Community United Church of Christ (Saint Paul Park, Minnesota)
Scripture: Mark 4:1-34
The American legend John Chapman was born in 1774, just before the United States was. He grew up in Massachusetts, but started traveling to explore the western frontier in his teenage years. He was a simple and good man by all accounts. Two passions animated his life and caused him to travel throughout the American frontier. The first was religion—he was a missionary for the Swedenborgian faith. The second was apples, and this is why history knows him also as “Johnny Appleseed”.
When I learned the legends of Johnny Appleseed as a child, I saw folk art pictures of him wearing a copper pot for a hat, walking barefoot with simple pioneer clothing, and casting apple seeds out onto the frontier ground. Much is true in that, but the last part about apple seeds wasn’t quite accurate. Rather than wasting seeds by scattering them randomly, John Chapman carried apple seedlings around with him. When he came to a likely spot along a creek, he would prepare the ground and plant a group of trees together in a nursery. He would tend the young shoots for weeks or a few months, building fences to protect them from hungry animals. When he went away to the next place, Chapman made sure that neighbors would care for these nurseries and help them grow into mature trees which could bear fruit for others. Johnny Appleseed traveled through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, making rounds to check on his nurseries for seventy years, and changing American frontier life forever.
Jesus reminds me of Johnny Appleseed with today’s Scripture passage. But instead of spreading literal seeds, Jesus travels Palestine planting word pictures in people’s minds, these little stories called parables. Mark tells us that Jesus only spoke to the crowds in parables, and the gospel gathers some of them here, in what amounts to a parable nursery. Like seeds, these small parables have the power to grow into great trees with deeper reflection. Some of them are strange and mysterious, even troubling. Others look sturdy and promising. They seem simple, maybe even simplistic, until they grow in us with closer examination. Over centuries of preaching since Jesus’ time, these little parables have produced rich fruit. They now stand as an abundant forest testimony to the fertile Word of God, planted in the human imagination and nurtured by the Holy Spirit.
Each of these parables in some way describes the divine life, what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. Here’s what it looks like, he says, when God’s reign comes on earth as it is in heaven. Like a sower casting seed, and even though three-quarters of it fails to produce, the harvest yields thirty, sixty and a hundredfold. Like a lamp put on a stand for all to see. Like receiving in your own measure what you give out for others. Like the earth which produces sprouting and growing grain, even in the middle of the night. Like a harvest timed just right. Like a tiny seed which grows into a great shrub. Like a plant which not only grows for itself but shelters all the birds of the air.
None of these parables are complete or self-explanatory all alone. Taken together they start to give us an impression of God’s realm, something to do with seeds and marvelous growth, but even that is indirect and imprecise. Jesus doesn’t explain the kingdom of God for us in a plain language disclosure (or maybe he does and we don’t know what to do with it). These parables sound to our ears like poetry, when we really want a 5-point strategic plan to get from here to there. Mysteries and secrets abound in Mark’s gospel, but I’m not sure that Jesus sets out to trick or dupe anyone. Maybe it’s just a fact that the realm of God is always half hidden, and we see now only in part what will someday be fully revealed.
Earlier this month I attended a week of classes to help me be a better pastor for you. The focus for this week was “adaptive leadership”, finding reliable ways to navigate through the rough currents and Class-5 rapids that currently rock the raft of faith. It won’t surprise you to hear that the Christian church is going through a massive transition that will take a century or more. We no longer look like the church of fifty years ago, but we also don’t yet look like the church fifty years from now. Nobody has all the answers for “what’s working” to be church in the 21st century. There is no clear path of high, hard ground such as that on which a horse could ride at full gallop. Instead, we find ourselves in swampy terrain where things move more slowly and with more difficulty than we’d like. You know the frustration, grief, and tiredness that comes when the church is changing in these ways. I do too.
But today God is calling us to recognize another part of this challenging reality. The swamp, however messy, is a place of abundant life! Cast your mind’s eye to wetlands here in Minnesota (when they’re not frozen). Can you count the birds flitting from reed to cattail reed, singing for God’s glory? How many different kinds of fish spawn in those shallow, protected waters? Ask duck hunters where to find mallards, redheads, pintails, and ringnecks—they will point you to the marshy swamp. This doesn’t even begin to mention the various kinds of frogs, turtles, muskrats, salamanders, and a billion insects. And that’s just the animal life—plants are something else altogether. Jesus’ parables compare the kingdom of God to mysterious, out-of-control abundance. If that’s the case, then the kingdom of God is found in the swamp.
Nobody can say for sure—maybe not even Jesus would pin it down for us—but like him we can point to the kingdom of God. The seeds of divine life are emerging all around us, even in the middle of winter. Like an older church doing newer things in partnership with its neighborhood. Like a community that lives out welcome, nurture and service, for all who are drawn to its light. Like people who have long been burned by the Church nevertheless trusting enough to join a new congregation. Like welcoming with graciousness the gifts of newcomers, especially when the heart means well and the actions aren’t quite what we’re used to. Like singing the spirituals of an oppressed people, giving voice to trust in God’s company on the path from slavery to freedom. Like a pastor and prophet named Martin who dared to speak the truth in cadences of love, long enough and loud enough that we still hear its echoes today.
All these are glimpses of mystery, of God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven. They are seeds of divine life that God has entrusted to the world, and to us. To forgive beyond what is asked, turn the other cheek, love even the enemy and give beyond what we ought. These ways are not plain or apparent to people. They are not even understandable for some. But explaining every mystery is not our highest concern. Like Johnny Appleseed and Jesus before him, if we plant seeds of imagination and artistry, then nurture little sprouts of growth, God will take care of the abundance. Jesus promises as much in parables of mysterious midnight growth, the tiny seed becoming something great, and a bountiful harvest beyond all imagining.
Therefore, may our actions and our very lives be little seeds. May this congregation be a nursery of young life and old-stock growth. May the world around us continue to reveal parables of divine life, giving witness to the Sower from whom every gift of seed comes.
Let us pray: God of the Word, you have showed us how your word can take root and grow within us. Nurture the seeds in our hearts, and help us to grow in faith and love. Amen.
 A helpful secular summary of the difference between these two ways of being is at http://tamingwickedproblems.com/the-high-hard-ground-and-the-swamp/.