“Scattering Seeds” / Mark 4:26-34 / 14 June 2015
“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.” No, we don’t know how. We hope they’ll grow. We want them to grow, well, some of them. The seeds we plant in the sunny days of our lives, they take on a life of their own, and we can’t always tell what they will at last become. They sprout and grow, as seeds are wont to do. We don’t really know how. But the seeds we sow in this life, they bear fruit for years to come. Every act, every word, every decision is a seed that just might outlive us.
This morning you get two opening stories instead of the usual one. The first story takes place in Chicago in the 1930s. Long before “The Sopranos,” there were brutal gangsters in American cities, people like Al Capone. Capone made his fortune by bootlegging illegal liquor, managing huge prostitution rings, and organizing underground gambling halls. Capone called himself a businessman, but his real fortune lay in unlawful activities, and every politician in Chicago dwelled squarely in his pocket. It’s hard to imagine that kind of corruption in America nowadays…isn’t it? (Or is it?) In order to protect his gangland empire, Capone bought off judges and policemen and elected officials. He engaged in racketeering and very frequently had his opponents murdered. He was a smart guy, Al Capone. He played dirty. He had the legal system eating out of the palm of his hand. And, like so many unscrupulous money-makers, he did this all with the help of a very good lawyer.
“Easy Eddie” was that lawyer’s nickname. He was so good that he managed to keep Capone and all of his cronies out of jail for many years. Eddie had all the dirt on Al Capone, and Capone, like all gangsters, treated his players well as long as they protected him. Capone gave the lawyer, Easy Eddie, a huge salary. And Eddie seemed to like the high life. Eddie had a mansion so large that it occupied an entire city block. And in that mansion he employed a whole crew of full-time servants. Eddie had a wife that he loved and a son that he adored. Nothing was too good for Easy Eddie’s son. The boy got all the best clothes, toys, education, cars. Eddie wanted his son to live a more honest life than he had lived, and so Eddie tried to teach the boy right from wrong. Yet, with all his wealth and power, there were a few things that Easy Eddie couldn’t give the boy. He couldn’t give him a reputable name, and he couldn’t show him by example how an honest person lives. So, one day Eddie made a tough decision. He decided to come clean. In order to set a good moral example for his son, Easy Eddie decided to testify against Public Enemy Number One, Al Capone. And when he did, Eddie’s testimony was enough to finally put the great mobster behind bars. But Eddie’s decision came at a high cost. Capone never showed mercy on a turncoat. And soon after his testimony, Eddie was shot down in a hail of gunfire while crossing a Chicago street.
Our second story takes place far away from the gray skies and smoky streets of Depression-era Chicago. Very faraway indeed. During WWII, among the balmy islands of the South Pacific, a young fighter pilot named Butch O’Hare set off on a mission with the rest of his squadron. Shortly after taking off, O’Hare noticed that someone had neglected to top off his fuel tank. It meant that he wouldn’t have enough fuel to complete the mission and make it back to his ship. And so O’Hare’s commanding officer told him to abort the mission and return to the ship immediately. On his way back, flying all alone, O’Hare spotted a squadron of Japanese aircraft headed for the American carrier ships. The Japanese were going to attack the helpless carrier ships while all the American fighter planes were out on their mission. In an act of desperation, O’Hare decided to do whatever he could to save the carrier ships from an easy massacre. He flew straight into the formation of Japanese planes, trying to lead them away from the ships. He shot all his ammunition into the enemy squadron and actually downed five of their aircrafts. And when his ammunition was all gone, O’Hare continued his solitary attack on the enemy squadron. He swooped and dove at the Japanese planes, in an attempt to clip their wings or tails so that they couldn’t fly straight. He flew straight at them and pulled away at the last second in an attempt to unnerve the enemy pilots. Finally, and very surprisingly, the Japanese aircrafts took off in another direction and left the defenseless American ships alone. Even more surprisingly, O’Hare made it back to his own ship unharmed. He had single-handedly saved the lives of the hundreds of men aboard the whole fleet of American carrier ships.
Not surprisingly, O’Hare’s act of bravery became instant news. He was a hero overnight. Some of you remember the black-and-white newsreels that used to run in movie theaters before the main attraction. Well, every theater in America ran the film from the gun-camera that was mounted on O’Hare’s plane. Every moviegoer in America got to see the events on the big screen. President Roosevelt invited O’Hare to the White House, where he received the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was the first Navy fighter pilot ever to receive that medal.
One year later, O’Hare was killed in combat at the age of twenty-nine. His hometown of Chicago honored him by naming their airport after him. In O’Hare Airport, in Chicago, you can still see Butch O’Hare’s Medal of Honor on display between terminals one and two. And if you’ve got a layover at Chicago O’Hare Airport, you might pause before that display and reflect on the fact that Butch O’Hare was the only child of Easy Eddie. Seeds! Even a greedy, corrupt mob lawyer can plant a good seed into the fertile soil of the world. And that seed can spring up into something beautiful.
