Let me just say up front that if you’re someone like me, one who could be described as “horticulturally challenged,” then you’ve got to love this morning’s gospel reading! “The kingdom of God,” says Jesus, “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.” Actually, The Message translation of this passage hits even closer to the heart of it: “God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it.” Now that’s my kind of gardening: plant it and forget it!
It reminds me of the vegetable garden that Lisa and I attempted to grow one summer when we were first married – the garden was for the most part a dismal failure, because frankly, we didn’t put a whole lot of effort into it. But the interesting thing was that we did yield a bumper crop of beautiful Butternut Squash, which was amazing because we didn’t even plant Butternut Squash! It turned out that we’d been the unknowing beneficiaries of those who had sown seed on that particular garden plot the year before – seeds nestled safely in the soil all the previous winter, and which come spring, had just taken off all on their own. So we ended up with more squash than we could possibly use and didn’t do a skrid of work to make it happen!
Of course, Mark’s gospel notwithstanding, anyone who’s ever seriously planted a garden will be quick to assure me that this whole idea of “plant it and forget it farming” is ultimately, well, unrealistic – because whether we’re talking a backyard garden plot or 40 acres, the fact is, gardening is hard work with surprisingly little time left for sleep! It’s true: the farmer plants a crop, the gardener plants a garden, yes; but then they fertilize, they cultivate, they pull the weeds, they pick the rocks, they check for insects and blight – and they worry, night and day, about all the uncertainties: heat, frost, too much rain, too little rain, storms, “critters,” and who knows what else, all of which can drastically affect the harvest one way or the other.
And yet, isn’t it interesting – for all the work and worry that goes into growing the garden, ultimately the gardener can only hope that the seeds planted will produce a full and abundant crop. To quote Sarah Dylan Breuer, “No farmer, no matter how clever, can MAKE seeds grow. She can participate in the process by influencing conditions to make them more conducive to growth – watering, composting, and so on – but the gifts of life and growth come from God, and only from God, who graciously created a fruitful earth and gives without calculation of deserving the gifts of sun and rain.”
So, the farmer can scatter seed, though how that seed sprouts and grows he simply doesn’t know. Ultimately, “the earth produces of itself,” until the moment at last when “the grain is ripe” and ready for harvesting. That’s how it is with sowing seeds for the garden, and according to Jesus, that’s also how it is regarding the Kingdom of God. In the end you see, where this kingdom is concerned, it’s not all about what we do that matters, but what God is doing in our midst.
Remember that when Jesus shared these parables with his disciples and others who were gathered around him, it was his way of presenting this very radical message of the coming of God’s Kingdom in a way they could understand – we’re told by Mark, that at least in his public ministry, Jesus “did not speak to then except in parables.”
And the purpose of this “parable of the growing seed,” along with the familiar “parable of the mustard seed” that follows it, was to point out the inevitable coming of the kingdom; how God, in ways that they couldn’t begin to see or understand, was seven at that very moment doing the mysterious work that would make that kingdom come to fruition, and moreover, as the story of the mustard seed points out, that kingdom would come to fruition in grand and glorious fashion.
Jesus wanted them and us to know that as his followers, we have an important part in getting ready for this to happen – but that the larger part of the kingdom’s coming will be done in God’s faithful work among us: the clear evidence of God’s presence and power we see before us in each new day; as well as God’s mysterious gifts of grace and love that often remain hidden from our sight and understanding. Ultimately where this particular garden is concerned, how it grows is not up to us; there’s another gardener at work, the God of mystery and wonder ever and always working the soil for an abundant harvest.
And, friends, I don’t know about you, but that’s good news I need to hear!
You see, I have to confess that in my own “spiritual gardening,” I’m one of those who too often labors under the false notion that I can do everything it takes to make that garden grow; if only I work long enough, hard enough, and be good enough in my life, then this little garden plot that I call my life will flourish with goodness and all things righteous! And the thing is, I know I’m not alone in this – certainly, the people of Jesus’ time tried to cultivate their own righteousness before God, and we’re no different, really, in that so many of us do anything and everything to attain this self-created garden of meaning and purpose!
