“He who has ears, let him hear,” Matthew 13:1-9 says to the great crowds that had gathered around Him, there on the beach by the sea of Galilee. Matthew 13:18-23 was just off the shore, sitting in that little boat and teaching the crowds. He was telling them many things, the Scripture says, telling them parables. Stories, some of them like jokes, almost; little jokes whose humor could be elusive sometimes, if you didn’t have the ears for it.
“The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.” That was one of Jesus’ jokes. Do you get it? The reign of God, the rule of God, the sovereign Lordship of the Creator of heaven and earth — the administration, as it were, of the Almighty — the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, just like a little mustard seed, the smallest of seeds. That’s what God’s kingdom is like.
But how can something be so important, the kingdom of God, how can something that big be compared to something that little, a mustard seed? After all, aren’t Jesus’ lessons about important, life-changing, earth-shattering stuff? How can the kingdom of God be compared to a seed, of all things, and to a mustard seed at that?
And yet …. isn’t new life and growth at the heart of God’s will? And, really, what changes more than a seed becoming a tree, unless it’s the fortunes of all the little creatures that find shelter there in the tree’s branches. What can shatter more earth — shatter more concrete and pavement for that matter — than a growing stem?
Earth shattering, life changing — a seed is all of that, and therefore a parable of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
Do you get it? It’s a sort of a joke, an inside joke that not everybody can understand, or wants to. You sort of have to be there.
“He who has the ears for it, let him hear the parable’s punch-line,” Jesus says. She who has faith, let her believe what the parables say. Whoever has the tongue for it, and the stomach for it, let them taste the irony of the gospel, let them drink deeply the delicious and sometimes bitter truth of the kingdom of God — the cup does have a bite. Who has the lips for it, let them tell it all again to the delight, or despair, or utter confusion of all who will listen.
But the one who has ears should hear. Those with eyes should see. Those with faith should understand.
II
“A sower went out to sow.” And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path and were eaten by birds. Some seeds fell on rocky soil — they sprouted quickly, grew wildly, but wilted and died for they had found no depth of soil. Some seeds fell among thorns and were choked. But some fell on good soil.
The kingdom of God is like a sower, a sower who keeps sowing in spite of the birds, the hard ground, the thorns; a sower who keeps sowing the seed in spite of what is; a sower who keeps sowing for the sake of what might be.
Why does he keep sowing? Or why isn’t he more careful? He seems to throw the seed everywhere, indiscriminately. He keeps sowing the gospel seed. Johnny Gospelseed, perhaps.
There really was a Johnny Appleseed. Jonathan Chapman was his name, and in 1801 — at age 26 or so — he appeared on the shores of Licking Creek in Ohio, planting apple seeds. Five years later he was seen navigating west along the Ohio River. His craft was two canoes lashed together, and his cargo was, of course, more apple seeds.
His purpose — according to a writer for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, W. D. Haley, who chronicled the life of America’s orchard-planting eccentric — his whole purpose in life was to plant orchards on the farthest verge of pioneer settlements. In spite of the great dangers of the wilderness, the wars and craziness that were part of the American west, he kept planting apple seeds.
“What made him do it?,” Haley wondered. Who was this man who kept planting seeds? Was he impelled by some absolute misery of the heart which demanded incessant motion? Was his planting a benevolent monomania, a graceful compulsion with one thing — planting apple seeds? Why did Johnny Appleseed do it?
I don’t know, but it’s a parable of sorts. The Son of Man is like that, Jesus would seem to say, like one with a graceful compulsion, a compulsion of grace. The Son of Man keeps sowing the seed. There is something in this Sower’s heart that keeps Him going in spite of the birds and rocks and thorns, something that keeps Him sowing the seeds of the gospel, ever hoping for some good ground. The Son of Man is like an orchard-planting eccentric; and the kingdom of God, the church even, is like an orchard planted. Get it?
The kingdom of God is just like that.
III
I was on my way to Hardees when a sign caught my eye — a new sign, one I hadn’t seen before. The sign was standing in front of a little white building whose architecture was familiar, a building whose basic lines and appearance was like a thousand other buildings I have seen here and there by the side of other roads, and along other roads where I have traveled.
The building is a church — or it used to be, anyway. I don’t know anything about its history, or its people, or what denomination it was. The odds, of course, are that it was Baptist. But who were its leaders, its critics, its heroes — all churches have heroes? Who were its villains — most churches have them, too. I don’t know.
I know nothing at all about that little church or its people, except this: it’s a place where people used to gather together, to sing together and to pray together, to hear a preacher preach and to hear some teachers teach — to learn more about the Bible and the will of God, to learn a little more of how to be a little more like Christ, and a little more to be like that little seed.
