Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Speaker: The Rev. Matthew Hanisian
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground.”
Two years ago at Virginia Theological Seminary a family from Ireland moved onto campus. The new faculty member and his family had just come from a position in Tanzania and were faced with a daunting task: How to gain control of the garden and yard surrounding their new house. The previous owner had been, how shall I say, “enamored with the indoors,” and had let the flower beds almost go wild. Things had gotten so out of hand that it was difficult to know what part of the property was theirs to look after and which part was the responsibility of the seminary. So they set about pruning, wrestling with weeds, and hiring a young man to come and mow their grass. One day in late April they noticed that the plot of land between their house and the house next door had something growing in it—a LOT of something actually. Over the next several weeks they watched with growing curiosity as the plants sprang up and grew taller and taller. Was it some form of wild grass? Who was responsible for it growing there? Who in the world was going to mow it?
Several weeks later, curiosity got the best of them and they asked the head groundskeeper what was this thick grass that was invading the plot next to theirs. Turns out it was wheat. Several members of the student body had scattered seed for wheat in the small field next to their house.
One evening when they came home from being away over a three-day weekend they were quite surprised at what they saw. Presto, all of the wheat was gone. They knew not where. Again they inquired to the groundskeeper what had happened. The wheat had matured and while they were away, the harvest had come.
Last night I found out that the small wheat field was one of several that the students had planted around the seminary campus. The wheat had indeed been harvested and ground and has been used to make the communion bread loaves the seminary uses for their Eucharist services…the same recipe we use here at St. Alban’s.
One can imagine that since Jesus spent a good deal of time preaching and talking about the Kingdom of God that he HAD to have been asked repeatedly to explain or give some kind of shape and form to what the Kingdom of God was all about. “Jesus, you are always going on about and preaching about it—but tell us, what is the Kingdom of God going to be like?” And, it would be easy to wish that Jesus would have said plainly: “Alright! Here is what the kingdom of God will be like; here is what the Kingdom of God is now, and here is where you’re going to find the Kingdom of God when you go looking for it. And, oh yeah, I know it seems like a long way off, but I’ll be coming back at about 4:35 in the afternoon of March 25th, 2093 so you better have your act together by then.”
That would have been lovely, but it would have been completely out of character for Jesus…and part of me thinks that how he DOES describe the Kingdom of God, using the literary device of parable—is in fact for our benefit. We humans have historically had a difficult time getting our minds around God’s plans for us. I mean we ended up killing Jesus after all, and he was the one who gave us perhaps the most clear insight into things like the Kingdom of God.
So instead of getting a straightforward simple answer Jesus gives us parables, small tastes of the truth about the Kingdom of God. Our English word parable comes from the Greek words “para” and “bēlló”…which literally translates to something that is “thrown against” our lives.
I’m sure that you are familiar with the literary device known as fable—those clever stories that are meant to impart some sort of life lesson. You remember the one about “The tortoise and the hare” where slow and steady wins the race. Although on the surface you might think that parables and fables are roughly the same, they aren’t. Here’s the difference: while fables teach us life lessons, parables are stories that reveal truths, especially hard truths—Parables reveal truths we don’t always want to hear; truths that are difficult to comprehend or even believe and often even heavy to bear. Sometimes the full force of that revealed truth takes a while to sink in—remember what I just said about us having a hard time getting our minds around things divine…
Eugene Peterson, pastor, theologian, teacher and neighbor just up the road in Bel Air, Maryland has said that parables are like narrative time bombs. You hear the parable and—tick—you wonder about them—tick—you think maybe you’ve got the message—tick—and then as you walk away—tick—or over the course of the next day or so—tick—and all of a sudden the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home—ka-boom! There is this explosion of truth—sometimes that explosion of truth can be overwhelming with its implications for our lives.
In the first short parable from this morning’s Gospel, the blinding, overwhelming and uncomfortable truth that Jesus is trying to throw against our lives is this—the Kingdom of God comes without our doing anything. We cannot MAKE the Kingdom of God come any more than we can blow against the wind and make the wind change direction. The coming of the Kingdom of God isn’t up to us—that work is solely the work of God.
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.”
Our job is to scatter Kingdom seeds, wait for the Kingdom to sprout up and be ready at the harvest, whenever that happens to come.
Interesting sidebar here: In all of Mark’s gospel, and in point of fact in over 98% of all four of the gospels, when the author talks about “seed” the Greek word used is “sperma.” However, this instance of Mark’s gospel—and this instance only--the word used for “seed” is: “sporos”—where we get the English word “spore.”
So why sporos and not sperma? Sporos are less tangible, less obvious than sperma. Think of these sporos as tiny, almost microscopic, bits of Kingdom spores. On the tip of your finger you can carry several thousand spores.
Think about it…think about how the littlest gesture or act of kindness or showing of mercy can have huge results—just like the very in breaking of the Kingdom of God. This is good news for us, brothers and sisters, small things can make a huge difference.
I’m reminded of a Ted Talk I watched a couple of years ago by a guy named Ze Frank. The Talk has been watched now over 1.1 million times. The premise of the talk is the oddity that human relationship and connection to one another is becoming increasingly difficult while, in the history of the human race we are the most “connected” we’ve ever been…through things like social media, smart phones and the internet. One experiment he devised in 2002 examined how people deal with pain in their lives and how they let go, how they excise that pain. He set up a hotline for people to call in and say how they let go of the pain they feel. He played a recording of a voicemail he had received from a young lady who said that she lets go of the pain in her life when she realizes she is loved. And she realizes that she is loved, truly loved in the small random gestures of people around her. She said, “I’m not alone. I am loved and I know I’m fortunate, but sometimes I feel really lonely. And when I feel that way, even the smallest act of kindness can make me cry. Like when people in convenience stores say “have a nice day,” when they’re accidentally looking me in the eye.”
