Green Thumbs

Scripture:  Mark 4:26-32

Perhaps you have noticed this, but preachers tend to talk about what they know.  The sports fan makes a lot of baseball analogies.   The veteran finds illustrations in war stories.  The geek makes a lot of Star Wars references.  In trying to reach a deeper understanding of God’s great grace, incredible love, and presence in the world it is natural for us to lean on topics that we understand in order to find the words to describe the indescribable goodness of God.

Using that principle, I think we actually can get some insight into Jesus based on the stories he told.  We usually assume that Jesus was trained as a carpenter because he was a carpenter’s son.   That is an extremely safe assumption, but it is worth noting that Jesus does not really tell carpentry stories.   However, there is a common theme that many parables touch on.   Jesus told a lot of farming stories.   This too should make sense.  Jesus grew up and lived in an agrarian society.   Those who were not craftsmen or shop keepers were likely farmers and laborers who worked the land.   The seasons of planting and harvest really set the pulse of life.   We do not know much about the early life of Jesus, but even if he did not actively work the fields he was immersed in that way of life, and so were the majority of the people he talked to.   It should be no surprised then that Jesus told so many farming based parables.  This morning’s scripture from Mark contains two of these small parables.  These two stories are different, they come at it from a different angle but in the end they reach the same overarching point, which is God is the one that makes things grow.

Both of these stories begin with a familiar opening of stating or asking “what is the kingdom of God like.”    This phrase appears throughout the parables of Jesus, and this phrase refers to the gospel message that Jesus preached.   His parables were often illustrations about what following the teachings of Jesus would be like, transform, or bring about.   Yet it goes a little bit deeper than that.  We have to remember that Jesus is more than just a wise teacher, he is more than just a good person full of profound insight.   Jesus is the messiah, he is the son of God.  His parables are not just platitudes or inspirational sayings.   The stories Jesus tells are to inform of us a deeper reality, a reality that is both here and not yet.   A reality where God’s kingdom is fully established and fully realized; A reality where we are God’s people and God is our God.   That reality comes about as the gospel message spread, as people open their hearts to forgiveness, and as they become part of the kingdom of God.   These parables use farming analogies to explain how that message, the gospel of God’s love grows and how God’s kingdom is going to continue to increase.

The first of these small parables, the one about the growing seed is found only in the gospel of Mark.  That alone makes it unique because there are only a handful of stories and details found in Mark’s gospel that are not replicated in the others.   In this story Jesus makes a simple but profound point.   The point is the farmer or the gardener cannot make a seed grow.  A farmer or gardener can provide for ideal conditions.   Steps can be taken to make sure the seeds are planted at the peak time, the soil can be properly prepared, water can be provided, but in the end it is impossible for any human being to will a seed to grow.  As Jesus stated in verse 27, “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows though he does not know how.  All by itself the soil produces grain.”

The second parable is also about seeds, specifically the mustard seed.  Mustard plants are really a whole family of plants that share common characteristics.  They are all bushy and they all have small seeds.   The mustard seeds are not the smallest seeds in the world, but they are absolutely the smallest seeds that would have been cultivated in first century Israel.   Jesus refers to it as a garden plant, so this means it was not grown en masse like grain, but people grew mustard seeds to use as a spice or seasoning.  The mustard plants in question, were squat bushes, but as Jesus points out the branches could support birds, and they were much bigger than other garden plants.   This parable take the contrast between the small size of the seed and the size of the plant to point out that the kingdom of God is bigger than we could possibly imagine.

This morning’s scripture states at the end that Jesus used parables like these two to explain to the people “as much as they could understand.”   The implication is that the people would really struggle with a more direct approach, so Jesus told relatable stories.  Or rather, he told stories that were relatable to first century, Jewish farmers and villagers.   There is an ocean of time and cultural difference between us as an audience of 21st century, American (mostly) not farmers.  Despite that, I think these parables are just as relevant to us today as they were to Jesus’ original audience back then.

