Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2018
Year B, Proper 6: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
CLICK HERE to listen to the recorded sermon.
This week I had the opportunity to meet with a young woman who is applying for the diaconate in the Diocese of Virginia. To be a deacon is to be an ordained member of the clergy. For those of you who don’t know what a deacon is, Marty tells me that one of the deacon’s primary roles is to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.
Part of the application process is to write what is called a “Personal History and Reflections. She writes reams of paper (the Diocese says it should be no more than 25 pages!) in answer to questions. I read them and offer advice and support.
It’s what can be referred to as a spiritual autobiography and there’s often a common theme among spiritual autobiographies. Many allude to or directly quote the famous theologian and writer, Thomas Merton and his famous autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain. In it Merton wrote,
“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does, in fact, please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.”[i]
I used it. The young lady I met used it. It resonates with me and others, I think, because it makes the Kingdom of God very real to us. Merton is giving us a parable about the Kingdom of God as much as Jesus is conveying important information to the disciples in the Gospel of Mark today. Merton was recognized our fallibility, but clearly points out that God will lead us by the right road though, but he also points out that God will lead us and we may know nothing about it.
And here’s what Jesus had to say:
“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”.[ii]
The Kingdom of God is with us always and we have nothing at all to do with how it happens in us. The seed will sprout and grow, but we do not know how.
One of the things I am not is a gardener. I am thrilled for those who are wonderful gardeners. My mother was one.
When I went off to college my mother insisted on giving me a spider plant for my dorm room. I didn’t water that thing for four years. Yet, for its entire life during my college years that spider plant continued to grow. It defied expectations, much like the Kingdom of God defies expectations.
Chapter Four of Mark can be described as the “famous parable chapter”.[iii] Jesus offers the parable of the sower, the parable of the lamp under a bushel, the parable of a growing seed and the parable of a mustard seed. That’s a lot of parable activity in 41 verses.
Why does Jesus do this?
From the outset of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus is proclaiming the Kingdom of God. In today’s Gospel, he’s explaining it. These are two agricultural parables to explain what the Kingdom of God is like. And the Kingdom as explained by Jesus isn’t necessarily what we expect.
When you think about the mustard seed, especially for the gardeners among us, it’s not a flowering shrub that we would place around our church as a beautiful accent. It’s an invasive weed, something you want to keep out of your garden and lawn at all costs because it runs amok quite easily.
That’s how Jesus was describing the Kingdom of God. But think, really think, about what that description tells us.
The first parable is about someone scattering seed on the ground – that person sleeps and rises, sleeps and rises. There’s not even an indication that the seed was being watered, yet it continued to grow just like that spider plant.
Whoever scattered that seed wasn’t in control of it.
Mark’s Jesus is basically telling us that we are not in control of what grows or where it grows. It’s not up to us. That’s hard for us to understand because we are used to being very much in control. We are powerless to control the Kingdom of God, we are unable to dictate who and how people come to the Kingdom.
This is uncomfortable. It’s uncomfortable because it makes us feel vulnerable. God’s reign comes apart from our efforts, it cannot be controlled or influenced, and can only be received as a gift.
The seeds are planted and grow. Jesus is telling us though that the Kingdom of God will grow even when we do not know how.
A useful metaphor perhaps is that of us as a garden. The scattered seeds are spread in us or scattered by us. But God grows them.
I think about who planted seeds in our lives how they bloomed, sometimes when it was least expected. When I ask the question of others of who has planted seeds in lives, one answer I often hear is a parent, a grandparent or a teacher. Sometimes an aunt or uncle, or a good friend.
Think about teachers. They get up in a classroom and they try to teach students, to guide them, to form them. But, they don’t know what will happen. They hope and trust that something good will come from those lessons.
It’s the same thing with parents. Most parents love their children and try to raise them to the best of their ability. Yet, again they have no idea what those children will become as adults. The result is not in their control or our control, just as the one who scattered the seed had no control. It just happens.
We must trust in God that the results of the seed we spread will be fruitful. When we think about the lives we touch, we must think about that as individuals and as a Christian community.
There’s so much around us today, as there always has been, that may press us down in spirit. There is still prejudice and injustice, the intractability of some problems and conditions. It’s difficult indeed to know the ways of God when we see young children seized from their parents, in violation of God’s ways and in violation of international law. When we see children used as a negotiating tactic.
Make no mistake. We are called as Christians, as members of the realm of God to address and condemn these outrageous actions. Because ultimately the realm of God is about love and mercy.
I do believe that God is always working to bring about God’s will in unexpected and marvelous ways, like the things that can grow from the tiniest seed. Part of the unexpected outcome this week is a collective religious voice growing to stop what is happening to these children. I’ve heard from religious leaders I thought I would never have any common ground with.
God’s purpose in our lives is beyond both our understanding and control. We are called to keep planting the seeds, but we can’t know how they turn out. We touch lives and we hope that something positive takes root; ultimately, we must trust God to take care of those lives.
God is in control and God’s work in humanity can be imperceptible. Yet, sometimes something occurs, and we know it can only be the work of God. There are more than a few of us who living proof of God’s loving abundance.
The kingdom will come. It will take root. It will grow. We’re called to help build it, but we can’t control it. We just keep planting the seeds.
“Your kingdom come, your will be done.”
[i] (Merton 1948)
[ii] (Mark 4:27, NRSV)
[iii] (Blount 2016)
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