Jesus frequently uses parables to teach ordinary people as they are able to hear and understand. Images of sowing and growing show the vitality of God’s kingdom.
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.
Grace and peace to you, people of God, in the name of our planting and tending God.
As we gather out here, among these trees and birds, I have to say that, even if we weren’t outside during the summer, I would have pushed pretty hard to worship outside today. Ezekiel’s (Ezekiel 17:22-24) text includes talk of mountains and trees, Paul’s letter to the Corinthians (2 Corinthians 5:12-21) talks about new creation, and Jesus’ parables use beautiful imagery of farming, growing, harvesting, shrubs, and birds. For a nature lover like myself, the lessons today are absolutely wonderful. Truth be told, most of my sermon preparation this week was outside. It just felt appropriate that I would be reading these texts while sitting in the shade of some of these beautiful trees, much like the birds Jesus describes sitting in the shade of the mustard plant.
The beauty of parables, like we read of Jesus telling in our gospel, is that, like poetry, the symbolism does not force you to interpret it in one, single way. It does not insist upon itself, but invites us to ponder, to wonder, to think about its meaning. Our culture is often so obsessed with efficiency, production, and getting stuff done that we are not always very patient with symbolism, with wondering, or with things that cannot be easily explained, either by ourselves or by “experts” (please, note the air quotes). Jesus’ followers were not always so keen on not knowing what parables meant either – almost every single time Jesus tells a series of parables, we either read Jesus explaining what it means or, like our gospel today, we read that Jesus did explain it but we aren’t privy to that information. Today, I won’t be giving a lot of answers. I’ll be asking a lot of questions and wondering and that’s on purpose. I’m still interpreting these parables just like all of you. Today, I just want to ask some questions and get us thinking. We are not given the easy answer we’d like, so we have to do some of our own digging. Get it? Digging. Like a garden? Eh?
For some of us, we may first think about the seed. Some seeds are planted very deliberately while some are scattered. But, either way, they somehow find root in the soil that has received them and they grow. Jesus almost describes it as a miracle. It’s like the farmer goes to sleep and when he wakes up, everything has sprouted and grown! Farmers, wouldn’t it be nice if THAT were the case? The seed and soil are very important but what exactly does the seed and soil symbolize? Perhaps the seed is the word of God, as Jesus explains it in the well-known parable about a sower who went to sow some seeds, some in the thorns, some on the path, some on good soil. That would make us the soil, the place that God has chosen to sow a seed. In a big way, that’s true. God’s word and God’s spirit is planted in us in baptism, in worship, in communion, and in fellowship.
An interesting thing about soil is that the best soil is fertilized with the compost. Compost is made of dead plant life, scraps of food, grass clippings, leaves from autumn trees. For us, maybe our soil comes from death, too. Death to our own desires, to our own agendas, to our own individualistic way of doing things that makes us more important that others in our eyes, and dying to our own ideas of what God should do FOR US. Dying to these things that break down the relationship that God has done so much to establish. And, with the compost of our daily return to God, the word of God grows in us and becomes more than we could ever create without that seed. God plants in us the Word and, when the word grows and flowers, it produces the fruit of compassion and justice and love for all people. That’s God working through us for the benefit of all people and all of creation.
But maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe, in this parable, we are the seed. Maybe we are, in the words of Ezekiel, a sprig from a cedar tree planted on a high mountain. Maybe we are growing like a seed. That’s pretty exciting, isn’t it? Imagine the wisdom and experiences these trees could give us if they were people. Imagine the protection and security trees can produce. Birds, squirrels, chipmunks and insects of all kinds flock to trees to find protection from weather, build homes, and find food to sustain them throughout the year. These trees grow from tiny, seemingly insignificant seeds into something much larger that we can imagine. As a church within the global Church, that’s always what we would hope for. We hope that God can use our small, meek, and powerless seeds, together, to establish a tree within a forest of God-grown trees.
The thing to remember about seeds, though, is that seeds do nothing to make themselves grow. Even when we plant the seeds, all we can do is provide the best opportunity for growth – we can water the seed, make sure it has the right amount of sunlight, and protect the seed from animals that may harm it – but God is the actor here. God is the one who brings about plants from seeds. We may do our part, but we, as the seed, are grown by God’s grace, not by our own actions.
Of course, we don’t always feel like a mighty cedar, do we? Sometimes, we don’t have the strength or the faith or the vision in us to see ourselves, either individually or collectively, as a towering and protecting tree. Sometimes, we are the bird who flies in, all atwitter, just looking for a safe place to land and rest. Sometimes, we are simply looking for a place to build a home or get out of the rain or find a meal as we continue on our journey. Sometimes, we have spent so much time flapping our wings, chasing the clouds, or fleeing from predators that, when the rain comes, we have no choice but to retreat into the respite and protection of a tree.
Being entirely honest, this is what I feel like most often. I feel like a bird. But birds, I think, are best able to appreciate the blessing that is the soil and the seed. They are the ones that most feel the presence of growth and protection. If we get so caught up trying to be like a tree, standing tall and trying to make ourselves grow, we can totally miss the fact that the tree already exists. The tree of the promise of the gospel is already here, giving us shade and protection, a place to build our nests and eat and rest. The gospel has been growing and expanding and inviting and loving we are invited to it and inspired to share it. In the middle of the storms of life, Jesus is there, walking with us. When the world seems dry and hot and the sun seeks to break us down, God’s love is unmoving and unchanging. The Holy Spirit calls us to this tree, the tree of Christ bearing fruit of love, salvation, peace, and joy. How great is the love of our God that we could come like little, imperfect birds to sit on the branches, find our rest from a weary day of chasing clouds, and sing a beautiful song of thanks. (Let’s maybe, for a few seconds, take a little time to listen to those songs).
Ultimately, we are ALL these things. We are the soil in which God’s seed of love grows. We are the seed which God has planted to bear fruit and provide protection in the world around us. We are the bird, coming to God in search of love, strength, and rest. In Christ, we are a new creation. In Christ we live and move and have our being. In Christ, we find our protection.
Jesus spoke in parables because he invites us to explore for ourselves what the kingdom of God looks like. He invites us to wonder and to ponder and to think about all these little different elements. Our faith is something that lives and grows, like a seed. We can water it through worship, prayer, and community and see what God does with it. We can seek refuge on the branches of the promises of God. And we can be amazed at the audacious love that invites us all to rest and love and sing and grow. So I invite you, this week, to wonder about what it is to be the seed and soil God uses and the bird finding shelter in God’s love. Amen.