The Rev. Cn. Jeff Martinhauk
Proper 6B, June 13, 2021
My last parish included the opportunity to work with an Episcopal Day School. Each year, in the spring, the preschoolers would undertake a project that seemed so simple but still mystifies me.
They would take seeds– strawberry seeds I think– and put them in small starter trays. It was amazing to the kids– and to me– that you could just take these tiny seeds and stick them in dirt and they would grow into these fruitful plants just by adding water. I still wonder to myself– where does all that material come from? Where does the stuff come from to make the leaves? How does the seed know what to do? Where is the project plan to send out the roots, and eventually the leaves and the berries? I know some of you scientists out there have very technical answers to these questions, but it is just such a miracle to me that such a tiny seed can manufacture all those products from only dirt and water and light.
It is such an amazing and mysterious procedure that it captured the attention of the ancients as well, as you can see in this morning’s gospel. Mark says that the Kingdom of God happens just as mysteriously and effortlessly as the growth of the seed, or the shade and spread of the mustard seed. I do wonder if professional farmers would agree with Mark’s description of the growth of the seeds as such an effortless process- the farmer in the story simply seems to sleep and wake and the seeds are ready to be sown. But the point is that the growth of the seeds is not something that happens faster because we work harder– the farmer throws the seeds out and they grow on their own timeline, just like the Kingdom of God grows on God’s time– like the seed, we are called to expect the Kingdom of God to come to fruition “all of a sudden.” It is not our effort that makes it happen but a mystery of the thing itself.
That is a hard lesson in Christianity, and one I struggle with. There are threads of Christian spirituality that focus on “letting it be” and, to some degree, detachment and acceptance; an understanding of God’s provision that calls for a kind of serenity in the face of life’s unfolding. This view, it seems to me, is easy to reconcile with a kingdom of God that happens in God’s time; one that happens whether I sleep or wake, just like the seed grows whether the farmer sleeps or wakes. I don’t think it is about being passive as much as it is about humility- that in the grand scheme of things we are really each very small- and yet still so beloved by God. A similar kind of detachment can be found in some eastern traditions. Christian detachment focuses on a very transcendent and omnipotent God.
But there are also Christian aesthetic traditions, especially more contemporary and progressive views, that are a call to action: that we are the hands and feet of God as the body of Christ. God is love- a relationship that connects us. God is, at least in part, a process that drives us to bring the kingdom to earth as it is in heaven. “It is up to us,” you may hear in these threads of Christianity. God in these views is more imminent and more of a pressure than a power. Theologians, particularly after the horrors of the holocaust in the 20th century, began to ask questions about God’s power and presence in the midst of suffering. These more process-based views spread rapidly, de-emphasizing the view that we might be ok to simply sleep, wake, and wait for the seeds of the Kingdom to grow– because the horrors that can arise while we sleep can be unfathomable, and it takes strong and decisive, bold, collective action to thwart such evil actions as the third reich.
You have probably heard me preach both of these approaches at one time or another. I don’t think we need to harmonize them into one; and I’m not prescribing one over the other. There is a reason why the tradition is broad, and different situations require different approaches and ethics.
But let’s go back to our strawberry plant for a moment. The thing is, some of those seeds at my preschool each year would not grow. Part of the mystery and the hope of watching the seeds from their planting was to watch and see if they would grow or not. Most of them did. But sometimes they did not. When they grow, it is absolutely miraculous. There is not certainty that the seeds will yield plants and fruit. But there is trust involved, and hope- there is expectation in things yet unseen.
And so it is with the kingdom of God for us. Faith is not certainty; it is hope and trust in things yet unseen. What is it you imagine as God’s dream for you, for us? Where is your hope in things yet unseen in that dream, the likes of which have not yet rooted and become ready for harvest in the world around us?
In the ongoing saga of Samuel and Saul in the Hebrew Scriptures this morning, we see perhaps one picture of how this garden of the kingdom grows. Saul has not turned out to be a very good king, and Israel suffers. But a new tendril shoots up to replace this branch that has worn itself out in God’s ongoing work. David, this young and unknown boy, comes really out of nowhere, like a seed haphazardly blown across the dirt by the wind but that takes root. We witness the ongoing work of God to counter and offset the work of Saul. Saul is leading Israel down a destructive end; a self-serving end of greed.
But a new seed is planted in David. Samuel sees in David a way forward for the dream of God. It will take many years and many more stories for David to become king and for Israel to realize a change in leadership– for the seed of David’s leadership to grow. And even when he becomes king, it won’t be perfect and God will plant other seeds to grow and flourish for Israel.
Where do you see the seeds of God at work in your life around you, with signs of new life in God’s dream showing sprouts of hope and love in your life? What seeds might be busy at work growing around you in ways that are not visible to you now, to support that dream, going to work while you sleep and while you are awake, ready to be sown into a dream of love in a surprising way at some later date?
God’s dream for us finds a way to grow as mysteriously as the mustard seed in the desert. When I lived in the desert, those mustard plants would grow everywhere. Nations in the world of Mark did not want to be identified with a mustard plant, but with the strong and tall cedars– yet the image selected to represent the Kingdom of God is not a tall and mighty cedar but a small, humble, unexpected plant, almost a weed, really. David is called to serve as a leader not as a strong and mighty king but as the youngest in his family, an unexpected youth who doesn’t have any leadership experience. The kingdom of God comes not in the strong and mighty but in the small and unexpected.
Look for God’s dream to break in to your life in the unexpected places; in the mysterious undergrowth of your life. Perhaps it is with eyes to see and ears to hear that we can build trust and hope that the God whose dreams for us are bigger than we can ask or imagine is right here among us, shooting sprouts of love all around us, even now, and always growing.