Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 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.’
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
Tiny Seeds and Large Branches: Mark 4:26-34
Friends, I do not know if you noticed, but we had a very long winter. We saw more snow this past winter than I saw in the first 28 years of my whole life. We saw more snow at one time than Tasha and I saw in 6 winters in Illinois. Tasha could stand on the snow in one corner of the house and reach our roof. When Sugar the dog would take off running in her pen, sometimes she'd hit a powdery spot and we'd lose half of her into a snowy hole. Then, she'd pop back up, tennis ball in her mouth, and keep running until she fell into another powdery hole. At some point, I stopped sending pictures of the snow to my family in Texas. They got too worried about us. They began to question our life choices. And, worse, they began to make fun of us and tell me how warm in already was down there. I tried to remind them that Maine summers are glorious, but, they didn't care. They knew how to handle the heat. The cold was too overwhelming and the winter as just too long.
But, now, it seems that summer may actually be here. I'm trying not to say it too loudly, though, for fear that we'll get another cold snap and I'll have to go find my jacket again. But, signs all around me are pointing to Summer. I have roses growing in the backyard. Some of our apple trees are becoming full of tiny fruit. I have even found ripe wild strawberries in one of the flower beds. The lighting bugs fill up our hay field every night now. They tell me that the good weather is probably here to stay. They tell me that it's probably time to be out digging in my garden. Far be it from me to ignore a lightning bug. I have begun my planting. And, soon enough, I will have some early vegetables to harvest. I have already begun to fret over the later summer harvest, the tomatoes, green beans, okra, cucumbers. I have already begun dragging my poor wife out to the garden to see the plants that she swears look just like they did yesterday. A lot of my free time is spent thinking about seeds and plants. It seemed like a stroke of luck when I read today's suggested Gospel reading. Look... Jesus is talking about seeds and I love talking about seeds. How convenient.
Did you know that Jesus is called teacher more often in the Gospel of Mark than in any other Gospel? He spends a lot of time in this Gospel teaching. He usually teaches through parables, a kind of complex, often confusing, short story. The goal of a parable, according to one scholar, is to use common images in uncommon ways in order to provoke people into deeper reflection and, therefore, more substantial understanding. It makes sense, then, that when speaking to a bunch of sustenance farmers in rural Palestine that Jesus would have told a parable about seeds. These farmers and fishermen would have recognized stories about sowing and reaping, two activities utterly necessary to their daily lives. If they wanted to eat, they had to farm or fish or hunt. Growing and cooking food was work, hard work, and not a little bit of luck. If Jesus wanted to teach them something about the Reign of God, it makes sense that he would have used seed and sowing metaphors. His stories would have spoken to very real, very serious parts of their lives. And, given what I know about this congregation full of gardeners, I bet these words about sowing and reaping catch your attention, too.
Jesus began this parable by describing the work of every farmer. The sower scatters seed on the ground, and watches as the seed germinates. Jesus describes the steps of germination with a phrase that I find particularly lovely because I have seen in happen countless times in my garden: “the earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” The opening... the unfurling... the first bits of green... that is what I live for in my garden. I’m sure others in the room know the feeling. It is where I see the first tiny glimpse of what I hope will be a verdant and delectable future. I suspect, despite my modern privilege, the ancient sower and I are not totally different in that regard. We pray that our fields will be full of these little green shoots of hope. Jesus then says, when the time is right, the sower harvests the mature grain. The sower does not know exactly how the seeds grew into mature grain. The sower can only trust that the seeds will indeed grow and that the harvest they bring will offer her family nourishment.
Parables are great because there are so many places to enter into the story. I think Jesus' description of the seed's germination is particularly interesting. He says that the seed will sprout and grow, but the sower does not know how. Thanks to science, we modern growers have a little clearer idea about what is happening during seed germination. At the end of day, though, despite the fact that we may have a really clear plan for how to make sure that our seeds have exactly what they need to grow, most of us still don’t know how, or if, that tiny seed in our hand will ever grow. Even with our modern technology, most of the time, we're like the farmers that Jesus talked to all those years ago. We stand in our garden with a hard little seed that we place into cool, moist dirt, and we trust that it will grow. We can’t usually force the seed to grow. All we can do is work, wait, and see what will grow.
Jesus reminds us that we can't really control all of what we plant. Growth often happens of the earth’s own accord. We may help it along now and then. We till the soil and add compost. We keep the rabbits out and pick off the Japanese beetles. But, the growing, the sacred, incremental unfurling and the inching toward the sky, that is a process beyond the work of the sower. We may plant and tend and wait. But, we can’t crack that shell open. We can’t replicate those cells or build those roots. We can only make sure they have somewhere hospitable to grow. A power far beyond us takes care of the rest.
Maybe poking around in my garden does teach me something about the Reign of God. Perhaps this process of vegetable cultivation is not all that different from spiritual cultivation. Our spiritual lives and worshiping communities do not burst forth fully formed. Like farming, tending our spiritual communities requires hard work, and not a little bit of luck. In this process, there are some times when we sow our seeds, and there are some times when we need to be present and wait for them to grow. It can take quite a bit of discernment and not a little bit of patience to be in that in-between, dark and fertile growing time. But, we have hope. The Gospel of Mark reminds us that God’s Reign is in that space between what we can do and what is done just beyond us. Spiritual maturity is knowing that there is a point where we must sow seeds, and a point where we wait and let the plant grow. If we are attentive to how it grows, then we can hopefully reap the benefit of its nourishment.
Something else comes to mind with all of this talk of seeds and planting. For as much preparation as the average farmer does, the plants don’t always behave in ways that we expect. Volunteer plants pop up out of compost bins and forgotten corners of the yard. Squirrels and birds leave little presents that sometimes grown up into a watermelon in the middle of your tomato plants. Even with all our preparation, growth happens in ways that we don’t expect. The Holy Spirit will make it’s way up in tiny shoots and tendrils in the most unexpected places. And, are we ready to make use of the unexpected bounty? Or do we treat it like a weed and spray it down because inspiration didn’t come like we expected? This, too, is the work of the farmer, knowing when to celebrate unsuspected nourishment.
The Gospel of Mark reminds us that we, too, can be sowers, even those of us without an inkling of a green thumb. There is much sustenance to be had, if only we will take time to plant and tend it. The Reign of God will produce of itself and we can work together to clear a space for it. Today we celebrate the service of two very important groups of sowers in our midst, the choir and the Sunday school class and teachers. They have shown us all kinds of new growth over this last year. They began a new kind of Sunday School class and learned new music. They helped us feel the presence of God through song, and they have taught us interesting and new things about God during the children's moment. Through their service to this church, they have shown us ways to work and tend our Holy Garden, and we have greatly benefited from their labors. As they begin a well-deserved season of rest, how can the rest of us learn from the work that they have shared over the last year? Where is the fertile ground that the rest of us can tend to grow new things with God? Maybe we'll even feel called to join their ranks when they begin to meet again in the fall. After all, Jesus calls us to be sowers and these two groups offer much fertile ground in need of our tending. Maybe the seeds of singers and teachers are in you right now, just waiting to bloom. Maybe, though, you're getting ready to sow some other amazing seed in God's Kingdom. Either ways, let's work this land together. It won't be easy. But, the harvest will come. And, it will be delicious.
Resources that Pastor Chrissy found helpful in writing this sermon:
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.