Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
Throughout the English speaking world, the rhyme, “One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four” is taught to children to help them learn to count. The rhyme is said to be especially popular in Ireland given the importance of potatoes in Irish cuisine. I would say that it was just as well known in the Norwegian-American homes of my childhood. Potatoes were a staple at every meal and played an integral part of our diet. Baked potatoes, boiled potatoes, fried potatoes, more. Even our beloved Christmas dessert of lefse was made from potatoes.
Potatoes were almost sacred to our family. Every Good Friday, when I was young, my Grandfather would plant potatoes. He said it was a sign of good luck. After all, anything planted in the earth on Good Friday was bound to rise again. When I was a student at the university in Oslo, I lived with my Norwegian relatives who ate potatoes nearly every day as well. They taught me a saying, which my own sons Vitali and Alexei have lived to regret. They said, “If you can’t eat another potato, then you’re not really hungry.” Yes, in my relatives’ home, every second serving at a meal had to be accompanied with an equal serving of potatoes.
It’s a pity that Jesus never featured the lowly potato in any of his parables. Interestingly, that didn’t stop the Lutheran pastors from preaching about the merits of eating potatoes. In the early 1800’s, preachers in Norway, known as potato pastors actually stepped into pulpits and taught the peasant farmers how to grow potatoes. And within a generation, Norwegian health and life expectancy had increased so greatly that they were travelling by boatloads to America as immigrants.
No, Jesus never mentioned potatoes, but he often spoken of seeds and planting. So this morning, in a sermon I have entitled “Potatoes and Mustard- The Perfect Summer Salad,” I would like us to meditate on God’s invitation to do the little things we can in this world, 1) to sow the seeds of God’s goodness, so that all my know of God’s love and mercy, and 2) to sow the seeds of God’s resistance, so that all may know that God has come to defend the weak and lowly.
In St. Mark’s gospel, the evangelist weaves together two different seed parables to order to portray the fullness of God’s coming kingdom. The first parable is clear. God’s kingdom enters into our world quietly and almost unnoticed. God alone provides the conditions for nurture and growth. It is not our job to make the harvest grow. We are invited to live our lives: to sleep and wake, night and day. Jesus is merely inviting us to sow seeds. For it is sowing seeds that we will find our meaningful purpose in life. We are invited to sow seeds, to plant gardens, to love our families, to cook and eat dinner, to go running or sit in the sun, to go to work and wherever we find ourselves – to sow seeds.
Unfortunately, not all seeds grow in the same way. Growers of grain have an advantage. When the wheat matures, the grain is visible for all to see. But in my experience God’s kingdom is a lot like a potato field. It’s all underground.
Oh, how I hated sorting through the previous year’s potatoes in late February and March. Every fall my father bought hundreds of pounds of potatoes to last us through the winter. No, this wasn’t little house on the prairie. This was little house on one income. He filled up a garbage bin with potatoes which stood in a dry corner in our basement. But by February the garbage can could almost move on its own. The potatoes were shriveling and the eyes were sprouting. As a child, I was afraid to open the lid in fear that a rogue potato might draw me in. I wondered what such ugly potatoes could be good for, but they were the perfect seed potatoes. Each potato could be cut up into one inch pieces with two eyes each, and carefully planted in the broken earth on Good Friday. And then you waited.
That’s what the kingdom of God is like. Well, not exactly, but that what’s Jesus would have said to the crowds if he had been born in South America instead of Palestine. And it’s what he would have said to my Norwegian ancestors and to my grandparents every Good Friday. Yes, you scatter seeds. Go to sleep. Wake up. Repeat. Planting potatoes was truly placing everything into God’s hands.
Raising potatoes, like most of life, is invisible and underground. You can’t really see what’s happening until harvest time. Yes, you have raised your kids in the Christian faith hoping that they will embrace the faith you have known, but you don’t know. You have lived a good and respectable life hoping that it will make a difference in the character of your neighborhood. You have acted selflessly for others giving freely of your time and talents and treasurers to your church and other charitable organizations. Sometimes, you have sacrificed your last small potatoes hoping and trusting that they will be good seed potatoes for the next year. And all the while, you have to trust fervently that what you have planted is developing into something valuable. Invisible, yes, but growing nonetheless. Patience is the key. And it all begins by using old, ugly potatoes.
