Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 14, 2015
+In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. Amen.
Can you imagine the sense of wonder and amazement for farmers in the time of Jesus to see the how the tiny seeds they planted produced such splendid crops? Unlike us, they had no scientific knowledge to support how it germinates and becomes food for the table. They tended to their garden the way their ancestors had taught them to and waited in hope that the earth would do the rest. Clearly, these two short parables must have gotten their attention. What about us? How can we twenty-first century urbanites relate to the message Jesus offers today?
The Reverend Barbara Brown Taylor, one of my favorite preachers and writers, offers this allegory:
“At me house there is a gardener and there is a worrier. The gardener is a pretty easy- going fellow. Every May or June he comes through the door with a brown paper sack full of seed packets and a couple of evenings later he can be found puttering around the yard, emptying the packages into shallow furrows, heaping the dirt into little mounds and curling pieces of fence around them.
“Several weeks later, plants appear in the strangest places. He has been known to plant green peppers between the azalea bushes and broccoli by the mailbox. For the second year in row a stand of asparagus is pushing up through the roots of the crepe myrtle trees and sweet pea vines are winding through the branches of the weeping cherry. In a few weeks, string beans will overtake the back deck of the house, covering everything in sight.
All of this drives the worrier crazy. She knows how gardens are supposed to be and this is not it. You are supposed to begin by buying a book, for one thing, with illustrations on how to arrange plants according to size, height, and drainage requirements. First you must test the soil; then you must fertilize, mulch, weed, and water; above all you must worry, or else how will your garden grow?
To her eternal dismay and amazement, there comes a day every summer when the gardener proclaims that the vegetables are ready. He goes out to collect them from all over the yard and a little while later the worrier sits down to a table heaped with manna. Against her will and better judgment she has to admit that he has done all right, in spite of his refusal to worry. This year there are even two dill plants that appeared out of nowhere, gifts from the earth itself.”
Isn’t that what Jesus says the kingdom of God is like? A man scatters the seed on the ground and then leaves it to the care of the earth. The Greek word that describes the process is “automatic,” that is the earth produces by itself and can be trusted to produce the plant without any anxiety or manure or extraordinary care or even the purchase of “Gardening for Dummies.”
So the lesson learned might be that we should no longer worry about our tomatoes or our peppers or our squash. The earth can be trusted to take care of them for us.
Well, that seem to work for the garden, but what about my life? It seems as though I am bound to manage it, to fuss about it, to plan it, and, of course, to worry about it. We live is a culture of anxiety—in the time between the planting and the reaping which is a time of great uncertainty. The media in all its configurations feeds our angst.
We really want to believe that God will act on our behalf the way God does in the automatic earth, but the skeptical side of our human nature has this burning urge to help God out—just in case. And in our fretfulness we spend an exorbitant amount of time and energy seeking to take control of the garden, even forcing the harvest any way we can.
Anxiety can consume us. It has become so much a part of our everyday life that it seems automatic. It can make us isolate from others, retreating into an unhealthy dark place where the sun never shines and nothing good grows. Ditching that anxiety does not mean that we are no longer responsible for our life or concerned about where it is heading but it does mean a conscious effort to give up incessant, relentless worrying about things over which we have little or no control and getting past the illusion that, unless we worry about everything at every waking moment, our lives will disintegrate.
The Good News today is that you and I can scatter our seeds with hope and reassurance —both in our garden and in the day to day affairs of life—because the growth of the Kingdom of God is in God’s hands, not ours. The apprehensive part of us would dictate that we just keep those seeds in their envelopes or plant them in tiny pots where we can dig them up everyday to monitor their growth—just to be sure.
Trusting that God is in the mix allows us to open our hand and scatter them wide and far as the wind blows. There is, of course, the temptation when it seems like nothing is happening, when God seems not to be present, when progress does not materializing soon enough for our time table, to take matters into our own hands and force the buds to sprout, instead of patiently tilling the soil over and over and giving God a chance to do God’s work.
Barbara Brown Taylor wraps up her allegory on the parables like this: “There in the dark, where you cannot see and do not know how, the automatic earth turns the death of your seeds into life, pushing up through layers of dirt, through asphalt, through concrete if necessary, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. Then it is your turn.
“You have watched and waited faithfully, knowing you cannot make the seed grow, knowing who can. It is your turn to harvest the crop, and let your table be heaped with good things, and sit down at it, and eat.”
With or without the scientific knowledge the farmers who first heard this parable had, or the advanced and sophisticated learning we enjoy, the growth of God’s creation, economy, and kingdom in all its diverse and marvelous expressions is sheer mystery.
It happens by anything but human anxiety and only through the work of the God’s creative Spirit. We can open our minds and hearts to receive God’s abundance or let our worry impair the growth of our mustard seed faith, blocking the sunlight. The happy alternative is that we trust that by grace God’s life will grow in us and flourish like a lofty and noble cedar tree and that our good work will produce more bounty than we ever imagined. No amount of worry will change the past. Every bit of hope we can muster up will change the future.