words of my mouth

Pentecost IV

Mark 4:26-34

At last – it’s summer – and with summer comes all the wonderful activities we all eagerly anticipate. For some folks that means cookouts, for others it’s a trip to the shore, or vacation time, and for some it means – gardening season has arrived. My mother passed on to me her avid love of gardening, and as the weather warms, along with raking, mowing, weeding, and pruning comes planting.

Living in the city, as we do here, planting often involves buying a plant or shrub, taking it from its pot, and putting in the ground. Nonetheless, every year some of us faithfully plant a few seeds. Seeds need to have soil, and the soil needs to be tilled and cultivated to allow the seeds to have space to germinate. There needs to be sufficient water and nutrients in the soil to nurture the seed, and thus we gardeners must apply water and fertilizer regularly in order for the seed to sprout. This is all fairly simple and straightforward. Jesus uses simple images for His message, but the message is never simple and straightforward, thus we can easily miss some of the deeper and more hidden messages in His now familiar parables.

Usually, when we plant seeds, they are buried in the soil. They dwell in the darkness. While in the darkness, they may absorb nutrients from the fertilizers in the soil and go through transformation. How long will it take for this transformation take place? We can guess, maybe the seed package gave us a general idea, but we do not know the exact timing. What exactly occurs in the darkness? We do not know. Will anything grow from the seed? That’s a good question, but we have no answer for that either. As a matter of fact, we may use the best fertilizer, water as often as we should, and tend to the seed passionately, but sometimes nothing grows from it. However, we have faith that something will grow from seeds and plant them anyway.

Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is 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.”

Planting is a wonderful metaphor for our spiritual journey and spiritual growth. When we first come to know God, it probably is because someone has planted the seed in us. When we were little our parents brought us to Sunday school, where we heard the exciting stories of the Old Testament and the wonderful ones about Jesus. As adults we go to church to worship and listen to the messages, and to study the Bible and other teachings. We befriend our fellow church members, and hear their stories. These are the times when the seeds of our faith are planted, and when, after planting, the nurturing takes place. As we grew up, surrounded by our loving church community, we were moved to accept God. We also watched as some friends chose not to do this, and drifted away. How long does transformation into faith filled people take? We do not know.

However, we do know that the very first step into our faith began, for most of us, when we were tiny babies – when we were baptized. In the Congregational Church, part of the baptismal service goes as follows:

Jesus said: Unless we are born anew, we cannot see the reign of God; unless we are born of water and the spirit, we cannot enter God’s new order. Paul the Apostle said: All of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into Christ’s death. We were buried therefore with Christ by baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead, to the glory of God, we too might walk in newness of life. (First Congregational Church of Christ, La Crosse, Wisconsin)

This is like the metaphor of planting. Someone plants the seeds, but if the seed is not buried and never releases its old form, it is difficult to sprout into new shoots and have new life. Therefore, following Jesus, we need to die from our old lives, as the service says, be “baptized into Christ’s death”, before we can be born again.

When the seed is buried in the soil, it dwells in the darkness. While in the darkness, it absorbs the sustenance in the soil and goes through transformation. Our life journey can be the same. It helps greatly as we go through life to remember that sometimes it is when we feel buried in dark moments, surrounded by stinky manure, that we are actually receiving God’s gracious blessings.

Accepting dark times is one of the hardest things we have to do, and so, we may become afraid and reject the Presence of God. Then we get choked by the darkness and the smelly environment, and no spiritual growth occurs. By accepting the grace of God, we go through transformation and have new life. Eventually, the plant inside the seed will break through the soil and sprout into a small plant, grow leaves, flowers, and then fruits. Through enduring the dark times; new life emerges.

Jesus also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

We, today, probably do not hear this parable in the same way as Jesus’ listeners did. For one thing, the assembled group probably would have expected for Jesus to say something like, “The kingdom of God is like the cedars of Lebanon.” This would have made good sense – to compare God’s kingdom to something large and strong. But no! Jesus picks something that grows from the tiniest of seeds, something that, to the listeners of His day, was a weed. And not only a weed, but a weed that was persistent, annoying, impossible to eradicate.

Mustard bushes came up everywhere, and people were constantly trying to get rid of them. Jesus knew this was an image that would stick in the minds of His listeners. The hated mustard bush, that which everyone saw as a pest, the last thing you’d want to find in your field or garden – this is the bush Jesus uses as an example of the kingdom of God. Instead of having choosen something tall majestic and beautiful, Jesus chose something small, pesky, and unwanted for His image of the kingdom of heaven.

The mustard seed was indeed an image that Jesus’ listeners would carry away with them and remember. And it no doubt puzzled many of those who heard Him, because the worldly view was that the mustard bush was unwanted. But there is a purpose here, a greatness, that such a view entirely overlooks. The greatness of the mustard bush is not about the bush itself, but about its effect in offering protection and a resting place to others. The crowd would remember, as should we, that the kingdom of God is not for material gain, not for anything profitable by worldly standards, it is for God’s love for us, and our love for God and each other.

Our reading this morning, from Mark’s Gospel, reminds us that first and foremost the reign of God is the planting of the Lord - planted without asking our permission or seeking our counsel. Yet, we too can be farmers or at least solid farm hands. The trick is to pay attention to what the seed needs and then do it, and to take nourishment as the Lord provides. We are promised that the kingdom of God will persistently wait for us and, even in this life, shelter us and support us.

On our good days we know the Grace of God as an immediate Presence in our lives. Other days, as the struggle dominates, we feel we are in darkness. When we emerge from dark days, it is in retrospect that we behold the Love that was there, but somehow was hidden from our sight. We want to be used by the Lord, we want to be His servants, His saints, but we are often confused or lead astray because our vision of success is not usually that of darkness, smallness, hiddenness, of Cross and Resurrection.

We, who are nurtured and encouraged to grow in the Spirit, who struggle with faith through the dark times in our lives, who are always supported by our Heavenly Father, we are beloved of our Lord Jesus. We are the ones who are called to bear fruit. We may look around and not see anything that tells us we have been successful in the way the world sees success. But we are not called to be successful in a way the world understands; we are the little seeds who have been called to change, to grow, to bear fruit, to be faithful.

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus, we thank You and praise You for the everlasting life that You have given us by Your wonderful grace and love. May we grow day by day to be more like You, full of compassion and kindness. Saturate our hearts with Your love so that we may love You more with every passing breath and each other in Your Name. We ask this for Your love and mercy’s sake – Amen.

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