He’s been called “The man who saved a billion lives.”
Anyone know who I’m talking about? Dr. Norman Borlaug?
Not a household name is he? I’ll admit I didn’t know who he was.
Dr. Borlaug earned this title 50 years ago in 1965 when he shipped the first of his new wheat seed varieties to the Indian subcontinent, making possible the feeding of a billion people in India and Pakistan.
Author David Macaray, who, in his younger years, was in the Peace Corps in Punjab, India, learned from its people what a remarkable turnaround Borlaug brought to that country of 1.1 billion people.
Macaray would eventually write about Borlaug’s seeds saying, “It’s no exaggeration to say that Borlaug did, in fact, save a billion lives.”
And actually, Borlaug made possible the feeding of masses even before 1965. He graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1942 with a Ph.D. in plant pathology and genetics, and then accepted an agricultural research position in Mexico, where he eventually developed short-stemmed, high-yield, disease-resistant varieties of wheat.
Those varieties helped turn around Mexico’s agriculture so that by 1963 Mexico became an exporter of wheat.
So what was so special about these seeds?
The “standard” wheat plants on which India and other places in the world had been relying—unsuccessfully—to feed people, had tall, narrow stalks with minimal kernels per plant.
As these kernels developed, few as they were, the plants got top-heavy and fell over from their own weight, often rotting on the ground before they could be harvested.
The varieties Borlaug developed, however, referred to as “semi-dwarf Mexican wheat,” have shorter, thicker stalks that not only remain upright (even on windy days), but also produce exponentially more kernels per plant.
What’s more, his wheat resisted the diseases and pests that routinely afflicted the previous varieties.
Thanks to Borlaug’s seeds, India today is self-sufficient in food production, even with its massive population.
But Borlaug didn’t stop there. He also developed new rice plants, introducing varieties that improved those crops in countries that rely on rice to feed their populations.
And for his work, in 1970 Borlaug received the Nobel Peace prize in recognition of his contributions to world peace through increasing food supply.
The Nobel committee chair stated, “More than any other single person of this age, Dr. Norman Borlaug has helped to provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.”
Borlaug died in 2009 at the age of 95.
A lifetime of work… Saving a billion lives… Changing the course of history… All done with seeds. Very special seeds.
I wanted to share Borlaug’s story with you because, one, it deserves to be heard, and two, because it’s not a big jump for us to go from Borlaug’s work to our text for today where Jesus use two parables about seeds to talk about the Kingdom of God.
The first, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to seed scattered on the ground which then sprouts and grows, and, when fully ripe, is harvested.
And second, Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed—that timeless parable we all know and love.
It’s useful for us, however, to contemplate the one point where Borlaug’s work and these parables diverge.
In the former, Borlaug had to have a deep understanding of the growing process in order to develop seeds that would prosper in the various soils in which they would be planted.
The differences in the soil types from one locale to the next had a bearing on why Borlaug produced more than one variety of his basic wheat seed.
In the parable, however, the sower, who represents Christians who testify to or proclaim their faith to others, have no real understanding of the growing process— “the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how”— but that doesn’t matter in the parable, for the sower trusts that harvest will come.
And just as the sower in the parable doesn’t know, the people of India probably don’t know how Borlaug’s seed worked, but they know it does and they are glad for it.
This was an important lesson for first-century Christians after Jesus was no longer with them in the flesh.
The people needed to recall, and understand, that Jesus had said the kingdom of God would grow like the seed toward harvest. This understanding would reassure them that the growth of kingdom was indeed proceeding according to God’s plan.
No, they didn’t know when the crop would ripen— in fact, this parable is sometimes referred to as “the seed secretly growing”— but they could trust that, in God’s time, it would be ready for harvest, and, thus, they could live in unfailing hope.
The people didn’t know how the seeds grew in the environment they were in, but they knew that no matter what, God’s seeds would grow.
We who are followers of Jesus today need to hear this message as well.
We live at a time when, in many places, churches are not prospering, and we may find ourselves slightly concerned about the church’s future.
