The Mystery of Planting and Growth
Jun 13, 2021
Third Sunday of Pentecost
Text: Mark 4:26-34
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
I'm hesitant to even say this, lest I jink it, but the church garden already is growing SO much better than was the case last year, and it's only a few weeks into the season. A year ago, we had a fiasco with the compost (or supposed compost) that stunted the plant growth until we poured on massive amounts of fertilizer. So, we started this year by fixing the soil, and we are off to a good growing season. Still, only so much is in our – the gardeners' - hands. Mystery is always in the picture.
That is obvious, too, in the parable from Mark 4. Jesus taught with parables, that is, stories that drew on everyday events. A parable is somewhat like a fable, which is a tale with a moral. But, a parable challenges the way we think; it offers a surprising truth. The parables we read today are about the Kingdom of God, so knowing what we do about parable. The questions are: How do these stories about seeds and planting challenge the way we think about the Kingdom of God? What is the surprising truth they hold?
First, though, we should define the phrase the Kingdom of God. There are two ways to view it; one is that the Kingdom of God fully arrives when Jesus returns, and sin and its consequences have been abolished. God then rules forever, over the world and in human hearts. But Jesus also speaks of the Kingdom of God as a process, something that is already in motion – it is both a future event to be anticipated and a present reality in the process of arriving. In the latter case, the Kingdom of God is the transforming result of God's word, will, and ways being scattered (like seeds) in the world.
I think the gardening parables fit the second view of the Kingdom of God. Jesus describes a seed scattered on the ground, a seed that sprouts and grows on its own. I have been gardening for many years, and I never tire of the mystery of placing a tiny seed in the dirt and then watching it turn into something else, to beautify the world and feed living creatures, including us. Quoting one commentator, "A seed once planted is a mystery being revealed."
Now, I realize you may not think of it that way. The whole process may seem boring to you. There is no suspense; what is supposed to happen when a seed is planted usually occurs. Intricate knowledge of germination and photosynthesis is not required. The growth unfolds on its own; its work is automatic.
The same is true, writes scholar Joel Marcus, of the Kingdom of God. "It grows mysteriously of its own accord and appears on God's timetable (not yours or mine). (1) Or, according to commentator Matt Skinner, the kingdom of God will take root whether in the world, in society or in someone's heart. It will grow gradually and automatically, in fact, it will grow so subtly that you may not even notice until at last it produces its intended fruit. (2)
Is that the surprising truth of the parable, do you think? That God's word, will, and ways can grow so automatically, so mysteriously, that it can produce fruit – which signals the presence of God's Kingdom – with only some input from us?
The next parable that Jesus tells is a bit more complicated. Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to a tiny seed, that once planted, becomes a huge shrub that provides a shady home for birds. So, the Kingdom of God may start small and become large. It may be insignificant and become grand, a place of security and comfort.
Here, though is the interesting part. Jesus puts a mustard seed in his parable, which is odd. Here is why: mustard was viewed as weed; it is not the kind of crop most people would sow. Where Jesus lived, it was prolific, could pop up almost anywhere and start multiplying.
Some commentators note that when Jesus said this, his listeners might have groaned or chuckled. Think of the ivy you cannot get rid of, or thistles; that is what it was like. Mustard grows and grows; it is not easily eradicated. It is nearly impossible to keep out of the garden or farmland once it gets started.
The second reason Jesus' illustration is odd is that he calls the seed's product "the greatest of all shrubs." That is not quite true. This is not, after all, the cedars of Lebanon. The first listeners certainly would have scoffed at that "greatest" description. The mustard plant grows densely but is not magnificent.
It may be that Jesus is going for the shock value here; the absurdity is part of the point. He describes something that is ordinary, able to show up, take over inch by inch and eventually transform a whole landscape, notes Matt Skinner. He goes on to say, "the reign of God (Kingdom of God) will mess with established boundaries and conventional values. Like a fast-producing plant, it will get into everything. It will bring life and color to desolate places. It will crowd out other concerns, it will resist our manipulations. As a result, some people will want to burn it all down in a pointless attempt to restore their fields." (3)
Do you get it? It is – the mustard plant Kingdom of God is a nuisance to some but a source of safety and transformation to others. Is that the surprise of this parable, that the Kingdom of God gets into everything, is not easily eradicated, and can change the landscape of our lives and our world?
Today we are presented with two similar points-of-view. On one hand, Jesus says that the growth of the Kingdom of God is a mystery, out of our control. On the other hand, he challenges us to accept the unexpected, inconvenient ways the Kingdom of God grows, the question being, do we allow and support it, or do we attempt to stop it? Do we get out the weed killer, or do we let it, even promote, it's flourishing?
That is a different question in the abstract than when applied to reality, so I'll try to do the latter. There are three areas of ministry that have been planted here at FLC but require more growth to really bear fruit: outreach, use of technology and being an RIC congregation. In many ways, their initial sprouting has been what Jesus described: mysterious and according to God's timetable. But, in order for the potential fruit to be produced, more growth (weed-like growth?) is needed to transform the landscape.
We have faced frustrations in each of these areas, of course; such is a gardener's life. And, although the growth is a mystery and to a large degree out of our hands, it is not a completely passive process for us – a garden does much better if it is tended, watered, and fertilized.
The same is true of ministry. Effort is required – in this case by those (you?) who can give time and skills to grow the already-present Kingdom of God in these three areas: outreach, an immediate need is planning the ELCA Day of Service, and a longer-term one will be getting the Laundry Trailer Ministry up and running; Technology, serving on the Livestream Team; RIC, being part of a Team to make our Welcome Statement known.
So, we continue to step out in faith, just as the church gardeners did after a disappointing season, knowing that a seed once planted is a mystery being revealed, and we are a part of that revelation. AMEN
(1) "Commentary on Mark 4:26-34" by David Schnasa Jacobsen, www.workingpreacher.org
(2) "Commentary on Mark 4:26-34" by Matt Skinner, www.workingpreacher.org
(3) Same as #2