I like stories. I read novels for fun. I like my job because I get to visit with folks and hear them tell the stories of their lives. Lots of folks like stories. Jesus must have known that, because he taught a lot of the truths of the Gospel in stories. And Jesus’ stories employed things or characters that would be familiar to his listeners. Today we read two of his stories familiar to an agrarian society to help explain the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God, he said, is as if someone scatters seed and leaves it. Miraculously it grows into something that produces a useful harvest. Or the Kingdom of God is like the tiniest of seeds that can, again, rather miraculously, grow into a large enough bush to shelter birds and hide their nests.
Granted, the listeners and the disciples might not really have gotten the point of these stories. Maybe we do not either. Earlier in this chapter of Mark, Jesus told the story of the sower who threw seed on the path, and birds ate it before it grew; and who threw seed on rocky ground, and it withered because it could not establish good roots; and who threw seed among thorny plants, and the other plants grew up and overwhelmed it so that it did not grow; and who threw seed on good soil, where it took root and flourished. But the disciples did not seem to understand the story, and Jesus interpreted it for them. He also told them that these stories, these parables, were told so that they might understand the secret of the Kingdom of God, and that not all would understand.
One of the striking things about all three of these stories is that the sower scatters the seed, but does not nurture the plant to grow. The growing happens all on its own. But the sower plants the seed. The seed must be sown, and it needs good soil, it needs rain and sun. The grown plant can nurture others of God’s creatures. It is all for the good.
Lamar Williamson, now retired, but who was one of my professors at Presbyterian School of Christian Education (now Union Theological Seminary) said that the Parable of the Seed Growing Itself, as the first story is called tells us that the reign of God, in the midst of the world, is “pregnant, mysterious, and fruitful.” (Williamson, p. 98) He says that Parable of the Mustard Seed is about hope in the Kingdom of God. It reminds us that God can accomplish great things from small beginnings. Lamar reminds us that the mustard is an annual plant and has to be replanted each year, so it takes work. But its growth from such a tiny seed is surprising. From weakness comes strength, enough to shelter the birds in its branches. The mustard seed does not produce a huge tree. Maybe a large cedar would seem like a better image for the Kingdom of God to us. But the bush is there, and it is nurturing. Maybe this image calls us to look beyond what we might see as “great.” There are so many times in the Bible stories when God works through those we least expect to be powerful leaders – Moses, who told God he could not speak in public; Jeremiah, who responded that he was only a boy; Isaiah, who said he had unclean lips; even Jesus himself, who did not rise up and conquer those who persecuted him, but let them put him to death on a cross in order to show us a very different kind of strength. Out of seeming weakness, God can create strength for the Kingdom.
Today we honor Heather Feurgensen as she leaves us to go to another position in Christian Education. Heather did not go looking for this job, it came looking for her. God works that way sometimes. But we want to celebrate the four years that Heather has served with us at Westminster. Heather has a quiet wisdom about her. She is kind and very creative. She has worked with the Christian Education committees to produce some wonderful programs, like the Aperture and WOW programs on Wednesday evenings. She led our first successful VBS on our own campus (in a long time) last summer. She has taught a Monday morning Bible study of mostly women who will greatly miss her. She has initiated short-term adult classes on Sunday mornings, 4 to 6 weeks, covering a great variety of subjects that have brought in some people who may not have been attending Sunday School before. Thelma Allen talks about the joy of working with Heather, brainstorming ways to “get children excited about getting to know Jesus” and getting parents to bring their children to Sunday School. Heather especially wanted, says Thelma, for “our youngest members to know Jesus and experience good solid teaching that didn’t have to be unlearned later in life.”
Through all of this, Heather has been sowing seeds. That’s what Christian Education does, it sow seeds. Sometimes the sowers never see the harvest, as we move from church to church. But those of us who are here longer see the harvest in confirmands who write or create beautiful faith statements, in seniors who preach the Word of God to us on Youth Sundays, in young people who seek out campus ministry programs in college and who take their children to church as new parents. We see the harvest in members who want to be a part of something new, like Ekklesia worship, or the community workdays, or trips to Haiti. We see the harvest in the many members of Westminster who have found a calling to ministry. And we will ordain another of those young seeds soon. Sarah Wolf has accepted a call to Covenant Presbyterian Church in Staunton, Virginia, and will be ordained here at her home church on July 8 at 3:00 in the afternoon. You are all invited to participate in this great harvest!
In a time when church membership is dropping off, this church continues to grow, so we must be doing something right. We are not really quite sure what it is we are doing right. So God must be helping us out, must be nurturing the seeds that we work hard to plant. Some of the seed may fall on rocky ground and fail to grow, but it may grow in ways and times that we do not yet see. So we keep casting seed when we work together, through Christian Education, through worship with our membership and with La Nueva and the Divan Center, when we move out into the community to help “the least” among us who cannot help themselves. When we live out the Gospel of Jesus Christ, we sow seeds that will flourish. And that is what we are called to do, to sow and sow and sow. The world needs good seed. So we have lots of work to do.
So, we thank Heather for her great part, for all her energy and creativity and leadership, in providing seeds for us and for our children over the last few years. Join us in the Fellowship Hall after church to thank Heather.
And stick around, please, in the weeks and months to come, as we recreate the staff and leadership of the church. We are going to continue to find leaders and followers to keep planting those seeds, and your help is needed and appreciated.
Folks used to joke that sermons were always in the form of three points and a poem. I have a poem I want to share in which to end, so I will give three points too, just for fun!
One, Jesus taught through stories because many people learn through stories. We need to share the stories of the Bible and faith with our children, our youth, and our adults. Two, sharing the Kingdom of God is like sowing seeds. We are thankful for Heather for sowing seeds among us, and we need to keep sowing. Three, even when if what we are doing may seem very small in the scope of the greater world and needs, God can use it, and us, to create great things: bushes that shelter, programs that nurture, a future that promises hope in a world that needs to hear such optimism. So we keep on planting.
And the poem, which came from the publication, “Presbyterian Outlook,” this week, on this passage, says:
Be like the seed: undeterred by smallness.
Be like the seed: willing to fall to the ground.
Be like the seed: ready to sprout and grow.
Be like the ground: rich in nutrients.
Be like the ground: receptive to the rains.
Be like the ground: eager to embrace.
Be like the tree [or bush]: reaching for the light.
Be like the tree: extending yourself.
Be like the tree: sheltering others.
All glory be to God. Amen.