“A Solid Seedling”
“A Solid Seedling”
Mark 4:26-29 (1st reading) & Matthew 7:24-27 (2nd reading)
July 24, 2022
Good morning! I’m grateful to be here and sharing with you all today. Most of you know that I’ve been back in Texas for a few weeks after what was a great trip to my mom and dad’s place in Wisconsin for their golden anniversary. While I was there, it was so life-giving to see my brother and sister, I got to meet my new nephew, and see many relatives and friends, as we all came together with the shared goal of celebrating something truly joyful – that is, that my parents have now been married for 50 years.
While the trip was an incredible and much-needed opportunity to celebrate my parents, for me, the trip also became a sort of pilgrimage. Because on this trip, I revisited people and places I hadn’t seen in years, and it was wonderful to remember some of the people, places, and events that built me in my younger years.
One of those places was Skonewood Christian Retreat Center, a place our church and my youth group had been a number of times to swim, to worship, to camp out. On one of our last days in Wisconsin this June, my dad’s gospel quartet sang an outdoor concert at Skonewood, so we went to watch the show. It was very special for me to go and see a place where I had done some growing up and had experienced a few memories too vivid to forget.
Like the time my youth group camped overnight there. I stayed up talking the whole night. After that long night, I was so tired the next morning, and falling asleep around our campfire, that I barely noticed when my friend Stephen put something small and wriggly, something scaly…. yes, a snake … on my head. In fact, that morning, not only did I get a snake on my head but the boys in our group eagerly confessed that they had, the night before, put a number of snakes in the girls tent. When our youth leader Janel calmly told them to remove the snakes that had spent the night in the tent, the boys went hunting. They trapped whatever they could find and admitted when they were done that a few were still unaccounted for. So you all can imagine the seriousness with which I was checking my pillowcase when I got home.
So yes, going back to that retreat center last month, I did happen to remember that one crazy time we camped there as a youth group. But I actually spent the majority of my time that night thinking about another memory that took place at that retreat center. Because Skonewood retreat center was actually the place where I was baptized, and I was anxious to dip my toes in the waters of my baptism. For all of the memories I have carried forward from that place, it’s really the lake that has stayed with me. I was baptized as a young person, but old enough to remember it, and as you know, my baptism has marked me. I have never been able to forget its significance. For years, I have carried with me the memory, not only of being baptized with water, but the memory of knowing that there was someone there who marked me, who chose me, and who has never let me forget it. The memory that God was working in me. And last month as I stood on the dock at the lake where I was baptized and dipped my toes into the cold water, I was reminded of how it all started for me and how THAT experience of God’s presence through all of it has continued to be foundational for me.
This morning we are going to look at two texts together that speak to this same idea and answer the question: what DOES it take to be built up in God’s kingdom?
As you have already noticed this morning, our two texts today are both parables. And let’s say just one thing about parables at the outset, before we dive into them. Parables are stories that are really a lot like poetry. Poetry is meant to enlarge our understanding and to illuminate and yet also to preserve the mystery of a thing. Poetry doesn’t dissect. It paints a picture. Usually poems focus in on the intricate details of things we are already familiar with. We find ourselves appreciating the familiarity of the beautiful things we know- and yet simultaneously -find ourselves standing in awe of how much we do not know about these things. Poetry dives into the smallest elements of the thing we examine, yet makes it bigger than we ever knew before. Parables– seem to function in a similar way. Parables are like poetry. So I’m excited to dive into the simplicity and wonder of two wonderful parables with you today.
Our first parable- MATTHEW 7. verses 24-27 holds the parable of the wise builder and the foolish builder. Do you know this one? This is a parable we often teach our youngest children. It is important, and it has an obvious interpretation. The story shows us that life is a path with a fork, a wood where two roads diverge. It’s about choosing wisdom or foolishness. Much about this story is straightforward. There are two houses, then there are storms, and only one house survives the storms. In fact, we listen to this parable, and one of the first things we hear is how much that man’s poor house has gone through. As I read this parable this week, I thought to myself – “I hope this guy is friends with the person who does his insurance.” The text reads: “The rain fell! The floods came! And the winds blew and beat on that house!” It sounds to me like this guy lives in Texas! This parable feels real to me, starting with that weather.
