The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling St. Paul's Lynnfield Mark 4:26-34
It’s good to be with you again today, and I am grateful for Rob’s most recent invitation. Last time I was here, I had to leave quickly because my husband Paul and I were going to the Celtics basketball game against the Cleveland Cavaliers. In case you’re not a wild and crazy fan like me, you will know that the Celtics lost the playoff series against the Cavaliers in the 7th and final game - at home. The Cavaliers were then soundly defeated by the Golden State Warriors in the national playoffs. While the basketball season is officially over for now, the Celtics teamwork, training, and playing is not. Seeds are already being planted for next year; and the Celtics have a purpose: to be next year’s NBA national champions.
Do you have a purpose? Does this community of St. Paul’s have a purpose? For if you aren’t clear about why you’re part of the Jesus movement, as a member of the Christian community, then life can seem not only meaningless, but also defeating. Without a clear vision of who you are and what you have to offer, life can wear you down. You can lose your way; and there will be temptations to give up.
Jesus had a vision and a purpose, not only for himself but also for his people. He used parables to teach everyone around him; and at the very beginning of the gospel of Mark, Jesus told three parables. He pointed to the landscape in front of him and compared it to the kingdom of God. In the first parable, Jesus said, “Listen! A sower went out to sow seeds.” Some of these seeds fell on a busy path, some on rocky ground, some among thorns, and some on good soil. Presumably, the Sower is God, the seeds are God’s Word, and the soil is you and me. Jesus was asking the crowd around him, “So what kind of soil are you?”
In today’s gospel, Jesus continues with two shorter parables. In the first one, which is the second of these three, a sower scatters seed on the ground. We don’t know what kind of ground it is, but the seed grows, even though the sower, who sleeps and rises night and day, does not know how. The emphasis here is not on the sower of the seed, or the soil upon which it has landed, but rather on the growth of the seed, from its very beginning, throughout its life, and to its end at harvest time.
It is worth noting that this particular parable is found only in the gospel of Mark; and so its uniqueness begs some questions. Why did Mark include it in his gospel? What purpose did it serve? And in terms of its placement, between the first parable about the Sower and the third one about the mustard seed, why did Mark put it there, in between these two?
In the third parable Jesus talks about a tiny mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, which grows into a great shrub. Although named, the kind of seed is not really important; rather its purpose is to grow into a shrub, something new and different and with another kind of purpose. The size of the shrub is not really important either; rather it becomes a shrub with many branches, that become resting places for birds and safe places for them to create and sustain new life. In this one tiny seed, and this one great shrub, God’s kingdom, and God’s purpose for us, is revealed.
Do you have a purpose? Does this community of St. Paul’s have a purpose? Are you a sower of seeds, or a certain type of soil, a tiny seed that grows into something new and different, or a shrub with many branches? Now, at this point, you and I may be tempted to feel bad about our sizes, our soils, our efforts, and our shrubs. Dave McNeeley asks, “Do you ever feel like your best is never good enough? Not terrible, but just not . . . enough? The mustard seed feels your pain. Despite popular imagination, the mustard seed doesn’t blossom into a sequoia-sized tree. Instead, it grows into “the largest of all vegetable plants.”
“As it turns out, though, birds don’t need sequoias, and God doesn’t need the best of the best. A good image for God’s kingdom is something small, something easy to overlook, something on the border of insignificant. It’s the little things where God’s kingdom takes root – little things like a smile, a word of kindness, the faith that God can work with the smallest gifts we have to give.” (Dave McNeely, www.d365.org, June 14, 2018)
In a book entitled Reclaiming the Great Commission, the bishop of Texas describes the characteristics of a parish, or a diocese, which is only maintaining itself, contrasted with ones that are on God’s mission. While God may love us just as we are, God also wants us to grow, just like that tiny mustard seed. People and parishes that are on God’s mission are God-centered, recognizing that God is the Creator of our Garden, the Sower of many and diverse seeds, and that Jesus is the Master Gardener. The Holy Spirit is our Miracle Gro, and despite our soils, She will make things grow even if we do not know how.
When we are people on God’s mission, like our diocesan mission strategy claims, we are willing to embrace brave change, reimagine our congregations, build relationships, and engage our world. We will try new and different things, knowing that we will make mistakes; and yet we will remain confident, for Christ urges us on. We will sleep and rise every day, trusting that God is at work.
I love to tell the story of when Paul and I lived in a farming town in Connecticut. The previous owners of our house were environmentalists who loved to create gardens and take care of them. Unfortunately, Paul and I have a different history. When we lived in Maryland, we tried to kill the weeds on our patio and killed the azalea bushes at the same time. In Atlanta, we didn’t water our grass seed and so it was scorched by the summer sun. Even so, when we moved into this house in Connecticut, Paul was excited to try gardening once again. I was not.
Reluctantly, I agreed to help, but I created my own little garden. In passive aggressive resistance, I did nothing with the garden. Sure I planted the seeds; but I didn’t water them, weed them, or protect them. I hoped to eat the fruits of Paul’s good labors, and even the fruits of my own labor, but I was unwilling to put in the hard work, or the daily care that it required. Truth be told, my heart wasn’t really in it, and so my actions betrayed my words. I relied much too heavily upon God and Paul.
Paul and I both made mistakes. The busyness of our jobs became the hard path on which our good seeds fell. I forgot to water, and the sun shriveled my green beans, while Paul’s over-watering drowned his young plants. Neither of us had prepared our soil well. There was too little soil in mine, and his soil was worn out. Weeds, pests, and thorny roots, not to mention New England rocks, often stunted our plants growth. Deer routinely crashed over Paul’s fence and destroyed his vegetables. My garden, on the other hand, unprotected by a fence, became a feast for the rabbits.
This second parable gives me hope. Located between the Sower and the tiny mustard seed, it is good news for me! Perhaps unaware of the seeds that have been sown, or the kind of ground upon which they have landed, I still know that some seeds will sprout and grow, and I won’t know how. God will produce good things even in the worst of my soils, the hardness of my heart, the size of my garden, and the busyness of my life. And yet, Jesus also reminds me that a harvest day will come, and so He urges me on. Jesus invites me to grow and create new life.
Our Church, and our world, with all its diversity and variety, has many kinds of soil upon which God’s seeds are constantly being planted. All creatures and nations, great and small, however, will destroy some of those seeds; and so we must tend our gardens daily and protect them. Together we must weed out the seeds of discontent, despair, and destruction with unfailing regularity. As co-laborers in God’s garden, as team members of the Jesus movement, we are called for a purpose: to sow more seeds of love, to create good soil, to provide branches, to protect the fruit of our labors, and to tend our garden, trusting that God will provide the growth.
There is a book entitled Seeds of Hope, a compilation of essays by Henry Nouwen. Our seed of hope is Jesus. If we have faith, even as tiny as a mustard seed, then “nothing is impossible” for God. Out of our own tiny seeds of faith, hope, and love we too can become a great shrub. Together, we have many branches that will provide resting places and nesting spaces for God’s people of great diversity. In Christ, we can become a new creation.
When life gets too hard, the sun gets too hot, the rain is relentless, the creatures seem dangerous, the weeds are out of control, and we’re dirty and tired from our labor, it’s time to turn back to God. Each day is a new beginning in which God sows seeds of love no matter the conditions of our soils and our souls. Over time we shall grow up into the full stature of Christ until we too are ripe; and we shall even bear fruit in our old age. Our branches shall flourish like a palm tree and spread like a cedar; for we are all part of that great Tree of Life in this, God’s beautiful and eternal Garden.