Readings: Psalm 46; 1 Samuel 15:34–16:13, 2 Corinthians 5:6–17, Mark 4:26-34
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 17 2018
Our New Testament reading this morning had Jesus talking about seeds. Little things that grow into things that are much greater. About how we play only a small part in it, we plant it and we harvest it, but God takes care of the rest. Like the process of growth, from a seed to a tree, Jesus pictures the Kingdom of God growing mysteriously from small beginnings into something majestic.
The first parable talked about the mystery of growth. The seed is planted.
It goes through changes. The stalk appears, then the head, then it blossoms.
When the grain is ripe it is harvested.
We know that sometimes the seeds we plant don't make it. We know that we have to prepare the ground. We know that a whole lot of conditions play a part. But most of it, just happens and as it happens we can do very little to change it. About the only thing we can do is stop it or ruin it.
It is much the same with spiritual growth. Seeds of faith are planted in people’s lives. Sometimes they take, sometimes they don't. At times people are prepared for growth, at times they're not. There are occasions when the storms of life cause the growth to be hindered. There are occasions when people won't go with the flow of it and the seeds do not come to anything.
But, by the Grace of God, sometimes things take root and we see people going through a process of changes and developments that show they are maturing and developing in their Christian life. And it is by the Grace of God. It is a thing that we can't explain. It is truly a miracle.
I've been reading recently some peoples accounts of their Christian journey. A common factor in them all is that somewhere along the way, somebody threw at them a seed of faith, not knowing whether it would take or not. Slowly that seed took a hold and as it did, things started to change.
Take for an example John's story. John was born into a Christian home in a predominantly Caucasian neighborhood where family values, right and wrong and the American way were the fabric of everyday life. As a teenager he played basketball. One day, visiting a neighboring community a non-Caucasian American started heaping abuse at him during a game. It planted a seed in him. A seed of racial hatred.
About the same time, things started to go wrong at home. His parents were splitting up. His school work was suffering. He had a lack of close friends. He was ripe for change.
He went to a rock concert and met a guy called Brian who suggested to him that the reason his family, his country and everything else around him was falling apart was because of racial integration and the disintegration of the white race. He didn't take much notice, until a few weeks later, after another concert, he was walking to his car when he was set upon. Some other guys came over and helped him and when he thanked them they said, "Anything to help a white brother out".
The next day, he decided to join his new "brothers". He went to the barbers, had a skinhead haircut and started getting into white supremacist and Nazi ideology in a big way. They were the most violent and radical group of people he had ever associated with. Their violence was all the more ferocious because they saw themselves on a moral crusade against non-whites, gays, Jews and anybody else who disagreed with them.
But then he had a chance encounter with an old school friend, Jill. She started to hang around with him. She sowed a different kind of seed. A seed of faith. She simply asked if he'd go to church with her one Sunday. He really liked her so reluctantly he went. During the service he started to feel that God was on his case. There was no dramatic conversion, he didn't immediately drop out of all the things he was involved in. But he did start reading his bible and praying to God and he saw that many of the things he'd started believing were the total opposite of what God said was right.
He went to talk to the pastor about it. The pastor prayed that he would find deliverance from his hatred - and so far he's doing good. He’s turning his life around. He's no longer part of any racist gang. He says, "If it were not for the Lord Jesus Christ, then I would either be dead or in jail." Slowly in his life, seeds of hate are being replaced by seeds of love. And guess what? He married Jill.
Now hearing a story like that you may be tempted to think, well I'm not a particularly bad person, I haven't gone off the road in that way. That's not the point! The point is that John is an example of a life, one of countless thousands upon thousands throughout history and in the present, that furnishes an example of how a seed of faith can be planted and grown. The Kingdom is working away today, just like Jesus said it would.
We have short memories. We don't know our history. We forget what advances have been made in our world through the growth of Christianity. William Barclay, writing in his commentary on Mark says;
"There is not the slightest doubt that the Kingdom is on the way if we compare, not today with yesterday, but this century with the ones that went before. When Elizabeth Fry went to Newgate Prison in 1817 she found in the women's quarters three hundred women and numberless children crammed into two small wards. They lived and cooked and ate and slept on the floor. They crowded, half naked, almost like beasts, begging for money which they spent on drink at a bar in the prison itself. She found there a boy of nine who was waiting to be hung. His crime? Poking a stick through a window and stealing some paints that were valued at two pennies.... Nowadays things like that are unthinkable. Why? Because the Kingdom of God is on the way. It may, like the growth of a plant be imperceptible from day to day; but over the years that growth is plain."
It can seem like two steps forward, one step back. There have been reports in recent days of immigrant children being separated from their parents at the border. Even conservative evangelical leader. Franklin Graham, has described the practice as 'disgraceful' and 'terrible'. One hopes that public outrage will cause those in power to care more about innocent children than their political aspirations.
Yet also in recent days we have seen seeds being sown that could lead to stability and peace between North and South Korea. These stories, and stories like them, will continue to dominate the headlines. Always have. Always will. That's the sort of world we live in. An age where people can be so cynical, so worldly-minded and so critical and so divided.
But how things are now, is not how things will be. How you are now is not how you will be in years to come. Where you are now on your spiritual journey is not where you are meant to stay. You have to grow, you have to move on. We are not at the end of the story. The story is still being written. The Kingdom, though we may not always see it, continues to grow.
The second parable talks of how the smallest of seeds grew to be a great tree,
providing not just a place for birds to shelter,
but fit for eagles to make their nests within it's branches.
The significance of both the mustard seed and the great tree would not be lost on the original hearers. The mustard seed stood for the smallest possible thing; the tree was a symbol of a great empire that encompassed many nations. So the Kingdom of God would grow from something embodied in the life of Jesus Christ to something that embraced the whole world.
Everything has a beginning. Nothing emerges full-grown. It can start out as an idea. It can originate with a prayer. It can begin as an idea that comes as you open your heart to God in a service of worship. Without the acorns there would never be Oak Trees. Never judge things by the initial size of the seed. Particularly the things of God and the things of His Kingdom.
Growth takes place, not in leaps and bounds, but by little steps. Seeds of faith are little things, everyday things that we pass on to others. The smile of hope when others are cast down. The phone call to express your concern. The few items or dollars given to a food kitchen. The volunteering to do that job or this task that no one else wants to do. The picking up of that piece of litter in the street because it's there and no one else has bothered. Little things that when put together grow to be big things.
Be patient with yourselves. Spiritual growth is also a progression of little things. Little insights. Gentle steps and gradual renewal. Why are we always in such a rush? You can't rush a seed. You can't go out into the garden and shout at the seed, "C'mon, grow, grow you little scoundrel, get up out of that earth and let's see what you're made of!"
The Kingdom is coming. But it takes time. It's taken all the generations that led to our birth and could take as many generations after our death. Sometimes it may feel like we take one step before taking two steps forward. If we can just trust that God knows how to handle time, then we'll be able trust Him to handle the times that our life is going through.
Our world is beset with many divisions. Divisions of race and color and culture. Divisions of wealth and poverty. Divisions of religion and class. Divisions of language and nationality. It shall not always be so. The Kingdom of God is growing from a small seed to a mighty empire. That is God's way. That is how Jesus said it would be. And we can be a part of it. Seeds of faith have been planted in our hearts. That's why we're here.
May God help us to nurture those seeds, to provide the right atmosphere of trust, prayer and worship for them to grow and to spread those faith seeds in the lives of others through our work and service and sharing of our gifts and talents.
Seeds of faith.
They take time to grow.
God hasn't finished with us yet.