The core of the parable, though, is really in the first verse. “Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock… “ Then later, “everyone who hears these words of mine & does not ACT on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” The buildings together provide a metaphor for wise living & foolish living.
In this parable, we can see the wise builder getting up early to haul fresh lumber, to gather needed materials and to put in the steady work until the house is ready. We can see this builder at the end of the day, getting ready for sleep, feeling the good kind of tired, knowing that his work for the day was worthy work. Knowing that he would never regret how he had spent this day because his investment would pay off.
Also in this parable, we see two houses, on the morning after a big storm. One is enjoying the morning sunshine, the smell of freshly watered earth, and the security of having made it through a long night. The other house is decimated.
This stark contrast in the parable is a forceful reminder that Jesus is not an accent wall, Jesus is not the pop of color. What is Jesus? This parable says, Jesus is the whole thing. Jesus is the floor. Jesus is the subfloor. Jesus is the supporting beam. Jesus is what keeps the structure above ground, keeps the groundwater out from the bottom, and provides the barrier to erosion.
The parable speaks to us clearly, saying that Wise people build a life on Jesus’s words as the very ground beneath their feet. Orienting ourselves to Jesus at our core- so that our attitudes, actions, habits, and words all come from knowing Jesus well – that is time-consuming, but it is the bedrock of real life.” Once we have become “listening doers,” we can help others to do the same.
And that is our call, is it not? To make disciples, young and old, as we teach them to listen to all that Jesus said and to obey everything he said. To be listening doers. And of course, that’s a lot. But that is the great commission he gave to his disciples – to teach others to listen to all Jesus said and to do it all. That’s the great commission for disciples of Jesus. And it’s our greatest commissioning to work all of Jesus’s words into our lives and teach others to do the same.
Some of you may know that now is the time of year when the Education elders and Kelly and I call teachers for the next school year for our children and our youth. A time when we ask, “Who is going to shape the faith of our children this year?”
We have a lot of important things to teach our children this year, and I am excited for all they’re going to study together. In Sunday school, our k-2 class will learn about listening to God, about Abraham’s faith journey, about Advent and Easter, about what it means to be baptized and follow Christ, and about the early church community. Our 3rd and 4th graders are going to learn about proverbs, prophecy, and parables. About Advent, Easter, hospitality, and confession. Our 5th and 6th graders are going to dive deep into the big story of the Bible, spending the entire year learning about the arc of the story of the Bible, from creation to Revelation.
When you think about the kind of person that will be a great teacher for our children, do you think about someone who is like the wise builder in Matthew 7? I do. I want the person for whom Jesus is everything – someone who is doing the long, obedient work of laying a strong foundation. If our young people are going to build a rock solid foundation, we need some wise, diligent builders to commit to our young people. To invest in Christian education and faithfully show up for this next generation of builders.\
But there, I think, is a second picture of the kind of person needed to invest in our young people. The picture is of a scatterer of seeds.
I’m going to read this four-verse parable from the NIV translation. This second parable is Mark 4.26-29:
He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 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—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”
This parable starts, “A man scatters seed on the ground.” To clarify, some translations of this text say, “farmer,” and some say, “man.” As though maybe this requires a lot of training, or maybe anyone can do it. But that is the man’s job, to scatter. In fact, after that quick scene of action, the man who scatters is present for the rest of the story but as an observer. Notice in the story that what he does is so small, compared to what is set in motion after the fact. Now what happens in the story is- the seed grows. The text continues, “Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows” – now it is a seedling. A seed with sprouts and a solid chance.
How exciting it is to see those first signs of fruit. The seed is alive, sprouting, growing taller, growing stronger. With the growing confidence of and viability of the once tiny seed grows our confidence that it’s going to make it. When it’s a seedling, it just seems so fragile. But it has everything it needs to grow those first leaves. And if it is in good soil, full of nutrients- it can come to full maturity.
Emphatically, the text says here, “ALL BY ITSELF” the soil produces.
The man in this parable scatters seeds, but of course, he can’t grow them. He doesn’t know how to make even one seed grow. Not even a farmer can MAKE a seed grow. That’s the work of an outside party.
