Mark 4: 1-9, 13-20
Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time/ September 12, 2010
“Who will nurture my son?” That was the plaintive plea of a Presbyterian, a Presbyterian mother as her son went off to college, concerned about the future of his faith. It was tough to say good-bye to him on the steps of the dorm. She knew he was prepared to face the academic challenges of college and she knew he was, for the most part, emotionally mature. But she was anxious about something else: would he find a faith community that would continue to nurture and support him on his faith journey? He tried-out one or two Presbyterian churches near the campus, but the response wasn’t great. On an Easter Sunday the pastor greeted him, but not one other person said hello to him. “Who will nurture my son?” she cries.
This anxiety-filled question is familiar to many a parent. She can at least rejoice that her son has a faith substantial enough to be nurtured. Many parents fear that their child will not grow up with such a faith. When our children graduate from high school and venture forth into the world, will they go with a mature faith or enough of a faith to lead them on into life? Will they be prepared? That day isn’t far off. Thirteen years if your daughter is five. Ten years, if your son is eight.
“Who will nurture my son?” Who will nurture our children? Her question might be your question, our question. What if my child doesn’t confess Christ? What if I fail them in not teaching the faith? Even though I don’t have children (I have a sassy cat!), these are still my questions: What if they get turned off by the church? What if they’re not confirmed? What if in the end they don’t care about God or Christ? What if they’re bored? What then? What if our youth in the end want nothing to do with the church? What then? How will they make ethical decisions? What will inform the choices they make? What if they don’t get it? It being the message of the church, God’s good news in Jesus Christ? What if they don’t get it? What then?
Jesus had the same concern, that people would not get it – it being the message of the gospel, the Word, the good news of God’s kingdom. Jesus didn’t want anyone excluded from God’s kingdom-living. He wanted people to see God’s justice present before them in him. He wanted the scales to fall from their eyes in order to see the abundance of God’s grace all around them, that they might be healed of their spiritual blindness. He wanted them to see – really see – him, and themselves, and all of creation in an entirely new way. But before they could see who and what was before their eyes, they first had to hear something. In the biblical world, hearing usually comes before seeing. Seeing is not believing; hearing is believing. We hear in order to see. The way to the heart is through the ear, not the eye. When we hear a grace-filled word, how we see is transfigured. (This is really what preaching is all about: offering a grace-filled word that transfigures reality.) And so with the crowds gathered along the sloping shore of the Sea of Galilee, forming a kind of natural amphitheatre, Jesus sits in a boat facing them, using the water for amplification, with the Word of God traveling at the speed of sound across the surface of the deep, the crowd falls silent as he commands, “AKOÚETE!” “Listen!” “Pay attention here – you need to listen to this! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path…”
Jesus tells a parable, a common teaching tool within Judaism. Jesus was the master of it; he perfected it. Not simply allegory, but a teaching tool designed to awaken faith and crack open reality. Jesus probably told this parable only once. He probably didn’t rehearse it, spend a lot of time thinking about it, or even bother to write it down. It was extemporaneous. He often identified an ordinary, everyday object or event, and then used it as an entrée into kingdom life. He used parables to help people understand that a new world has come and is coming into being through him. We can’t perceive this on our own for it’s not immediately obvious. We have to be initiated into this truth indirectly. That’s why he uses parables. And Jesus wants them to really think about their faith, existentially embrace it, live it, and not just simply accept it passively. Most people, including the disciples, didn’t see the Kingdom of God was in their midst. Jesus came to show us that the fullest manifestation of God’s Kingdom is known through him, because he is the kingdom of God and he will have to open it to you.
That’s what the Word of God does: it opens up reality. By Word of God, I don’t mean the Bible. Throughout scripture, Word refers to the divine language, the active, dynamic, creative speech of Yahweh, the divine reason, the divine mind; it’s the Word that created the universe, the Word that speaks through the pages of scripture, the Word that speaks new life into death, the Word that loves to create something out of nothing; it’s the Word as logos that continually seeks enfleshment in the world, as we see in Jesus Christ, the “Word (logos) made flesh (see John 1: 1-5, 14),” and the ongoing enfleshment of the Word in human beings, in the depths of our souls. The Word produces life within all those who hear it. The Word impels us to faith, love, and hope. The Word comes to maturity in us when it bears fruit in our lives. And if you really want to hear and see and feel the Word of God, then listen to him, to Christ in all the blessedly diverse ways in which the New Testament gives witness to him. The purpose of the parable is to provide for such a radical insight into the very nature of truth itself, such a truth that strikes us with awe and amazement.
The message is being communicated all the time. Sometimes we get it; sometimes we don’t. But Jesus wants us to get it. Jesus probably looked out and saw a peasant farmer on the shoreline and said, “AKOÚETE, Listen! Getting the message is like that sower over there who went out to sow some seed, and as he did, the seed feel on all different kinds of soil.” Peasant farming in Palestine was done using the broadcast method. The seed was randomly, broadly casted, scattered throughout the field, landing on all different kinds of soil. Jesus wasn’t making this up, he knew how people farmed. He knew that often farmers would broadcast their seed in fields situated alongside the beaten path. He knew the soil in that region was rocky, not unlike the soil of New England, with little topsoil over limestone. He knew these peasant farmers would try to get rid of the weeds in their fields by just removing the tops of them, leaving the roots or burning the tops, never really dealing with the problems. And he knew there was also rich, deep, soil perfect for farming.
