3rd Sunday after Pentecost – Vicar Stoppenhagen
Third Sunday after Pentecost
Text: Mark 4:26-34
Our Savior Lutheran Church, Raleigh
June 13, 2021
In the name of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world. Amen.
Ah, the season after Pentecost! The long, green season that drags on through the summer and never wants to end. It’s the time when the readings immerse us in Jesus’ ministry and lead us to reflect on the life and growth of his Church. Which, if you ask me, is rather unfortunate. Why would I think this? I suppose it could be that I’m afraid focusing on life will overshadow my penchant for death. (That’ll always be there!) But really, I find reflecting on the Church’s flourishing regrettable because, well, God isn’t a very good farmer!
That’s my take-away from the first of these two parables in our Gospel reading. God simply scatters the seed of his Word on the ground, like it’s something he found in the back of his shed. He doesn’t know what to do with it, so he just throws it in the field to see what happens. He doesn’t do anything else. No plowing the soil. No fertilizer application. No irrigation. No spraying for bugs or weeds. He simply sleeps and rises night and day, the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. Now, those of us from the farm will tell you that this is not how you get the big yields the agribusiness world wants you to produce. God is being downright reckless and wasteful with his seed. No sensible farmer would do such a thing!
And this is where we feel the urge to intervene. God’s not a bad farmer, we tell ourselves, he just expects us to bear our part of the burden to ensure the kingdom of God flourishes. He plants the seed, but we’re the ones who have to prepare the soil and feed the growth to make sure the yield is plentiful. We ready our hearts and minds to receive the seed of God’s Word. Then we’ll nourish it by going to Church, volunteering at the food bank, maybe even teaching Sunday School. No doubt we’ll tear out those weeds in our lives that Satan has sown, remove the pests of sin and disobedience. Then the fruit will come, a harvest in abundance, waiting for the Lord to put in the sickle, gather us in, and reward us for all those fine things we did to grow the kingdom.
But we’ve managed to turn the building of God’s kingdom into a task that we do! We think we can establish God’s reign with our dutiful outreach, our careful attention to the church budget, or by cultivating our own devotion. But the thing is, only God can plant and sustain his kingdom in the world and in your hearts. Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t do things like volunteer at church or clean up our lives or give back to the community. Instead, we should recognize those as ways that the Word is working in us. God has prepared the works, and we’re just walking in them, Paul tells us.
In fact, focusing too much on fertilizing, de-weeding, and de-pesting our lives can even hinder the seed’s growth and damage the harvest! Last week, I read an interview with an Amish farmer who made the point that the application of fertilizers and pesticides over time left plants more susceptible to illness and infestation, thus reducing yields in the long run. But when the over-application stopped and the soil’s natural biome was restored, the seeds planted were more resilient, more resistant to disease, and produced harvests that were more plentiful and nutritious. The earth produces best by itself, after all. Often the soil needs to be left alone so the seed can truly do its work.
That’s what this first parable makes so clear. The seed sprouts and grows completely on its own; even the Sower knows not how! No plowing, no feeding necessary. That’s the power of the seed which God plants; inside his seed is everything the plant needs to grow. We aren’t able to prepare our soil to receive the seed of God’s Word; instead, it makes us ready to receive its blessings. It enters through our ears and breaks open the dry, cracked, depleted soil of our hearts, showing us just how barren and lifeless our hearts are. But once we’ve been plowed under, then the Gospel takes root and holds us together, feeding us from its own reserves.
So even if God isn’t a careful farmer, at least he’s on the cutting edge of seed technology! The seed of his Word does everything needed for its own survival—without us doing anything at all. This is an immense comfort for us frail humans. Because the time will come when our minds falter and memories will fade, but that can’t change anything about our faith. The Word continues to work life, forgiveness, and salvation in you, even when you’re not able to remember or understand it. The roots of faith remain firmly planted in our hearts long after we’ve lost the ability to think or speak.
In our second parable, Jesus shifts gears. Now he compares the kingdom of God to a single, tiny mustard seed. And this mustard seed takes root in the earth, and despite its smallness, it grows and becomes larger than all the garden plants. But to the average eye, the mustard plant is pretty plain and unimpressive. It’s nothing like the lofty cedars that Ezekiel praises in his prophecy. Compared to the cedars, the mustard bush is pretty short and scrubby. It might be the biggest of the garden plants, but there’s no way you can cut it down and get any usable lumber from it. It’s good for nothing but a bird house! Why would God compare his kingdom to something as mediocre as the mustard plant?
This is where we see the connection to the first parable. Tying these two stories together is the tension between what is seen and what is hidden in the kingdom of God. In the first parable we saw what appeared to be a careless and lazy farmer who ended up with a plentiful harvest by sheer luck. But what was literally hidden in the ground was the power of the seed to produce its fruit entirely on its own.
In the second parable, a similar thing happens. What we see is a tiny seed growing into a scruffy, useless garden shrub. But what is hidden is the birds, safely nesting in its shade. And that’s you. Birds, dwelling securely in the branches of God’s kingdom. It’s here that he gives your tired wings rest. Here he protects you from the snare of the fowler. Here in this unassuming shrub, he feeds you with the birdseed of his Word and the fruits of his cross. By the way, did you know that the berries of the mustard plant were once used to heal snakebites?
Which turns our gaze back to that first Garden, where we find this seen and unseen tension playing out as well. We see that we’re nothing but a bunch of dirt, formed by the very hands of God who has breathed new life into us and planted his word in his hearts. But the Good Gardener’s careful work was corrupted; we were tempted by the serpent, and with our first parents we fell into sin. The naked eye sees a God that simply abandons his creation, but hidden with Eve is a promise—the promise of a Seed—a Son—who would crush the serpents head and heal all those suffering from his poisonous bite.
But for reasons we can’t explain, in many hearts the story of Christ’s redemption doesn’t take root. They gaze on the cross, and they see weakness and failure. But hidden in the cross we see the kingdom of God. We see a seed falling into the earth and dying, so that it can bear much fruit. It’s a fruit many aren’t interested in; some might even say it’s for the birds. But that’s exactly what we birds want to hear.
In the holy name of Jesus. Amen.