This is apparently how Jesus normally taught. He told the crowds short stories about God’s kingdom. Sometimes he would later explain the parables to his disciples, and sometimes not. Even when Jesus did explain the parables to the disciples, as here, the Gospel writers often do not explain them to us.
So, like the crowd two thousand years ago, we hear these parables from Jesus. But we have to make sense of them on our own.
We may well be tempted to ask, why didn’t Jesus just say what he meant?
But that misses the whole point of teaching in parables. The parables don’t have a single meaning. The beauty of the parables is precisely that they are open-ended. Every parable of Jesus is an invitation.
When he tells a parable, Jesus invites us to open our hearts and our minds to the movement of the Spirit, to prayer and reflection on the meaning of his holy word, to an encounter with God, to a process of conversion, of deepening, of sanctification and growth in God.
I will tell you what I get out of these parables. But I encourage you to accept Jesus’ invitation to pray and meditate on them this week, to discover your own meanings in them, to hear what God is saying to you through them. If you do that, you will get more out of the parables than anything I can say this morning.
All right. Hear again the parables.
“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….”
Again, the kingdom of God “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.”
I hear those parables in at least two ways.
First, we are the ground, each of us individually and all of us together. The kingdom of God is like a seed that Christ plants in us, a seed of God’s grace.
In our first parable, Christ tells us, that seed of grace in us grows. Most of the time, we don’t know how it happens. Often we won’t notice it happening. But somehow, in some mysterious way, God’s grace grows in us.
This is really good news. God is at work in us all the time, that seed of God’s grace in us is growing all the time, whether or not we know it. Thanks be to God for that.
The second parable takes it one step farther. Over time, that tiny seed of grace that God plants in us grows up to become the greatest of all shrubs. I have joked before, but I think it is true. If Jesus were telling this parable in 21st century Georgia, he would say the kingdom of God is like kudzu. It takes over!
That is what grace does to us. It’s like grace spreads out and overshadows our entire lives. In the process, grace remakes us.
This is what Paul is talking about in the last lines of this morning’s epistle. “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” Paul is talking about us, about all baptized Christians, about all of God’s beloved children. God’s grace, says Paul, is making us new all the time. And it just takes a tiny seed.
That is one way to hear these parables: as if we are the ground in which God plants a seed of grace. And that seeds grows.
But what if we are the ones sowing the seed? What if our job, our calling as God’s people, is to sow the seed of God’s grace in God’s creation, on God’s behalf? Then the parables are not so much about what God does in us as about what God calls us to do in the world.
This is more good news.
We do the things we do. Just last week, we sent a couple hundred dollars off to Episcopal Relief and Development to help suffering people around the world. We also gave nearly $300 to the Parish Cupboard, as well as leading prayers and providing lunches for fifteen people in need at Church without walls. We do a lot of things like that. We should be proud of all we do.
But if we think of the need in our community, in the world, it can be totally overwhelming. In the face of all that need, what difference does our little bit of good make?
These parables are Jesus’ answer to that question.
We cannot solve all the problems of the world. Thankfully, that is not our job. Our job is to plant seeds of God’s grace. Our job is to do the good that we can do. Our job is to share the good news of God’s grace and love in whatever way we can.
God takes it from there.
I planted a seed last week. Maybe….
During a hospital visit, while I was in the bathroom, a young Black man addressed me. “Pastor,” he said, “I have been sinning a lot lately. I need your prayers.” It was a little awkward, standing there in the bathroom, but I agreed. Thankfully he suggested we wait until we were done in the bathroom.
The young man sent me out to find his cousin who, he assured me, had also been sinning and also needed my prayers. His cousin was a little nonplussed to be approached by a strange middle-aged white man in a collar. When Taj came out of the bathroom, we prayed together, and then went our separate ways.
And I wonder: what happened in the hall of that hospital? Was Taj just trying to embarrass his friend? Or did he really want a prayer? I’ll never know. I am not sure Taj knows.
But my hope is that Taj received a little seed of God’s grace and love. My hope is that seed will grow and that God will do mighty things in and through those two young men.
Our parables tell us the little seed that we plant when we give lunch to a hungry person, or a few supplies to a woman just out of prison, or a prayer and a kind word to someone who is struggling, that little seed we scatter on the ground can sprout and grow, even if we do not know how.
And whether or not we see the results, the little seed we plant, with God’s grace, can grow to be a mighty shrub, transforming lives. The little seed we plant is our way of sharing in Christ’s mission to change the world from the nightmare it is for some into the dream that God has for it.
Our parables invite us to view our whole lives in relation to God’s grace. In every moment, God is sowing a seed in us. In every moment, we can sow a seed of grace in the people we encounter. My prayer for us is that we can truly be channels of God’s grace and love to everyone we meet. In Jesus’ name. Amen.