So, Jesus likes agricultural metaphors, does he? Mustard seeds…birds nesting in branches…farmers planting things and then picking the crops. Perfect! This stuff is right down my alley! Some of you might know that I have a small vegetable garden in my backyard and that I’m more than a little obsessed with it. In fact, I have become the butt of many jokes in my family. My father, who was raised on a farm but raised his own children in the suburbs, probably thinks I’m trying a little too hard to get back in touch with our agrarian roots. Melinda, my wife, has complained I’m neglecting her in favor of the sugar snap peas and the cucumber vines. I have been known to arrive home from work in the afternoon and go around back to spend a little time with the plants before I go in to say “hello” to her. In fact, she has said more than once that if ever a garden grew from someone just watching it, it would be mine.
The truth is I really don’t know what I’m doing and I worry like crazy about it. This is the third year I’ve really ever tried to grow vegetables, and I’m convinced they’re all going to die and all that time and effort will just dry up to a crisp in the hot July sun. In addition, the other pastor here is pretty competitive when it comes to tomato growing. I’ve been feeling the pressure to produce. Maybe at the end of the summer there’s going to be a big “tomato-off” or something. Nevertheless, I still don’t really know what I’m doing, and so I watch it…vigilantly…as if I will catch the tiny green leaves in the very process of unfolding.
And, to tell you the truth, sometimes I think I do. Sometimes I check the strawberries and find nothing ripe enough to pick. I’ll walk away for five minutes to study something else and come back and, what do you know? One of those strawberries got just a little redder while I looked away! And then I pick it to find that it’s mostly still white. I was just over-anxious.
Yes, Jesus’ agrarian metaphors and parables about growing things are right down my alley. The only problem is that the seed planter in his parable is the opposite of me. His garden grows whether he is vigilant about watching it or not. In fact, it sounds like he’s downright nonchalant about its well-being. “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.” No pacing around its perimeter, no daily monitoring of its progress. This garden just grows, producing what it needs to regardless of how conscious he is of it. Granted, he has work to do, but the gardener in the parable seems less concerned with how to measure it and how to tweak it and certainly less concerned with how to worry about it and more concerned with trusting that it will do what it’s supposed to. Yes, it has more to do with a faith that, in time—with the flow of seasons and the sunlight and the rainfall—things will grow and flourish just like God wants them to. With that in mind, I think of the Epiphany Gardeners here at church, who plant and work mainly on the odd weekend and afternoon, but otherwise leave it to itself. They know to wait until the strawberry is ripe before they go in with the sickle.
Yes, gardening may be right down our alley, but appreciating the growth of God’s kingdom is not right down our alley much of the time. And on some level, I find it easy to resent this simply little parable. Because—let’s be honest—when it comes to faith and mission and service to neighbor, we like to measure it. We want to see growth happen in the process. We want to catch, for example, the new believer’s life unfolding in faith before our very eyes. We want to be a part of the exciting new ministry that feeds the homeless, the Youth trip to New Orleans, or the invigorating Sunday School class because those are the times we’re sure the kingdom is breaking in all around us. We can just feel it, see it.
But what about the day-in, day-out duties of prayer and devotions? The commitment to weekly worship? Extending hospitality once again to the Sunday visitor? Practicing routine forgiveness with the people you’re living with? Those things not so much. And what about, in the midst of everything, trusting that God’s kingdom is truly unfolding, doing what it’s supposed to do, as all these more mundane, run-of-the-mill activities take place? That’s perhaps the trickiest part of it all.
Jesus’ lessons to his disciples about the kingdom are often very tricky. In the first place, they’re tricky because they’re trying to explain something that is essentially impossible to picture or place. Even Jesus himself seems to search for a worthy metaphor—“Hmmm…with what else can we compare the kingdom of God??”—choosing never to lecture or hold forth with some long-winded theological description that would probably bore everyone to tears. No, Jesus gives experiences, speaks in images. And in this morning’s first parable, God’s kingdom can best be described as a growth that happens mysteriously and is never entirely dependent on the work of you or me.
