[The Pickled Pastor will be preaching again this Sunday! Yay! My sermon follows below.]
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. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” Mark 4:26-29
Anyone who has grown so much as a tomato plant in a pot recognizes the absurdity in Jesus’ story of the sower. Crops require care in their planting and plenty of water and tending if one hopes to succeed in growing juicy red Jersey tomatoes or tender sweet ears of corn. Had Jesus intended his instruction to be taken as agricultural advice, the fields of the faithful would have, through the centuries, ended up scorched and barren and taken over by weeds. Jesus was not, however, talking about agriculture, so please feel free to keep watering your tomatoes! No, Jesus was talking about the Kingdom of God, the coming of which does require patient and prayerful waiting on our part. There really is little else we can do. Once the seeds have been scattered, any effort on our part to insure a bumper crop for Jesus can only result in our risking doing more harm than good.
There is a resiliency and wonder to God’s creation from which we can, however, draw much needed encouragement in our waiting. Take, for example, the lowly dandelion. Have you ever tried to eradicate dandelions from your yard? Such is no easy task. They are stubborn little devils. You can “Roundup” until the proverbial cows come home, but dare to sleep and rise night and day for a week or so and you’ll have a whole new crop of sunny yellow faces mocking you from your otherwise well-tended lawn. A miracle of sorts, really. Survival and proliferation are tucked into their DNA. I smile every time I see a child pluck up a puffy white dandelion and blow. I cannot help but wonder if children, too, were not part of God’s plan at the time of Creation, innocently helping the Sower in the scattering of His seeds. Children have never tended to these plantings of breath and breeze, yet those pesky little dandelions do keep popping up everywhere—dancing happily in the summer sun.
We think of weeds as a nuisance to be plucked up and destroyed. Still, after millennia of planting and tending and harvesting, weeds persist in their annual taunting. Why do you suppose that is? Might it not be God’s gentle reminder to amateur gardeners and farmers alike that, when all is said and done, any harvest that comes of our plantings is God’s doing and not ours? I believe weeds are proof positive that human beings simply aren’t in charge. Which is an incredibly good thing, because whenever we get to thinking that we’re responsible for the harvest, it’s like saying we are the ones who make tomatoes and corn to grow. I don’t care how green you fancy your thumb to be, you can’t do that. Only God can make tomatoes and corn to grow. The same God that designed the DNA of a dandelion created tomato plants and corn stalks just so, so that they may grow and blossom and bear the very fruit that makes it possible for you to plant your seeds and kernels year after year. It truly is a miracle. Really.
One of my favorite places in south Jersey is the Edwin B. Forsythe Wildlife Refuge. The broadness of the horizon somehow opens my eyes to new possibilities and, especially when I am feeling stressed, I find I can breathe easier there. Along with providing a place of safe refuge for water fowl and other critters, it is also a place where weeds are free to grow unhindered. Yes, Forsythe is one of those magical places where weeds are no longer considered weeds, but rather “native plants” given room and space to grow and thrive and give full expression to the design embedded in them by their Creator. In early June, the vegetation in the refuge is beautiful. There are dandelions, sure, but also mustard weed and clover and dozens of other flowering plants bursting with color and purpose. Each one holding within itself the magic of its survival: seeds sown by bird and breeze, the scattering of the Sower. The whole of creation sleeps and rises night and day, paying no mind to the harvest. Winter comes and goes. The snow melts in springtime. And every year, by early June, the grasses, the weeds, the wonder—reappears.
I believe the same can be said of the Kingdom. You and I, we tend to equate the coming of the Kingdom to the condition of the church. We scatter the seeds of the Gospel and then we till and tend like crazy—as if we’re responsible for God’s harvest; as if we have the ability to raise up believers from among the weeds. Seasons come and go. The church thrives and we congratulate ourselves. The church dwindles and we blame ourselves. Surely there is something we can do. Revitalize our youth ministry. Incorporate a more contemporary style in our worship. Introduce a new program. All such efforts are to be applauded. Potentially, they will make for an enhanced experience for members; maybe even get a few visitors to “stick;” but, no matter how successful we fancy ourselves and our church to be, we simply can’t make believers. Only God can. We have been entrusted with the Gospel, with seeds to scatter and sow. But we can’t take credit for believers any more than we can for the tomatoes and corn we proudly pick out of our back yard gardens. God does that.
Perhaps our role as church is less about raising up a hearty crop of Christians as it is about providing safe refuge for the fullness of God’s creation. Who decides which stems to nurture and which need to be rooted out? How can we possibly determine whether what appears to us as weeds may not, in fact, be the most treasured of the Sower’s plantings? Certainly Jesus showed a certain partiality to the more scraggly stems among God’s people: the poor, the leapers, tax collectors and prostitutes. Somehow, Jesus was able to recognize in weeds such as these the embedded DNA of the Creator; saw in those the world may have regarded as undesirables the coming of the Kingdom in its fullness. The very last thing the Sower needs is gardeners the likes of you and me offering our conflicting opinions and haphazard willingness to help His harvest along. Best we stick to scattering and leave the increase to God.
After a week of rain, I spent last Sunday afternoon at Forsythe breathing deeply and taking in the wonder and beauty of my surroundings. The sky was clear and blue. The sunlight reflected on the water like so many gemstones glistening. And wildflowers were blooming everywhere: yellows and purples and so many shades of white. Yes, even the occasional dandelion by the roadside seemed to dance. Here was the splendor and fullness of God’s creation as God intended it, all tucked safely within the refuge—far and away from the asphalt and misguided prosperity of the world. And I got to thinking—this; this is the work to which the church is called. Not with grit and determination to inch ourselves ever closer to the coming of the Kingdom. No, the Kingdom is best left safely in God’s hands. But rather to scatter the seeds of the Gospel faithfully, trusting the Sower, and then provide a place of safe refuge to believers and undesirables alike; recognizing, even in those we may regard as the weeds among us, the embedded DNA of the Creator.
The seeds will grow, though we know not how. Tender sprouts finding refuge in our buildings, our prayers, and our hearts. Joining their voices to ours, praying for the coming of the Kingdom. Gathering at our Lord’s Table of Grace. Washing one another in the wet promises of Baptism. All of us together; growing in God’s perfect time; thriving according to the will and purpose of our Creator; safe in the refuge of His boundless mercy. When the grain is ripe, the Master Gardner will return with His sickle. All in God’s time, my beloved. All in God’s time. We are left to sleep and rise and wait and pray. Do me a favor; just a single little favor for this week’s supply preacher: next time you see a puffy white dandelion, before you run for the Roundup, conger up your inner child, reach down, pluck it up in your hand and blow. Then take a moment to marvel at the mystery and wonder of Creation. God is oh, so good. May His Kingdom come. Amen.