Shuck and Jive

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Stealth Creativity--A Sermon

Stealth Creativity
John Shuck

First Presbyterian Church
Elizabethton, Tennessee
February 6, 2011

Gospel of Jesus 12:10-13

Jesus would say,
“God’s imperial rule is like this: Suppose someone sows seed on the ground, and goes to bed and gets up day after day, and the seed sprouts and matures, although the sower is unaware of it. The earth produces fruit on its own, first a shoot, then a head, then mature grain on the head. But when the grain ripens, all of a sudden that farmer sends for the sickle, because it’s harvest time.”

Robert Funk and the Jesus Seminar, The Gospel of Jesus (Santa Rosa: Polebridge Press, 1999),
pp. 57, 59. Thomas 21:9; Mark 4:26-29

This is such a strange little parable that neither Luke nor Matthew copied it from Mark.
Thomas only includes the last line of this parable and it stands alone:

“When the crop ripened, he came quickly carrying a sickle and harvested it.
Anyone here with two good ears had better listen!”

The phrase “put in the sickle for the harvest is ripe” occurs in the Book of Joel.
The context in Joel is pretty heavy duty.
Let’s read the passage:
Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war,
stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
let them come up.
10 Beat your ploughshares into swords,
and your pruning-hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior.’

11 Come quickly,
all you nations all around,
gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord.
12 Let the nations rouse themselves,
and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
all the neighbouring nations.

13 Put in the sickle,
for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
for the wine press is full.
The vats overflow,
for their wickedness is great.
That sounds like the Battle Hymn of the Republic:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword;
Nothing like religious fervor to fire up the troops.

Grab the sickle for the harvest is ripe has the tone of apocalyptic,
the wrath of God against wickedness and so forth.
The kingdom of God comes with a terrible swift sword.
Is that what Jesus meant?

In the passage from Joel it says:
Beat your ploughshares into swords,
and your pruning-hooks into spears;
We have heard that before, except we have heard the opposite.
During Advent, often when lighting the Advent candle, we quote this text from Micah:
He shall judge between many peoples,
and shall arbitrate between strong nations far away;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more;
I think what we have is a disagreement within the tradition.
When we find texts that use the same imagery but use it in opposite ways, it may mean that we have people with conflicting philosophies both within the tradition.
How will peace come?

The tradition of Joel says that the kingdom of God,
the kingdom of justice and peace, will come with a sword.
The Lord will arm the righteous and they will slay the wicked.
The harvest is ripe.

The tradition of Micah says that the kingdom of God,
the kingdom of justice and peace, will come when all people forget how to engage in war.
The Lord will arbitrate and end violence.

This argument rages today.

Will peace come through victory over the wicked, on making sure the “good guys” have weapons?
Or will peace come when no one has any weapons?
In the meantime, what should we do?

Within the Abrahamic traditions, harvest time is a symbol for the day of the Lord,
the consummation of history, the final reckoning, the bringing of peace and justice,
the kingdom of God.

So here is Jesus within this tradition, playing with the two symbols,
the kingdom of God and the harvest, using a phrase straight from Joel (the violent one),
“send for the sickle for the harvest is ripe.”
We might imagine the hearers who would be familiar with this tradition knowing what harvest time means,
“It means that we are going to get justice over these Romans! The time is at hand!”
Army of the Lord stuff.
Instead, Jesus starts with the kingdom and he gets to the harvest, but it is a very different path,
and a very different tone, and I think, a very different meaning.

In fact, I have no idea what it means.

But it doesn’t sound like a getting ready for battle parable.
This isn’t Battle Hymn of the Republic language.
Julia Ward Howe didn’t use this parable (except for the last line) to rouse up teenagers for bloody righteous conflict.


