As the wind blew through the leaves on the giant oak tree above my head, I strained to see the sky through the blanket of bright green and flittering sunlight. As a kid, I would lay under this giant oak tree that took up its residence at the back of my parent’s land; soaring about 100 feet into the air this oak tree gave shade to my childhood, and its sprawling roots laying the foundation upon which I would do what every child considers to be a holy and sacred act: playing outside. I remember wondering as a kid, with leaf-filtered sunlight dancing across my face how this tree got to where it is. I grew up with a forest behind our yard, and never questioned how those trees got there, but in the mostly manicured landscape of our yard, this sprawling, giant oak did not make sense; I would wonder if someone had planted it, or if it had grown wild. I wondered if it was hundreds of years old and what our yard looked like before the house was built. Even as a kid, I saw the weathered, rough bark and thought about all that this tree had seen and all that it had endured.
Our gospel passage today gives us two parables about the ways in which plants grow, but unlike this mighty oak tree that is a paragon of my childhood, these parables take a different turn. This passage gives us two parables about the kingdom of God. The first is commonly known as the “Seed Growing Secretly,” and in it, the farmer scatters seed and then goes about his life, sleeping at night and rising in the day. The seed begins to grow, slowly at first, and then to full completion, even though the farmer does not know how it does this. The second parable is a commonly known parable that describes the kingdom of God as the tiniest of seeds, and then it grows into know only a stalk, but it grows large enough for bids to make nests therein. Jesus uses parables to teach and to explain the unexplainable: what the kingdom of God is like.
Parables are tricky because they take a difficult thing to understand and try to make sense of it in common terms. In both of our parables, the commonness of Jesus’ metaphors might be just a bit lost on us. In the first parable, the farmer plants the seed and goes about his life, entirely depending on the gestation of those seeds, but never fully understanding what exactly happens under the soil. In 2018, this metaphor might fall flat. Maybe you have seen time-lapsed video of a seed, with first tendril of a root break through and reaching down into the soil. We know that plants need water, sun, and vitamins and minerals from the soil to grow and even for those of us without a green thumb, seeds rarely grow secretly.
In the second parable, the mustard seed might sound familiar to us, because we know this parable, or because we know that if we have the faith of a mustard seed, we can move mountains; or maybe, like me, you envision the mustard seeds in stone ground mustard that’s found in the grocery store. But in the middle east, where Jesus was sharing these parables, mustard grew wild and shrubby. The surprise twist of this parable is not the ending, but the beginning. Jesus sets up this parable, and instead of comparing the kingdom of God to a mighty oak or a tall cedar, he compares it to, what was essentially, a weed, one that grows into the mightiest of…shrubs?
I find parables tricky as well because they can become so familiar to us; it can be so easy to hear what we want to hear, but parables point us in the right direction, all while never explicitly describing what they are about.
So, what do these two parables have to say to us today; in what direction are they pointing us? These two parables are about growth and growing, because God is at work in our lives and in the world, and we get to be a part of it. These parables are all about the fact that great things come from small beginnings, like the greatest of all shrubs that comes from the tiny mustard seed. These parables are not about massive actions that a person of faith takes to be true to their life’s work and to their baptismal vows, but it is about the slow, daily rhythm of planting the seed, praying for growth, and the surprise of the fruit that it yields.
These parables teach us that we have to get planting. Everything we do is planting a seed. Everything. I did not grow up on a farm, but I’ve had enough conversations with farmers to know that being a farmer is hard work. It may be easy to hear that first parable and think that the farmer did do anything, but as the farmers in our congregation will tell you, being farmer is a life of hard work. Jesus explicitly named the primary character in this parable as a farmer (not a tax collector or market seller), and this farmer does a lot of work tending and preparing the fields, and THEN the farmer plants the seeds and begins to let nature take its course. Everything we do, from how we treat the cashier at the grocery store to how we interact with folks who are very different from us, is planting a seed, and we have to be mindful of what we are planting.
And when we are planting, it is important for us to remember that the success isn’t up to us. There is nothing you can do to make those seeds yield bigger or better fruit; the seed grows by God’s grace producing good things, and we cannot and do not force it to happen. It was not the farmer’s planting alone that brought the harvest in our parable, but it was God at work through the farmer and in the farmer’s world. The farmer plants, sleeps and rises, and when the harvest comes, every time the harvest comes, the farmer is not the same as he was when he first planted. Just as everything we do is planting a seed, planting a seed alone is not enough. We have to spend the time while we wait for God’s kingdom to come pray for the growth, and remember that this work of planting and praying is not our work alone, but it is God at work within and through us.
And I think when we are planting, and as we are praying, it is important for us to remember that the fruit that it yields might not look like we expect it to. The mustard seed yields not a small plant as one might expect with the size of the seed, nor does it yield something giant and powerful like one might expect when it is used to help us understand the kingdom of God. The parable of the mustard seed is many things, but the prosperity gospel it is not; this is not the story of expecting Christianity and the kingdom of God to be the most powerful, to be the plant that everyone admires. This parable teaches us that in the kingdom of God, it is the exiled and the unwanted, like the birds that make their nests, that find a home and find safety in God’s kingdom. This parable teaches us that God is at work in powerful, and sometimes unexpected ways. This parable teaches us that though we are vital in the work of the kingdom of God, we do not set the boundaries of it.
As you go out into the world today, get to planting. Be mindful of what you say and how you treat people because you are planting seeds. Give those you meet the opportunity to feel seen, loved, and cared for; do the hard work of trying to plant and share God’s grace and love. And as you plant, pray. Pray for God’s kingdom to come just as we do when we pray the Lord’s Prayer; pray for the seeds you plant to bring about something holy and good in the lives of other people and in our world, and pray for all the work that is left to be done. And as you plant and pray, remember that it is not our own kingdom that we are hoping to come – it is God’s. When we work to help bring about the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God changes us, and just as the coming of the kingdom of God takes time, we have to allow ourselves to be changed in that time as we plant and as we pray.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY June 17, 2018, Proper 6B on Mark 4:26-34.