Friday, June 29, 2018

Letting the Farmer Go Free (English)

He also said, “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. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. Mark 4:26-34 (NRSV)

Grace and peace to you from God, our Creator, and our Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

On behalf of my congregation in Kentucky--Grace & Glory--I bring you warmest greetings. As we’ve begun to know each other over these past few days and have learned of the different places we’ve come from to be here, I’m particularly grateful for all of you and to know that many of our congregations in this church are exploring the possibilities of new ministries in our changing (or changed) contexts. And even that some of you are in or nearing first call.

I’ve been now in my first call in Kentucky for about a year-and-a-half. In some ways, living there has been this interesting mix between the urban life I’ve lived as an adult and also of the rural life that I lived until the age of 19.

My father was a rancher in north central South Dakota, an area that at that time was known for a fairly arid climate, but with a geography that was well suited to growing sheep and cattle. In addition to ranching, he also grew feed crops--crops that would be harvested at the end of each summer and put up to ensure that there would be enough to feed our animals over rather brutal winters.

So, it seems no coincidence that our lessons today should be two parables about farmers and farming and seeds. The Gospel of Mark contains few parables, but there are an entire string of them that begin in the third chapter and conclude with these two. When one looks at all of them together we can see that they create a context for understanding the ministry of Jesus as the inaugural ministry of the coming, yet somewhat elusive, reign of God. A reign that feels as though it will never come because of some blunder by a disciple or two. Or that will remain hidden because of a command by Jesus to, simply, keep it a secret.

One aspect of Jesus’ parables suggested by Matt Skinner at Luther is that they have a way of reordering our conventional assumptions and values. They don’t explain how we can necessarily recognize the reign of God. But, they do make it clear that we will need to adopt new ways of perceiving God’s kingdom.

The first parable is about a farmer. Something with which I can definitely relate. There’s nothing earth-shattering about the chain of events in this parable. The farmer plants the seeds. And then the farmer waits. And waits. And waits. And waits.

As one who has lived with a farmer, I can attest to the waiting. And waiting. Sometimes a little worrying. Then more waiting. And as one waits, without really doing anything other than the initial planting, things begin to happen. The seeds, buried in the ground, begin to sprout. And then to break through. And then to grow. And grow. And grow. Until finally it is time for the harvest. There is really little that the farmer must do except to plant the seed and then to trust that nature will take its course, as it inevitably always does.

The second parable, then, is that of the mustard seed. It’s a parable that we have likely heard many times over the course of our lives. Of a seed that isn’t like any ordinary seed, but that begins as something very small and seemingly insignificant, but that turns into something very visible and great. A tiny seed that grows and morphs into the greatest of all shrubs. A shrub that is more than just beautiful, but a shrub whose branches offer shelter and security. 

I am here this week because the congregation I serve is at very start of a new ministry to our Latino neighbors. Many of you are here, too, because you are either exploring something similar or already moving forward. We’ve listened to the statistics that relate to the growth of the Latino population in our country. We’ve also heard the statistics about the decline of congregations in the ELCA. In the midst of these statistics and in the midst of these two parables, there are a couple of lessons for us.

One of the first, and perhaps most important things for us to remember is that, just as the farmer in the first parable has little to do with the growth of the seeds, so, too, we have little to do with the growth of God’s kingdom. Just as nature eventually ensures the sprouting and growth of the seeds, so, too, the nature of God’s kingdom is to grow and to be seen and witnessed. We are like the farmer, waiting for the seeds of God’s kingdom to grow and take root, yet knowing though that it will happen. Because this is what God’s kingdom does. It happens.

Then, the second lesson is that God’s kingdom cannot be likened to amazing trees, such as the cedars of Lebanon. Or the redwoods of California. Or the oaks of Kentucky. Or of any other tall, majestic tree. No, God’s kingdom is likened to that of a shrub. A mustard shrub. An ordinary plant that shows up and takes a place over inch by inch. And that eventually ends up changing the entire landscape. Some might consider it a nuisance. Others might think it is too much of a good thing. And yet others, like the birds in our parable, might find a place where they can be safe. A place where they will be happy. 

The question for us as we leave here is what is next? Knowing what is happening demographically in our country. Knowing what is happening demographically in our congregations. Knowing that God’s kingdom will move forward no matter what happens, wiil we chose to be a part of it? To go more deeply into our neighborhoods? To go more deeply into relationship with those who might look a little different from us, but who have, as we do, the same desire for shelter and security? For hospitality? For sanctuary and sustenance? Will we chose to be a part of God’s kingdom at work and, as a result, to be transformed by the ordinary in ways unimaginable? Just as each of us has been transformed by the unimaginable acts of our Savior, Jesus Christ?

I hope so, dear friends. I hope it is time to let the farmer in each of us go free! Amen.

Preached June 14, 2018, at Lutheran Seminary of the Southwest, Austin, TX.
Reading: Mark 4:26-34

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