Old Testament Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24
Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. 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. And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.”
Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.”
Jesus used many similar stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they could understand. In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables; but afterward, when he was alone with his disciples, he explained everything to them.
* * * * *
That the Bible uses references to horticulture should come as no surprise – any good writer uses metaphors and analogies that live close to the home of their hearers. Farmers and fishermen were a big part of the audience of Jesus and the prophets before him. “Jesus used stories and illustrations to teach people as much as they could understand,” Mark points out. Any good teacher would.
But that doesn’t mean that parables are obvious or easy. Take these two illustrations; on the surface, they sound fine, but dig just a little deeper and you start to hit rocks. For one thing, Jesus makes it sound like farming takes no work at all; he seems to imply that it’s positively effortless. The farmer just scatters some seed, and – poof! – there’s ripened grain ready to harvest. Heck, the farmer can sleep through the whole process. It sounds like Jack and the magic beanstalk.
Now, I grew up a suburban girl, nowhere close to a farm, but I’ve tried my hand at gardening, and believe me, it’s never been that easy. The only thing that grows like that is the Bishop’s weed I can’t get rid of, and the thistles, and the creeping Charlie in my yard that thrives because I don’t use chemicals. Oh, and the wild mustard plants that keep taking over.
So, yeah, what is it with the mustard plant in Jesus’ parable? There are so many problems with that story it’s hard to know where to start. The way he describes it, a mustard plant sounds like the mighty cedars Ezekiel tells of in his vision of God’s redemption:
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
So what’s with the mustard? First of all, Jesus, mustard is a shrub, not a tree. Second, it’s not strong enough for birds to nest in its branches. Third, it’s an annual, which means it wouldn’t even grow to shrub-size till way after nesting season. So why swap out a scrubby shrub for a noble cedar tree?
What’s Jesus getting at here? What kind of kingdom is God creating?
The only thing I can figure is that the kingdom of God is something God accomplishes, not us, and it’s going to become what God wants it to become. The kingdom of God has a life of its own. And the kingdom of God may start small, like a tiny seed, but it’s going to grow, and be abundant.
So maybe Jesus’ message is simply, “Relax: God’s got this.”
But can it really be that simple?
The book the PRISM class is reading this summer is called Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul, and the author, Hannah Anderson, uses her own knowledge of gardening to spin out theological wisdom. Taking a page out of Jesus’ book, it’s filled with horticultural images and stories.
One of the chapters describes Anderson’s determination to plant an herb garden. Her husband, the pastor of a small rural church, is also a gifted horticulturalist, and he’s the one who does the bulk of the work on their acreage. But Hannah always wanted an herb garden and finally decides do it, and do most of the work herself, in part to prove she can. So she prepares the soil, reads up on herbs, and buys a whole host of plants: mint, cilantro, and basil, rosemary, thyme and dill, flat-leaf parsley and curly, and even some pineapple sage. She prepares the soil some more, and plants and waters and mulches.
And the next day half the plants are dead. Within twenty-four hours, half of the plants are shriveled and gone.
It turns out that the mulch she used was toxic to the plants. “Sour mulch,” they call it, what happens when mulch decomposes without enough oxygen. Normally there’s a smell it gives off that warns gardeners, but not this time. There was no way she could have known, but there it was: half her plants were dead. Worse, the soil had absorbed the acidic chemicals. There was nothing she could do to fix it.[i]
When I read that I thought, that’s so much more a true picture of gardening than what Jesus described. And you know, honestly, that’s what trying to bring in the kingdom of God seems like, too. Like a lot of work that sometimes leads to nothing. You try and try and try to do the right thing. You’re determined to grow good in the world. You want your family and neighborhood and church to be healthy places where people thrive. And sometimes it feels like everything just falls apart. And you have no idea what more you could have done.
It’s not easy, Jesus. It’s really not so easy.
Sometimes the world’s problems just seem unbearable, intractable, overwhelming. The sheer meanness, cruelty and cold-heartedness are like sour mulch that kill of the very things that should thrive, things like compassion and generosity and humility – those gifts of the Spirit we keep hoping for.
And we’re just supposed to go to sleep and believe that in the morning, everything’s going to be all better? Just go harvest the bounty of righteousness that’s somehow growing all on its own?
I’d like to think we’re doing Kingdom work here in this church. I’d like to think that all the programs and ministries and mission are trying to serve the purpose of God, that all the hard work and volunteer hours and faithful labor are for something worthwhile, are accomplishing something: the Stephen Ministry training, and Deacons visits, and youth trips, and choir rehearsals and mission projects and Sunday School classes and groups that keep meeting. I’d like to think that the hours of work people put in here – gladly, most of the time – that it’s all for something – the hidden work of Personnel committee and Finance and Properties and Nominating and Staff. I’d like to believe that the generosity and sacrifices people make, for stewardship, and the Commitment Initiative – that all that is working for a purpose, and that the purpose has something to do with the Kingdom of God.
But this last week, as I was looking at this passage again after yet another 13-hour day, I found myself thinking, please, Jesus, you aren’t just telling me not to worry my pretty little head about it, are you? Because if that’s what you’re saying, Jesus, well, your timing is terrible.
And yet… he’s got a point. That’s the problem with having a Savior. You know he’s always right.
One of the great dangers in all the work we do for the sake of the Kingdom is believing it’s all up to us. Thinking that if we just work a little harder, do a little more, try more earnestly, recruit more workers, spend more time, then all will be well. As if it’s all in our hands. As if we have something to prove, like Hannah Anderson and her garden of herbs.
It’s not just that we’ll be exhausted. It’s not just that we will inevitably fail – some incident of sour mulch that seems to ruin everything. It’s not just that the problems are so great.
It’s that we can lose sight of whose Kingdom it really is. Whose garden we’re living in.
Those seeds? We didn’t make them, and we can’t control what they become.
The abundance? It’s not a command, or an expectation, or a goal; it’s a promise.
The result? It may not be a lofty cedar – a beautiful, sweeping tree with branches that reach to the sky. It may just be a shrub, scruffy and humble.
But maybe humility is part of what grows. Humility, and humor, and trust. Maybe the kingdom is exactly like that… and in the midst of all the busyness and worry and work, underneath the surface, something is growing in spite of ourselves:
Things like kindness… humility…. Love. The Kingdom of God in our midst.
[i][i] Hannah Anderson, Humble Roots, 99-100, 106-107