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Hope Seeds

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Scripture: Mark 4:26-34 ~

We need to spread the gospel seed through our words and actions, but the germination and growth are God’s responsibility.

Fifty years ago, a man sent seeds to India and Pakistan and saved a billion lives.

I doubt if he knew at the time just what these seeds could and would accomplish.

Jesus talks about seeds, too, and stresses the importance of planting. Jesus well understood what living and sowing the seeds of good news could produce, but realized most of his listener’s then and now, did not.
Jesus kept giving us examples of the importance of casting seeds of faith, hope and love, and also kept reminding us that the harvesting belongs to God.

Has anyone here ever heard of “The man who saved a billion lives”?

I did not expect anyone would know the answer.

Norman Borlaug speaking at a podium

Norman Borlaug: the man who saved a billion lives

That person’s name is Norman Borlaug — definitely not a household name.

It is not surprising that no one guessed correctly; very few people have ever heard of Norman Borlaug.

Dr. Borlaug was not a person to seek fame, and the accomplishment that earned him this title took place 50 years ago in 1965. That’s the year Borlaug shipped the first of his new wheat seed varieties to the Indian subcontinent, making possible the feeding of a billion starving people in India and Pakistan.
This year is the semicentennial of that landmark event.

Playwright and author David Macaray, who, in his younger years, was in the Peace Corps in Punjab, India, has written about Borlaug’s seeds and says, “It’s no exaggeration to say that Borlaug did, in fact, save a billion lives.”

Macaray was in India years after Borlaug’s seeds were introduced, but he learned from people there what a remarkable turnaround Borlaug brought to that country of 1.1 billion people.

Actually, Borlaug made possible the feeding of masses even before 1965. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1942 with a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, and then accepted an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he eventually developed short-stemmed, high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat. Those varieties helped Mexico turn its agriculture around so that, by 1963, Mexico became an exporter, not an importer, of wheat.

So what happened with these seeds?

The “standard” wheat plants on which India and other places in the world had been relying — unsuccessfully — to feed people had tall, narrow stalks with minimal kernels per plant. As these kernels, few as they were, developed, the plants got top-heavy, and many of them fell over from their own weight, often rotting on the ground before they could be harvested.

The varieties Borlaug developed, however, referred to as “semi-dwarf Mexican wheat,” have shorter, thicker stalks that not only remain upright (even on windy days), but also produce many more kernels per plant. What’s more, his wheat resisted the diseases and pests that routinely afflicted the previous varieties.

Thanks to Borlaug’s seeds, India today is self-sufficient in food production, even with its massive population.

Borlaug also developed new rice plants, introducing varieties that improved those crops in countries that rely on rice to feed their populations.

Not surprisingly, Borlaug has been called the father of the Green Revolution.

For his work, Borlaug received the Nobel Peace prize in 1970 in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing the food supply.

The Nobel committee chair explained, “More than any other single person of this age, [Borlaug] has helped to provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”

Borlaug died in 2009 at the age of 95, but, almost to the end, he worked to keep hunger at bay, serving as a consultant to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico and as president of a foundation seeking to spread the Green Revolution to sub-Saharan Africa.

The parable of the seed and harvest.

Painting of man dressed in Biblical-era garb sowing seeds across a hillside.

The Sower (Le semeur) by James Tissot

It is not a big jump, then, for us to go from Borlaug’s work to our gospel text where Jesus compares the kingdom of God to seed scattered on the ground which then sprouts and grows, and, when fully ripe, is harvested.

It is useful for us, however, to contemplate the one point where Borlaug’s work and the parable differ.
In the former, Borlaug had to have a deep understanding of the growing process in order to develop seeds that would prosper in the various soils in which they would be planted. The differences in the soil types from one locale to the next had a bearing on why Borlaug produced more than one variety of his basic wheat seed.

In the parable, however, the sower, who represents followers of Jesus who proclaim their faith to others through words and actions, seem to have no real understanding of the growing process — “the seed would sprout and grow, the sower does not know how” (italics added) — but that doesn’t matter in the parable, for the sower trusts that harvest will come.

The sower does not know how the growth occurs, but knows that it does.

This was an important lesson for first-century Christians after Jesus was no longer with them in the flesh.
They could recall that Jesus had said the kingdom of God would grow like the seed toward harvest, and this would reassure them that the growth of God’s kingdom was indeed proceeding according to plan. They didn’t know when the crop would ripen — indeed, this parable is sometimes referred to as “the seed secretly growing” — but they could trust that, in God’s time, it would be ready for harvest, and so they could live in unfailing hope.

The crop will not fail!

We who follow Jesus today need to hear this message as well because we live in a time when the Church people once turned to is not prospering, seeming to offer little hope; while at the same time life is difficult for many people for a variety of reasons.

Our world remains torn by political conflict erupting into brutal behavior by groups such as ISIS.

Our nation appears divided still over issues of race, sexuality and gender, economic equity where the few seem to control all wealth.

Our personal lives reflect these tensions in our work and personal relationships.

We may find ourselves pessimistic about the future; the future of the world, and our personal future.
Is the crop going to fail?

Are the seeds of faith Jesus planted and spoke about actually growing or not in this world, or in me?

Pastor and church planter Ed Stetzer clims that the church isn’t dying at all, but that it’s going through a kind of shakeout, or, to stay with the agricultural theme of the parable, a winnowing. Writing on this topic Stetzer separates the 75 percent of Americans who call themselves Christians into three categories: cultural, congregational and convictional.

Cultural Christians are people who are Christians simply because their culture tells them they are. They often confuse patriotism and cultural norms with Christianity. But they’re Christian in name only, and do not practice a personal living faith.

Then there are what Setzer calls Congregational Christians. These persons are similar to cultural Christians, except that they have some connection to actual congregational life, a church they attend at least occasionally. Beyond this superficial connection however, there is little personal practice or interest in learning more about the gospel they profess to follow.

Last but certainly not least, there are Convictional Christians.

These are the ones who actually live according to their faith.

They are the people who would say that they have met Jesus, or experienced the risen Christ and that this has changed their hearts and lives, and that their lives are centered and grounded in a positive, living and hopeful faith.

Stetzer acknowledges that the number of Americans who now identity themselves as having no religion — the “Nones” — is growing, but he suggests the change is coming from defections from the cultural and congregational Christian categories, because there’s now less societal pressure to be “Christian.”

These folks “feel comfortable freeing themselves from a label that was not true of them in the first place,” Stetzer says, and then quickly adds that convictional Christians are not leaving the faith, but actually seeking ways to follow Jesus more faithfully in their lives.

Here’s Stetzer’s conclusion: “Christianity may be losing its top-down political and cultural influence, but Jesus spoke of his followers making an impact in a very different manner. Jesus taught that God’s kingdom was subversive and underground [like the seed secretly growing!]. Jesus used examples like yeast, which changes things from the inside, and mustard seeds, which are small and must be planted in order to grow up and out.”

I would add that Jesus also used the examples of salt and light. Salt alone does not make a whole meal, but how different our meals would taste without it: light is only one element of creation, but our planet would be dead without it.

God is responsible for the harvest

Our purpose in life as followers of Jesus is not to debate whether the church is, or is not, falling apart. This is not our problem.

As Jesus illustrates in the parable of the mustard seed, our faith must first be planted if anything is to grow. This is our first task: to sow personal seeds of faith.

With that done, the next teaching is that we are here to scatter seeds of faith, hope, and compassion in the personal relationships, community and world in which we live.

I know many of you saw the interview I did for WHDS news on channel 7. I did this interview because for me, and for Deborah as well, living authentically as a transgender clergy is one way to scatter a seed of hope and faith. It is one way I try to follow Jesus in spreading faith, hope, and compassion.

These health kits for Nepal which are now put together and ready to ship this week are another example of scattering seeds of hope by following Jesus.

Each of these 61 kits began with the seed of an idea: then someone bringing toothbrushes, or soap, or a few hand towels, or fingernail clippers, or even a whole kit already assembled.

Now all of these items, put together, will be seeds of hope, compassion and practical care for 61 people in Nepal recovering from devastating earthquakes.

Like Norman Borlaug we have no idea how the small actions we take today may impact future lives.

But we do not have to know; in fact, it is not our concern.

Our concern, rather, is to hear and take confidence from Jesus’ parable which tells us that the gospel seeds we scatter are growing, even if “we do not know how,” and that the full grain will one day appear.

Jesus said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God …? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all herbs, and puts forth large branches, so that even the wild birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

We are taught to sow and to plant without worries.

This is not a harvest fail. We can sow the seed with confidence, anticipation and joy. The growth is happening, the harvest will come.

If we do our job, we need not worry about whether God will do God’s job.

A plant cannot spring up where no seed is planted; this is why we sow seeds of hope, faith and love: because we have great faith in the seeds we are asked to sow in the name of Jesus Christ.

Jesus encourages us to plant a seed, to plant many seeds in our personal relationships, in our work places, in our politics, in our faith communities- and to expect wonders.

The truth is that we always cast seeds- either seeds of doubt or seeds of faith in every word and action in which we engage.

May we as individuals and as a faith community choose to plant seeds of faith, hope, and compassion in all we say and do.

Amen!


 

Originally delivered June 14, 2015 by Rev. David Weekley at St. Nicholas United Methodist Church.

Sources:

  • Homiletics Online
  • Macaray, David. “The man who saved a billion lives.” The World Post. October 15, 2013, huffingtonpost.com.
  • “Norman Borlaug.” Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Borlaug.
  • Stetzer, Ed. “The state of the church in America: Hint: It’s not dying.” Christianity Today, October 1, 2013. christianitytoday.com.

Image credits: The Sower (Le semeur) by James Tissot [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Garden Song

by David Mallett

Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
Gonna mulch it deep and low
Gonna make it fertile ground
Inch by inch, row by row
God bless these seeds I sow
Please keep them safe below
‘Til the rain comes tumbling down
Pullin’ weeds and pickin’ stones
We are made of dreams and bones
Need a place to call my own
‘Cause the time is close at hand
Grain for grain, sun and rain
Find my way in nature’s chain
Till my body and my brain
Tell the music of the land
Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
Gonna mulch it deep and low
Gonna make it fertile ground
Plant your rows straight and long
Season with a prayer and song
Mother Earth will make you strong
If you give her loving care
Inch by inch, row by row
Gonna make this garden grow
Gonna mulch it deep and low
Gonna make it fertile ground.
Old crow watching from a tree
He’s got his hungry eye on me
In my garden I’m as free
As that feathered thief up there
Inch by inch, row by row
God bless these seeds I sow
Please keep them safe below
Til your rains come tumbling down.