“Inch by Inch, Row by Row”
Rev. Jeffrey Long-Middleton
Bradford Congregational Church-UCC
June 17, 2018
He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,” Mark 4:26i
This is no way to plant a garden. My son does a better job. It isn’t easy for him. The land that our house sits on is extremely rocky. After the first two or three inches he had to take a pick and remove as much of the rock as he could. It took him a day’s work. Then he had to back fill the area with compost and topsoil. Next, he took the seedlings he had incubated in the house and put the fledgling plants into this ideal patch of ground. Now he waters it religiously. It’s his first garden.
If you want to begin to understand our scripture lesson this morning, you have to place it in its wider context. I don’t know how many of you read the message Marcia puts out each week describing what to expect in worship the coming Sunday, but in the portion I have to prepare I told the reader that it was necessary to read all of Mark 4 if verses 26-34 were to make sense. Context is everything. Let me illustrate.
There once were two factory workers, Sally and Fred. Sally had a complaint. She believed she was being woefully underpaid. She convinced Fred to go with her to the foreman as she argued her case. The foreman listened and did what any good foreman would do, she called Human Resources. HR looked up Sally and Fred’s job catagories and compared pay ranges. Sally was listed as a quality control employee. Her job was to make sure that the stitching of the pantyhouse was of acceptable quality. Fred was listed as a Diesel Fitter, a job that required much more skill than Sally’s. Problem solved? Not yet. Sally grew indignant. She and Fred worked side by side. She would pass the pantyhose that had passed her inspection on to Fred who then did the next step in the inspection process. The foreman was confused. How could a diesel fitter have essentially the same job as Sally? So the foreman asked Fred to show him what Fred actually did. Fred took a pair of pantyhouse, opened them up, held them over his head and said, ““’Dee’s’ll fit’er.” Context is everything.
If you read Mark’s fourth chapter, you’ll get a wider picture of what Jesus is talking about. The sower spreads the seed and it falls where it will – some on the path where birds come and immediately take it away, some on rocky soil where it sprouts up quickly only to wither away due to shallow roots, some among thorns that chock the plant to death and some among fertile ground where it flourishes, multiplies, spreads. Jesus goes on, at least with His disciples, He explains what He’s trying to say. The birds are Satan who comes into our lives as soon as the seed as sown and takes it away. The rocky soil are those for whom the Word of God first sprang up with great hope and joy only to wither and die when the challenges of life proved more powerful than the roots of faith. The thornes are all the temptations of the world which so easily overcome us. After all, we are continually bombarded with the messages of consumerism and come to believe that our joy is dependent on our things and not our faith. So we understand the bad soil and what was said prior to Mark 4:26-34. But before turning directly to the central part of this morning’s message, let me dance a little with what we already know.
First, it’s not the fault of those who have turned away from Jesus and you can’t take credit for embracing Him. I have very limited control of where the seed falls. It’s not completely the luck of the draw, but in my case the seed, the Word of God, fell on pretty fertile ground. Grandfather, father, two uncles and a brother are all pastors. If that aint fertile ground, what is? Can I take credit for the decisions made long before my time? Can I claim I had a hand in making my own soil rich with nutrients? I’m the benefactor of the grace of God being planted in others, and I suspect I am not alone. Most of us come to faith not through some stunning theophony like the blinding light that came to Paul. Most come because their souls were tilled by Christians who went before them. So I can’t take credit for the soil that saved my soul.
Second, this is a rather willy-nilly gardener. Seed costs money. Farmers don’t go down route 5 spreading good seed on the pavement. It’s a waste of time, effort and money. God doesn’t care. And note this. It is not that God doesn’t know. God knows that seed spread on route 5 is doomed. God knows good soil from bad. It’s that God doesn’t care. The Word of God, the gift of Christ is spread with reckless abandon and given to all regardless of the condition of the soil. This is the economics of the Kingdom of God, not Wall Street. The love shown to us by Christ on the cross was dearly bought. But that love is not horded for a few but spread even in the barren places of this world. This is our second learning: namely, God’s love is given to all.
Third, there are decisions that we make which impact the quality of the harvest. Even when God’s Word falls on fertile ground, there are choices to be made. Like any garden good soil is good for crops and weeds alike. Evil is not avoided or prevented by the seed falling on fertile ground, you have to make sure the weeds do not overcome the good. In our age, as already suggested, consumerism is one of faith’s greatest challenges. My wants easily superseded others needs and the compassion sown by God’s Word can be chocked by my greed. This is why church is so important and why prayer is central to one’s faith. Keep your eyes of the prize and never become blind to the need of your neighbor or you will have blinded yourself from seeing God.
Fourth, I am not in a position to judge anyone. I had nothing to do with my good fortune. They had nothing to do with the poverty of their soil. The seed falls where it will. So it is important to hold in abeyance one’s judgment. That’s God’s business. And remember this piece of wisdom spoken to those of us who stand in the pulpit:
“You may be able to compel people to maintain certain minimum standards, by stressing duty, writes Reinhold Niebuhr, but the highest moral and spiritual achievements depend not upon a push but a pull. People must be charmed into righteousness. The language of aspiration rather than that of criticism and command is the proper pulpit language.”1
Finally, there is this. Nowhere in this parable is the suggestion made that God is a once and done farmer. Do you think God spreads God’s Word once in a person’s life and then is done? I don’t. I think it is spread in every season of one’s life.
I have directed youth groups in my ministry and I have been at this long enough to have some longitudinal history. Young people who I thought were lost, who were adrift and seemed indifferent to faith, were not swept away by evil or chocked by the seductions of the world. Many have turned their lives around. Some have come to a committed faith. God message of love is not spread once and done. No. It is offered time and time again. This farmer knows nothing about the economics of agriculture. God cares only about the welfare of our souls. The seed is sown and it falls where it will. Thanks be to God. Let us pray…
1 Context, May 15, 1984, Niebuhr, Reinhold, quoted by pastor William Willimon in Circuit Rider.
i Mark 4:26-34
26He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.