November 14th Worship

Audio Recording

Mark 4: 1-20

Jesus 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.”

Sermon ~ Pastor Linda

Today’s reading consists of three parts:

The first is the parable Jesus tells about the wasteful extravagance of God sowing seeds – knowing they’re going everywhere and that in most cases they worn’t produce and live up to their potential (although they do feed the birds and provide organic matter to dry, compacted soil, which – in God’s sense of time, could help change the character of that soil!)   But, anyway, in the short term, they don’t fulfill the promise of their seedy selves, and don’t provide for the common good. God, unlike any other farmer, is reckless, wasteful in not carefully keeping the seeds for the “good soil” but wasting it by letting it also land among thorns, and on the shallow and hardened areas. 

The middle section is a bit of a problem. It kind of takes back the generosity of God just established. The quote comes from the Aramaic Targum of Isaiah (which is the translation of ancient Hebrew into less-ancient Aramaic which was spoken in Jesus’ time). God announces that the people are too hard-hearted to hear the prophet’s words of warning and so will bring judgment and calamity down on themselves (Is. 6). Jesus quotes Isaiah, perhaps, to emphasize that the Kingdom of God he proclaims is so new, so unexpected, and so different that it doesn’t fit the religious frameworks most people carry around with them. We can hear and can know, but changing behavior to do takes a bigger heart and God’s grace to get there.

The third part is the explanation of the parable Jesus offers to the disciples, which doesn’t actually fit the parable. It shifts the focus to the soil that receives or rejects the seed, and isn’t about the God who sows it. These verses are thought to be not original to Jesus, but part of the oral tradition circulating at the time Mark wrote this gospel.

But, regardless of the possible sources of the sections, Mark put them together, and must have thought they had something important to teach.

I often wonder why I’m a pastor. (That was not as smooth a transition as it might have been!) I’m thinking about the seed as the word of God and the soil types, and why some seed ‘sticks’ and some doesn’t.

I had a prior career. It was good. I was good at it. What compelled me to go back to school, for a new career, in my 40’s, with three children at home?  And, why do so many people grow up in the church, in church-going families, and not come to adult faith (why do they not want to become pastors in their 40’s)?  What happens? What accounts for that mystery?

Some of it may have to do with unhealthy or boring prior church experiences, but not all. Some of it has to do with negative associations with the Christian Right, or political manipulation seen in religion as an institution, or battles over literalism, or the negative impact Christianity has had on so many parts of human history… but that can’t account for it either. The scriptures say that faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, but surely that gift is sown with a liberal hand like the sower in this parable scattering seed without discretion?  Good, church-going people, often don’t feel called to faith, or drawn in. Why is this?

It seems that Jesus, in telling – and explaining – the parable, simply acknowledges the variety of soils without condemning them. “You bad rocky soil, cast away those stones! And you hard-packed foot paths, lighten up a bit, would ya?” He doesn’t say that. It’s just a fact that some soil receives seed and has the right conditions and microbes for it to germinate and grow and produce – and some doesn’t. 

My tomato plants each produced thirty and 60 fold this year. Last year they produced about 4 each. Same soil, same pots – but more rain or more attention? Regenerative farming practices rotate crops every year to keep the soil productive, so maybe we only have one year of the parable farmer’s story. Maybe the next year conditions have changed.  I don’t know how far I can push the parable to address my concern. But I do know that conditions of our lives matter and that they change. I do know that the seed matters. Presumably, God is is the seed, but the context and content of the message encasing that seed might take root in one case and not in another. Personality styles, life experiences, access, approach – there are so many variables that go into our individual ‘soil type’. And again, there is joy in the productivity of the good soil, but not condemnation for the others. I think that point is missed – or at least I missed it until now.

I was drawn to the space of the sanctuaries of my childhood – the claret red and luminous shades of blue glass in the windows, the vaulted ceilings and heavy, dark, arched beams. I felt what I would now call ‘awe’ in those spaces. I love this space – clear, simple, open. Sanctuary spaces speak a message, sow seeds. But my sister, brother and I all had the same childhood church contexts, yet each of us has gone a very different direction from one another, and from my mom’s expression of faith. It’s interesting – at times it’s distressing. But mostly, I think it’s encouraging. 

We have recently heard Jesus say he didn’t come to call the righteous nor was he there for the healthy, but rather, came for those who are suffering, those who know their need and are longing for healing. I think this parable is the same message with different imagery. In his setting, Jesus was condemning the Pharisees and Scribes for their self-righteousness and close-mindedness, for their inability to let go of their old categories of certainty in order to see what was fresh from the side of God standing right before them. 

But willfully denying and impeding and plotting against the Good of God is very different than benevolent neglect. The two extremes of need require the physician. But maybe the middle is okay. ‘The first shall be last and the last shall be first’, but that, too leaves the middle just there in the middle… being okay. Paul warns against having lukewarm faith, but if the extremes are impassioned martyrdom or hardhearted arrogance, then lukewarm faithfulness, goodness, kindness of heart doesn’t seem ungodly. It seems good, enough, included and inclusive.

So maybe these three parts make up today’s story so that we have access to the message in some way that speaks to us. God scatters seed knowing the odds, but sows it anyway, out of eternal hopefulness and steadfast love. The parables are enigmatic and hit and miss as far as how we take them in, or what they might mean to us, or how they will work on us over time. And the seed lands on soil that produces, or rejects it, or grows quickly and briefly and fades away, or just doesn’t have time right now in the rush of life and worldly cares, but gets washed away or swept under a rug until later.

The thing to remember, maybe, is that seasons come and seasons go, and that there is a time for every season under heaven. Next spring, God the sower, will be back, and the next year after that, and again, and again. 

For Mark and his generation, there was an eschatological urgency – they believed time was about up! Jesus was coming again, and no one knew the moment or the day, but be ready, get your house in order.

That was 2000 years ago. The Roman Empire fell and others have come and gone. Our sense of urgency has to do with social justice and ecological crisis. We might very well take this parable more literally knowing that deforestation, desertification make soil less likely to be able to germinate seed of any sort. Floods may wash it away and fires scorch the land. 

The context has changed but the construct remains: human willfulness, sin, greed, shortsighted selfishness, hubris, hardheartedness impedes the kingdom of Love and Peace and Common Good that Jesus inaugurated – we can easily see that equal concern for all people, concern for all of creation, benevolent generosity is lacking and desperately needed individually and among the nations. This parable is introduced by Jesus saying the kingdom of God is like this farmer. This is how those within the kingdom of God would be. We live in a culturally and religiously pluralistic world with a wide variety of acceptance or closed boxes as far as whose God is worshipped. 

In the end, there is no easy take-home message for us in these parables. “Be the best soil you can be!” I guess is a frequent message, but not really helpful. The only way to “be good soil,” is to remember the reality and promise that ultimately it’s not up to us but to God, the farmer who sows with abandon out of love. We can’t decide what kind of soil we are, but we can trust Jesus’ promise that God will keep sowing seeds, keep showering us with the word of grace, with mercy, and love. 

Parables ask that we engage our imaginations and follow the possibilities and incongruities between a world where everything is planned, linear, logical, and one filled with mysteries and surprises and reasons to repent –  a world into which a suffering, sovereign God invites you to come. Be at peace.