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Jesus began to teach beside the lake again. Such a large crowd gathered that he climbed into a boat there on the lake. He sat in the boat while the whole crowd was nearby on the shore. 2 He said many things to them in parables. While teaching them, he said, 3 “Listen to this! A farmer went out to scatter seed. 4 As he was scattering seed, some fell on the path; and the birds came and ate it. 5 Other seed fell on rocky ground where the soil was shallow. They sprouted immediately because the soil wasn’t deep. 6 When the sun came up, it scorched the plants; and they dried up because they had no roots. 7 Other seed fell among thorny plants. The thorny plants grew and choked the seeds, and they produced nothing. 8 Other seed fell into good soil and bore fruit. Upon growing and increasing, the seed produced in one case a yield of thirty to one, in another case a yield of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of one hundred to one.” 9 He said, “Whoever has ears to listen should pay attention!”
10 When they were alone, the people around Jesus, along with the Twelve, asked him about the parables. 11 He said to them, “The secret of God’s kingdom has been given to you, but to those who are outside everything comes in parables. 12 This is so that they can look and see but have no insight, and they can hear but not understand. Otherwise, they might turn their lives around and be forgiven.
13 “Don’t you understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14 The farmer scatters the word. 15 This is the meaning of the seed that fell on the path: When the word is scattered and people hear it, right away Satan comes and steals the word that was planted in them. 16 Here’s the meaning of the seed that fell on rocky ground: When people hear the word, they immediately receive it joyfully. 17 Because they have no roots, they last for only a little while. When they experience distress or abuse because of the word, they immediately fall away. 18 Others are like the seed scattered among the thorny plants. These are the ones who have heard the word; 19 but the worries of this life, the false appeal of wealth, and the desire for more things break in and choke the word, and it bears no fruit. 20 The seed scattered on good soil are those who hear the word and embrace it. They bear fruit, in one case a yield of thirty to one, in another case sixty to one, and in another case one hundred to one.”
I heard a NPR news report a couple of months ago, about preschools for adults that have been opening up in New York City, because let’s face it – playing in sand boxes, painting on big pieces of paper, and nap time are things that everyone loves – not just kids!
Many, many children over the years have had the chance to do those sorts of things at the Lake Harriet United Methodist Preschool! On occasion I have volunteered in my childrens’ preschool classes in St. Paul, and after two hours, I’m utterly exhausted. I don’t know how the teachers do it. Three and four year olds have so much energy! But they are also so excited to learn about the world around them. Preschool is a time when kids establish what we hope will be a lifetime love of learning. Children learn through play, using all of their senses, and they learn really important things like how to be kind to one another, how to share their feelings, and how to put on their boots and zip their coats all on their own. That’s what happens throughout the week at our preschool and I love hearing the sounds of their laughter as they play in the courtyard throughout the year. Our teachers foster a love of learning for children, so they look at the world with wonder and imagination.
I can see why preschool for adults is becoming a new “thing”. We, too, want to be creative, play outside, and learn new things. I loved school growing up, and one of the most vivid memories that I have from grade school was my third grade science project. Initially the project filled me with dread. What would my experiment be? How would I do it? There was the 3 paneled board that needed to be created and I had to stand by it and talk with people at the science fair…the thought of talking about my project to whoever walked by… was terrifying! I’ve seen some posts on Facebook of a fake science fair project, in which the display board posited the question,
“How much turmoil does the science fair project cause families?” It determined that 75 percent of kids cry and 90 percent of parents yell. While fake, it’s believable! We lived it! I’m sure many of you have your own stories of infamous science fair projects, although kids today are lucky to have websites like “last minute science fair projects” that they can go to for help.
I finally came up with a project, and looking back, it reminds me a bit of Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seeds. This is the first parable in Mark. Jesus had already spent time healing people, and now he turns his attention to teaching. He is on a boat on the sea and he teaches whoever happens to show up to listen. And listening is key. Jesus uses parables to teach the people about the kingdom of God, but parables were not easy to understand. Parables were like the opposite of proverbs. Proverbs are clear and concise instructions on what to do and how to live. The book of Proverbs includes things like, “Let your heart guard my commands, Don’t let loyalty and faithfulness leave you. Bind them on your neck;
write them on the tablet of your heart. Don’t say to your neighbor, “Go and come back;
I’ll give it to you tomorrow,” when you have it. Don’t plan to harm your neighbor
who trusts and lives near you. Don’t envy violent people
or choose any of their ways.” Proverbs were a tool for teaching people how to live wisely.
Parables, on the other hand, are not clear. They are more like riddles. They are confusing, there always seems to be a drastic or surprising or confusing turn in the story, meant to challenge us. Parables open the way for multiple meanings. They are “open-ended and they invite our reflection rather than dictate clear definitions”  on our part. I think that’s why Jesus used them as a primary teaching tool!
