The Third Sunday after Pentecost; Read Mark 4:26-34
Mark 4 is the “Seed Section” of that gospel. Today we get two small parables and a conclusion from that chapter. The first parable describes the Reign of God as seed that grows on its own. The second parable describes the Reign of God something that starts small and grows to huge size. The conclusion assures us that the Good News of the Reign of God comes to us as we’re able to hear it.
When we Christians read the Gospel parables, we need to read them with Jesus at the center if the story. When we get a parable with a seed falling into the earth, for example, we need to think about Jesus’ death and burial.
Jesus does that himself in John twelve, verse twenty-four. “Very truly, I tell you,” he declares to us disciples, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Jesus “falls” into the ground and dies. No one can see what is happening. Everyone assumes that nothing good can come. But soon he bursts forth, and the harvest of the New Creation begins. That harvest continues in our lives by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Notice just how little control the farmer has over the crop in that first parable. Jesus says, the earth produces the seed “of itself.” The Greek word there is “automateh”—the ancient root of our word, “automatic.” God is in charge of the growth. We get to help with the harvesting.
For forty years, I have been asked in a variety of settings about how to “make the church grow.” That’s been the subtext of every interview with call committees. It was part of my job when I worked for a judicatory and a denomination. It was the overt focus of my longest-term call. It was the agenda of a whole movement early in my ministry career – the “church-growth movement.”
The question was always the same. What’s the technique, method, structure, focus, philosophy and/or product that will produce reliable growth (usually measured in attendance numbers) in a congregation? People have made lots of money and staked themselves to productive careers proposing a variety of answers to the question.
What I learned the hard way is that the answer is easy. Get out of the way. The Holy Spirit wants the Church to grow in any and every way that facilitates the continued coming of the Reign of God. We don’t have to “make” the church grow. There’s no cultivation technique or theological fertilizer or ecclesial gardening tool that offers the magic solution. The Reign of God is like a seed that grows automatically.
If it’s that easy, why don’t we just do it? Join me for a bit in my garden, if you will. I want things to grow on my schedule, according to my specifications, and for my purposes. I want tomatoes and cucumbers and onions and potatoes (and several other things as well). I don’t want little trees and dandelions and bindweed. I certainly don’t want powdery mildew and Japanese beetles. In order to make the garden do what I want, I have to exert force and effort.
It’s anything but automatic.
Now, growing vegetables is a fine thing. The effort is rewarded, most of the time. But I don’t have to exert that sort of effort in our pollinator garden, where we have native plants that do quite well on their own, thank you very much. If those plants were in my vegetable beds, they would be weeds and would quickly be pulled. Same plants – different agenda.
The Church does not grow automatically, because we seek to maintain and manage and monitor the growth according to our specifications. We guard against any changes that might make us uncomfortable. We weed out any nonconforming species and maintain a monolithic monoculture. We provide only the minimum spiritual and financial resources necessary to sustain the organization as it is, and as we like it.
In short, we often do everything we can to make sure that growth is anything but “automatic.”
We are called to relentlessly root out the roadblocks to growth in and through the Church. That will be quite enough work for any faithful church leader.
Then there’s the mustard seed. Certainly, mustard seed is tiny when compared to other seeds. But size isn’t the real issue. Mustard is not something you have to plant and cultivate. You wouldn’t find mustard plants in the local gardens in Nazareth or Capernaum. Mustard is invasive and persistent. Think crabgrass or creeping Charlie or henbit. That’s the kind of plant Jesus describes.
Notice the outcome of this wild and wonderful growth. The mustard plant is really a large bush. It may grow to a height of eight or ten feet. It will be large enough to provide shelter for birds and other animals. If you were watching closely, you may have noticed that this image takes us back to our first lesson.
The ancient prophets described Israel as the great cedar tree that God would use to shelter the nations. We see that image in our first lesson. When God’s kingdom comes, even the least important critters will find shelter. In the gospels, birds are symbols for rather unimportant things. In Jewish thought, many birds were regarded as ritually unclean. In fact, both Ezekiel and Jesus use the image of the birds to refer to the kingdom-outsiders who now rest in the shade of that magnificent bush.
So the growth is not just for us to have more mustard seed. The growth is not just so the church can be a magnificent bush. Instead, the Holy Spirit gives the growth so the outsiders in our lives can find shelter from the storms of life.
The mustard bush is not, however, a proud and magnificent cedar tree. The real work of God’s kingdom will happen in places where we might least expect it. In Ezekiel seventeen, verse twenty-four, the LORD speaks through the prophet. “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord,” writes the prophet. “I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.”
We may be looking at the great trees for great things. God, on the other hand, works through the wild weeds of the wilderness to bring about wonders of growth. So, for example, a small congregation should never feel bad about being small. This is where the Holy Spirit does its best work.
Jesus doesn’t point to the noble cedar, as does Ezekiel. Instead, this kingdom parable points to “something more ordinary, and yet also something more able to show up,” Matt Skinner proposes, “to take over inch by inch, and eventually to transform a whole landscape.” What a humorous and hopeful image in a world awash with stories of pompous prats who cannot deal with their own fraudulent failures.
The Reign of God among us may well crowd out our own planned church crops and reach out to fowl we wouldn’t welcome on our own. The mustard seed is growing, for example, outside the walls of our church buildings and the boundaries of our worshipping communities, whether we like that or not. Will we chuckle or grumble in God’s garden? Will we regard that extravagant and spontaneous growth as Good News or as weeds to be pulled?
Then, there’s the “conclusion” to the text. Our text points, perhaps, to the reality that the emergence of the Reign of God from mystery into meaning, from darkness into light, will create discomfort and disturbance for the status quo. The seed of the Reign of God grows automatically and with astonishing productivity – if we don’t resist it. That seed grows in places we would not choose, thank God! And the more we do to open ourselves to that wonder, the more of the mystery will become meaningful to us.
When we understand that the bursting forth of the Reign of God from the ground and into the open means trouble for some folks, we may get a clearer sense of how Mark, chapter 4, is finally structured. The Ruler of this world, in all sorts of disguises will storm and threaten to frighten us into retreat. But we are not to back down.
Uncovering the past disrupts the present and challenges the status quo. That sounds like a storm to me. We know that our communal histories as a nation and as church bodes hide unacknowledged stories of abuse and trauma that continue to shape how we act and react as such communities. Surfacing those stories is painful, and necessary, and filled with conflict and violence.
When things come up that have been long submerged, stuff is going to happen. When it happens, Jesus is right there in the boat with us. More on that next week.
Now reflect on the past week. Where did you see the Holy Spirit working in wild and unexpected ways? As you think, prepare your eyes for this week’s harvest. Get ready to look for the work of the Spirit in you and through you. And get ready for a week of wild and wonderful weeds!