We don’t want to overanalyze these metaphors, but the listener would have known that the seed is the Word of God; the message is like the seed that is broadcast through his preaching. Jesus is the peasant farmer sowing seed. We are the various types of soil.
Our lives can be so beaten down, hard, crusty, with little nutrients, unwilling and maybe unable to let the words of God penetrate our hardened, cold hearts. Our lives can be like the rocky soil. We hear the message of Christ, it germinates a little, we see some growth, but when the hot summer sun starts to burn, when life becomes harsh and cruel we whither away because our roots are not deep enough to survive. We become surface Christians, fair-weather Christians, or as Kenda Dean writes in her latest book, “almost Christian.” When the storms of life rage – maybe, the text even suggests, storms that are produced because the Word of God is taking root in us – we find ourselves overwhelmed and unable to endure.
Our lives can be like the soil that is covered with weeds and thorns that choke the message out from us. All the worries and distractions of our lives are like weeds that choke the life from us. Or when our lives are so busy that there’s little time left for service or prayer or we try to fit worship into our weekly schedules, we shouldn’t be surprised that the word of Christ isn’t taking root and growing within us. Growth is what matters, the yield. I came across these words found on the church sign of the Ashway Pentecostal Holiness Church (Greeneville, TN): “God is interested in spiritual fruit not religious nuts.” But if we are good soil, rich soil, and deep, full of nutrients that will allow seeds to germinate, take root, and grow, we will see, Jesus tells us, a yield of thirty, sixty, a hundredfold. These are staggering figures. We would love a yield like that on our investments. However, in Jesus’ day, the average crop yielded only two to fivefold. The life of one in Christ, where his words are growing, will bear fruit, will yield miraculous results. Jesus is intentionally exaggerating here to make the point: good soil produces the best yield.
It’s the yield that concerns Jesus most. The mother worrying about her son at college is also worrying about the yield. When we worry for the future faith life of our children, it’s another way of worrying about the yield, the outcome. Will our efforts now yield success in the future? Will our efforts now yield a stronger church in the future? Will our children still be in the church in the future? Now we have to be careful here. As many child psychologists have said, children are not the future, they are the present. To continually project the lives of our children into the future and look to them to preserve the church or save the world because of our mistakes is abusive. They are here and now. Therefore, this parable calls us to make this very important distinction: the parable tells us Jesus is concerned with the yield, that’s his domain – not ours.
God provides the seed, the message. God provides the harvest (Matthew 9:38), the yield. What we have to be concerned about and the only thing we have any real influence over is the soil: ourselves. Are we nurturing the soil of our lives so that it’s receptive to God’s Word? Are we nurturing the lives of our children? How can we show them what that looks like without doing it first in our lives? Farmers in Jesus’ day knew nothing about rehabilitating soil. Today, farmers have doctorates in agricultural science. We know there are things we can do to ensure that the soil of our lives is rich and fertile, allowing the seed of God’s love to grow within us and bear fruit. That’s what Christian education is about. Quite frankly, it’s what all of ministry is about: nurturing the ground. I recalled yesterday that in my home church we had a Christian Nurture Committee. We didn’t have a Christian Education committee.
What can we do to prepare the soil so that our children, indeed, all of us, might hear the message, that is might take root in the soil of our lives and bear fruit? Because, the truth is, the yield is not up to us. I know there’s a lot of anxiety around this question. Maybe the grace-filled word for us is that it’s not ours to worry about. It’s not ours. Jesus is lord of the harvest, not you, not me. If we want something to worry about – or, to put it positively – a better use of our resources might be really investing our time, energy, imagination, and love in nurturing the soil of our lives and the lives of our children.
Kenda Dean, professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Seminary, is on target in her newest, ground-breaking study of the religious lives of contemporary teenagers, which is really a study of the religious lives of the American church (a church that needs to wake up and realize it’s in a time of deep crisis). We’ll be hearing a lot about this book in upcoming months. Kenda reminds us that the seed or content of faith and the act of passing it on is not all up to us. “Because Christians believe that transformation belongs to God, Christian formation – the patterning of our lives and our communities after Christ’s self-giving love – requires grace, not determination. The church’s job is to till the soil, prepare the heart, ready the mind, still the soul, and stay awake so we notice where God is on the move, and follow. It is in following Jesus that we learn to love him; it is participating in the mission of God that God changes us into disciples.”
The seeds of God’s message, God’s creative, life-giving Word are continually being sown by the Spirit in the world. The role of Christian education in the entire church, for children, youth, and adults, is to ensure that we are committed to nurturing the soil that will allow for growth. As Kenda says, our job is to “till the soil, prepare the heart, ready the mind, still the soul, and stay awake.” In order to show our children how this is done, we need to do it ourselves.
May this then be our mantra, our hope and prayer as we move into this new program year. In all areas of our lives, let us consider how we can: till the soil — prepare the heart —ready the mind —still the soul — stay awake long enough to notice where God is on the move – for God is on the move! – and then follow, follow, follow.
 Sandra S. Hawley, “Who Will Nurture My Son?” Presbyterian Outlook, September 14, 1998, 12.
 Barclay, 87.
 Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
 See David Elkind, All Grown Up and No Place To Go: Teenagers in Crisis (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing, 1974).
 Dean, 15.
Image: Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), “Sower with the Setting Sun” (1888)