How the Seed Grows* – a sermon by Rev. Diane Bennekamper

Psalm 146

Mark 4:26-29


The reading from the New Testament is one of Jesus’ parables. We have been planning to focus on the gospel parables this year.  So, before I read it, we should spend a minute talking about what a parable is. Simply put, it is a “very short story with a double meaning.”

In the Biblical languages, the words that are translated “parable” from the original Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew would be most accurately translated as “metaphor” – to draw the distinction between literal and metaphorical expression.

As we look at different parables during this year, remember that the term parable covers… “both aphorisms and stories, proverbs and riddles, dialogues and discourses…”  [Harper Bible Dictionary] These…stories can be either historical or fictional, and the fictional ones may be either possible… or impossible…  [as] ‘a very short story with a double meaning’ …  On the surface level is speaks, say of sowing or fishing, but on a deeper level it points to something else and it challenges one to discover that something else by close interpretation.”  Mark’s gospel, the first gospel written, says that everything Jesus said was a parable.

Listen: “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” [Mark 3:33-34]

It is said that in relating his parables, Jesus’ dominant theme is the Kingdom of God – the Realm of God – that is what we are trying to understand.

“Parables demand interpretation, and [like Old Testament midrash] multiple, diverse, and successive commentary is their destiny…”

I’d like to demonstrate the multiplicity of ways we can interpret and learn from the parables.

Let’s begin by hearing the Parable of the Seed and the Harvest.

[read parable]

[1] Now let us look at one way to understand this parable, an understanding offered by the Rev. Dr. Charles McCollough, the sculptor who visited with us 3 weeks ago, sharing his interpretive and challenging art. [reference:  The Art of Parables by Charles McCollough. Project pictures of his sculptures.]

[2] Again, the Parable of the Growing Seed, interpreted by Charles McCollough.

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground…

[3] “and would sleep and rise night and day.” When I imagine this parable, I see a sleeping farmer. He is sleeping but behind him the seed grows and becomes a blade, then an ear, and finally

[4] a full grain on a relief tableau. Then it is time for the harvest, a powerful symbol of God’s judgment.

Mark’s phrase, ‘goes in with his sickle’ which describes the action of the farmer harvesting the grain, is particularly critical to [McCollough’s] interpretation of this parable.

The sickle reminds him of two similar phrases found in the Hebrew scriptures:

One from the book of Joel, in a part called Joel’s war scroll, speaks of ‘beating your plowshares into swords’ – the opposite of the phrase we know so well from Isaiah, ‘to beat your swords into plowshares and your spears into pruning hooks.’

McCollough sees the juxtaposition of a call to a peaceful harvest…or a call to war.

[5] His first image shows the call to war, depicting a man beating a plow into a sword over an anvil.  He says, “I also wanted to show some of the results of war, so I have included an image of a woman and child, both victims of war.”

[6] The next image shows the call to peace – a man holding a sword over an anvil and a woman hammering it into a plow.

Some of you may have seen a large sculpture outside the United Nations building in New York City of a big, brawny man pounding a sword into a plow.

[7] In contrast to that image, Charles says, “the one I have created depicts a group effort, with a young woman initiating the pounding and an older man assisting.

This interpretation of… the swords to plows imagery is consistent with Jesus’ rejection of swords in all four gospels. [As Matthew (26:52) says] “all who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Jesus seems to imply instead that those who live by the plow shall live.

[8] The gracious mystery of growth in Mark’s parable is experienced by all farmers and gardeners as seeds sprout and grow, we “do not know how.”  “Going in with the sickle” can mean either war or peace.  It is up to us to reap the harvest of peace.

I have heard it said that “the purpose of Jesus’ parables were disruption, not instruction. They ‘challenge the hearer, not to radical obedience, but to radical questioning…’  They were much more than illustrations explaining a difficult point… they were bearers of the reality with which they were concerned.

What if we thought about the Parable of the Seed and the Harvest in relation to the message Jeff delivered this morning when lighting the Peace Candle:  Fair Trade coffee.

What if we thought about the seeds planted by third world farmers that grow into the tree or shrub that produces the coffee bean used to make coffee – the second most traded commodity in the world.

What if we thought of that sickle not reminding us of war (as it did for Charles McCollough,) but rather the slice of the profit that the farmer receives for his or her labor – planting, tending, harvesting the crop.