This is something his disciples will need to know before they go much further. Right here at the beginning he’s telling them, “When you’re out there ministering to people, doing the work of grace, spreading the news of God’s love, don’t get distracted by the mechanisms of how it’s all supposed to work. That’s not necessary for God’s kingdom to appear amongst you. In other words,” Jesus tells us, “Don’t constantly pace the perimeter like that silly Pastor Phillip, clinging to every leaf and blossom.” Do what you can and let the rest take its course.
And, above all, don’t be too obsessed with grandiosity. That is the lesson of the mustard seed. Don’t be obsessed with grandiosity, because God’s not. What may look tiny and insignificant or ugly or paltry boring at the beginning is still the perfect place for God to get a foothold. God is not obsessed with grandiosity. And we know this as the Christian’s journey begins with just a simple bath of water and the words of forgiveness. Jesus knows that we often seek after the big and the great and the impressive, sometimes building enormous cathedrals and dreaming up all kinds of flashy, fancy schemes. But God isn’t obsessed with grandiosity, choosing to gather us for nourishment each week with a small chunk of bread and a cup of wine. As his disciples venture forth, they will need to know this because the world, by contrast, is quite taken with the powerful and take-them-by-storm approach, and it will be difficult in the church to fight that urge.
Yet, no matter how well they keep these lessons at the back of their minds, they will never quite be able to predict just how unimpressed with grandiosity and—on the other hand—utterly fascinated with the weak and downtrodden Jesus’ Father actually is. At the cross, we all will see just how God can use the weakest, ugliest, most insignificant of beginnings to grow the grace of his kingdom. And, like the birds of the air, all God’s children may come to roost in the branches of this tree.
My uncle, who is pastor at a congregation in South Carolina, told me a story while I was in seminary of something that happened to him a good twenty years after he was ordained. He had already served as chaplain in the US Army for twenty years, having been stationed in three foreign countries and at least twice that many US States. He had finally moved back to take a call at this church in the Columbia area. One day, he was in the check-out line at a grocery store when the guy in front of him turned around and said, “Are you Vicar Bob?”
Surprised, my uncle responded, “Yes, although he hadn’t been called “vicar” since those days in seminary. My uncle didn’t recognize this person, but deduced that this man must remember him from over 20 years before. He started to rack his brain, but he admitted he didn’t know the man’s name or even how he might know him. The younger man said, “You were my youth director at church.”
My uncle said he racked his brain again. He could only remember being a youth director one time—it was for a brief 4 months interim period at a rural church that happened to be within a few miles of that grocery store during his first year of seminary. It had been such a short, almost meaningless job at the time that he hadn’t really considered himself an official youth director, much less a vicar. He vaguely remembered there had a been a handful of youth there, and he had signed up for the position to get class credit before he went away on internship. My uncle said something like, “Oh, yeah, OK. I remember now. That was a long time ago.”
The man then went on to say, “You were great with us. I will never forget the time you spent there. I still live around here, and am still at that church and am so thankful you got me involved with those silly games you taught us to play.”
My uncle thanked him and continued to bag his groceries, and then they parted ways. Bobby told me that on the way out to his car he began to recall in those short days at that rural church a particularly messy-haired kid who never really fit in with everyone else, who he thinks might have attended once or twice. That was the man in the grocery store line.
You just never know, do you? God is not obsessed with grandiosity…at least not at the outset. In fact, it’s almost like God is obsessed with the insignificant. And there is no need to pace the perimeter to check and measure the growth potential of every little action and word. That was just the story of one pastor. Imagine the breadth of your own ministries and interactions! The kingdom can begin and grow right here, among us. Day in and day out…we just never know how.
But God does. As it turns out, this kind of gardening—these kinds of holy and blessed encounters, sprouting from what looks like nowhere but nevertheless reaching up, up, up to include all kinds in his embrace—is right down God’s alley.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.