- It’s Automatic
Two weeks ago, our big maple tree in the front yard joined thousands of its relatives in releasing millions of “helicopter” seeds on to our lawns, flower beds, and gardens. Now I remove several dozen little trees every day from said plots. On the one hand, it’s a bit maddening to deal with the proliferation of seedlings. On the other hand, it’s quite marvelous to see this process up close.
The seeds are perfectly designed for their function. As they are released, they flutter out in concentric circles away from the parent tree. If there’s sufficient wind the little helicopters can travel a great distance. Many of them land nose down and tail up, with the growing point of the seed jammed into a bit of loose earth.
The growth process begins almost immediately. Some seeds are lost to squirrels and other rodents who feast on the sylvan manna from heaven. But the sheer number of seeds, the extravagance of the process, ensures that at least some of the progeny will get a chance to grow.
Even as I labor to grow vegetables and flowers and grass – with cultivation, feeding, regular watering, and grudging weeding, I note that these little trees need no such nurturing assistance. They seem to grow quite well, all on their own. Good news for them – and bad news for those of us who have other plans for the dirt.
In “The Parable of the Growing Seed” (Metzger’s title for the section), we read that the Kingdom of God is “as a man who might throw seed upon the earth.” The man then goes about his other business, sleeping and rising night and day. The seed sprouts and grows tall. And the man is not aware of the process, occupied as he is with other things.
Verse twenty-eight captures my interest here. “Automatically the earth bears fruit,” Jesus says, “first the stalk of grain, next the head of grain, next the full head of the grain.” The earth puts forth the fruit of the harvest on its own, without the nurturing attention of the man who sowed the seed. It’s just like those accursed little helicopters who do their work so well.
The word the NRSV translates as “on its own” is “automathe.” Indeed, we get our English words, “automate, automatic, automation,” from this Greek term. We apply the words to machinery in our culture. But in our text, this is the description of seeds, and of the Kingdom of God.
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 Kingdom 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 Kingdom of God is like a seed that grows automatically.
“The inevitability and mystery of the seed’s maturation into a plant that eventually is harvested (an allusion to judgment, characterized as a sudden event by the word euthus in Mark 4:29) provide a vital counterpoint to the more famous parable that dominates Mark 4, a parable about sowing seeds in various soils,” Matt Skinner writes in his workingpreacher.org commentary.
“In that parable, so many seeds fail to bear fruit that one might question God’s commitment to seeing the reign of God blossom,” Skinner continues. “Likewise, as the disciples stumble throughout Mark, one might worry that the wrong people have been entrusted with access to divine knowledge (see Mark 4:11, 33-34).” That describes me and every church I’ve ever been part of.
“But this simple parable offers a counterbalance and reassurance in the face of such concerns,” Skinner observes, “it is the nature of God’s reign to grow and to manifest itself. That’s what it does. As a lamp belongs on a lampstand (Mark 4:21-22), God’s reign, like a seed, must grow, even if untended and even if its gradual expansion is nearly impossible to detect.”
If only we will get out of the way and let the growth happen.
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.”
I appreciate David Lose’s words here. The Parable of the Growing Seed “might be about the wonder of faith or the need to be ready to bring in the harvest.” That’s all right as a reading, but it’s probably too comfortable for us by half. “Or,” Lose continues, “it might be about our complete inability to control the coming kingdom, to dictate whether we (and others) believe (or not). This second possibility is uncomfortable because it leaves us vulnerable.”
Now Dr. Lose has moved from preaching to meddling. “God’s kingdom comes apart from our efforts, cannot be controlled or influenced, and can only be received as a gift. In this sense, faith is apparently a lot more like falling in love than making a decision,” he suggests. “Because kingdom-faith, like love, is something that comes from the outside and grabs hold of you, whether you want it to or not.”
Lose reminds me to re-read Luther’s Small Catechism on the Second Petition of the Lord’s Prayer. “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer,” Luther writes, “but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” Luther urges us to wonder how this happens and then responds to that wondering. God’s Kingdom comes “whenever our heavenly Father gives us his Holy Spirit, so that through the Holy Spirit’s grace we believe God’s holy word and live godly lives here in time and hereafter in eternity” (page 36, my emphasis).
I don’t know if Luther was thinking about this little parable as he wrote the Catechism. The language that I emphasized above is the same in his translation of Mark 4:28 and the meaning of the Second Petition. He is clear that this “automatic” growth, i.e., the coming of the Kingdom of God, is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, among us, and through us (we are in the Sundays after Pentecost, remember).
Lose notes that this may be good news especially for those who don’t fit our preconceived categories of the “right sort of people” who ought to come to our churches. Many of those over the years who came to me begging for the magic bullet of church growth were also those in favor of such growth as long as the new people were like the existing folks and the new people brought with them no demands for destabilizing change.
No church will grow under such conditions. “We who have achieved a relative amount of education and position and income and status don’t like much to think about this,” Lose reminds us, “but the original followers of Jesus were, in the eyes of the culture, all pretty much losers – lowly fishermen, despised tax collectors, prostitutes and criminals, lowlifes loathed by the religious establishment. Maybe that’s the way the followers of Jesus have always looked to the rest of the world,” he concludes, “those people desperate enough, lowly enough, to find hope in Jesus’ message of the kingdom.”
Of course, I am – if I would for once tell myself the truth – among those desperate enough, lowly enough, to find hope in Jesus’ message of the kingdom.” That’s the beginning of the mystery. After that, perhaps, it’s automatic.
References and Resources
Robert Farrar Capon. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.
Timothy Wenger. Luther’s Small Catechism.