The person at the convenience store had, perhaps without even knowing what he or she had done, scattered a bit of those Kingdom spores. I am certain that the cashier never knew the ripe harvest of the Kingdom that sprang up in that woman. But what she experienced, in that small, simple moment that moved her to tears was the in breaking of the Kingdom of God.
So aside from the fact that the Kingdom is borne out of tiny spores—things even smaller than lugging around heavy seed…The other bit of Good News is that the only agency WE have in this whole production process is to scatter, to wait, and to be ready to harvest when the Kingdom shows up. The scattering part is easy, actually. Scattering means that we have to throw--all willy-nilly—as many kingdom spores as we can. We don’t even have to line all the spores up in a neat row—we don’t even have to have a particular target at which we scatter our spores.
What we have to do is scatter then…go to sleep and wake up and wait. Like the new family from Ireland at VTS we don’t even have to be attentive to the spores we’ve scattered. We have to simply leave the rest up to God. And finally we have to be ready whenever the Kingdom is ripe for the harvesting--recognizing the goodness of the moment, and proclaiming that goodness as the Kingdom of God which has come near. That’s it. That’s all. God does all of the heavy lifting, all of the hard work of actually bringing the Kingdom of God into our reality.
Now I think the problem comes when we engage our rational, Type A, minds which say, “That sounds too easy. There must be a catch.” Then our emotions catch up with our minds. That could sound a little bit like: “hold on a minute… Just how MANY spores are we supposed to scatter? Wait! What if I don’t scatter enough spores? What do you MEAN we don’t have to worry about how it grows? Just wait around? …I don’t know about you, but I’m HORRIBLE at just waiting around. SURELY there must be SOMETHING I can do to increase the production and sprouting rate…Oh God, What if we miss the harvest?”
In the end this parable flies in the face of our culture of “the harder you work the greater your reward.” “No pain, no gain,” goes right out the window. WE cannot MAKE the Kingdom happen; only GOD can do that. This is quite disconcerting news isn’t it?
Despite the unsettling manner of this parable that we cannot influence,
cajole, push pull or drag the Kingdom of God any closer to the harvest time…that the actual MAKE-IT-HAPPEN part is OUT of our hands, and mercifully IN God’s quite capable hands…as it turns out, scattering spores is pretty easy and light work.
Each of the good and love-filled things that we do in the name of Christ; every time we try to live into our baptismal covenant or try to live into the teachings, the pattern, the example of Jesus…we are scattering Kingdom spores. Each of the good acts we perform, each of the deeds we do with love and charity is a whole handful of scattered Kingdom spores. And scattering is so much easier than sowing or planting in straight lines…wherEVER our spores land they have the potential to sprout and grow into the Kingdom solely through the awesome and omnipotent power of almighty God.
We do not know HOW or IF the Kingdom spores we scatter will produce the faith that eventually welcomes the Kingdom of God. But, that’s not really the point. The point is we have to let go of the notion that we can control this, and get busy scattering Kingdom spores. God is in charge of which and how many of the spores we scatter will mature and when that will all happen.
According to the parable, the sporos mature in stages—growing faith from the inside out—little by little until the crop of the Kingdom is ready for the harvest. Those who receive our love, charity, generosity, our forgiveness and mercy, and our agape love—even if we don’t know how—those spores we scatter go to work, changing the person little by little. Theologian and popular blogger David Lose writes, “In this sense faith is a lot more like falling in love than making a decision. Because kingdom-faith, like love, is something that comes from the outside and grabs hold of you, whether you want it to or not.”
One week from today 48 brave youth and adults will depart at about 6:30 a.m. on our annual Appalachian Service Project Mission Trip. We will be joined, for the first time, by youth and adults from St. Columba’s and St. Margaret’s—two other parishes in the Diocese of Washington—a new tradition we hope to expand widely across the whole diocese next summer. This year we will journey to Washington County, Virginia. Our goal is simple: In the name of Jesus, help make seven family’s homes warmer, safer and drier.
I can’t help but wonder: What Kingdom spores will we scatter as we serve our brothers and sisters in Christ next week? What subtle moments, shades of building relationship and trust—and what look-you-in-the eye truths will be revealed in the coming days as we serve those in need?
And, even MORE WONDERFUL to contemplate: What Kingdom spores will be scattered and showered down upon us? How will WE be grabbed hold of and awakened to the awesome love of God as missionaries we swing hammers, cut lumber, or install a new roof? Where will we encounter the Kingdom of God? And if we do will we be attuned enough to have our sickle at the ready to reap with joy the harvest of the Kingdom?
Scattering the spores of the Kingdom is easy work. And, that work is required of all of us. There is no guarantee that the spores we scatter will ever turn into the harvest of the Kingdom. But, we must continue to scatter our spores with wild abandon, trusting that God will cause the spores to grow and mature…as God wills them to. Where will you scatter your spores with wild abandon? And, where do you need to just watch and wait while God does God’s work? With your sickle at the ready, where can YOU proclaim the ripeness of the Kingdom? Now, open your eyes afresh. See the joyful truth: the Kingdom is sprouting up all around you.