But the problem is that it just won’t work! There’s far too much in our lives that’s both unexpected and out of our control; too many storms along the way which make it impossible for us to hold it all together indefinitely. In truth, sometimes the pain and frustration of life increases to the point where we begin to wonder if we ever had what it takes to grow that spiritual garden – to live a life with real dignity, integrity and faith – and worst of all, we begin to lament that perhaps we’ve been alone in the effort all along.
But that’s the good news of the gospel, friends: we’re not alone in the effort, and we never have been. Even though life’s storms and murky uncertainties are such that we can’t always see it as clearly as we’d like; even though the anticipated harvest might seem to us to be so slow in coming that won’t come at all – we are given the assurance that even now, the garden is growing, because God is at work tilling the soil of our lives with purpose and power. In ways both subtle and profound, God is producing the harvest of his kingdom around us and within us – and he will make our garden grow as well, if we’ll only have faith in his promise.
But that’s the hard part, isn’t it? Hard to let go of our own control of things and let God do the gardening; hard to concede that even when things seem to be at their worst, God is still working for the best; hard to trust when the evidence is so very hard to see! But it’s trust in God that makes all the difference.
Mark Tabb, in his book, Out of the Whirlwind, writes that “[God] tells us to trust him enough to believe he knows what he is doing. When his actions don’t make sense, trust him. When the the windows of heaven seem to open extra wide and life can’t get any better, trust him. When the bottom falls out and life turns hard, trust him. Good times and bad, happy and sad, trust him …what will God do?? I have no idea, but I do know this: [God] isn’t making things up on the fly. He knows what he his doing …I must trust him enough to entrust my life to him even when I would rather not.”
Understand this isn’t blind optimism or “pie in the sky” thinking we’re talking about here; Jesus is not saying that we need only sit around and wait mindlessly for God to get the job done. It’s no better for us to neglect our part of cultivating the garden than for us to carry the whole burden of it alone. What it is is a partnership of grace rooted in the relationship that exists between us and God!
Having a dancer in our house, over the years I’ve come to greatly appreciate not only the sheer grace and beauty of dance, but also the hard work and incredible effort that goes into to making it seem so effortless! It’s also forced me to watch programs like “So You Think You Can Dance” with a much more critical eye! Not to sound like one of the judges on those shows, but it’s one thing to watch some wannabe dancer jump around on the stage and quite another to bear witness to the discipline and precision it takes to put forth the kind of performance that will move you to tears!
This is particularly true when they get to the point in these competitions when they start pairing up the dancers as duet partners. I remember a couple of years ago how one of the dancers, a young woman who had been on the “bottom three” of vote received that week, was told by the British, Simon Cowell-type judge that he could actually forgive her mistakes and the sloppiness in her performance because she had been let down by her dance partner; that her dancing, good or bad, ended up being a reflection of the poor work that her partner had done.
Friends, therein lay a parable of what happens between us and God! You and I also have a partner in this dance of life – and it has always been the intent of this partner that that as we go round and round on the dance floor, we create something beautiful. And even though you and I will inevitably stumble and fall in the midst of the effort, in the end we never fail in the dance; and that’s because even in the smallest of movements our partner God takes the lead, never letting us down; always working with us to create something greater than we could ever imagine.
It seems amazing, but that’s what always happens when God takes the lead, when God grows the garden, when God brings forth the kingdom – our work is important, oh yes, and not to be diminished; but in partnership with God, you can be assured that the end result of our work will yield something wonderful!
So let’s keep busy, beloved, because there’s plenty of work for us to do, lots of soil to be tended and lots of dances to be learned. But let us do so confident that we’re not alone in the effort, and that even now God’s working something wonderful in and through us!
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2012 Rev. Michael W. Lowry