from her lesson plan. She instructed each student to list each personís name in the class on a sheet of paper, and then to write something nice about each one. The unusual assignment took the entire class period for them to complete.
The next day, Saturday, Helen took those papers and compiled a list for each student of what others in the class liked about them. On Monday she gave each student a paper with what the other classmates had written about them. The atmosphere in the class changed instantly; her students were smiling again. Helen overheard one student whisper, ďI never knew that I meant anything to anyone!Ē The students were happy with themselves and each other. It was time to continue with their math lessons, and no one ever said anything about those papers again.
Years passed. Students came and went. Then the class was suddenly brought together again as young adults. One of them had died. Most of them hadnít seen each other in years, yet they came from far and near. After the service, the former classmates gathered around Helen. One of them had something to show her. Opening his wallet, he carefully removed two worn pieces of notebook paper that had obviously been taped and refolded many times. Helen knew without looking that the papers were the ones on which she had listed all the good things of each classmate. She was amazed as another former student told her that she still kept her list in the top drawer of her desk at home. Another had placed his list in his wedding album. Still another classmate took out her wallet, showed her worn and frazzled list to the group, and said she carried it with her everywhere she went. Helen was simply overwhelmed.
Whoever would have thought that what a teacher did out of desperation on a Friday afternoon would have such a lasting effect on her students? We never know how something we might do might affect someone else. The funny thing is that we may not even think that what we did was all that important, but to another person it makes a world of difference. Jesus teaches us this morning that the Kingdom of God, the Reign of Godís will, is like that.
From our Gospel lesson from the fourth chapter of the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus tells us that the Kingdom, Godís Reign in our lives, is mighty surprising. In fact, he tells us two very surprising things about Godís Reign this morning.
The first surprise Jesus tells us about Godís Reign is this: Godís Reign grows even when we canít figure out why. Listen to Jesusí words. ďThe 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.Ē It is a mystery; millennia later we still donít know what causes a seed to sprout. So far we have not been able to create a synthetic seed and make it grow. The conditions that favor growth we understand. Hybrid seeds and genetically altered seeds we can do. Growth itself, however, is still a mystery.
The point this parable is making is that, even though we donít understand the mystery of growth, we are to plant the seeds of Godís Reign. What kind of seeds are those? Seeds of joy, seeds of hope, seeds of love and compassion, seeds of faith! Where are we to plant them? In human lives! We donít know if the seeds we plant will ever take hold, but growth doesnít take place because of our understandings or manipulations; it is Godís initiative that brings forth growth.
It is often easy for us to lose patience and wonder about the usefulness of our efforts. We donít see anything coming from our efforts and weíre ready to give up. There are prayers we have prayed, seeds we have planted in others lives that have not yet sprouted. But wait! The parable of the scattered seed tells us that just when we are ready to give up, maybe even after we have given up, seed will sprout. Growth will happen. We are to be patient and not give up, because God works in ways that are often hidden from view. There are times when we can only trust, but growth will come, with or without our knowing why. Thatís the first surprise Jesus tells us about Godís Reign.
Hereís the other surprise: The biggest growth often comes from the smallest seeds. Jesus says, ďIt is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground is the smallest of all seeds on earth.Ē But from the smallest seed known in Jesusí day grew a large, almost tree-like shrub. The mustard seed is only a tiny, tiny speck of a seed, yet when it grows, Jesus tells us, it is, Ēthe greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.Ē
It is hard for us to get excited about this metaphor, since we probably arenít impressed much by even big mustard plants. But, consider the great Redwood trees. The Giant Sequoia has a seed smaller than most of the seeds we might plant in our backyard gardens. Itís so small that you probably wouldnít even see it unless you held it close in your hand. Yet among the largest trees in the world grow from such a seed. The Coastal Sequoia Redwood, the Giant Sequoiaís smaller cousin, has a seed even smaller than that. Yet among the tallest trees in the world grow from it. Itís hard to imagine just how immense these trees are, unless youíve stood next to one. They can reach heights of 300 feet or more, with diameters over 30 feet, and be more than 100 feet just to walk around. Many of them are more than 2,000 years old. They were here when Jesus was born. You cannot escape a sense of awe at their majesty, or a feeling of smallness in their presence. These trees put even that great adage about ďMighty oaks from small acorns growĒ to shame. Having worked as a camp counselor among these trees in my college days, I can tell you that you never really get used to them. For me, to step into a grove of them is to step into a truly ďthin spaceĒ; a space where the distance between Heaven and Earth is very thin indeed.
This parable is a word of encouragement for you and me. God is still with us even when our grand designs are frustrated, and only the smallest plan is realized. Growth often starts out small like the tiniest seed, but then blossoms into something wondrous. Jesus is saying that even a seemingly limited effort, expended in an insignificant time and place can cause Godís Reign to grow immensely. The smallest seed can change the world.
One June morning 163 years ago, Jean Henri Dunant woke up to the news that war had broken out just to the south of his beloved Switzerland, in the north of Italy. He had never seen war before, so he packed a few things and set out to see for himself what was going on there.
Henri arrived in Castiglione just as a battle was starting. From a hillside vantage point he watched as men were hit by bullets, gave horrible cries, and fell to the ground. Henri was horrified. When the fighting stopped at dusk he went into the town and asked people to go with him to help the fallen on the battlefield. Ordinary folks; farmers, and shopkeepers responded to his plea, and spent the night there doing what they could to relieve the suffering of the wounded. Henri came away a changed young man.
Back in Switzerland, he wrote a memoir about what had seen for a local newspaper. In his memoir he also planted the seed of an idea: he suggested that every country should have a relief society, a kind of emergency aid service to help wounded soldiers. The paper stuck his memoir just inside the back page. That should have finished his idea off for good.
Yet, his idea was seen and it caught fire. Just five years later the first such rescue society ever was organized in Geneva, in 1864. It was called the Red Cross. Soon other countries joined the society, including the United States, as a result of Clara Barton and the Civil War. The Red Cross went international. Yet, everyone forgot all about Henri. He had planted the seed, but no one remembered him. That is, until an article appeared in a newspaper in 1895. Someone had found his old memoir in the search to find out how it had all begun. In 1901 Henri was given the very first Nobel Peace Prize.
Henriís small seed of compassion had germinated, and would come to help millions of people all over the world. Thatís the way the Reign of God grows; great growth from small deeds. Thatís the other surprise Jesus would have us know about Godís Reign this morning.
Have you felt discouraged in your efforts to make this world a better place? Remember, God is the one at work for growth. Even from your smallest effort, may well grow your greatest contribution. So throw your love around. Scatter your good deeds carelessly. Surprise! Godís reign will make good use of it all.