I’ve been wondering lately about those little seeds that get planted in our lives – planted in our hearts and minds – through childhood experiences – those little moments in time – through words that are spoken either in love or in haste. Wondering about the haphazard way in which we tend to fling seeds about, often without much thought as to where those seeds are landing; or even what nature of seed it is that we are sowing.
Beginning with the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells a series of agrarian parables meant to illustrate the kingdom of God. He starts by telling about a gardener (maybe the lousiest gardener there ever was) who just went about slinging seed around with reckless abandon. Most of that seed apparently wasted; apparently the victim of bad soil and terrible growing conditions.
But wonder of wonders, some of the seed still manages to germinate, take root, and ultimately produce a fine harvest.
`God’s kingdom is just like that,’ Jesus says.
Uh . . . Like what, Jesus?
Any conscientious gardener, or farmer, knows that simply throwing handfuls of seeds around and then just going home to chill out for the rest of the day is not how it works. It takes a lot of work. Unless you pull weeds and loosen the soil, fertilize and water, your garden isn’t going to amount to much.
Like the old story about the guy who prided himself on his beautiful, lush, obviously well-tended garden of flowers, annuals and perennials, and flowering bushes. One day, while he was on his hands and knees—one of the benefits of gardening is that it forces you regularly to your knees—a neighbor passed by and complimented him on his garden.
“Ah,” said the neighbor, “how good the Lord is to produce such wonderful growth. “Yes,” said the gardener, “but you should have seen the garden when God had it all to himself.”
I once mentioned to a parishioner that I marveled at my wife’s green thumb. Diane, who was standing right there at the time, quickly reminded us both, “Well, it doesn’t just happen! It takes a whole lot of work, you know!”
And all the gardeners said, “Amen!”
On the other hand . . .
When we had our condo in Davenport, I used to like sitting in a favorite arm chair looking out over the little garden Diane had under the front picture window. And I’d sit there and read and watch the birds at the feeders. So one day I noticed a handful of birds perched on this huge four-foot-weed- like stalk in the middle of the garden, which seemed to just appear overnight.
I called Diane over, “What in the world is that! Did you plant that?”
“Oh, no,” she answered, “That’s an accidental flower. I think it’s from a sunflower seed that the birds knocked out of the feeder.” She said, “But I’m waiting for it to flower to be sure. I think there are several others starting, too.”
It didn’t take long for that `accident’ to become the central feature of our little garden. And soon we had a massive entourage of blooming sunflowers.
Meanwhile, the three extremely well-manicured flowering bushes, which had been gorgeous every spring that we’d lived there, all suddenly up and died. Been there for years!
Well, `God’s kingdom is like that,’ says Jesus.
It’s the same kind of logic the Apostle Paul used when trying to calm down the congregation at Corinth, who were totally divided over which of their church leaders they should follow. And Paul tells this little flock, “You know, I may have planted the seed, Apollos may have watered it, but it was God who made it grow. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, really; for it is only God who can actually make things grow.”
And sometimes in spite lousy gardening, or bad soil, or terrible environmental conditions. And sometimes despite the contrary attitude of the seedlings. And sometimes in the midst of conflict and dissention and uncertainty in the garden.
Because the kingdom of God is just like that.
Sometimes messy and unruly, weeds and wheat all intermingled and growing up together. Other times extremely well-ordered, laboriously manicured and lovingly-tended. With a lot of ambiguity regarding whether or not the seeds we happen to be sowing are blessed by God; or perhaps God has another seed to sow altogether.
So, I guess the point is (pastor) that you can read all the books you want on church growth strategy, and how to do effective evangelism, and scatter those seeds as broadly as you wish; and some will take off like gang-busters, and others will turn out to be flat-out fallow. Let all who have ears listen up, says Jesus.
While doing my research on this text, I learned that, while contemporary American farmers till the ground first and then sow the seed, farmers in ancient Palestine did it just the opposite, which certainly seems counter-intuitive to us. But, the point is, Jesus knew what he was doing when he used these parables for teaching. He was using living analogies that his listeners could eminently relate to their daily life and experience.
And not only that, Jesus himself had shared the word of the kingdom with his disciples who joyfully received it without real understanding and then fell away when things went south; the religious leaders of the time, while they had no choice but to acknowledge (because of his wisdom and his works) that Jesus was a prophet sent from God, and yet had hardened their hearts against him; and, indeed, by the end of Matthew’s 13th chapter, we see Jesus’ own home town rejecting him – so Jesus wasn’t just telling this parable; he was living it! (Feasting on the Word, Talitha J. Arnold)
For thousands of years, Judean date palm trees were one of the most recognizable and welcome sights for people living in the Middle East—widely cultivated throughout the region for their sweet fruit and for the cool shade they offered from the blazing desert sun.
From its founding some 3,000 years ago, to the dawn of the Common Era, the trees became a staple crop in the Kingdom of Judea, mentioned many times in the Old Testament. King David even named his daughter Tamar, after the plant’s name in Hebrew.
By the time the Roman Empire sought to usurp control of the kingdom in 70 A.D., broad forest of these trees flourished as a staple crop to the Judean economy—a fact that made them, not surprisingly, a prime resource for the invading army to destroy, to undermine the nation.
Sadly, by around the year 500 A.D., that once plentiful palm had been completely wiped out, driven to extinction for the sake of Roman conquest.
Until recently, that is.
During excavations at the site of Herod the Great’s palace in Israel in the early 1960s, archeologists unearthed a small stockpile of seeds stowed in a clay jar dating back some 2,000 years. For the next four decades, those ancient seeds were kept in a drawer at Tel Aviv’s Bar-llan University. But then, in 2005, botanical researcher Elaine Solowey decided to plant one of the seeds, just to see what, if anything, would sprout.
“I assumed the food in the seed would be no good after all that time,” said Solowey. “How could it be otherwise?”
But, wonder of wonders, the multi-millennial seed did indeed sprout, producing a sapling tree the like of which no one had seen in centuries, thus becoming the oldest tree seed to ever germinate.
In 2011 it produced its first flower—a heartening sign that, even after eons of dormancy, the ancient survivor was eager to reproduce. (John Roach, “2,000-Year-Old Seed Sprouts, Sapling Is Thriving,” National Geographic, November 22, 2005)
The Roman Empire rose and fell. King Herod – and his rule – have long since turned to dust and decay. But God’s word shall endure forever.
Jesus mostly likely never ventured more than a hundred miles from his home town; laboring in a small corner of the world, with a small band of – rather iffy – disciples whose future in ministry was extremely dubious after Jesus’ death.
Yet, here we sit, some two thousand years later, as part of the improbable fruit of – what most people at the time considered – Jesus’ laborious futility. Indeed, today Christianity is by far the world’s largest religion, with approximately 2.4 billion adherents, making up about one-third of the world’s (7.2 billion) population.
“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,” God declared to the prophet Isaiah, “and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” [Is. 55 10- 11]
Because the kingdom of God is just like that.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that we do not engage in the hard work of horticulture. Whether you’re talking about child-rearing or church-building, it takes many laborers to make for a fruitful garden. It takes those who are willing to till the soil, plant and nurture the seeds, police the weeds, and ultimately bring in the harvest.
But perhaps the first, best thing we can do, as laborers in the garden, is to acknowledge – and acquiesce – to the truth that it is, indeed, God who ultimately gives the growth. And, for us as Christians, make sure that Jesus is always the central feature of our garden.