We might ask; is the crop going to fail? Are the seeds of faith we’ve spread actually growing or not?
While there are many a pessimistic church person, there are some, however, who would disagree with the assessment that the church is in decline.
Pastor and church planter Ed Stetzer argues that the church isn’t dying at all, but that it’s going through a kind of shakeout, or—to stay with the agricultural theme of the parable—a winnowing, although he doesn’t use that word.
Stetzer explains his perspective by separating the 75 percent of Americans who call themselves Christians into three categories: Cultural Christians, Congregational Christians, and Convictional Christians.
He defines “Cultural Christians” as people who are Christians simply because their culture tells them they are, but they’re Christian in name only, and are not practicing a vibrant faith.
“Congregational Christians”, says Stetzer, are similar to Cultural Christians, except that they have some connection to actual congregational life, a church they attend at least occasionally.
“Convictional Christians”, on the other hand, are those who actually live according to their faith.
They are the people who would say they have met Jesus, that he has changed their lives, and their lives are centered around their faith in him.
Stetzer acknowledges that the number of Americans who now identity themselves as having no religion— the “Nones” as they are now called—is growing, but he suggests the change is coming from defections from the cultural and congregational Christian categories, because there’s now less societal pressure to be “Christian.”
These folks, Stetzer says, “Feel comfortable freeing themselves from a label that was not true of them in the first place, but they still have a desire for community and connection.”
I have preached to you before about the “nones”— the term for those folks who have no church affiliation whatsoever.
I’ve told you about the “dones” as well—Christians who consider themselves faithful to God but are turned off by the institutional aspects of church— and they just quit going.
“Nones” and “dones” are new soil and cultural settings that, like India fifty years ago, need a new kind of seed—not a whole new product mind you—just a new kind of seed that will still grow the kingdom, but in a way that is effective and sustainable.
For Borlaug, wheat was still wheat. He simply found a better way to grow the wheat.
For the Church, the Good News of Jesus is still the Good News of Jesus. We simply need to find a better way to grow the Good News.
Pastor Stetzer concludes his point by saying, “Christianity may be losing its top-down political and cultural influence, but Jesus spoke of his followers making an impact in a very different manner. He taught that God’s kingdom was subversive and underground—like the seed secretly growing!
He used examples like yeast, which changes things from the inside, and mustard seeds, which are small and must be planted in order to grow up and out.”
I appreciate Stetzer’s perspective and even challenge.
True as it may be that the church is in decline, an attitude of “the sky is falling” doesn’t do anyone any good.
What does do good is a combination of Stetzer’s perspective and Dr. Borlaug’s work.
Figure out what kind of sees are needed, and then plant them.
Do it well, and lives will be changed…lives will be saved.
Here at FCC Stow, we plant all kinds of kingdom seeds.
There are VBS seeds, music seeds, Outreach seeds, Christian Education seeds, even Community seeds.
But what other seeds do we need to develop and plant?
What seeds do we need to stop planting and stop trying to sow because they just don’t work in today’s soil and culture?
These are questions we must always be asking and then doing because these are the questions that will lead us to the seeds that will change and save lives.
To be clear, our purpose here is not to debate whether the church is, or is not, falling on hard times.
Rather, it’s to hear and take confidence from Jesus’ parables which tell us that the gospel seeds we scatter are growing, even if “we do not know how,” and that the full grain will one day appear; that the yield from the scattered seed, even the smallest seed, will be significant.
Dr. Borlaug didn’t create a new form of food. He simply took an existing one and modified it so that it would grow in the soil and cultural conditions of a dying part of the world.
And as a result, he saved a billion people.
We as the Church do not have to create a new church—we are still the church that Jesus created.
But how we grow the church does need modified, based upon today’s soil and cultural conditions.
There are millions, yea even billions, of people who need everything that God offers through the church.
It is up to us to plant the right seeds, in our part of the world, so that lives are changed and saved.
Jesus said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God…?
It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
We are poised to grow into the greatest of all life changing and lifesaving entities—all because of seeds, very special seeds of God.
May we plant this seeds always, and faithfully. Amen.