Let us turn now to St. Mark’s second parable, the story of the mustard seed. Certainly, the parable tells us about how God can grow small things into grand ones. It’s a lovely image of a tiny plant growing to the size of a tree with branches so large that they birds of the air can make a nest in them. But there’s more to this parable. Mustard in the ancient world, after all, was less a flowering shrub than it was an invasive weed. It was more like our contemporary buckthorn.
Interestingly, in first century Palestine, the mustard seed was not simply a mystical herb, but it was also a symbol of quiet resistance. Roman legions had occupied the land for four generations. The emperor ruled from Rome and sent his prefects to administer the provinces. Tax collectors were collaborators who were appointed by the state. After the Roman authorities foreclosed on a piece of property their managers would invite workers to go out into the fields. This often included some of the former owners. These workers would secretly take mustard seeds out with them and sow them in the fields as a sign of resistance to the foreign Roman ways of occupying and seizing land. That seems to be the second purpose of planting seeds in God’s kingdom. It is not simply about the benefits of the harvest, but it is about the important voice of godly resistance. You and I are to find ways to be active in the world and to prevent those who are against God’s righteousness and his coming kingdom from having their way. Just as we trust God to make the good seeds we have sown prosper, we should trust that our meager actions of resistance in God’s name, as a small as a mustard seed, have the power to grow as well.
Potatoes truly are a wonderful, lowly symbol of the Christian faith. Their introduction into the diet of the Western World changed the course of history. Sir Walter Raleigh was given 40,000 acres of land in Ireland by Queen Elizabeth to grow potatoes and tobacco. It’s why they are often referred to as Irish potatoes today. Unfortunately, he was less successful in introducing them to the royal palace. Queen Elizabeth the I’s cook mistakenly served the greens which are intensely poisonous instead of the white tubers. Thus, potatoes were banned from England for another 100 years. Potatoes were furtively hidden by the Prussian soldiers to fight famine. The German peasants who refused the Prussian King’s order to eat them, thought that if they were good enough for the soldiers they were surely good enough for them. Naval scientists discovered a link between the Vitamin C in potatoes and its protection against scurvy. And potatoes became a gourmet item when Thomas Jefferson had French Fries served at a White House dinner. Pretty amazing from it humble origins among the Incas tribes of Peru and Bolivia.
Jesus’ parable is perhaps just as surprising. He says that when this mustard plant grows so great, it opens such endless possibilities, that even the despised enemies can find their refuge in its branches. I used to think this parable was simply a poetic picture of a bush large enough to shelter woodland creatures, but now I’m not so sure. These birds themselves might just be the undesirables, the politically savvy, the folks decent people avoid, the ones we prefer to keep on the other side of our street and, preferably, outside our homes. Yes, throughout St. Mark’s gospel it just these people, the sinners and tax collectors, the lowly and despised, who flock to the kingdom of God.
That may not sound like good news to you, especially if you who can see your harvest growing. But I know how important it is to those who have sown seeds and are still waiting for the unseen harvest. It is important to the struggling longtime member and the seeking first time visitor who wonder what hidden joy the future will bring. It is important to those who have experienced significant loss and rejection and wonder more they can truly expect of life. These parables remind us that the Kingdom of God comes of its own accord, but most importantly it comes for you and for me. Jesus’ Kingdom offers a place for everyone- so do not rush to the harvest too quickly.
In the meantime, you and I are called to sow seeds proclaiming both God’s goodness and resistance. This sowing, waiting and reaping are a part of what makes for a meaningful life. It makes the gift of life sweeter, doing our part until God brings the kingdom into its fullness. Yes, sowing seeds is as delightful and refreshing as summer’s perfect potato and mustard salad. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.