(a sermon for June 17, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:26-31)
I’m not sure if it was a wedding present, or if it was for Christmas or a birthday, but once when Lisa and I were first married, we received a gift of…wait for it (!)… a can of seeds!
Thinking back, it was actually kind of neat; this was literally a coffee can sized container of wildflower seeds – direct from L.L. Bean, don’tcha know (!) – from which, when properly planted and nurtured, would grow a variety of flowers both annual and perennial. Even now I still remember what an amazing thing that was: first of all, how despite the fact that all these seeds, at least to my untrained eye, looked pretty much the same, what we ended up with all that first summer and for many more to come were these immensely beautiful, fragrant flowers of every size and shape and color you can name. I’ve lived in New England just about all of my life, but I’ll confess that I didn’t know we even had that many flowers in this part of the world; but that was the wonder – and the fun – of that particular gift!
But the other thing I remember about those flowers is how utterly relentless they were! Like I said, there were quite a number of perennials included in that wildflower mix, which means that even given a modicum of care they should continue to grow year after year. But here’s the thing: after a couple of years we were shocked to discover that no matter what we did or didn’t do as regards those flowers, or how they may have been – however unintentionally (!) – used, abused or at the least disrupted, despite our best (or worst) efforts not only did they just keep on growing, sometimes they downright flourished!
I mean, inevitably every summer that garden plot where we’d sown those seeds had faced alternate bouts of drought and flooding; every winter it got snowplowed into oblivion; and this is to say nothing of what happened once we had little kids running around! Understand, it’s not like we set out to ruin this gift or to destroy these wonders of God’s creation, but looking back, in all honesty given everything they went through they really shouldn’t have stood a chance at all! But such was the strong nature of these wildflowers; they seemed determined to grow sunward and to triumph over whatever nature (or humanity!) set in their way! And because of this, every summer that we lived in that house we were not only treated to the utter beauty of nature as only a wildflower garden can provide, we were reminded in glorious fashion of the resiliency of all that which God has provided!
To put this another way, it’s in the DNA of a seed to grow, isn’t it; it is the seed’s design for the life that’s placed within it to take root and sprout up through the soil, prevailing over whatever hardship it encounters, so to fulfill its purpose as part of the circle of life. What we’re talking about here is basic botany, and truly, “nature’s way;” but having said that, I’d also have to say that such an explanation says nothing about what ultimately comes from the seed as it makes its way sunward; nor does it really express any one of a multitude of ways that every flower that “reaches for the sun” will end up serving God’s purposes!
Which, come to think of it, is not entirely unlike our lives, yours and mine… after all, you and I might be able to say something about how we live and grow in this life; but that can’t possibly express in fullness what that life is for!
This is wonderfully expressed in a song written by Noel Paul Stookey, the “Paul” of “Peter, Paul and Mary:”
Every flower’s reaching for the sun
Every petal opens when the day has just begun
Even in the city where they grow up through the street
Every blossom needs the sunshine to makes its life complete.
Some are torn out by the roots and cast aside
And some might be arranged and brought inside
A flower’s just a seed when it’s young
And every flower’s reaching for the sun.
Some are bent by fears they cannot see
And some are touched by Love and set free
A flower’s just a seed when it’s young
And every flower’s reaching
Oh every flower’s reaching
Every flower’s reaching for the sun.
– “Every Flower,” written by Noel Stookey, Bob Milstein and Peter Yarrow
In our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus offers up a parable about how the Kingdom of God “is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground… and the seed would sprout and grow,” despite the fact that the sower of said seed “has no idea how it happens.” [The Message] It’s a reminder both agricultural and theological, that “just as seeds grow without our effort, so also will God bring about God’s reign.” [David Lose] If Lisa and I learned anything from our long ago “mystery garden” of wildflowers, it was that ultimately its growth wasn’t up to us; we didn’t make it happen and whatever else we did or did not do to it (!), we couldn’t prevent it from happening either! Seeds grow of their own accord, you see, and every flower reaches for the sun; and so it is with the Kingdom of God.
