06/17/18 – God Seeds


June 17, 2018
4th Sunday after Pentecost
1 Sam.15:34-16:13;Ps.20; 2 Cor. 5:6-10, 14-17:  Mark 4:26
Rev.  Denise  Clark-Jones


“Appearances can be deceiving.” “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Both of these old adages might be applied to both the boy-king, David, and the mustard seed from Jesus’ parable. When Samuel was puzzled that God passed over Jesse’s strong and stalwart first-born son and directed him to anoint Jesse’s youngest son, God explained: “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Jesus described the mustard seed as the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it grows up becomes the greatest of all shrubs.”

When my family and I first moved to the Harrisburg area we bought a new house in what had previously been farmland. When we moved in, there was not a single blade of grass, a plant, tree or shrub. The soil was dry and hard. With the help of a landscaper, we bought fast growing plants, shrubs, and trees.  We planted a line of Alberta spruce at the crest of a hill, held back by a retaining wall.  Beyond the trees were some pretty, wild plants that resembled giant tumbleweeds with tiny lavender flowers. I didn’t think these plants were ugly, and they were certainly preferable to me than the barren land.   My neighbor, however, when she came to see my newly planted backyard, wrinkled her forehead and said: “Uh Oh, you’ve got crown vetch, with a tone that could have been announcing termites, or toxic waste.  I was informed that this wild plant was like kudzu in the South.  It’s fast-growing and creeps into your yard, taking over the controlled growth of the well-groomed domesticated landscape showpieces. And that’s what the mustard seed grows into, a wild, uncontrollable, shrub that pops up in the most undesirable growing conditions and forces its way upon the earth with no human effort.

Matthew and Luke tell the parable of the mustard seed with the seed miraculously becoming a mighty tree.  This description echoes the Old Testament prophesy of Ezekiel that God’s kingdom will be like a mighty cedar sheltering the birds in its branches.  But, Mark, the earliest gospel tells it like it is — a mustard seed grows into a shrub.  But, like the Ezekiel passage, this shrub is a place that creatures that fly above the earth are invited to make their home.

The passage we have for today’s gospel reading contains the second and third seed parables in Mark.  These two parables are Jesus’ response to his disciples’ questions about this mysterious kingdom of God he kept talking about.  This is not an easy parable, nor is it one with only one message.  When Jesus says: “The earth produces of itself, “he uses the Greek word, “automate” which means “it works without a visible cause.”  The seed grows and spreads, without effort on the part of the farmer except to sow the seed.  It is God who mysteriously causes the seed to grow and produce a harvest.  Like that pesky crown vetcht doesn’t always grow where we expect or want it to be.

Mark tells us when Jesus told this parable, his disciples were growing impatient.  They had seen him perform miracles and they wanted this glorious kingdom to come now.  Where were the dramatic changes for the people of Israel that were promised when the Messiah came?  Some of the disciples might have been tempted to join the Zealots, that Jewish sect that believed in armed warfare against the Roman oppressors was the only way to restore Israel.  Jesus’ slow, laborious foot travel through Galilee, befriending the friendless, feeding the hungry, and healing the sick wasn’t showing them any great transformation in the plight of the oppressed Jewish population in the Roman Empire.  We can identify with that impatience.  We want, if not instant, at least quick gratification.  Jesus spoke words of patience.  The seed that will become the harvest in the kingdom of God starts small, its growth is hidden in its early stage of growth and its growth is often too slow to be perceptible.   This parable is for people like us who are discouraged when wrong seems to prevail and begin to doubt that God will make all things work according to God’s good promises.

The tiny mustard seed, about the size of the head of a pin, grows into an eight-foot shrub.  It is a small start with a much larger ending.  So too was the ministry of a traveling preacher who was once a humble carpenter in Galilee.  So too was the tiny band of disciples that began the Church.  For over 2,000 years these miracles of growth beyond human imagination have been fueled by faith which produces abundant harvests by God’s power and grace.

What is the seed?  It may represent more than one thing in this parable.  To guide our understanding, we look to other verses in Mark.  In chapter 4, just before the ones, we read today, the sowing of a seed is associated with preaching about the beginning of God’s rule on earth ushered in by His Word enfleshed in Jesus.  The members of Mark’s community may well have identified the seed scattered on the ground as their ministry of spreading the Gospel.

In the past few days, there has been more talk about the Bible than I can remember. God’s Word got the full media blow-out. A few verses of Romans were spread through print, radio, television, internet etc. I bet more people read Romans 13 this week than any week it has appeared in the lectionary! Attorney General, Jeff Sessions took a few verses from Paul’s letter to the Roman church to justify separating children from their parents at this country’s border with Mexico.

Let me read Romans 13:1-7 as well as the following 3 verses:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. 2Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; 4for it is God’s servant for your good.

But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer. 5Therefore one must be subject, not only because of wrath but also because of conscience. 6For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, busy with this very thing. 7Pay to all what is due them—taxes to whom taxes are due, revenue to whom revenue is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.”

