On December 26, 2004, off the western coast of Sumatra, a 9.3 magnitude earthquake exploded on the ocean floor. The tidal wave grew to over 10 meters and spread thousands of miles. Over 227,000 people died in countries all around the Indian Ocean.
A few months later, the North Carolina Baptists began organizing relief trips to Sri Lanka. I was serving in a church near Rocky Mount, and Melanie and I felt compelled to go and help in whatever way we could. In July 2005, we went to a city called Galle, on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Initially, they said we were supposed to clean out wells. By the time we arrived, our assignment morphed to more general clean up and help with construction.
The biggest benefit to joining short-term relief trips is often encouraging the people who live in the affected area. They were there before we arrived and they would continue the work after we left.
While we were in Sri Lanka, we were helping a woman rebuild her home. Like everyone else, she had lost some loved ones in the tsunami. She was devastated but she was also curious about us. As we worked, she asked why we were doing what we were doing.
I told her that we love people.
She asked why.
I explained that it’s part of our faith.
She asked more questions.
I kept telling her about why we do what we do. I told her about Jesus and how much he loves everyone. Finally, she said, “How can I have a faith like that?”
It’s striking sometimes the way someone else has initiate that conversation.
I said, “It’s easy. Bow your head and say, ‘God, I believe in you. Jesus, I want to follow you, and I accept that you gave your life for me. Please be with me. Amen.’”
She repeated those words, and I introduced her to Rajatha, a local minister and man who felt like a kindred spirit. For some years after, Rajatha and I kept in touch and she became a part of his church.
The seed parables in Mark talk about a harvest. “When the grain is ripe, the farmer gets a sickle because the harvest has come” (6.29). The story is about growth. “When the tiny mustard seed grows up, it becomes the greatest of the shrubs” (6.32). Whether we talk about the farmer spreading seeds, or we talk about the tiny mustard seed, the story of faith starts with something that is almost invisible, and we could easily miss it.
Someone spreading seeds is a mundane task. For Jesus’ listeners, the seeds were a common frame of reference. Everyone not only knew what seeds were, in the agrarian world of first-century Palestine, farming was a way of life. People didn’t study seed biology and agronomy, so the way seeds grew—the actual germination and cell division—remained somewhat of a mystery.
Knowing that things happen when we’re not looking would be a shared frame of reference for Jesus’ audience. This isn’t as easy for us since most middle school students learn about germination and photosynthesis. Since we understand how the seeds grow, accepting the mystery that life is happening when aren’t watching might be harder for us. We have to use our imagination to fully appreciate “seeds that sprout and grown and we don’t understand how.”
We might think, “Jesus, I do understand. Or, at least, I remember learning how that happens when I was school.”
To those of us who respond to the gospel with “I get it,” Jesus says, “That’s not the point.”
After the seeds hit the ground, they grow without intervention. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. God is moving and active in the world. We don’t know, and cannot know, how much God intervenes in worldly events. Knowing, or needing to know, misses the point. Mark invites us to accept the mystery of God’s movement. Accepting this mystery is part of a growing faith.
When we were in Sri Lanka, Melanie and I were focused on the tasks in front of us. Moving bricks, raking leaves, and picking up debris—we had things to do. We recognized that God is always present and in all places. Yet, when we met that woman, I didn’t realize the Holy Spirit was moving in her heart. I don’t even know her name.
God does, though.
“The lack of human agency during the growth process does not mean that disciples should sit back and wait for God to bring the harvest.” We all still need to do something. We are part of this divine process. Jesus says, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed…”
The seed doesn’t scatter itself. Whether you are the one spreading seeds of good news about Jesus or the one reaping the harvest, people are part of God’s process.
Jesus used parables to respond to the people who charged him with being a devil in Mark 3. As Mark 4 opens, he is in a boat by the seaside teaching. He told the parable of the sower and then explained the purpose of parables. He wanted the wider audience to hear the message without getting hit over the head with it. This is part of Mark’s messianic secret in which Jesus told his followers not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. Before getting to the seed parables, he told people not to hide their lamp under a bushel.
The lamp and bushel parable complements the seed parables. “Don’t hide your lamp under a bushel” is about using the talents God has given you. The seed parables are about sharing God’s grace with the world. Put alongside one another, this means that you can customize the calling to share seeds of Jesus’ love with the world.
If you are handy with tools, join the work crew or a short-term mission project. The work isn’t as important as the motivation to do it for God’s glory.
If you are a musician, you can make music that builds the kingdom of God.
If you are an accountant, lawyer, cleaner, mechanic, teacher, able to clear some debris, or do anything else, you can use your skills for Jesus. You can let your light shine and use it to spread the gospel seeds.
Jesus didn’t specify what your light looks like because God can use any skill set. We all have gifts to share. We all have a light to take out from under a bushel.
Seeds can germinate in many different ways. When Melanie and I decided to go to Sri Lanka after the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004, compassion for those in need drove our decision. Whoever planned those humanitarian relief trips was spreading seeds. The Holy Spirit blessed them, and they germinated. When we went, we got to enjoy the harvest and experience that woman’s decision to follow Jesus.
Those seeds are all around us. When we do what we do for God’s glory, there are no limits on how we can spread seeds. Consider the soft serve ice cream machine. When we started giving away ice cream on the sidewalk in front of the church, we planted some seeds.
Last week, a man, woman, and a little girl crossed the street right in front of where we were giving away ice cream. I asked if they wanted a free ice cream cone. The man asked, “What’s the catch?”
I said, “No catch. Just free ice cream.” He seemed dubious, so I asked the little girl who looked like his granddaughter. “Would you like vanilla, pistachio, or a swirl of the two?”
As I explained our motivation, I identified myself as one of the ministers. The man said, “You’re a minister? Would you pray for my grandson Bryce? He’s in surgery right now.”
We bowed our heads and I prayed for Bryce, the doctors and nurses, and Bryce’s family.
This wasn’t the kind of harvest where a person commits to following Jesus. This was the being present and reflective of the love of Christ in a world that expects a catch—in a world that cannot believe in the unconditional, free gift of God’s love.
We can all spread those kinds of seeds. We can all experience that harvest too. Share God’s grace. Share it in new and previously unimaginable ways. Sometimes you will be spreading the seeds. Other times, you will enjoy reaping the harvest of someone else’s work. Either way, you’re doing God’s work. Amen.
 Pheme Perkins, “Mark,” in New Interpreter’s Bible, ed. Leander Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995), 578.
 Israel Knohl and David Maisel, “The Messianic Secret,” in The Messiah before Jesus, The Suffering Servant of the Dead Sea Scrolls (University of California Press, 2000). Cf. David E. Aune, “The Problem of the Messianic Secret,” Novum Testamentum 11, no. 1/2 (1969).