Have you ever had someone thank you for something you've completely forgotten? You know the kind of experience I mean. A friend of yours, or even more likely, an acquaintance, tells you about a chance remark of yours that made a real difference to her.
Perhaps it was when her Dad was in the hospital, or she'd lost her job, and you ran into her somewhere and said something you've long since forgotten. But she hasn't. It turns out the long-forgotten, chance remark you made gave just the right word of comfort, and she has treasured it for years, and has finally found the moment to tell you so.
Or perhaps it was someone who'd stopped going to church, or had been feeling distant from God so long he couldn't remember what it was like to feel close. And apparently you made a comment about how touching it was when the youth choir sang some hymn, or when the sunlight suddenly burst through the window over the altar, and that -- can you believe it? That little remark was the thing that motivated him to renew his faith.
You never had the slightest idea, of course, not until you heard about it years later. But that tiny action of yours turned out to have made a big difference in someone else's world.
If this kind of thing has happened to you, you were probably a little embarrassed that you couldn't even recall what you said or did that made such a difference. There you stood, this person thanking you for changing her life, and all you could do was nod, with a sort of vague expression on your face.
But, if this kind of thing has happened to you, you also know that it is a very moving experience, one that both humbles you and makes you feel grateful and wonderful about yourself. Something so small becoming something so big.
It's like a grain of mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth, yet when it is sown, it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, so that the birds of the air can come and make nests in its branches. It is like a man who took and sowed seed in his field, and the earth produced of itself, first the grain and then the ear and then the full blade in the ear.
These two little parables which the Gospel offers us this morning are slightly different, but they both make their point with the image of seed. One turns on the contrast between the insignificant act of sowing seed and the significance of the resulting process of growth. The other turns on the contrast between a gigantic shrub and the tiny seed that produced it. Both of them are teaching that in the Kingdom, more comes out than we thought we put in. More happens than we made happen.
This seed of the Kingdom, which produces far beyond expectations, is not so much the great, religious- looking deeds people may do once or twice in their lives. The real seed of the Kingdom is the mustard seed: the tiniest words, the most inefficient pieces of witness, the little actions of every day.
You could almost say that from the point of view of the Kingdom, whatever you do sows a seed for God or against God. The choices you make: when you decide to greet a visitor in church, or begin tithing, or ask a friend "May I pray with you?" The actions you take: when you return the extra change the store clerk gave you by mistake, when you speak up against racist or sexist jokes, when you volunteer at a soup kitchen. All these things sow a seed, both in your life and in other lives.
"Scatter seed upon the ground... and the earth produces of itself," says Jesus in this morning's Gospel. The sowing of even those tiniest seeds begins a process over which we just don't have control. Oh, we can step in and wreck it by over-watering, or maybe help out a little by getting the right fertilizer in the soil. But the growth does seem to come of itself.
In fact, if you try to control the result, you ruin the process. Children will sometimes dig up seeds to see if they are sprouting yet, and we all know what happens then! If you give someone a piece of advice and then call them every three days to ask if they are following it yet, you'll kill the growth. The same thing is true in our own spiritual lives, by the way. The great Anglican mystic, Evelyn Underhill, used to advise her co-workers not to keep pulling themselves up by the roots to see how they were getting on. Ultimately, we have to trust the seeds that are sown in our own lives, just as we trust the seeds we may sow for others. We have to trust the Word of God to grow in our hearts, the sacraments to have their effect on us, the daily efforts of fidelity to Christ to change us little by little.
This won't work if you haven't yet begun to read the Word of God, come to the sacraments, and try to serve Christ wherever you are, of course. The process has to start somewhere. But once you have stepped into that process, once the seeds are sown, don't keep pulling yourself up by the roots. God will take care of the process. The growth will happen at the right pace, first the blade, then the ear, then the full corn in the ear.
God invites us in this morning's Gospel to learn how to let seeds grow, both in our lives and in the lives of those around us, without trying to control the process. In fact, perhaps a further invitation is to live without even fretting all that much about whether we are sowing enough seed, or the right kind, or in the right place.
As God's children, we can live our lives, not worrying over progress and control and results, but simply referring all those concerns to him. "We make it our aim to please him," says the Apostle Paul in today's epistle. This has all kinds of results -- none of which we're guaranteed of getting to see.
One will be the effect on other people, the positive seeds we will be privileged to sow from time to time. We won't always know about these, but they may turn out to have been very great.
And the other result that will come from living our lives as in God's sight will be the effect on ourselves, as we mature in faith. The seeds that have been sown in our own lives will keep growing too.
We may or may not perceive that growth; we may or may not know what we have done for others. But we will know that we are making it our aim to please God in the little things. When we do that, the Kingdom takes care of itself. AMEN.