Sermon for June 17

Old Testament Readings 1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13 and Psalm 20

Epistle Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-17

Gospel Reading: Mark 4:26-34

Sermon: “Gardening with God”

Well, its summer and we’re back to the parables again! Those little stories that Jesus told that no one can quite figure out just exactly what he meant. They seem purposefully designed to make us stop and think. They use common scenes from the time, with a surprising twist or insight. The Kingdom parables are particularly interesting. They are short, provocative stories that invite the imagination to work – What could this mean? Is this really how the Kingdom of God works? How does this change the way we see ourselves? All of these questions and more apply to these two little stories. Not once upon a time, but “The Kingdom of God is like… “

We might be tempted to go back to the VBS imagery we looked at last week, where we proclaimed that God is our Mighty Fortress – secure and dependable for love and salvation. All that is true, and well attested in imagery from the Psalms and the prophets, but there are no mighty castles here in Mark. These stories ask us to use our imagination in a different way, more along the lines of Jesus coming into Jerusalem on a humble donkey colt – not a warhorse. Lets hear that first passage again and let your imaginations loose – past the boundaries of tried and true Sunday School explanations:

Mark 4:26-29 NLT [26] Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. [27] Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. [28] The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. [29] And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.”

Why is Jesus telling us this story? What might it mean? Might it imply that all is NOT dependent on our efforts? Is he implying that we might need the patience to wait until the time is right? By the way, how does it feel to be told flatly that we don’t understand what is going on right in front of our eyes? Is the point of the story God’s grace and provision or might it be about our impatience to get to the end and experience the harvest? What exactly is this seed that has such vitality all on its own? So many questions, so many possibilities – and many of them are not exclusive.

Humility and gratitude might be a good place to start with respect to the kingdom. Jesus is definitely telling us that more is going on than we know. The ways and plans of God are, and will remain, shrouded in mystery beyond our grasp and comprehension. It is likely that if we begin to properly understand this parable – we might conclude that we are in the middle of the story ourselves – participants but not masters in the task.

We are farmers and gardeners, but the seed is not ours, nor is the land. Its been that way from the beginning. Recall these words from very early in Genesis 2:8-9,15-16 NLT [8] Then the LORD God planted a garden in Eden in the east, and there he placed the man he had made. [9] The LORD God made all sorts of trees grow up from the ground-trees that were beautiful and that produced delicious fruit. In the middle of the garden he placed the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. [15] The LORD God placed the man in the Garden of Eden to tend and watch over it.

We Christians profess that God is sovereign. God rules over events and history. Is this the ground where the seed is planted? If the grace of God in active and powerful in both the lives of individuals, communities, nations and history itself, where does that leave us? Are we the farmer, or the soil?

Now you all know by now that I am a gardener and a reasonably successful one at that. But gardening teaches humility with time. Each year turns out different, even though I take similar steps. Each year, I till the ground, add the fertilizers and compost, my wife and I pull the weeds and add the mulch and pour on the water. And each year something different happens. Wind and rain and hail, frosts and extreme temperatures, disease and bugs have their say too. For the last two years, the strawberries have run over everything and produced wildly – next year, who knows. Normally green beans are easy to grow, but the last two years produced beautiful green bean plants but no beans at all, until fall when we got a few handfuls. Some years the okra stalks get 8 feet tall and go until frost and some years the plants are stunted and die off early. Gardening teaches humility. There is a lot I simply don’t control.

I think Jesus is saying something similar in this parable – God is in control. And though we certainly participate, it is ultimately not up to us. The Gift of faith is like the seed, it grows of its own power. We plant, we nurture but the kingdom has power all of its own. Even when we sleep, it grows. And what about the harvest? Is that something we do? Or does it refer to some eschatological event? Both have scriptural support, but I think that Jesus words to the disciples were likely for current use, not commentary for some long future date.

Jesus speaks to his disciples about harvesting the fields, in both Matthew and John’s gospels – John quotes Jesus saying it this way: John 4:35-38 NLT [35] You know the saying, ‘Four months between planting and harvest.’ But I say, wake up and look around. The fields are already ripe for harvest. [36] The harvesters are paid good wages, and the fruit they harvest is people brought to eternal life. What joy awaits both the planter and the harvester alike! [37] You know the saying, ‘One plants and another harvests.’ And it’s true. [38] I sent you to harvest where you didn’t plant; others had already done the work, and now you will get to gather the harvest.”

It’s fascinating to note that these words were spoken in Samaria, just after Jesus had spoke to the woman at the well. It wasn’t a mission field they had even thought about and here it was – ripe and ready for faith. That’s the way it is with us too. We never know what ways the spirit will use us. Sometimes we may never see the fruits of our labors and other times we blindly wake up from our nap and find that we are in the mist of hungry souls eager for Gods word and and we can claim no credit for it at all. Gardening with God teaches humility just as surely as with vegetables in the back yard.

I am constantly amazed even here in these walls at how the word is received. Themes that I work hard to bring to out are sometimes received in surprising ways and not by whom I might have expected, and other times it comes more easily. Most humbling of all is when the point that everybody seems to remember comes from the childrens message and not from the sermon I spent hours over. I am slowly learning that this pulpit is a lot like my garden. I am not in control of what prospers. My Job is simply to scatter the seed and nurture it as well I can, but the Holy Spirit is in charge of how and when it takes root and grows. That’s actually quite comforting to know.

THe second story starts out the same way, but emphasizes a different aspect: Mark 4:30-32 NLT [30] Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? [31] It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, [32] but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.” In this story the theme is about something so tiny takes root and grows to a substantial bush. Mustard seeds are indeed tiny, and the wild form of the plant can get quite large. Birds love it, because it produces a lot of those little seeds. Lets face it – Jesus is describing the kingdom of God as a weed!

But that too is comforting. Weeds are the plants that are quick to sprout, they send down deep roots to anchor themselves and draw up moisture even when the top of the ground is dry. They seed prolifically and are virtually impossible to exterminate. Not a bad analogy for the power of God at all as I think about it. It is not flashy, expensive or delicate. It grows of it own accord and gives nurture and shelter to those who come to it. Yeah, I think I can get at least part of what he meant. His own disciples were not fancy people, not powerful of themselves, but they changed the world by the power of God that flowed through them.

When Samuel went to Jesse’s house to anoint the eventual successor to King Saul, he started out looking for the tall, handsome son that looked like a king. But God had something different in mind. He started out small – Just the little kid out watching the sheep. David would eventually become a great and powerful King. But that was after a whole lot of growing and learning had gone on. That’s the way God often works – behind the scenes, building up from small beginnings and using faithful people who are willing to learn and grow themselves.

I invite you to take out your hymnals and turn to hymn #714 “God of the Fertile Fields”. Don’t worry, the tune is familiar, even if they are new words. The words were written by Georgia Harkness back in 1955. She was the first woman to teach theology in an American Seminary. The hymn reflects on these thoughts of soil and seed, of God’s good gifts and our role in the creation that God has given us to care for and nurture. Look especially at the 2nd and 3rd verses:

2 We would be stewards true,

holding in trust from you

all that you give;

help us in love to share,

teach us like you to care

for people everywhere,

that all may live.

3 As grows the hidden seed

to fruit that serves our need,

so your reign grows.

Let all our toil be used,

no gift of yours abused,

no humble task refused

your love bestows.

In this way, so grows the kingdom of God. Let us stand and sing of our faith.