The first parable is about how the kingdom of God is like a seed that is going to grow no matter what because that is what seeds do.  In today’s day and age, I think this is an incredibly encouraging message.   Today it is not hard to find pundits and nay-sayers quick to proclaim the death of the church.  They are quick to point out some fairly grim statistics about declining church membership, generational loss, and number of closing churches.   However, that only tells half the story.  We should be rightly concerned by those statistics and we should have a deep desire to see American Christianity revitalize.   However, the church-the kingdom of God-is not going anywhere.   For instance the Central Congo conference of the United Methodist church added half a million people between 2012-2016.   That is almost double the amount of Methodists in the entire state of Indiana.   Like a seed, the kingdom of God is going to grow because that is how God designed it.  Nothing is going to stop the message that God loves you, God forgives you, and God wants you from spreading and growing.

On a more local and personal level this is a great reminder that we cannot make the seeds of faith grow.   I probably do not mention this enough, but I am proud of you as a church.  I am proud at how dedicated this congregation is to serving the community.  I am proud that time and time again this congregation has seen a need in the greater community and risen to meet that need.  This first parable is a reminder to us that when we serve the community through all of the various ways that we do, it is not our efforts that is going to make a love for God grow in the hearts of the people we interact with.  Seeds grow though we do not know how.  However, just like the farmers and gardeners we can provide the best possible growing conditions. Just like a gardener tills, sows, and waters we can reach out to the community and meet their needs, we can invite them to experience loving community.  We can show them understanding, compassion, and the love of Christ.  We cannot make the seeds of faith planted grow, but we can trust God to do that because God is the one that makes seeds grow.   God is the one who grows the kingdom of God, and the kingdom of God cannot, will not be stopped.

The second parable about the kingdom of God being like a mustard seed is also applicable today.   The same point made 2,000-ish odd years ago is still just as relevant:  The kingdom of God, the power of God, and the love of God will always surprise us.  It will always be bigger and more incredible than we can imagine.   The small seed will grow into something larger than we thought possible.   I have been able to see this play out neatly over the course of several years now.   It all started a decade ago, when one Christian mom planted a seed encouraging one of her friends to send her son to the youth group her children attended.   This mom did and her son started attending the youth group.  He had been doing that for about a year, when I came to the church to lead the youth.  That is when I met Mark.  Throughout high school, church and faith became an important part of Mark’s life.  The seed planted by another mom had begun to sprout and grow.    After graduating high school, Mark’s faith kind of stagnated in college as is often the case.   However, as he graduated I was desperate for camp counselors so in 2016 I reached out to Mark.   Coming to camp was the watering that Mark’s faith needed.  When he moved to start his adult job, Mark committed to being serious about his faith.  It has been a joy connecting with him each year at camp as I have seen this teenager that I know grown into a committed, deeply rooted, man of God.  For several years it was a joy to watch Mark at camp plant seeds of his own as he told campers just how much God loves them.  As he has moved further into adulthood he has had more obligations, so he could not attend camp this year.  However, he has become a vital leader in his church in Muncie.  For me Mark is a great example of this parable brought to life.  His faith journey started with the smallest seeds, an invitation to youth group, and it grew into a large and vibrant of faith.

In the same way we can plant small seeds, and this summer we have the opportunity to do just that.  Our outreach ministries put God’s love in action.  Through distributing food, meals, clothes, and backpacks we plant seeds because we show what it looks like to think of others and value them because they have sacred worth.  In August we get to do this as VBS returns and we remind children that God’s promises will always be there for them.  In all of these instances we can plant seeds, they will be small like a mustard seed.  However, that is what the kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds can grow to unbelievable sizes.

Jesus told stories about seeds because he was talking to people who knew a thing or two about growing seeds.  If you are a gardener you might relate to these parables a bit better than I do, because I do not really have a green thumb.  I have yet to meet a plant I can’t kill.   Yet, even I take heart in these parables because they remind me that I do not have to have a green thumb in faith to spread the gospel.   God is the one with the green thumbs, God is the one who makes the seeds grow, makes them grow bigger than we can imagine.   May we claim that promise, and may we be faithful.  May we be faithful in planting the seeds of the gospel.  May we be faithful in planting the seeds of God’s love.  May we be faithful in preparing the soil, and may we give God all the glory when the harvest has come.

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