You may not know this about me, but I am not very talented when it comes to plants and gardens. It has been said that my motto is “if I can’t mow it, I don’t grow it.” I can’t say that I am very proud of this fact, but it is one that I have learned to live with.
Or maybe I just talked myself into this mind-set because of the childhood trauma of not being able to get the bean to grow in the paper cup during elementary school science class.
So, I must admit that I am ever so slightly jealous of those people who seem to have this super-power of just making things grow! I have a friend up north who has this ability. His yard is an explosion of color. His seeds always germinate, and his flowers bloom precisely on time and in splendid array. I know this is not by accident. It takes time, know-how, and a lot of back breaking work. It also takes love. And whenever my former church had a spring clean-up day, there he was, with all of the gardeners of the parish, making things ready to bloom and grow.
And just because I might not be able to grow a bean in a cup doesn’t mean that I—along with all of God’s people—aren’t a part of God’s sacred, growing garden!
Listen again to today’s parable from the Gospel of Mark about a farmer planting seed: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” Notice that the sower in the Gospel doesn’t really have a green thumb. Even though it sounds easy, it’s not as if all you have to do is scatter seed on the ground, then kick back, sleep and rise night and day, and “viola!” you have a rich harvest! So, while the way Jesus describes the kingdom of God makes it sound as if God’s reign comes to fruition all by itself, everyone who first heard Jesus speak this parable knew it was a bit more complicated than that.
Think about all the care that goes into growing things.
Care goes into seeds, even before they are planted. Today, each packet is dated and put in a cool, dry place to aid in its germination rate. Good gardeners will keep track of how well different seeds have performed. Green-thumbed people can tell you which variety of tomatoes gave the most fruit and which was sweetest. They can tell you what crops underperformed, which seemed to attract pests, and which plants can keep the deer away. They haven’t just planted the seeds, and walked away – they’ve paid attention, noticing what flourishes, and what struggles.
Care goes into the soil, too. Many gardeners have worm bins or compost piles, churning out what they call “black gold” – rich, fertile soil for the garden beds. These folks’ thumbs turned green because they used their senses and their brains to constantly evaluate their soil – sometimes even sniffing the dirt! – to determine what it needs more of. They keep track of what has grown where so they can rotate their crops, allowing the seeds themselves to deposit and draw from the earth to strengthen the health of the whole.
Real gardening and farming is a relationship between the grower and the grown. I know more than one gardener who talks to their seeds and plants, perhaps humming while working in the garden, or perhaps adding chatty commentary about who is growing well, or who is doing a good job.
Have you ever lived in an area where the very first weather report of the day on the radio or tv was the farm report? The weather is important. The water has to be just right – an ideal Goldilocks measure: not too much, and not too little, and the daily farm report let them know when to expect rain, or when a day will be particularly hot or when an unexpected cold snap might impact winter fruit and grain.
Jesus says the Kingdom of God is just like all of that. He says that there is more going on in our daily living, both spiritual and material, than simply scattering seed with mad abandon if we are to allow God’s reign to take root in us, in our church, and in our community. And just as there is a lot of unseen work that gardeners and farmers do that earn them their green thumbs, there is a lot of unseen work in the work of personal holiness, effective witness, and living out God’s justice and mercy, that makes us grow in faith, love, and power.
So, how can we create favorable conditions for the kingdom of God to flourish? How do we prepare the soil and care for the seeds of God’s love planted in us so that we grow into the full stature of Christ? What would our daily farm report of the soul tell each of us?
Jesus used the images of farming and everyone who heard him, even the ones who didn't farm, knew what he was talking about. Let's look at each aspect of what it takes to be a successful grower-- of our life in Christ.
You can't grow without good soil. And it's not just "dirt!" Soil that is not fed and “rested” uses up its ability to nurture and grow plants. Sabbath is one of those practices that gives us some time for our soil to lie fallow, some time for the earth to replenish itself. Sabbath practice is one of ceasing and pausing. It’s counterintuitive to the world, which would have us work without a break—and even makes our play-time busy and frenetic. Our soil is turned and aerated when as we take time to dwell with God. Delving into the Word creates space in the soil. Living out our baptismal promises and maintaining a Eucharistic life keeps our spiritual soil from compacting and drying out. Being nourished in Word and Sacrament prepares us be good ground in which God’s kingdom will take root.
We water our small seedlings when we pray or meditate, when we take time to be with God. This might look different for different people; for some, being with God is singing along to worship music, and for others, it’s sitting in silence. For some, it might be in reading a book, and for others, in going on a walk. For others in might be filling a bag of food for school kids, or companioning a lonely nursing home resident. Taking time to abide in God, the seeds we are caring for are scattered into good soil and nurtured as they grow.
Remember the garden or the farm is never for itself. The blossom is there to be enjoyed, and as birds and insects take shelter in the plant, they carry the seeds far and wide. The harvest of grain feeds many people and animals. A farm left to rot in the field is a farm not doing it’s work of feeding the hungry. So we must remember, as we nurture our own spiritual lives, that it is just to help us feel good but prepares us to love and care for our neighbor in all we do.
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds that grows into the biggest of plants. In Jesus’ day, they knew that the seed already had within it everything it would need to grow into a plant. And they knew that for a harvest to happen, many, many seeds, all cared for together, are needed to become a field of grain, or a riot of colorful flowers. The same is true for us: we aren’t just seeds in a cup, but God’s kingdom is like that farm, orchard, or garden where many seeds grow together, are cultivated together, so that all may do ripen and bring about God’s harvest of Gospel love, Gospel justice, Gospel transformation.
Jesus is telling in today’s parable that for us to be that nurturing community we must be nurtured and cared for with fruitful Spirit of Jesus’ love. We are both the garden and the co-workers with God who tends and nurtures all of us.
A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, (Proper 6B) given at St. John's Episcopal Church, Clearwater, Florida on June 13, 2021.