If Jesus’ parables are about the kingdom of God, the realm of God – is this parable’s purpose for us today to raise up the issues of:

what is right and just in the economy of the world in which we live;

and how do we participate appropriately in that economy?

Let’s consider another image – this painting [project image], called “The World’s Smallest Seed” by Jim Janknegt, from a series of paintings he has created on the Parables, in which he places the characters and events of Jesus’ stories in recognizable contemporary Western settings.

While it is based on the parable which follows in Mark immediately after the Parable of the Seed and the Harvest – that is the Parable of the Mustard Seed – there are complimentary themes.

Just as Jesus challenged his contemporary listeners to reflect on Roman oppression or hard-heartedness within the faith community, Janknegt’s art confronts us with our “empires” of materialism, individualism, and the exploitation of the natural world.

Here we see the tiny mustard seed which, when planted, grows into a large tree, and is home to the birds of the air…. This parable invites us to imagine what the reign of God is like….. What would it be like if the entire world were filled with God’s loving ways?

For this artist,

>it would be like living in the shade and protection of a mighty tree, sprung up in the very midst of where we are now.

>The reign of God is so generous and expansive that there is room for everyone – from exotic peacock to familiar sparrow.

>Peace is part of God’s reign, and the bird of prey and the dove both find a home in it. And the human community nestles alongside, not dominating or displacing the birds, but finding a way to live in harmony. In the big picture, our skyscrapers and starter castles are no more or less important than the nest of the robin or the roost of the chicken.

Janknegt’s role as a postmodern interpreter of ancient texts is an extension of his spiritual beliefs. Study and reflection go into each painting, but the focus is on making the heart of Christianity accessible to modern viewers. “My Christian faith has always informed my painting,” Janknegt says. “It is about incarnation, about making that which is invisible visible, making the spirit flesh.”

As you contemplate The World’s Smallest Seed, take some time to imagine our church as a giant tree within our community. Real trees give food and shelter. They clean the air. Tree roots prevent erosion and their discarded leaves, needles, and branches build up soil.

Think of the ways in which our church – through its programs and through the individual efforts of each of you has contributed to community healing, feeding, sheltering, and restoring the lives of others……

And, during this month in which we celebrate and give thanks for the bounty of the harvest, I’d like us to consider one additional way to interpret this very short and small parable from Mark’s gospel, particularly the verse “…the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how…”

Listen to this story….

The stranger appeared at the door, tired and hungry. The old woman invited him in for lunch and made him a sandwich with thick slices of bread.

“Thank you ma’am,” said the stranger. “The bread was delicious.”

“Don’t thank me,” the woman replied. I bought the bread from the grocer. Thank him.”

So, the stranger found the grocer and said, “Thank you for the delicious bread I ate at the woman’s house today.”

“Oh don’t thank me,” said the grocer. “I bought the bread from the baker across the street. She’s the best baker in town. It’s her you should thank.”

So, the stranger walked to the bakeshop and went in to speak with the baker. “Thank you for the delicious bread I ate at the woman’s house today,” he said. “The grocer said you make the best bread in town.”

“Oh don’t thank me,” said the baker. “What makes my bread so delicious is the fine flour I use. The miller grinds the wheat carefully and thoroughly.  It’s the miller you should thank.”

So the stranger walked further through the town until he came to the miller’s. “Thank you for the delicious bread I ate at the woman’s house today,” he said. “The baker said that it’s because of the way you grind the wheat that makes the bread so delicious.”

“Oh don’t thank me,” said the miller. “I do grind the wheat well, but the farmer I get the wheat from grows the best wheat around. He’s the one you should thank.”

So the stranger walked much farther, until he came to the farm the miller directed him to. He saw the farmer and his family in the fields, harvesting the wheat. “Thank you for the delicious bread I ate at the woman’s house today,” he said. “The miller told me that your wheat was the finest and that is why the bread is so delicious.”

“Oh don’t thank me,” said the farmer.         “Then who?” asked the stranger. “Help us finish harvesting this wheat; stay for supper and I will show you,” said the farmer.

So the stranger spent the afternoon with the farmer and his family, working in the fields. And that evening he gathered with them around their dinner table.

He joined the circle of hands as the farmer blessed the bread and said, “Praised be Thou, oh Lord our God, who brings forth the bread of the earth.”

*This sermon requires the projection of images from The Art of Parables by Charles McCollough and the painting “The World’s Smallest Seed” by Jim Janknegt.

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