In the week that I have spent here on the Mountain at Sewanee, I've only had a few moments to walk among the forests that surround the domain. I’ve yet to get to their working farm, complete with chickens and goats, but that is on my list. But the forests here surround the school of theology, which is on the periphery of campus.
These forests did not get here through human intervention (although they could certainly disappear that way). They got here through the processes of nature working as God created them. The seed falls to the ground, or even gets scattered by birds or deer. Those that fall where the conditions are right sprout. Some of those sprouts will get eaten, or fail to thrive, but that’s a pessimistic way to look at it.
Instead, we look at the forest, and we see the signs of God’s bounty and care for creation everywhere. And here’s a miracle: Each one of these trees started out as just a small seed! Some of them were here before we were born, and some of them will be here long after we are gone. Their growth is automatic—especially if we humans get out of the way. If we don’t try to “manage” the forest, or drive off the full range of creatures that keep a forest healthy, or pull out the herbicides and start blasting away at the plants that we term “weeds.” And our gospel today reminds us, that what one being sneers at as a weed, like the mustard seed, can be another being’s precious home, like those birds that gather in the branches after that mustard seed surprises everyone by becoming not just a bush, but a habitat.
Working in gardens all my life taught me one thing, though: If you like control, growing plants is NOT for you. There is way too much that can go wrong, even if you start from potted plants rather than from seed. The smallest thing can spell disaster as a plant moves from seed to maturity: too much rain. Too little rain. A late freeze. A marauding squirrel or grazing deer. Grubs. Mites. Moles, Gophers. Fungus. black rot. Drought. Hail. Even tornadoes.
That's why I admire the farmer in the first parable at the beginning of our gospel today. She tends to the parts that she can control, and she relaxes about the parts that she can't. She sows the seed, trusting that some of it at least will produce. And then she goes to sleep. That right there is a great big bit of wisdom: after you've done your work, take a nap.
But more importantly, she trusts God enough to let God do God’s miraculous magic that we can especially see all around us in creation. God makes the seeds sprout—not us. The fully grown wheat or the tree or the apple—it’s all hidden there, sleeping, waiting in potentiality in every seed that falls to the ground. Think of how miraculous—how gracious—that is!
Jesus tells us that the reign of God, and our role in it, is like this: God gives us the seed. Unless we scatter it, nothing will happen. So do it. Share the word of God in your words, yes, but especially in your actions—the hardest thing of all actually, because that requires that we LIVE by God’s values of love and faithfulness, and that means that it’s not just a matter of saying you’re a Christian—it’s a matter of living like Jesus, which is much harder.
Jesus gives us that seed to scatter. So that IS an important part of our role, and it often happens best when we are unaware that we are doing it—when people are watching us out in our daily lives.
But then, trust in the goodness and fertility of that seed and soil. Trust that God has the power to make that seed sprout and grow, and don’t worry too much about how it’s going to actually happen. You can’t manage the time, you can’t manage the season. No matter what, it’s not OUR timeline—we don’t have control over when the sprouting or the growing or the harvest time will come. As we’ve been through this time of pandemic, that’s an especially precious and important reminder, as we all grow impatient. We’ve learned to scatter seed in new ways here at St. Martin’s. Some of the best ways have been just by doing little things to show our love for others. Of course, there has been loss as well as growth. Some members have moved on. Some new people have come. So the seed keeps on growing wherever it will.
Yes, it’s important to do our part in scattering that seed. But Jesus tells this story of a bountiful harvest to a hungry people, and that is ABSOLUTELY good news. We know that the world around us is tired of the hothouse tomatoes that too much of modern Christianity offers them. They look so red and ripe—but they taste like cardboard. They don’t really nourish the longing within for the TASTE of goodness that comes from the Earth at God’s design.
But when the time of harvest comes, the people will be fed, and fed abundantly. For those who listened to Jesus’s story shouted from the boat on the sea, who KNEW what hunger was, who knew how unpredictable and marginal working the poor soil of Judea could be, Jesus’s words spun out a vision of hope and abundance that welled up joyously. For the struggling community for whom Mark’s gospel was written—small, persecuted, marginalized—they LONGED for the harvest that would signify God’s grace and abundance. And in our own time, right now, after months and months of fear and loss, aren’t we just as hungry for hope as they were?
God promises us the very best seed, asks us to scatter it, and then have faith and trust in the sprouting.
As I thought about this, I remembered, a charming little comedy that came out when I was a kid. It was called “Oh, God!” In the story, a supermarket manager named Larry, played by the musician John Denver, gets chosen by God, played by comedian George Burns, to spread a message of hope.
Larry is not a religious man, but God keeps gently appearing to him in various guises. And finally, although reluctant, he eventually does begin to share that God has spoken to him. Larry becomes the butt of jokes nationwide. The rush is on to disprove the story Larry tells. Theologians lock him in a room with a stack of questions in Aramaic—but God appears as room service and gives him the answers. Then, at God’s urging, Larry denounces a popular preacher as a fraud, and gets sued. In court, Larry attempts to prove the existence of God. Larry calls God to the witness stand, but nothing happens. Accused of pulling some kind of trick, Larry defends himself by arguing that, since everyone in court actually felt a bit of hope at the idea of God making an appearance, whether they could prove he appeared or not, that God deserves the benefit of the doubt.
Then God appears and takes the witness stand. He performs miracles—even disappearing right before everyone’s startled eyes. His voice delivers a final message: “It can work. If you find it hard to believe in Me, maybe it will help to know that I believe in you”
Later no proof of remains afterward of God’s being there.
Larry loses his job, and wonders what it all was for?
A few days later, he is driving down the street when he hears a pay phone ringing. He stops and gets out to answer it, and it’s God, suddenly standing right behind him dressed for a safari
God models his safari outfit and does a turn. “How do you like it? I'm going on a trip to spend a little time with animals. I like animals, and sometimes I don't spend enough time with them.”
Larry sighs. “We failed, didn’t we?”
God acts shocked. “What are you talking? We did terrific! I gave a message of encouragement-- you passed it along. Now, we’ll see. You did good. We both did good. We’re covered!
Larry is still unsure. “Do you think anybody got the message?”
“You think we have enough apples in the world?” God asks
Larry is confused. “Apples?”