And now, the rest of the passage:

8Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. 9The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet”; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” 10Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Mr. Sessions quoted the first few verses of Romans, chapter 13, but did not finish the passage. These few verses, taken out of their context – leaving out verses 8-10 — have infamously been used to support such atrocious acts of human evil as slavery and Hitler’s rule in Germany. Ironically, in this country, it was used to justify separating Native American children from their families and sending them to “Indian Schools.” It was used to justify separating American children of Japanese descent from their parents in internment camps. And, now, separating Latino children from their parents at our southern border. You have no doubt heard pediatricians and child psychologists’ outcry over the irreparable harm such separation does to children. This morning I listened to excerpts from a report by the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics who visited many points along the border recently. The heart-wrenching stories of young children, babies even, being taken from their parents has reduced observers to tears. Aid workers are not allowed to touch the children – think of what that does to a traumatized child who needs comfort.

And yes, the bible does contain tales of children being separated from their parents. The Pharaoh of Egypt did it, as did King Herod and Pontius Pilate – none of these being leaders we would give our admiration and support. There is no law that demands children be separated from their parents in the immigration process. And, remember many of the separated families came seeking asylum, which is lawful.  But, claiming to be merely enforcing the law, is the same argument the Pharisees had with Jesus.

When the Pharisees accused him of breaking Jewish law for doing work on the Sabbath ie. taking grain from stalks to eat or healing people, Jesus reminded the religious leaders that the Scriptures are very clear that preserving human life is the first priority in following Jewish Law. When Ms. Huckabee-Sanders, press secretary to the President, defended Mr. Sessions’ use of Scripture, she argued that one can find many citations in the Bible about upholding the law. However, in looking at the entire Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, it is also clear that unjust laws are an offense to God. As we read more this summer about the monarchial era of Israel, you will hear more about Israel’s kings’ abuses of the most vulnerable of their subjects. That was the reason God became angry with Israel and allowed them to be conquered and dispersed to the foreign lands of their conquerors. Taking care of the most vulnerable – the widows, the orphans, and foreigners who live our land – appears over 400 times in the bible. God must think it is important!

Sadly, by leaving out verses 8-10 of Romans 13, Mr. Sessions has given the Bible, and Christianity, a huge black eye. Perhaps though, all press is indeed good press. Religious leaders, from opposing theological sides, have united in denouncing the separation of children from their families and using their suffering and terror for political gain. Also, educated pastors have had an opportunity to explain the biblical study. Maybe we’ll get a few more people in Bible studies. One can dream. God has promised the seed that has been planted will one day produce fruit for the kingdom.

The seed that is the gospel is spread by more than words. It is spread by acts of mercy, love, compassion, and justice as well.    When Jesus told parables he used simple, ordinary things in everyday situations with which his audience could readily identify –  a lost coin, a lost sheep, a lamp shining in the dark, a seed planted.  These were things first-century people knew. Jesus gave insight into the vast mystery of God with the image of a seed that grows hidden beneath the ground, that comes up as a shoot that bears no resemblance to the seed, further transforms into a stalk, then grows fruit for harvesting.  This was an image through which Jesus’ audience could see ‘dimly’ the extraordinary transformation of human efforts multiplied exponentially by God’s grace to change the world little by little, in various times and places into the kingdom of God.

There was some good religious news this weekend. It was a story about an event that occurred weeks ago but had not gotten a lot of attention before. In May, Former president Jimmy Carter spoke at Liberty University’s graduation.  It is hard to imagine two more theological and political opposites than Jimmy Carter and Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University. A seed was planted last year when Carter and Falwell met at a presidential prayer breakfast. Carter graciously complimented Falwell on his reading of scripture. This led to two very unexpected occurrences. Falwell invited Carter to speak at Liberty’s graduation and Carter accepted. Grace upon grace. The world got to witness what Jesus’ directive, to love our enemies, looks like.

“The mustard seed is the smallest on earth32yet 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.”

Human beings need their ‘nests in the shade’ too, a safe place to live and raise a family.

Jill Duffield, writing for the Presbyterian Outlook this past week, introduced her audience to the poet, Seth Michelson. He worked with youth in one of two of our nation’s maximum-security detention centers where some of the unaccompanied minors who have crossed the border are being held. This detention facility is being sued because of its horrendous conditions. Michelson has edited a book of poetry written by these kids, “Dreaming America: Voices of Undocumented Youth in Maximum-Security Detention.”

Duffield explains that most of the youth are illiterate. They are not guaranteed legal representation. They have no idea when they will be released and when they are, where they will go. Some, so lacking in hope, have been discovered cutting themselves and banging their heads against the walls and floor. And yet, Michaelson, the poet said, “even here there is beauty, goodness, hope.”

One of his young poets wrote:

I Want to Support

I want to support the poor and end hunger.
I’d like to give a great place to live
to those without one, and also to the animals.

There is a seed planted in all of us that knows the kingdom of God when we see it or even when we just imagine it. Regardless of our ethnicity, economic class, gender, sexual orientation, age or any other “outward appearance,” we all have that seed. There are enough resources in this God-created world to allow each of us to grow into that kingdom. May we work to make it so.




© Rev. Denise Clark-Jones, 2018, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church – Peoria, Illinois