A man scatters seed.
Then he goes to bed.
Then he wakes up.
He chills.
Back to bed.
Up again.
Day after day.
Meanwhile, this seed sprouts and matures.
The guy is totally clueless.
You’d think he might want to water or weed it or something, but no.
The sower is unaware that it is even growing.
He has no knowledge of how it grows.
Then, the earth produces fruit on its own (without any assistance from him).
First a shoot….
…Then, a head…
...then a mature grain on the head….
…and when the grain ripens, then the sower wakes up
He sends for the sickle because it is harvest time.

Kingdom of God!
And everyone says, “Huh?”

I am confused.
I am not sure what the seed is or what the harvest is or what it means to harvest.
But it certainly doesn’t sound like a war parable.
It doesn’t sound like an empire parable.
It doesn’t sound like a “I need to conquer the world” or a
“I need bring peace to the world before next Tuesday” parable.

It sounds like a chill out parable.
It sounds like a take it easy and just watch parable.
It could be that Jesus was offering a parable of the kingdom of God that was really just about this Earth and about sowing and seeds growing and human beings having no idea what is happening.

It sounds like a parable of life happening within us and without us and all around us without our even being aware or of our even noticing.
Perhaps the creativity of life happens while are not aware, by stealth.

The seed matures without our control and it happens on a timetable that is not ours.

The kingdom of God might not be the sickle and the harvest,
or whatever is coming, the judgment, the wrath of God, the future.
The kingdom of God might not be a level of abstraction, the supposed real reality beyond this reality.
It might not be that this parable is a symbol or metaphor for the kingdom of God at all.
It could be that it is actually describing the kingdom of God.

You want to see the kingdom of God? Watch grain grow.
You want to see the kingdom of God? Watch the sun at night.
You want to see the kingdom of God? Count the number of hairs on your child’s head.
You want to see the kingdom of God? On a clear night, imagine what life is like on the third star on the left.
You want to see the kingdom of God? Weigh love on a scale.
You want to see the kingdom of God? Live here now.

Or in this poem that Nancy Jane Earnest wrote for us today,
you want to see the kingdom of God?
“I sit sun flaming flannelled shoulders sweat trickling
recalling days of June summer splendor
somehow I missed
in other worldliness
of pressing concerns obligations
but today today I
live one year fully season by season
in the short span of one delicious day.”
There is a tendency within us--that at times our faith tradition reinforces—
to put the really real outside of life.
It can be in the future or it can be in some other transcendent realm.
But it is not here now.

We can spend our time as Nancy Jane writes:
“in other worldliness of pressing concerns, obligations.”
The power of Jesus’ parable , the drawn out slowness of it, invites us to focus our attention on what is happening all around us and within us in the present.
To live life as life.

I often wonder if we would have far fewer troubles in our own lives and in our lives as a human population if we would live here now.
Just to speak for myself, I think I would.

I am going to close with another parable.
This parable is in my loose-leaf Bible.
I have told it to you before and as with all good scripture, it is good to hear it more than once.
This comes from the Zen tradition.

A man is running.
Because he is being chased by a tiger.
He runs fast. The tiger is gaining on him.
He reaches a cliff and has to make a decision in a split second.
The tiger is behind him.
The cliff is before him.
He jumps.
A branch is growing out of the side of the cliff.
He grabs it and hangs on to it.
The tiger is above him growling, just out of reach.
Below him, hundreds of feet below him, are jagged rocks.
On the branch near the cliff are two mice, one black and one white.
They are chewing the branch.
At the end of the branch, just within reach,
He sees a strawberry.
He picks it.
He puts it to his lips.
He eats it.
He says, “How delicious!”

That, my friends, is living here now.
“But when the grain ripens, all of a sudden that farmer sends for the sickle, because it’s harvest time.”
“…today today I
live one year fully season by season
in the short span of one delicious day.”


  1. John you have positively outdone yourself with this one.

  2. @Sea I used your communion liturgy. It was great. I mentioned that you were doing that communion at the same time!

  3. This is my first time here(thanks to Sea Raven for letting me know about your blog). Loved this sermon...a great intersection of Christian and eastern perspectives.

  4. Thanks Mike! Thanks for visiting and commenting and thanks to Sea for directing you!