It’s been estimated that over 200,000 new books are published in the U.S. each year. Of that impressive number, a mere 1% of them become bestsellers. Publishers sometimes have no idea why some books sell and others don’t. According to a Simon & Schuster spokesperson, “books often become best sellers to the surprise and puzzlement of their publishers. That’s why publishers find it so hard to repeat their success. Half the time they can’t figure out how [those successes] happened in the first place.”  If you ask me, that seems a rather odd way to run an industry.
It is about as puzzling as the kingdom of God: a seed gets sown, you go humming about your day-to-day business, and the next thing you know you’re standing in the shade of something amazing. You may have studied botany and you understand the basic concepts, but exactly how the sun and water and soil work together to produce a tree is still something of a mystery. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man might cast seed on the ground, and he might sleep and rise night and day, and the seed germinate and grow up. But he does not know how it happens.” This is not the story of a clueless farmer. Rather it is reminder that much that occurs is not up to us.
In this parable, Jesus uses words that have several different meanings and so his parable can be heard in different ways. For example, the word for sleep is also used in Scripture to describe someone who’s trudging along in a kind of spiritual sloth or even someone who is dead—literally or metaphorically. The word for rise also can mean a raising from death. So you could understand Jesus to be reminding us that God’s work in the world is not dependent upon our attentiveness or our accomplishments or even our spiritual athleticism. We can be spiritually sterile or dead and still goodness will spring up around us. Indeed, Jesus goes on to explain that the soil produces spontaneously and of its own accord. The Greek word is similar to the English word “automatically.” For all the help we offer in the end it is not us who “make” the plant grow. That’s God’s department.
The kingdom of God is like the book “Pay it Forward,” written by Catherine Ryan Hyde twelve years ago. The book became one of those unexplainable best sellers—published by Simon & Schuster, coincidentally! “Pay it Forward” was translated into 20 languages and inspired a movie and an entire global social movement and all this success happened without the work of the author. Indeed, she called getting published the hardest thing she’d ever done; in her words “a real ‘dark night of the soul.’” She couldn’t manage to interest an agent and got over a hundred form-letter rejections from publishers before anyone would even print one of her short stories. Catherine Ryan Hyde’s book started out as a very inconspicuous seed indeed. It grew big enough, however, to cover the world. An observer would say that Hyde’s book took on a life of its own. A Christian might say that her book took on God.
If you have not heard of the book or the movie or the social movement, their common denominator is a simple concept based on contract law. It is not a new idea—indeed “paying it forward” has been around since the drama of ancient Greece. It is a concept about which Benjamin Franklin wrote, as well as Ralph Waldo Emerson. It is an idea that has appeared in places as diverse as the Spider-Man comics, the sayings of football coach Woody Hayes, and the teachings of Alcoholics Anonymous. In a contract, I do something for you and you do something in return for me. In a “pay it forward” arrangement, I do something for you and instead of asking or expecting you to provide me something in return, I encourage you to make that payment to an unrelated third party—ideally an unsuspecting and perhaps undeserving stranger. In the pay-it-forward social movement, participants are encouraged to pay forward a kindness to not one but three other people.
The graphic symbol for the pay-it-forward social movement is a circle. Emanating from that circle are three lines and each of those lines ends in another circle. From each of those three circles emanate three more lines ending now in nine circles. Each circle represents a person. Each line represents a payment, a kind deed, made to an unsuspecting and perhaps undeserving stranger. If you tip this whole graphic upside down, it looks a lot like that mustard tree Jesus talked about. One small seed of a kind deed, passed on in this simple way can create shade for many people.
The pay-it-forward movement uses specially printed rubber wrist bracelets that participants give away to remind people to pass on kindness. I suppose those of us who wear crosses around our necks could do the same with them, for Jesus’ whole life was a pay it forward to us unsuspecting and often undeserving folk.
Scholar William Brosend writes that what we’re supposed to notice about this parable is not that God’s kingdom is great, “but that the beginnings are as small as they can be. The kingdom of God,” he says, “starts so small you can hardly see it, but when it comes into its own it is everywhere. You can’t miss it.” And Brosend points out that no one sows mustard seed, just like no one sows kudzu or dandelions or mint, because like them mustard takes over, growing “all over the place, whether you want it to or not, creep[ing] into every nook and cranny” impossible to kill. Mustard spreads faster than gossip, and the ancient rabbis forbade anyone from planting it. This parable teaches us that the kingdom of God is prolific.
Earlier Jesus talked about how the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you. So I think it is not a stretch to imagine he is talking about kindness. It’s been said that kindness like a boomerang always returns. What do I mean by kindness? It’s more than just a pleasant attitude. Paying forward acts of kindness can be as simple as paying for the meal of a young family at a restaurant—anonymously, of course. Or dropping off home-made muffins at your local fire department; or putting coins in a parking meter that’s about to expire or making a donation to a charity that helps people in need. Paying forward acts of kindness doesn’t even have to cost money. You can say a prayer for the rude driver who cuts you off in traffic, or let an elderly person or a mom with a toddler ahead of you in line at the grocery store. Compliment a stranger. Smile and say thank-you to an airport security person because they probably don’t hear those words all that often. Hold doors open, give your blood if you are able, or leave a copy of a great book you’ve read in a café or doctor’s office for someone else to find.
I know we all do these things and more already, but how consistent are we? I don’t know about you, but I know I don’t scatter seed often enough because I get so wrapped up in myself that I forget to be intentionally kind to others. I get the impression that the sower in Jesus’ parable goes out to the field and scatters his seed every day, not just when it occurs to him. Jesus would like us to be kind, not just on occasion when we think of it, but instead daily. What would it be like if you and I paid forward a kindness or two every day, and—when it seemed appropriate—invited others to do the same?
I tried this one day last week. On that day, I held the door for strangers, invited other grocery shoppers to go ahead of me in line, and when the clerk asked me if I wanted to add a dollar onto my grocery purchase for some cause or another, I said “yes” instead of saying “no thanks.” On the way home, I pulled over and bought a cup of lemonade from small children at a roadside stand instead of driving on by like I usually do. If I was intentionally kind more often, I would have known that lemonade is now going for 50 cents a cup and not a quarter!
But I share my experiment with you because it occurred to me that Jesus has been trying to tell us that when we intentionally and persistently plant these seeds of kindness, the whole world will likely be amazed by what grows. You scatter a smile, and from that God will grow a tree. You sow a few considerate gestures and from them God will grow a forest. You make that kind of seed-tossing a life-long habit, you inspire others to do likewise, and from that practice, God will grow the kingdom of Heaven and there will be shade for us all. Amen.
 My translation of the Greek is from the Greek NT and from Perschbacher’s Analytical Greek Lexicon.
 Conversations with Scripture: The Parables, William Brosend, Harrisburg, PA: Morehouse Publishing, 2006, 20.
 Mark 4:24