Updated: Aug 13, 2021
I am not much of a gardener. This is a source of shame to my green-thumbed mother, who one gave me a seedling from a plant that had been in my stepfather’s family for generations with the words, “Even you can’t kill this.” I did. When I first came to Grace, our Altar Guild leader Elaine would ask me my opinion about the altar flowers and I would say, “I really don’t know anything about flowers. I trust your judgment.” I don’t think she believed me at first, but I know she does now. Her incredulity reflects the widely held opinion that a priest- who is, after all, in a profession which requires patience, nurturing, and precision, cannot apply those skills to cultivating the growth of one of God’s simpler creatures.
Perhaps that’s why today’s gospel is comforting to me. In it, Jesus presents two parables, one of which is only found in the Gospel of Mark. Some scholars call this story “The Parable of the Automatically Growing Seed.” In it, Jesus tells his disciples that 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.” Now that’s my kind of gardening: throw the seed on the ground, go to sleep, and wake up to, if not a beanstalk, then a very healthy and useful plant.
I can see many of you shaking your heads, thinking, “but that’s not really how it happens – or at least not with nice plants and flowers. Good landscaping requires painstaking planning and almost constant labor. There is feeding, watering, weeding, mowing, and trimming to be done. Things do not simply grow – unless they’re weeds- and we don’t want that sort of thing in our garden. We tend to think that it is the same with our faith; we can’t just go out and plant the idea of God. We can’t just say, “Jesus loves you and so do I.” We need to have doctrine and liturgy and structure because without these things religion will die – won’t it?
The answer to that question can be found in what the Gospel of Mark records as the first parable that Jesus told his disciples – which we did not hear last week because the Revised Common Lectionary gave us the story of Jesus casting out a demon instead, but is well-known to most of us. In the Parable of the Sower, we meet another gardener who sows seeds but we hear a great deal more detail about what happens to those seeds. Depending on where they land and what they encounter, some of those seeds flourish and some wither and die. The cares of the world, lack of understanding, greed, and selfishness – all intervene to destroy God’s creation. And yet many are saved – how? It is not by the quality of the seed or the care of the gardener; it is by the grace of God – and by God’s grace alone.
This simple fact has been – and remains – a stumbling block for Christians wherever the seed of faith is planted. We can pray and volunteer – prune and trim – study and water -but we gain nothing by our own efforts if we do not ultimately give ourselves over to the will and Grace of God. We say that we seek the kingdom of God, but forget that it is not something that we can achieve through our own labors. Make no mistake; there is work we can do on behalf of that kingdom – coming to church, studying the Bible, helping others. “A righteous life is expected at the judgment. But it is accomplished not by trying to achieve a righteousness of one’s own but by receiving righteousness from God as a gift.” Accepting that gift and surrendering to it is our primary job in this celestial equation.
This may be bad news for hard-core gardeners -because this means accepting that no matter how much we seek to intervene in the life of the seeds we plant, all of our work can disappear in the wake of a single hurricane, flood, or fire. But this is part of God’s nature; God often does things that are completely unexpected – things like making a zealous persecutor of Christians into their primary evangelist. Things like making a shepherd boy into a great king who unites the disparate tribes of Israel. Things like allowing his only son to live and die as a human being. The crucial – and extremely difficult – part for us is to let go of trying to control the growth process – to trim and prune and mow the seedlings that come out of our faith – and that of others – into our own vision of God’s kingdom. It is human nature to attempt to control the world around us, to build it in our own reflection. We are always more comfortable when look around and see things – and people – that are familiar, that mirror our image. We pray, as the psalmist did, to have God accept our offerings, anoint us as his beloved, to give victory to our people. But God answers us by doing not what we want, but what we need – and asks us to continue to put our trust in him. This is what we must pray for. Not that we are excused from judgment – for we will not be – but that when we are judged we are able to say that we trusted God and put Christ at the center of our lives.
This is so much harder than it looks, because it means that we need to open ourselves up to allow God to make something new out of us. The truth is that many of us struggle with our self-identities and whether we are “good enough,” but we still prefer to hang on to the old familiar us than to make wholesale changes in who we are. Change through Christ, however, “does not mean disappearance of the old and a fresh creation ex nihilo; it is more like a re-creation, a transformation of the humanity that is already created but has been subjected to sin and death.” In other words, what is good in us will endure and what is not will be extracted with care.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy, but, fortunately, we don’t have to do it alone. Research demonstrates that human beings are “pack” creatures, drawn to living in community – and God knows this. For every individual that is remade through relationship with Jesus the Christ, the community of Christ grows. “The remade creation is the image for a community of people transformed in Christ. [We are communally a new creation]. [Our] relationships with one another in the community of Christ’s body are reshaped toward mutual concern, grounded in confidence in God…The transformation of relationships in the new creation will be described with another word, ‘reconciliation,’ with one another and with God.
God transforms us because God loves us and God wants to be with us. “The harvest will come without us having to work for it, because God adores us and it is this love that is the power of growth.”  This, according to Paul, is what gives us confidence, and what will allow us to stop trying to micromanage our relationship with God and one another. Have faith: let the seeds scatter and land where God wills; let the world and its people grow as God would shape them, and trust that the kingdom of God will come, not through our own works, but through God’s grace and glory. AMEN.
Eugene Teselle, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 136.
Eugene Teselle, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 138.
Cynthia Briggs Kittredge, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 139.
Wendy Farley, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 142.