The parable this morning is a story about a sower of seeds, and all of the different types of soil that the seeds are planted in, and what happens to those seeds. I did not base my science project specifically on this parable, but it does have some similarities!
So what I did, was I planted a bunch of marigold seeds in Styrofoam cups and my experiment was to see how well each plant would grow, depending on the soil it grew in, and what it was watered with. I then had charts depicting the growth of the plants over the course of several months. I planted some seeds in dirt from the backyard. Other seeds were planted in fertilized potting soil from the store. Then, I watered some of the seeds with tap water, others with milk, and others with coffee. And here’s what I discovered: there were a few seeds that didn’t grow at all. It didn’t matter the soil or source of nutrients. But for the most part, the seeds sprouted. The ones with the fertilizer grew faster than the ones without, but the ones without still grew. The ones that I watered with milk – they grew. But, by the time they were about two inches tall, they were covered in mold. The milk created mold on the soil and on the plant and then they died. The ones that I watered with coffee were really interesting. I wondered what effect that caffeine would have on plants. The coffee-fed plants grew really fast – like, twice as fast as the plants given water. But just as quickly as they shot up, they went from a beautiful green color to a sickly brown color, and then they shriveled up and died. In the end, the only ones that survived long enough to grow a flower were the ones that had been given water.
By the time it came for me to present my graphs and charts, I was so excited about sharing all that I had learned that I was no longer nervous for the science fair. After the whole experiment was over, we kept the plants alive until spring. Then, when we planted them in our back garden, they grew into these huge plants because they’d been growing all winter long in our house.
In Jesus’ parable, the gardener plants their seeds. They get scattered all over, and some of the seeds land on good soil. Others are plucked up and eaten by birds – they don’t even have the chance to grow. Some landed in rocky areas, where, like the caffeinated marigolds, they sprung up quickly, but were then scorched by the sun and withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, which choked them out. The seeds that landed in good soil grew and produced lots of grain. And then Jesus said, “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen!”
Jesus then shares this confusing lesson about the purpose of parables, which, like the essence of parables, is difficult to understand. He goes on to explain to the disciples the meaning of the parable. There are those who will hear and understand and there are those will hear and not understand. The disciples like to think that they are part of the “inner circle” so, of course,
they will hear and understand. Yet repeatedly in the scriptures, we are reminded that the “inner circle” is filled with people who never really get it. They don’t understand either. So, maybe the parables were actually meant for and to be understood by those who were outsiders…who knows. It’s the nature of parables to be confusing!
Jesus then offers his explanation of the parable. The gardener sows the word of God, and sometimes it is plucked up before anyone can have ears to listen. Other times, there are people who hear the word and immediately embrace it, but as soon as any hardship comes along, they fall away because their roots don’t go deep. Then, there are those who hear the word among thorns. These are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth
and the desire for other things, come in and choke the word and it yields nothing. And then there are the ones who hear the word and it lands in good soil and bears fruit….or, grain or flowers.
With this parable, the part that should stop us in our tracks is that the gardener would throw so much seed out, so indiscriminately. There are no limits to where the seed is spread or where the word can be grown. The gardener doesn’t pick and choose and determine to carefully plant seeds only in the best places possible. The gardener just tosses the seeds out and lets them land in all sorts of places. Likewise, the word of God lands in all sorts of places, and is given the chance to take root everywhere.
Jesus uses this parable to teach us about the kingdom of God, the reign of God that is in our midst right now, but has also not yet fully arrived. The word is planted in all sorts of ways and places in the kingdom of God, and it’s not just for the few – the favorites and the insiders. It’s for everyone. What happens with the word, though – it comes down to this: “You who have ears to hear….listen!” We’ve got to be able to listen in order to understand the word God has planted for us today.
You might wonder, Which one am I? Where has the word landed in me? Good soil? Rocky soil? Thorn-filled soil? The word, the lessons, the teachings of Jesus…they land on us all the time. At different points in our lives, we find ourselves hearing the word of God, the teachings of Jesus, in different growing conditions. Sometimes, the cares of the world and the desire for things get in the way of our understanding Jesus’ teachings and living them out. Sometimes we wither under the hardships we face. And sometimes, we land in a really good place and grow strong and bear fruit.
“You who have ears to hear, listen.” Depending on the day or the month or the year – our ability to listen changes based on our circumstances. No matter our age, we are all students. Jesus is our teacher. He’s like the best preschool teacher ever. He doesn’t come right out and tell you what to think. He shares some stories and riddles that free us to grow in our wonder and imagination and awe. The word that is sown among us is rich with promise, and so is the kingdom of God,
if we have ears to hear and listen. Once we have heard, once we’ve made meaning out of Jesus’ teachings, then we are empowered to act. To hear the gospel is to act upon it, and what results is a thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and a hundred-fold presence in the kingdom of God!
 Lamar Williamson, Jr., Interpretation: Mark, John Knox Press, Louisville, 1983, page 89.