Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Seeds of the kingdom of heaven had been sown in and around Martha’s life for over eighty years. And she, in her turn, had scattered many, many seed—in her family, in her community, and far beyond. Martha was a gardener and she knew about seeds—and she knew the miracle God could work when seeds were scattered in the soil.
Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which when sown in the field, grows up and becomes a large shrub, where birds can come and rest in its shade.
There were many seeds that had gotten planted in Martha’s life. Her parents and grandparents had planted countless seeds of love in her heart. She was a child during the depression years. Her father had tried to farm, but he couldn’t make enough money, nor could he find much other work, so when the bank foreclosed on the farm, Martha’s family crowded into her grandparents home. It was a big house, and it needed to be, because her Aunt Margaret’s family also needed a place to live. But even in that stressful situation, her mother and father, her grandma and grandpa, and her aunt and uncle, all had their way of putting a smile on Martha’s face. She remembers how Uncle Gus would give her horsy-back rides on his knee until she giggled so hard she would fall off. That attention—that loving attention given to a child—is nothing les than the seeds of kingdom of heaven. For when you spend time with the children in your life—whether your sons and daughters, or grandchildren, or nieces and nephews, or simply the neighbor kids—you plant the seeds of the kingdom of God. From that love and attention, children learn that they are precious, valued, and loved; and that goes a long way in helping them believe that they are precious, valued, and loved in the eyes of God. So, as Martha grew up, the love she received as a child helped her to believe that God also loved her and cared for her.
Stories of God’s love had also been planted in Martha’s heart. She remembered sitting on her grandpa’s lap as he read Bible stories from a book filled with wonderful pictures. And there was church and Sunday school; and as Martha grew up, her heart was like a field, opening itself for the sowing of the mustard seeds of God’s kingdom. And not only were seeds sown in her, but she, in turn, began sowing seeds of the kingdom in the lives of those around her. There was a neighbor girl, Jennifer, that she played with sometimes, who didn’t know much at all about love. Her parents never seemed to have much time for her, and they were always yelling—either at each other, or at their children. Martha knew that life wasn’t easy for her friend; and so she scattered, as best she could, seeds of God’s kingdom. She played with her friend, and whenever she could, Martha invited Jennifer to her house to play. She even succeeded, with a little help from her mother, in getting permission to pick Jennifer up for church and Sunday school on Sunday mornings. Such inviting—which began with Martha’s warm-hearted way of befriending others, and which usually led to accompanying them to church, and which often included a meal at her home of a restaurant following church—such inviting became a regular habit for Martha as an adult. It was one of her ways of sowing the seeds of the kingdom of God.
Sometimes, of course, church was something that really didn’t connect to Martha’s daily life. God was always important for her—and it was important for her to be in church to hear God’s word of grace and love; and she did her best to treat others well, as Jesus commands. But the church, as a supporting community of believers, was not a piece of the picture that Martha thought about much. It took a crisis in her own life for Martha to realize that the kingdom of God could actually come alive as the church—as the community of people who could become a source of shelter and support in times of distress.
The crisis for Martha came in 1984. It was not a death or a serious injury. She knew the church was a support for such times of crisis. No, Martha experienced the sheltering support of the church in a time when she was sinking into despair over a sense of her own failure. Martha and her husband were farmers. They had gone through many ups and downs; and yes, they had made some mistakes; but in the 1970s, the farm economy was so good. They were proud of their farm and of the improvements they had made on it. And then the opportunity came to buy the old family farm—the one her husband lived on briefly as a child, and which had slipped out of the family during the depression. It was the homestead that their children’s great-grandfather had built. It was a dream come true to once again have the family name attached to that farm. So they mortgaged, and bought the old homestead. They shouldn’t have done it—because when grain and cattle prices dropped, along with land values in the early 1980s, they lost nearly everything. All they had left were a few acres of their original farm.
Martha felt so defeated—such a failure; and she was so angry—at the banks and the powerful movers and shakers of the economy, but mostly at herself. She stayed home almost all the time, and found excuses even to stay away from church. She was certain that every eye that met her, wherever she went, would condemn her for her failure. She had been too proud of her successes, and now that everything had suddenly ended in failure, her heart sank into darkness and despair. But almost immediately, as word spread about their bankruptcy, the kingdom of God—planted in her community and grown up with sheltering branches—began to give Martha shelter and shade. Prayers encircled her and her family every day. Hardly a moment passed in that community, when somebody did not think about Martha, and extend to God a prayer on her behalf. And when she didn’t appear at church, friends from her Bible study, one by one, stopped by—to listen, to show their support, and to give her their shoulders for her tears. And so, Martha was tenderly sheltered by the kingdom of God, and it carried her through that time of crisis. And that experience was another seed of God’s kingdom, planted anew in Martha’s heart. It helped Martha to become an even stronger branch of support for others, not only during those crises of death, illness, or injury; but also for those less tangible crises that trouble people’s lives—job-loss, addiction, divorce, and depression.
Yes, Martha sowed the seeds of God’s kingdom, for she had had so many of those seed sown in her; and she grew to trust, more and more, the sheltering support it gives in this life. And that is how Jesus said it would be. Often the seed seems so small—hardly significant—paying attention to a child, befriending a neighbor, listening to the pain of a friend. But these are the seeds we plant, and when we plant these seeds, the kingdom of heaven grows right here among us and it becomes a shade where we can rest and be strengthened for our work of sowing the seeds of God’s kingdom in the lives of those around us. AMEN.