Third Sunday after Pentecost 2012

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet 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.”
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.
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As one who attempts to raise a few vegetables on a rocky hillside in the unforgiving soil of Northwest Arkansas, I’m struck by the easy, casual way the farmer in Jesus’ parable goes about planting his fields. There is no mention of tilling the soil in preparation for the seeds, irrigating, or doing battle with weeds, insects, or the diseases that run amok in my garden. The farmer simply scatters his seeds aimlessly and shows up later to enjoy the harvest. It’s a far cry from the hardscrabble life of the original Ozark hill people, who without the dietary supplement provided by whatever critters they could blast out of the trees, or the monetary infusion from the sell of moonshine, would likely have starved to death their first winter.

Jesus’ parable of the sower makes a little more sense if remember that his home in the Judean countryside, was located just about in the middle of what geographers call the Fertile Crescent – a crescent-shaped region of the Middle East, extending from the Nile Valley in North Africa, across the Levantine coast of the Mediterranean and onto the land of Mesopotamia, home of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, and the cradle of civilization. It was a land with soil more fertile and moist than could be found in the vast deserts surrounding the region. It was a land, where one could almost imagine a farmer scattering seed here and there, and enough of it finding root to provide the leisurely farmer with a crop of wheat or barley.

Even so, it’s probably helpful to remember that Jesus was the son of a carpenter and not a farmer, and the life of a first century farmer probably appeared easier to one who didn’t experience it first hand. But more than finding employment as a carpenter or a farmer, Jesus at this stage of his life was a sower of the seeds of the word of God. And what he could see around him, already, was that the seeds of the word were quickly taking root. Those seeds had landed on fertile ground, were sprouting and growing, in a way that must have surprised him.

You see, the time and place for Jesus’ message was right. There was unease in the land. The character of the Jewish faith was shifting. The Roman occupation brought both great prosperity and great poverty – existing side by side. Opportunity and fear were both prevalent among the people. Prophets and miracle workers of every sort rose up in the land. But it was Jesus’ message of love, redemption, and salvation that stuck with the people – a message that found a patch of moist, life-sustaining ground and began to flourish.

And remember that the parables we find in Mark were recorded decades after Jesus told the stories, even after the Apostle Paul had taken Jesus’ message to the Gentiles and had spread the Gospel to the far reaches of the Roman Empire. The compiler of Mark’s gospel, with his historical perspective, would have understood just how fertile the ground for Jesus’ message had been, in a way that Jesus himself could not have imagined. The time were right, at that moment in the Fertile Crescent for the faith of a small Jewish sect, infused with the love of Christ, to find roots and be transformed into a major world religion.

I would like to suggest to you that we too live in a kind of Fertile Crescent. Fertile, in the sense that the ground on which we live and work, here in Northwest Arkansas, is at this particular moment in time, rich, moist, and ready for seeds of change to sprout and flourish.

I had a small hint of that receptivity to change even before I moved here. As many of you know, I’m a lifetime runner, so I was thrilled to find, on my first visit to Bentonville, that a trail had been built on the north side of town to accommodate runners and walkers and cyclists. However, I was dismayed that the trail was made of concrete, knowing from experience that the impact of running on hard surfaces sent shock waves to my knees. So, before moving here I sent the Parks and Recreation Department a letter, expressing my concern. And after arriving, I met with the Parks Department employee charged with trail development and described to her the running trails around Town Lake in Austin and the crushed granite path around the Reservoir in Central Park. I still don’t know if I was the one who planted the seeds of change or not, but within a few short months a gravel path ran alongside the concrete Bentonville Trail.

Another example. Many of you know and share in my concern over the treatment of prisoners in the Benton County Jail – in particular at the diet of soggy bologna sandwiches on which prisoners are forced to subsist. Repeated visits to the jail, conversations with the sheriff, articles in the paper, addresses before the Quorum Court seemed to have no effect on a policy of feeding only cold food to the inmates. The seeds I hoped to plant seemed to have fallen only on stony ground. But I’m happy to report that I had lunch with the Sheriff-elect three days ago and he promised that when he takes office the prisoners will have a least one hot meal a day, the sign in front of the jail boasting of the inmate census will be removed, prisoners will be able to take GED classes provided by NWACC teachers, and a more open chaplaincy program will be established.

We live in a time and place where change can happen. A land where a few seeds scattered can take root. A place where you, in your job, can make a real difference in the way the world looks. The presence of vibrant international commerce has resulted in a population as ethnically and geographically diverse as any small town in America.

It’s a land where great wealth – wealth beyond that ever imagined by the Roman emperors – exists side by side with great poverty. It’s a land where people with skin tones of every shade, coming to engage in trade can find both a warm welcome and harsh discrimination. It’s a land of an unspoken clash between the values of raw capitalism and a Christian desire for humility, self-giving, compassion.

There exists here the potential to remold the message of Christianity in a way that is more in keeping with the original message of Christ’s love and compassion. Change has come so rapidly over the past decade to this little corner of the Ozarks, that people have come to expect change. And that, my friend, presents to each of us an opportunity to become an agent for change. We live in a place where you can make a difference.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed from which great branches may spring forth.

As St. Paul wrote to the people of Corinth, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

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