The story of Easy Eddie and Butch O’Hare is a great example of what Jesus is talking about today in his parable in the Book of Mark. He says, “The Kingdom of God is as if a person should scatter seed upon the ground, and then sleeps and rises, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, but the person doesn’t know how.” Everything that we do is a seed. Every act, every word, every chance encounter with a stranger, everything in our life has the potential to spring up later on in some unexpected form, and we don’t know how. The things we do and say bear fruit for good or for ill; we don’t know how. Little decisions we make, little acts we commit in secret, private choices, everything has the power to spring up into something else while we’re not looking. We don’t know how. Everyday we make choices assuming that they affect nobody but ourselves, but those choices are seeds, and they will have consequences that could change the face of the world. We don’t know how. And even though we might not be paying any attention to it, even though we might sleep and rise, night and day, even though we may give our words and acts no further consideration, they are seeds. And they will eventually sprout. We all have the power to touch the future. We all have the power to make it better or to make it worse. The many little seeds that we plant—even though we may plant them unawares—they can have very great effects later on. Even the smallest seed we plant matters, because, for good or for ill, we never know how big it can get. Every seed we plant matters, and that is how Christ’s Kingdom comes.
In parentheses, let me talk a little bit not about the seed we sow, but the seeds that God sows. It must be said of seeds that they’re not the most exciting things in the world. The whole slow growth process fails to thrill the modern mind. If something is really boring, you can say that, “It’s about as exciting as watching grass grow.” We tend to like faster, louder things. There’s no fanfare involved in a seed sprouting. And yet, that is how Jesus describes this coming kingdom, not with pomp and drama, but like a seed sending up a sprout and breaking through the soil. We sleep and rise, night and day, and eventually, slowly, gradually, that kingdom comes. Gradually, almost unnoticed, God brings about healing, and growth, and change in our lives. Furtively, sometimes while we sleep, or look the other way, God is hard at work shaping us into the people we’re meant to be. We don’t know how. If we had our way, the kingdom would come a lot faster. If we had our way, the kingdom would come with a lot of noise and theatrics. We would get goose bumps in church each week. God would come to the rescue when things are bad. God would send miracles and wonders. If we had our way, we would be richly entertained by our faith. If we had our way, God would answer all our prayers and speak to us in an audible voice. None of this slow, gradual stuff! We don’t want the kingdom to come in a seed-like way. We want it to explode all around us, like a car in a Vin Diesel movie. We want it to come suddenly with shock and awe. And yet, Jesus says here that the kingdom comes slowly, while we sleep and rise, night and day, over a long period of time when God seems inactive. The kingdom comes gradually and unseen, in unspectacular ways, a holy mystery of slow transformation, often while we are occupied with other things.
And yet, what about the seeds we sow? What about our acts and behaviors and the way they spring up later on? Have you ever wondered who Albert Einstein’s third grade math teacher was? Or whether that math teacher had any idea what effect he or she was having on the world when instructing an eight year old Einstein in the processes of addition and subtraction, multiplication and division? I wonder if that unknown teacher ever lived long enough to see how Einstein excelled in fields of mathematics that the teacher himself or herself could never begin to understand. Who was Beethoven’s first piano teacher? We may never know, but that unknown person has changed the face of music in this world. Who was Shakespeare’s English teacher, or who showed Roberto Clemente how to play baseball? Did Julia Childs learn to cook from her mother? Who was Ringo Starr’s first band teacher? Did he die proud (or maybe ashamed) of the lasting effect that his work had had on the world? Do you suppose that any of these unknown people imagined the effect that their words and attitudes, their teaching and encouragement, would ultimately have not just on these individuals, but on the entire world? Probably not. They probably never intended or expected to change the course of history. But they did. And so Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed upon the ground, and he sleeps and rises, night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows, but he doesn’t know how.”
It’s still a week before Fathers’ Day, but I think of the ways my own father unwittingly planted his own interests and fears into my life. He had no idea how closely I was watching him as a child, how attentively I was listening. And now, all these years later, I hear my own ten-year-old daughter using a word like “precarious” or “imperceptible,” and I think to myself, “Oh no! They’re watching me! They’re listening to me.” (Four-syllable words didn’t go over very well on the playground forty years ago, and I worry about how well they’ll go over today.)
Seeds! Who knows how they’ll spring up? And that’s really the bottom line for all of us. We’re all given seed packets in this life. All of us have gifts, and abilities, and influence in the lives of other people. All of us have opportunities to plant those seeds, opportunities to use those gifts, and abilities, and influences. Every one of us, over our lifetime, touches dozens, even hundreds, of lives—and in everyone we touch, we plant seeds of one sort or another. We don’t know how, but over time those seeds sprout. The things that we say to other people, the words that we choose, they matter. They’re seeds for good or for ill. The choices that we make, the secrets that we indulge, the causes we support; these will all bear fruit for good or for ill. The way we treat a stranger can have an effect on people we never meet. The way we treat our loved ones will affect the way they treat their loved ones, and on and on. Let us plant seeds of encouragement and hope that will later sprout in beautiful ways. Let us not plant seeds of negativity and despair that will later sprout in ugly ways. Easy Eddie never got to see how his one and only act of courage would later sprout in the life of his son, Butch O’Hare. Long after we’re gone, the things that we’ve planted will live on. And so, let’s see to it that the seeds we plant are only the best. Every seed we plant matters, and that is how Christ’s Kingdom comes.
“Scattering Seeds” / Mark 4:26-34 / 14 June 2015