Out of all of Jesus’s astounding parables, this one is my favorite. This little parable grabbed my attention years ago and hasn’t let go of me. This is a short parable, but it’s one for the ages. I will be sitting in my rocker one day, appreciating and pondering this one.
Is there anything here that grabs a hold of you? I think what has gripped me most over the years are the six words, “though. he. does. not. know. how.” There is a mystery to the work that is being done. Actually, at this point, it doesn’t even look like work. At this point, it just looks like a mystery that is creating and developing even at night when we are totally unaware we ultimately depend – on the eternally active mystery. A mystery that is active when we are at our least useful. So when I am sitting in my rocking chair on my front porch many years from now, those are the words I will be chewing on.
This parable about a growing seed meets us in this mystery of our existence. We live lives that sometimes seem mundane and material, yet sometimes seem immortal and miraculous. We take on big projects that we pour blood, sweat, and tears into that somehow end up completed with more than we ever started with – where our skills fell short, there was something else that came in and filled in the gaps – something quiet and unexpected and absolutely needed.
Those of us who lead prepare lessons, we teach, we take the time week after week. AND sometimes, things go in a completely opposite direction – it’s not what we had planned, but it’s the right conversation, the right question asked for the day.
There is fundamental trust on the part of the person who can scatter and walk away, who can take a break to go to sleep, and know that they don’t have to make the seeds grow, trusting the mystery that grows the seeds more than the elements that would destroy them. It takes trust over time as the plant grows from stage to stage. The seed they planted is good, and the soil can be trusted to give the plant all it needs.
The person who scatters liberally and then waits and rests is a person with profound gifts of trust and hope. I think this is said well by one of America’s favorite poets, Wendell Berry, in his poem entitled “February 2, 1968”:
“In the dark of the moon, in flying snow, in the dead of winter,
War spreading, families dying, the world in danger,
I walk the rocky hillside, sowing clover.”
In the midst of all that concerns, there is hope for the future and the one who sows is symbolic of that hope. Their small role is a beacon that points to a larger reality at work, bringing life in a cold world.
When I think about the kind of people who can make a lasting impact on our young people, I think also about this kind of person. Not just the wise builder who prepares and works but also the one who plants and rests, who trusts and, when necessary, knows when to step back and observe the work of the real grower of seeds.
The parable of the growing seed makes things seem so out of our hands. We are such a small part of the process of growing something to maturity.
And maybe it seems like a great contrast from Matthew 7’s parable, which emphasizes the largeness and centrality of our responsibility to set the course right from the start.
We live lives of seeming contradiction. Sometimes the spiritual life can feel like it’s all work. AND YET, sometimes there is a change that comes completely over us that feels effortless. And it’s like wearing an easy yoke and a burden that is no burden at all. Sometimes God transforms us when we’re not even looking, sometimes even while we’re asleep. These are two truths that together show us something truly beautiful. About the way God meets us in the vital work we are doing, both in our own discipleship to Christ and in our work of discipling the next generation.
In the parable of the two builders, we see a diligent person building a rock-solid foundation for their life. Then surviving absolutely everything that comes. What kind of person is needed to teach our next generation? That kind. This parable asks us, “Will you place God at the very core and do the diligent work, for yourself and for the sake of others?”
In the parable of the growing seed, we see an unworried man scattering seeds. Then going to bed, resting in peace. And after some time, enjoying a harvest. What kind of person is needed to teach our next generation? That kind. This parable asks us, “Will you trust God to your very core and have faith in his mysterious, quiet, faithful work, both for yourself and others?” Imagine how the youth and children we are discipling might be impacted by adults who live solidly in both work and rest, who display deep commitment and deep trust!
THE MINISTRY THAT WE DO, THE WORK WE PROVIDE, IS CRITICAL but ACTUALLY THE SMALLER OF THE TWO OFFERINGS. The parable of the builders reminds us that yes, it costs us to build a life around just Jesus, undiluted and uncompromising. The parable of the growing seed FREES us to see that our work is far outmatched by God’s generous, omnipresent working. As the Protestant pastor Matthew Henry wrote many years ago, “God carries on his work insensibly and without noise, but insuperably and without fail.” AMEN.