Long before fast food arrived, the kingdom of God came to that spot, got planted like a seed there alongside the road, and a little frame building grew up around it. Some lives were changed, some earth was shattered. Some hard hearts were broken by the wrath of God’s grace like packed earth giving way to the onslaught of a seedling. Big things happened at that little church, and did so for as long as the faithful gathered faithfully to grow in faith.
But somewhere along the line, sometime long before most of our times, something happened. I believe that particular church moved, was transplanted and is growing still. Yet, some stories of some of those little churches I have seen are not so good, thus are another kind of parable.
Sometime, for some reason, those people quit singing together, quit praying for one another, quit listening together for the Word of God. I guess, at sometime, they quit loving one another, too.
The little seed that got carried to their spot was by the breeze of God’s grace — the little seed finds its way to a spot, gets planted there and grows for a while into a pretty little white bloom by the roadside. But after a while, it withers. After a little while more, it dies.
Shallow earth? Rocky soil? The seed that was planted grows for a while, but then it dies. Thorns? I don’t know.
Among all the other things I don’t know about that one little church was whether or not it had a sign out in front of it — but if it did, it’s long gone, and there is a new sign now, out there in the front of what used to be a church. The sign reads, “William Whiteside Gallery.” An art gallery, I believe. A parable, too.
Why do churches die? Fred Craddock maintains that when a church dies, most often it dies of amnesia. It forgets who it is and what it is. It forgets Whom it represents. It forgets that “church” is a verb, ever growing and changing, ever doing — worshipping, learning, eating together, praying for one another, reaching out and giving comfort to all within its reach, ministering in all the ways it can.
Churches that die often forget that they are not just evidence of the past; not just proof of God’s historic faithfulness and prior activity in a place; not just places of familiarity and comfort. A church is all of that, of course, but it is not just that. A church is also a glimpse of the future, a voucher of God’s continuing work, a harbinger of God’s will, a place where brothers and sisters of faith accept the challenge beyond comfort that awaits us.
“Church” is a verb — ever growing, and if not always in size then certainly in spirit, in faith and hope and love. The church by definition is evidence of where a seed was planted by the Son of Man. A church is evidence of the very presence of Christ, and a parable of the ever-growing kingdom of God. The church, by definition, is a study in growth.
Some of the church’s growth is painful, to be sure. All growth is painful. And scary, sometimes, too. Remember when you started school — or your kids did? Or when you struck out from home to make your own way — pretty painful, pretty scary. And while there are lots of reasons to stay back where it’s safe, you have to forge ahead, you have to grow.
Churches can die when they forget who they are, when they forget that seeds, like the kingdom, have to grow. And when churches die, new signs can go up in front of them: “Art Gallery,” for instance; or “Museum,” perhaps.
Now that’s a fetching image, isn’t it? The church become museum.
IV
That metaphor is not new with me, of course. A lot of critics liken the church to a museum — a museum whose rooms are full of artifacts, symbols of antiquated allegiances; where shelves are lined with books which testify to ancient but irrelevant genius; where one can observe archaic and anachronistic rituals.
The church as museum — its worship like the bones of an apatosaurus. Interesting, a curiosity, a reconstructed blast from the past but certainly nothing with any applicability, any message or claim on people’s lives. Something to observe and to appreciate, in a way, but only in the way one appreciates a fossil. Something maybe even to attend — but more in the same way one attends the theater, coming away entertained, enlightened, perhaps; even ennobled in some fashion but not converted, not changed.
That’s the way some see it — and, unfortunately, there is some truth to the charge, some accuracy to the criticism that what the church is, what churches sometimes are and do, is often more nostalgia than anything else.
That’s the way some see it — “The church is like a museum …” And still the Sower sows. Still the Sower sows.
V
When the seed falls on good soil, when it grows, then there is a church that remembers who it is and what it’s for. When the seed falls on good soil, when it grows, then there is a church bearing fruit, changing life and shattering earth. You can tell the seed has fallen on good soil when people are praying for one another and singing together and learning and listening together for the Word of God. The seed is growing because the Sower keeps sowing.
And the church itself becomes something of a Johnny Gospelseed, its members orchard-planting eccentrics, who for the Sower’s sake, for Christ’s sake, keep planting orchards of faith and hope and love.
They keep sowing faith, though some refuse to believe. They continue sowing hope, though cynicism is so very strong. They continue sowing love, though some are content with less. They keep sowing faith and hope and love. In spite of the birds, in spite of the rocks, in spite of the thorns, they keep on sowing.
The kingdom of God is like that.
He who has ears, let him hear. She who has eyes, let her see. The kingdom of God is like a seed, like a sower who went out to sow — and here and there, the seed grew.
Get it?

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