What Jesus is wanting his disciples and us to know through this little parable is that the Kingdom is indeed coming as surely as will come a harvest of grain, but rest assured that it comes apart from our efforts. To quote David Lose, “We can’t bring God’s reign of redemptive and surprising love and grace, but neither can we control it, moderate it, or domesticate it. And we definitely can’t stop it.” God is on the move, you see; God is at work – in our life, in our community, in our world – and that work will be done in God’s way and in God’s good time. Whether or not you and I actually see or even know what’s going on; the fact remains that by God’s full intent and grace, his kingdom is coming to us in ways and with an intensity that we can’t even predict. In fact, as Jesus points out in the second little parable he shares in our gospel text for this morning, the kingdom might well be “like a mustard seed,” the source material for what can be described as “an out of control weed [that] grows and spreads and can hardly be contained, even if you’re not sure [at that particular moment] you want it.” I mean, it’s definitely not the lofty, noble cedar we heard about from the Ezekiel reading; it’s a mustard plant! But there’s no denying that the end result of its growth into “the greatest of all shrubs” fulfills its purpose: to be that one place where every possible bird of the air can find a place to rest and to “make nests in its shade.”
Seeds grow; and every flower (even every weed) reaches for the sun!
So what do we say to this? How do you and I deal with this utterly relentless God who promises us that in due course his rule and his will will be enacted among us?
Well, to begin with, we let that prayer we repeat each and every Sunday morning become real for us: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) More than merely another piece of worship liturgy, these words serve as our acknowledgment that God is at work as surely as seeds sprout and grow in the soil and “the earth produces of itself.” And we also need to be patient about the way that happens and how long it takes; for the world as we know it and live in it most often tends to live in steadfast opposition to God’s plan and purpose for it (all the more reason to pray, again and again, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”).
But mostly, what you and I always need to be doing is to simply be about the work of that kingdom until it comes in its fullness, to “enact God’s reign wherever we are,” living out of our confidence that God’s promises are true and that the kingdom will come in its fullness. What that means is that you and I become the flowers reaching for the sun; doing that which we’ve been fashioned for from the very moment of our creation: to align ourselves with God’s will and way; to seek to love and nurture others in the same manner that we have been loved and nurtured; to let our hopes and dreams, our talents and skills, our opportunities and challenges, our joys and even our sorrows become intermingled with our ongoing call to be Christ’s disciples. At best, what that means is that every piece of our lives – and every fiber of our being – becomes centered on how God has always intended for his creation to be; filled with hope and love, and the joy of living in a close relationship with the Creator. And by the same token, and once again I’m quoting David Lose here, “when life is hard, when we meet resistance, or when we fail or fall far short of our hopes… we can take refuge in the promise that God is still at work and has not given up on us or the world.”
Because seeds grow; and every flower – and yes, that even includes you and me – every flower reaches for sun.
I think I’ve shared with you before Lisa’s and my other great gardening story, also from early on in our marriage: the year that we grew a bumper crop of beautiful butternut squash… which was amazing, because we never actually planted any butternut squash! Moreover (and I’m a tad embarrassed to even admit this!), there wasn’t a single crop we planted in that particular garden than managed to make it to harvest or at least past some hungry raccoons! As we came to understand it, it turns out that there were a fair number of squash seeds in the soil of that garden plot; the remnant of the previous growing season before we’d lived at that house or ever had attempted to plant our pitiful little vegetable garden. So something else – dare I say, someone else? – was at work. And the good news was that at the end of it all we had squash enough to last us well into the fall; and trust me, that was truly something!
I kind of like to think of the Kingdom of God that way, beloved. Because as much as we try to make it happen, and even think we might succeed in it by our own efforts, in the end what grows in our spiritual garden comes about because of what God is doing just beyond our sight with a firm and steadfast resolve. There’s an old saying, you know, that seems applicable here: that we should “work like it’s up to us, and then pray like it’s all up to God.” In other words, plant those seeds of faith and love; tend that garden of righteous living; and do whatever it takes to keep growing up through the soil and to rise up ever sunward, in the great hope and expectation that you’ll become exactly what you’re meant to be. But know that if that doesn’t work (and despite your best efforts, it might not, because who can predict what happens in a growing season), you’re still meant to blossom; because at the end of the day, what makes a garden strong and beautiful and purposeful is the work that God puts into it. Beloved, no work done in love is ever lost, especially when that work is done by God; and God, in time and with care, will draw all things together for good so that the harvest can come.
Seeds grow, you see; and every flower reaches for the son.
And for this, and so much more, thanks be to God.
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry