January 18, 2004   Shirley Macemon
  So What About the Seeds?
Mark 4:1-9


1 Again he began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. 2 He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3 'Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6 And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8 Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.' 9 And he said, 'Let anyone with ears to hear listen!'

Last week, Nymphas Edwards shared with us that only 27 of his 56 or so San Jose district churches have been able to fully fund their 2003 apportionments. Some churches simply don't have the funds. Some churches don't think they have the funds. In a December letter, our Bishop outlined steps that will be taken if the Conference 2003 apportionment income is no greater than the 2002 income. Eliminate as much as $423,000 from the approx. $7.7 million Conference budget, including equitable salary support, a ministry staff position at Conference and perhaps even a district superintendent.

It has always been hard to figure out the "right cost" of effective ministry--how to allocate resources to best meet goals and mission, especially when the balance sheet of that mission is cast in people and faith.

One of my mentors reminds me on a regular basis that we aren't called to be "successful", Jesus calls us to be faithful. Even so, It is hard to convert "faithful" into an income stream that pays the light bills.

The Annual Conference budget issues are controversial. Some will applaud the bold steps to balance the budget. Some will mourn that the measures taken to control our financial crisis potentially cripple our Conference and denominational mission of making Disciples for Jesus Christ.

Some, of course, would micromanage each operation to assure each dollar spent is done so in an effective and efficient manner. Should we buy 4-color printing, or is photocopying on colored stock good enough? Should we own property and rent it out, or should we sell it and use the proceeds as permanent endowments? How can each dollar be used most effectively and efficiently? We used to joke that my Dad had the imprint of Abe Lincoln on his thumb--from pinching pennies so hard. Each and every resource used to the best of its ability.

Each year when I renew our Yellow Pages ad, and have to deal with one of the world's most irritating sales reps, I wonder if we could do away with that ad. Church advertising--in the paper, yellow pages, or on the internet isn't effective evangelism: It doesn't proclaim our faith story. Church advertising is a marker that points to who we are and where we are. The sales rep has tried to convince me that a bigger, better, brighter, whiter (and more expensive) advertisement will be more effective--a better return on our investment. The rep has convinced me that he doesn't understand his own product-- but that is a different story. Folks who find us in the yellow pages call the office. Folks who have found us on the Internet have come to worship, and become constituents.

The sower in Jesus parable didn't seem to be working in a time of falling economy. As a gardener or farmer, any of us might gasp as we hear that these seeds are scattered in wild abandon--with no plan or order--on the path, on rocks, into the thorns, and finally some into rich soil. A more directed approach would certainly have put more of the seed in the good soil, less wasted on unfertile ground, and netted and even larger harvest--though 30, or 60 or 100 fold is a wildly productive harvest. But there is some risk in simply scattering resources willy-nilly across the countryside. (Some might say that is one way our conference got into financial difficulty--no real focus or master plan of how to consistently prioritize projects, and fund only those with a firm grasp of success.)

Of course Jesus isn't simply talking about seed: that the seed carries the Word of God. But, it stands to reason, if we're planting something as important as the Word of God, that we need to be a lot more careful about where those seeds are landing? Shouldn't we be more focused in our approach, more targeted in our delivery?

Conventional wisdom says we sould wait until we are: large enough to have a valid sort of campaign, strong enough for programs and groups to be in place, and articulate enough to answer every possible question that might come to us as we sow these seeds that contain God's Word.

It simply isn't good church polity or politics to expend energy or finances into arenas where it won't take root.

If I were efficient with my sermon writing, I'd leave you with the interpretation of this parable as it continues in Mark. An allegorical explanation describing the folks that are referred to and what happens to the seed when that seed falls on the path, the rocky ground, and the thorns. Lots of sermons have been preached on those--how to avoid being those folks. They aren't necessarily bad folks--they are who they are--not taking God's word or their faith life very seriously.

But, you can read that interpretation for yourself--Mark 4: beginning in verse 10.

Have you ever watched a movie--one that you loved--and even though you know the plot, and you know a favorite character will make a stupid mistake leading to a tragedy--you whisper, perhaps in your mind--"don't do it..." When I read this parable, my effective and efficient mind clicks in and tries to say to Jesus' sower "Well, don't throw the seed there!" Put your Word where it will be more effective!" Sometimes we simply can't turn the voices off--but it doesn't mean we have to act on them!

So, we're not going there this morning, because just as I have that phrase out of my mental mouth, it dawns on me--there is no shortage of seed.

But the sower know that The sower throws good seed all over the place. It is like throwing the best bread, not just the crumbs, to the dogs under the table...

Last week I told you a story told by Will Willamon, United Methodist preacher and homiletics professor from Duke University. He was listening to a group of men's testimonies. A fellow shared that he had been a member of the Methodist church for 38 years, and no one had ever told him about Jesus. Will's comment was--briefly--that this guy perhaps was a little smug, and made it sound as though he had been held apart from the congregation for those 38 years. What about all those Sunday school teachers, Will commented, What about all those preachers, what about all those wonderful folks at potluck dinners. Will felt like saying, "Listen, pal, it is great that your faith is coming together, but what do you think we've been trying to get through your thick head for the last 38 years?" (http://www.sermons.com)

I suspect that if that man went to some of the churches I grew up in, a Sunday school teacher or two along the way figured out there might be some hard-packed places in that kid. But they didn't stop teaching. They didn't usher him to the door of the church, or toss him out of confirmation class. I suspect a pastor or two along the way wondered why in the world that one kept up his membership all those years--he was rocky ground, liable to jump into a program and fizzle out quickly. But, those pastors didn't give his pew to someone else, or send his membership info down the road, hoping that other church would recruit him. His own family might have seen the thorns growing up, but they took him along to church anyway. And one day, the Word of God broke through. God's seeds carry their own future. God's timing. Not yours and mine.

Seeds germinate and sprout in their own time, with the sun, and warmth, and water, and the life within begins to grow and prosper. Some seeds require a winter to get the process started, for that life within to awaken and take hold.

The sower sows extravagantly, and no matter where the seed lands, there is ALWAYS more to sow. Unlike church budgets and the Conference financial crisis--there is always more seed. Always.

God's love--the result of the Sower's seeds--is never a zero-sum game. Seed can be eaten by birds, sprout quickly and wither away, and be choked by thorns, and there is always as much left as we started with. I am loved infinitely by God, and you and you and you and you are all loved infinitely by God, and God's love has still not been diminished for any other person. The sower sows extravagantly, and no matter where the seed lands, there is ALWAYS more to sow.

Finally, the corollary: we carry God's Word to the world each and every day. We are God's people. There is no keeping God's word in safe places, on good soil. It is who we are, and is reflected in each conversation, each transaction--Whether we're "doing" Church, or not. Each time we step out our front door, each time we open our mouth--God's seeds are sown.

This afternoon, Emil Sazon leads us in a workshop introducing our community to Extension ministries. Our community is all those things-- hard packed ground, rocky places, thorny bushes and rich soil. Every time we are in the community, we are sowing those seeds. Sow extravagantly. Live who God calls you to be--a testament to God's love to the world and in the world.

God's harvest is rich.