For Sunday June 13, 2021

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year B)


1st Samuel 15:34-16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

Last month, my husband and I took our annual spring trip to the local garden store, and came home with everything we need to launch a new growing season on our patio. Heavy bags of soil, a box of fertilizer, new pots and hanging baskets, fresh gardening gloves, and the seedlings we hope will produce plenty of basil, mint, cilantro, tomatoes, peppers, jasmine, petunias, and marigolds this summer.

In the weeks since, I’ve developed the obsessive habit of checking on my plants first thing every morning. Do the leaves look droopy? Am I watering too often? Does the jasmine need shade? Is the tomato cage tall enough? Why isn’t the basil growing?

I know myself: if I could force those plants to grow, thrive, and produce by some fool-proof combination of hard work and sheer willpower, I would. I like having control. I like sure results. I like knowing that if I do A, then B will happen.

This is an ideal I impose on many areas of my life. Work, marriage, parenting, friendship. The ideal of control. The ideal of linear progression. The ideal of defined labor and tangible reward. Of course, the inevitable corollary to this ideal is anxiety: am I doing enough? Have I covered all bases? What will happen if I fail? 

Thankfully, my ideal is not God’s.

In the first parable Jesus offers his listeners in this week’s Gospel, a gardener scatters seed on the ground, and goes off to sleep. The seeds fend for themselves (or, as Mark puts it, “the earth produces of itself”), and when the grain is ripe, the gardener harvests it. In the second parable, someone sows a tiny mustard seed in the ground, and it grows into a gigantic bush, large enough to offer birds shelter in its branches.

 RT Janknegt, Worlds Smallest Seed.

Both of these parables, insofar as they’re meant to show us what the kingdom of God looks like, are counter-cultural to the point of sounding ridiculous. As in: they make no sense. They’re big, cosmic jokes, intended to stretch our imaginations far beyond any place we’d take them on our own. What is the kingdom of God like? Are you sure you want to know? Okay, brace yourself: the kingdom of God is like a sleeping gardener, mysterious soil, an invasive weed, and a nuisance flock of birds.

Let’s start with the sleeping gardener.  If you are any type of workaholic or perfectionist, then you know what’s wrong with this first parable. Good gardeners don’t toss a bunch of seeds into their backyards and then snooze away the growing season. They plan, plod, and hover. They make neat little rows in well-manicured beds. They keep a wary eye on the weather. They protect their gardens from birds, rabbits, and deer. From early spring until harvest time, they water, they fertilize, they prune, they weed, and they worry.

But the gardener in Jesus’s parable?  He sleeps. He doesn’t slog. He doesn’t micro-manage.  He doesn’t second-guess. Instead, he enjoys the rest that comes from leaning into a process that is ancient, mysterious, cyclical, and sure. He trusts the seeds. He trusts the soil. He trusts the sun, the shade, the clouds, the rain. Yes, he participates in the process by planting and harvesting. He pays attention to the seasons, and gets to work when the time is ripe. But he never harbors the illusion that he's in charge; he knows that he's operating in a realm of mystery. In this story of the kingdom, it is not our striving, our piety, our doctrinal purity, or our impressive prayers that cause us to grow and thrive in God’s garden. It is grace alone.

 Choi A Mustard Seed sm

Which brings us to the soil. According to Jesus’s parable, the kingdom of God is both fecund and hidden, both generous and mysterious. It works its fertile magic underground, deep beneath the surfaces we see and quantify. Yes, the soil eventually brings forth abundance, but the process of that bringing forth — all the nitty-gritty details we long to dissect and master — is hidden from our eyes.  If anything, we live in the disconcerting time between the planting and the harvest. We look outside and see nothing but dark earth and fragile shoots. Vast expanses of hope, longing, love, and uncertainty. Deep desire and delicate potential. As Annie Dillard puts it so beautifully, “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.”

There are many areas in my life where I struggle to trust the soil. Where I "plant" my prayers, but then refuse to let them rest and germinate in God's care. I might call this refusal "vigilance," "wisdom," or "caution," but in Jesus's gardening metaphor, it is faithlessness. It's a futile attempt to play God. 

In Jesus’s second parable, a sower sows a mustard seed in the ground. The joke here is not only that mustard seeds are tiny, but that the people in Jesus’s day didn't plant mustard seeds. Mustard was a weed — and a noxious, stubborn weed at that. If a first century gardener in Palestine were foolish enough to plant it, it would quickly take over his land, dropping seeds everywhere, and breaking down all barriers of separation between itself and the other plants in the garden. Imagine a gardener today planting kudzu, or dandelions, or broomweed. These are commonplace nuisances we try to get rid of, not plants we’d ever cultivate on purpose.

Mustard, moreover, is not a plant that grows with any stateliness or beauty.  It’s nothing like a cedar, or a giant sequoia, or even a well-tended rose bush. It grows like a weed, and it looks like one.

So what is Jesus saying when he describes the sacred and the holy as a tiny, insignificant mustard seed? What does it mean to take an invasive, spindly weed — a plant we’d sooner discard than sow — and make it the very heart, the very structural center, of God’s kingdom?  Who and what counts in God’s economy? What is beautiful? Who matters? Where do we see the sacred?

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the speaker of this parable — Jesus himself — comes to earth as a tiny and forgettable “mustard seed.” A backwater baby born into poverty on the edges of empire. Or that the people who first follow him when he grows up are a bunch of raggedy fishermen and corrupt tax collectors. Clueless, clumsy, timid, and doubtful.  Is it really the case that God’s kingdom rests on folks like these? Yes. Absolutely yes.

Maybe, if I'm struggling to "sleep" in God's care, it's because I discount the tiny seeds. The small unfurlings. The seemingly insignificant places where the earth shifts and the "weeds" grow. 

 Parable of the Mustard Seed.

The last image in this set of parables is that of nesting birds finding shade in the branches of the mustard plant. It’s a pretty image on its face, but it, too, as it turns out, is a joke: who wants birds taking up residence in their gardens? Birds eat seeds and fruits. They wreak havoc in cornfields.  Birds are why farmers put up scarecrows.

But Jesus isn't a scarecrow kind of gardener. Why? Because the kingdom of God is all about welcoming the unwelcome. Sheltering the unwanted. Practicing radical inclusion. The garden of God doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to offer nourishment to everyone the world deems unworthy. It exists to attract and to house the very people we’d rather shun. Its primary purpose is hospitality, not productivity. 

How many times have we shooed the birds away because we're so busy policing our gardens? Whose needs, hungers, and hopes have we ignored because our eyes are locked on the ground of our own efforts, intentions, priorities, and strategic plans?  

Here is what the kingdom of God looks like: slow, mysterious growth. Periods of fallowness. Plants we can neither control nor contain. Weeds that run wild and still nourish. Hungry, raucous birds. Feasts we might mistake for waste. Gardeners who take naps.

All of this is good news, but it isn’t always easy news. The truth is, it hurts to surrender my imagination and my workaholism to God’s expansive, life-changing care. It hurts to loosen my grip, to trust and accept mystery, to seek God in the commonplace, and to embrace the unwanted thing as beloved.

But whatever our temperaments and our circumstances, the challenge remains to scatter seed and rest in God’s grace. To embrace even the weeds, and allow them to become havens of rest. Can we lean into this bizarre and laughable kingdom? Can we let go? Can we trust that the God of the inscrutable seed is also the God of the magnificent harvest? May we learn to do so. 

Debie Thomas:

Image credits: (1) Toward Beauty | In Art, Faith, and Life; (2) The Living Pulpit; and (3) The Anglican Parish of Maryborough-Avoca.