Mark 4:26-34 – Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 17, 2012
We’ve all heard the stories: gadgets invented in home garages that grew into billion-dollar business empires, the local hamburger stand that grew into a global-wide fast-food chain, YouTube videos that go viral overnight…but none of these, none of these compares with the daily wonder Doug and I experienced this spring as we witnessed the rapid, unstoppable growth of…our lawn.
Did this happen to you, too? No special treatments, no extra watering, no new seed…just one day it’s there and it’s mowed and the next day it’s all sprung up again. Literally overnight! I don’t know how many times we backed out of our driveway over the past two months when Doug would look and say: “I don’t believe it. I need to mow the lawn again.” No matter what the plan was for the day, or the items on the to-do list, over the last umpteen weeks lawn mowing was always included. It made me want to stay up outside all night with a flashlight so I could catch it happening – that’s how fast it was growing – and with no help from us at all.
Jesus gets this – in his day in his culture he drew on agrarian examples when he preached. In our reading this morning he may as well be describing our lawns this spring as he describes wheat:
“[It’s] 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…”
The earth produces of itself. “Of itself” is translated from the Greek automate, where we get our word automatic. In the Old Testament and later Jewish texts, the term referred to that which was worked by God alone, without human effort. One resource says the word in totality means “self-moved, spontaneously, without external aid, and also beyond external control, with a way and a will…of its own that must be respected and waited for.”
You gardeners out there understand the role of soil and light and water, but the mystery, the secret of growth is contained within the seed. We can’t do much about it except to go to sleep at night and wake up in the morning to see what God did while we were in the house.
Jesus tells his listeners and us this morning that the kingdom of God or the reign of God is like this. One author quips: “The kingdom of God is like a sleeping gardener.” In verses immediately previous to ours today Jesus talks about the kingdom of God being hidden and then coming to light, much like the workings of the seed underground are hidden until we see the shoots in plain view.
In attempting to understand this or any other of Jesus’ parables, it is always important to remember the political climate surrounding Jesus’ listeners during that time: occupation by the foreign Roman Empire, local leaders in their hip pocket, and a yearning among the populace for change for the better with the reality of the situation reflecting no improvement in sight at all. One commentator writes that Jesus’ sayings in these verses about the coming harvest and the metaphor of the mustard seed are a warning to his listeners “not to accept any cynical [so-called] ‘realistic’ advice that the established power-relations will inevitably continue.” No, in fact, expect the opposite – just like grain ripening or lawns growing, God is about this work. God is doing it; it’s happening without you and you and no one else can stop it.
Theology Professor Don Saliers of Emory University says: “The parable is not about us, but about the grace of God;…We, like the farmer, do not understand how the sprouting and the growing of such a reality take place. Yet it becomes a harvest of life, and the tree from the seed spreads out branches to be a place of rest and song and abundance.”
His colleague Religion Professor Wendy Farley writes about the kingdom of God within: “Intimacy with Christ grows in us as certainly and as effortlessly as seeds grow. We have so little to do with Christ’s nearness to us that we can just go to sleep. In fact it might be better if we did sleep through the whole thing, snug and safe, resting like babies in our mothers’ arms. This trust so deep that we can sleep without anxiety is much more useful to us than fussing over the little seed; dousing it with pesticide, repotting it, clucking anxiously over the amount of sun it has. The kingdom is like this sleepy, restful trust…[S]piritual growth and intimacy with God arises as naturally as seeds growing. The harvest will come without us having to work for it, because God adores us and it is this love that is the power of growth.”
You may have seen the Time magazine cover story in April about “Rethinking Heaven.” The writer presents various pieces of history and points of view leading up to and surrounding the current theological debate about where heaven is or will be – out there or up there away from us or a “new Jerusalem” in our midst. Jesus describes the kingdom of God happening already behind the scenes, beginning in a small way, but so magnificent it will change our very existence; and elsewhere he also talks about the kingdom of God being within. The good news, my friends, I believe, is that it’s both. The kingdom of God is out there and it’s in here… because it’s not really about a place, it’s about the grace of God: the silent, powerful, hidden, mysterious, surprising grace of God.
Grace which can grow the tiniest seed of acceptance and willingness within us into a full-blown active life of faith. Grace which can move in the hearts of a few visionaries to then tear down walls that separate, and regimes that oppress, policies that harm and systems that sanction greed and promote disparity. Grace that can turn one heart towards peace and reconciliation and move a whole society to vow “never again” to genocide. Grace which is not earned, not controlled, not cornered by an elect few, but available to all through the goodness of God.
Grace which flows in ways we can never understand, no matter how many times or ways Jesus tries to explain it, but upon which we can always rely. Grace that is ours, waking or sleeping, by our not doing a thing except to say “yes”. We can say that tiny word “yes” and then step back and marvel at the growth that happens next:
• an unexplainable new tolerance towards that person who really used to bug you; • a new-found liberation to volunteer your time;
• a strange new freedom in your giving – be it money or possessions;
• a new willingness to take risks with your heart; • a new courage to stand up and speak out, or to sit down and help out, or to kneel down and pour out your love, your vulnerability, your sins, your surrender to God’s grace which abounds for you. We can ignore it or we can grab hold of it and scatter it and let it sprout and grow, and marvel at the abundant harvest.
Thanks be to God and Amen.