Scripture: Mark 4:1–9
“Some people like to farm. Others like the idea of being a farmer.”
Thus began the trial of Jacob Jackson. The judges held court where they always did…at the back table of the Hardees on Front Street. For years, they had gathered for amazing sausage biscuits and less than amazing coffee, and held court on a host of issues. Politics. TV shows. College basketball. But today, they set their sights on the new kid who thought he could be a farmer.
If you asked Jacob Jackson, he said that he was sick and tired of the hectic pace back East. So when he inherited the old Jackson place, he decided to move his family to the Midwest, and become a farmer. After all, he laughed, he always loved watching reruns of Green Acres when he was a kid. No one else laughed when he said it.
Jacob already had multiple strikes against him. One, he had never stepped foot in town, and was judged with suspicion as to why he would do it now. Two, he was from the East Coast, enough reason to tar and feather him then and there. And three, he had absolutely no idea how to run a farm.
This became readily apparent as soon as the empty moving trucks left the city limits. He immediately went to the big farm equipment dealer in the next town over. “After all, they looked bigger than ones in town, so I figured they would have more selection.” Of course, everyone knew that that dealer charged way too much for equipment that looked fancy but didn’t hold up. Jacob ordered the brand new tractor with the air conditioning and the Bluetooth radio and seat warmers, and proudly drove it through his fields for no reason but to try it out, while everyone else shook their heads. The same thing happened with his trip to the fertilizer dealer, and he ordered way too much of the wrong stuff. The dealer knew a sucker as soon as he walked in.
The Hardees court had a field day with his missteps. He planted the corn too early. Applied fertilizer too late. Didn’t even test his pH. Everything about the way that he ran his farm was all wrong, and anytime anyone local tried to help him out, he said something snotty to them and did what he wanted anyway. The folks at the back table of the Hardees could hardly wait until harvest, when he would undoubtedly take a bath, give up, and head back East, tail tucked between his legs.
But then, it didn’t happen. His corn…grew. In fact, it grew so much that it looked like the best corn in the county. He continued to walk around town like he owned the place and it drove everyone crazy. When harvest did come, he set records for yield that no one had ever seen.
The Hardees court was apoplectic. Some said it must be luck. Some figured it had to do with just the right amount of rain and the level of moisture from the creeks on his farm. Others wondered if he was actually some kind of secret chemical engineer from some big firm back East, doing a trial of a miracle fertilizer. Others said that the ghost of old Eli Jackson was having the last laugh on them. But in the end, they just kind of sat there, in stunned silence, wondering how such a bad farmer could have such a good crop.
This is a bad farmer. The farmer in Jesus’ story was a lot like clueless Jacob Jackson in our modern-day parable. Good farmers would have known that you don’t throw good, precious seed on bad ground. Where the weeds will choke it out. Where the ground is too hard for the seed to penetrate the soil. Where the rocks won’t allow it to establish good roots. Good farmers value their seed, especially in the place and time when Jesus taught, when you couldn’t just go down to the store and buy more seed. Seeds were incredible valuable, and not easy to come by. You didn’t just throw them wherever and hope for the best. This is a bad farmer…
…who had an incredibly high yield. In that time and place, if a farmer returned a crop 4-fold, that would be considered successful. 10-fold would be considered above average. 15-fold would be a record-setting, bumper crop. And this bad farmer returned a yield of 30…60…100-fold! Farmers hearing this story would have laughed at the fantastic nature of a 100-fold return.
In fact, the disciples had a hard time making sense of the parable, too. After the crowds left, they admitted that they didn’t really understand what the parable was about. So Jesus explained it to them. The seed, he taught, was like the Gospel. Sometimes the Gospel goes to places where it is completely ignored. Sometimes it goes to places where it takes root, but doesn’t last. Sometimes, it gets choked out by other distractions. And sometimes—25% of the time, in fact—it actually makes a difference.
We can understand their trouble, can’t we…this goes against the grain of us as good, productive, American capitalists! Think about if we had a 75% failure rate. Teachers, what if your school’s test scores had 25% of the children passing? Or students, would you feel excited about earning a 25% on your test? Or what about a sales manager who sits down with the end-of-the-year numbers and realizes that only one in four of her sales associates has ever sold anything? A chef who ends up throwing away 75% of their food stock because no one buys it? A surgeon whose patients survive 25% or the time? Would we hire a church consultant who promised that 75% of our new initiatives would fail? So it is hard to take for us to imagine Jesus sitting his disciples down, after the crowds had left, and explaining to them that they are going to fail 75% of the time.
But let me suggest that in a counter-cultural way, this actually is good news. Jesus seemed to be saying that even a bad farmer can see unbelievable success…when God is at work. As much as we like to think that it is always up to us, and our talents and gifts make all of the difference, Jesus seems to be saying that our God is a God of good gifts, and it isn’t just about our wisdom and our commitment, but about the power of God at work in our midst.
Thus, Jesus tells his disciples, “You’re going to be bad farmers. But don’t let that stop you from farming. You are not going to have an impressive rate of success from the Gospel work that you do…but don’t let that stop you from Gospeling. Gospel over here. Gospel over there. Gospel in places where you think it probably isn’t going to work. Because, it isn’t your work, anyway. God will surprise you by taking your basic ineffectiveness, and multiplying it times 30. 60. 100. In short, Jesus is telling them, “just keep faithfully farming. And then watch for God to use that work a hundred-fold”
This might feel like a hard word for us to hear…especially us. Our leadership team spent the past year studying the 3 Colors of Ministry book, by Christian Schwartz, that we have used before as a congregation. And, like we have seen before, our church scores off the charts on wisdom and commitment. Those are things we do well. Thoughtful initiatives and ministries. Hands and feet of Jesus commitment. That’s the stuff that we nail, every time. We are good farmers, wise in our placement of seed, and commitment to the harvest. But where we consistently don’t score as highly is what the book calls the area of power. Submitting to the power of God in our midst to impact the effectiveness of our work. In short, we think we can and should do it ourselves. Jesus tells his disciples, then and now, that sometimes it is not up to us…that God uses bad farmers for good work. It is not always up to us! The power of God is not dependent on us!
Jesus, in fact, doubles down on this message with a second seed parable, this one much shorter:
26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come.”
Jesus reminds us that even as we engage in this Gospel work, we never really fully understand it. It’s like a seed, that remains rather mysterious in its miraculous power. For those of us who know how wise and committed we are, mystery is not our strong suit. But Jesus invites us to trust God more than we trust ourselves. To trust the shared work of the universal Church more than just our congregation? To trust that God is doing things beyond our understanding and our strategic planning and, yes, even our hard work. In the long run, it is good news that it’s not just up to us! Because even when we feel like bad farmers, or imperfect farmers, or tired farmers who need a rest, God is still using even our ineffective work for a bumper crop of Gospel impact. God uses even bad farmers to spread good news.
The workers at Hardees knew something was wrong. There wasn’t the usual loud laughter and bluster coming from the back table. “Court is in session today, right?” one worker asked another. “I saw them all come in,” they responded. Slowly, they peeked around the corner to see a shocking surprise: a table full of dumbfounded farmers, wondering if they knew anything about anything. After all, if someone like Jacob Jackson can have success, maybe they don’t understand what it really takes.
One of the workers sat down next to them. An older woman. She had been working at Hardees a long time, and knew each of them well. She knew exactly what they had been talking about…Jacob was the talk of the town after all. After a couple more minutes of astounded silence, this older woman spoke slowly for all of them to hear:
“Maybe God just gives good and unexpected gifts.”
These were almost fighting words for folks who had given their blood, sweat, and tears to this profession for their whole lives. How you did it…how hard you worked…it all mattered. A couple of them wondered if she was going to launch into one of those prosperity gospel sermons from those TV preachers that said that all you have to do is pray and give a healthy tithe to their ministry, and God will give whatever gift they pray for.
But she continued. “How many times have you done the wrong thing, but got a good result anyway? Not just in farming, but in life? If God gave us just what we deserved, we’d all be sunk. I listen to you all week in and week out, so I know your stories. I know because you have said it…sometimes it just isn’t about us. Thankfully, God works in ways we don’t understand.” And the judges at the back table of Hardees followed suit. Each in turn remembered a time when they deserved less, but God gave them more. A crop protected. A marriage saved. A foreclosure delayed. As they told stories, all of a sudden their judgement of the new kid ceased. And in a moment of worship, all gave thanks to the God of good and surprising gifts.
Pastor Matt read the following prayer by Tom Hoopes as the benediction today. It is found in the author’s 1/6/2019 blog post.
Prayer for Putting Away Christmas Decorations
Lord Jesus, today we have put all of our Christmas decorations away. We are entering into Ordinary Time, and our house looks “ordinary” again, too.
But Lord, you know and we know that our house has a secret. Deep inside it, all of our Christmas decorations are still here. The blessing of Christmas is always with us, kept in the deep, quiet places of the house.
And Lord, our lives will become ordinary again, too, but you know that each of us has the grace of baptism. The grace you gave us is always with us, in the deep, quiet places of our soul.
May we live the grace of Christmas every day, only without all the trappings: May we always give generously, receive gifts gratefully, welcome others, and study your life.
Make our house be a home with Christmas at its core, and our souls a home where Jesus always dwells.