If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Wasteful Sower: Mark 4:1-9

*This sermon was preachd at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, Oregon, on November 25, 2012 as the last in a series on Seeds of the Kingdom.

Today's Parable of the Sower brings to mind the musical Godspell, a frolicking, hippie version of Matthew's gospel. A group of us seminary students and church members put on the play at a coffee house Iris and I started in San Francisco back in the '70's.  Dressed up like clowns we acted out, or should I say ad libbed, the parts of the different seeds in the parable of sower. The seed that fell along the pathway was eaten up by a bunch of clucking and arm flapping chickens. The seed that fell on the rocky soil leaped up to life with a smile, but then going limp she withered and dropped to the floor from the sun's heat. The seed that fell among the thorns was grabbed by the neck and choked by a devilish character with a lot of overacting. The seed that fell on good soil bounced up, flexed her muscles, and beamed with joy at the applause of everyone. In this goofy view of the parable the focus was upon the different responses of the seeds.

There are different angles from which to view the parable of the sower. Like a camera scanning the parable, we can zoom in close on the seeds lying scattered on the ground. We can pull back our shot and capture a view of the different types of soil. Or with time-lapsed photography we could watch the different reactions of the seeds. If we were to focus our lens on the different kinds of soil, which is the way Mark's gospel interprets the parable, we might think this parable is about us. As the parable unfolds we begin to ask ourselves: What kind of soil am I? Am I rocky ground? Do I need to smooth out some rough places in my character? What are the weeds in my life? What chokes the life out of me? Am I a shallow person? Do I get all worked up and enthusiastic only to give up when the thrill is gone or things get tough? How can I be weedless, fertile soil? If we focus on the different kinds of soil, we probably end up either feeling guilty or determined to see how we can beat the three-to-one odds of being poor soil for God's word. By focusing on the soils we may find ourselves trying to shape up our lives, so we can be a fertile field for God.

What if the parable of the sower isn't about us at all? What if this parable was not about our own personal successes and failures, our flaws of character, or about birds and rocks and thorns? What if, instead of focusing upon the soil, we zoomed in on the sower. What if, by chance, it is a parable about a sower? It is called the parable of the sower, isn't it? The parable would look a bit different from how we have traditionally viewed it. If the sower is the main character of the parable, what might it say about life and God?

One thing we would immediately notice is the sower flings his seed around rather wastefully. It falls on good and bad soil alike. According to the ancient practice of the peasant farmer, the sower's method is not so unusual. Most often seed was first scattered, then it was plowed under. It seems wasteful of the sower to scatter the seeds willy nilly across the land so it falls along the road, on rocky ground, among the weeds and thorns, as well as on the fertile soil. What might seem wasteful to us was the typical method of sowing for the peasant farmer, who scratched out a living from the dry, rocky Palestinian soil. In order to produce a harvest a lot of seed had to be recklessly, or should I say, graciously wasted. In the parable it appears as if 75% of the seed was wasted in order to produce an adequate harvest. In that case, the odds of failure with that kind of sowing are three-to-one. There should have been a more efficient and productive way of sowing, don't you think?

If I were sowing the seeds, I would want greater odds of success. I would want to make sure the seed landed on fertile soil. This wasteful scattering of seeds hither and thither would have to stop.  With this kind of wasteful sowing the odds of crop failure would be far greater than a fruitful harvest. In my estimation this is bad farming. Don't we all want to be thrifty and productive? We have all been told as children, "Don't be wasteful." Our bosses have encouraged us to be efficient. Those in business try to concentrate their efforts on what is most productive. Don't we all want to decrease the odds of failure in whatever we do? This is not only sound business advice, but good policy for living. Isn't it?

This is the kind of business advice churches are being given from the marketing world. If you want to be a growing, productive church, then being efficient, concentrating on what is productive, and decreasing the odds of failure will keep the church from being wasteful of God's resources. And how does the church increase its growth and productivity? First, by being "market-driven" rather than "product-driven." That is, our focus should be on the needs of the customers, more than upon the product we offer. The soil takes priority over the seed. Second, marketing techniques can help the church be more efficient and productive. Don't spend a lot of time and energy on ministries or activities that do not produce. Increase your odds of success through efficient marketing techniques. One of those marketing techniques is to focus your outreach on a target group, a certain kind of people, who will be more likely to join your church.

One proponent of such methods of church growth reads the parables as marketing strategies and tactics. He sees the parable of the sower as portraying a marketing process "in which there are hot prospects and not-so-hot prospects." In other words, there are certain kinds of people your church should target for the best results. Plant your seeds only in the most productive soil. Finally, according to the market-driven approach to church growth, success is measured primarily in numerical growth. A hundredfold harvest is better than a thirtyfold harvest. There you have it all. No wastefulness, greater efficiency, concentration on what is productive, and increasing the odds of success. The problem is we end up with a racially, socially, and economically homogeneous church which is conformed to the world and more concerned about growth than faithfulness. Contrary to what Henry Ford once said, what is good for business is not always good for religion. Success may not be the name of the church's game.

Come to think about it, in real life it seems like there are more failures than successes, more waste than growth. Doesn't life reflect the odds of this parable? The odds are against us. Odds are against all those people who grew up in angry, abusive, distant, or neglectful families that they will avoid bringing those issues into their new relationships. Why waste energy and invest time on people with a lot of personal problems? There are some people out there who are just not worth our efforts. Haven't you heard we shouldn't cast our pearls before swine? How many people have you seen who really changed their lives in a positive way from something you said or did compared to those who went on producing the same old negative garbage from their lives? Don't waste good seed on unproductive soil.

There is more unproductive soil than productive and a lot of good seed gets wasted, even in our own lives. We all throw away more time than we spend on nourishing personal growth. We waste more energy on trivial pursuits than on productive, meaningful activities.  There is a lot of unproductive ground in our lives.  Someone right now is probably thinking, "Yeah, you're right. A lot of my life seems to have been wasted. After all these years, what have I really accomplished?" Another listener could be thinking, "I know what you mean. I've been a Christian for a number of years, but my life is still rocky and full of weeds." What a waste!

Consider our society. It is bad soil which produces more problems than solutions. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, consumerism, xenophobia, and violence choke the life out of our communities. These are perennial problems that never seem to go away. It's a waste trying to produce good fruit from the bad soil of our society. So, why waste good seed on unproductive soil? This seems to be the way life is. More seeds land on rocky, thorny, weed-infested soil than on fertile ground. The odds are against us.  So, why waste good seeds by tossing them to the wind?

Waste seems to be sewn into the fabric of life. Just look out in space through the lens of the Hubble telescope. There appears to be a lot of waste. The universe is filled with billions upon billions of stars, but only one we know of which is suitable for human life. Looks like an awful waste of space to me! Take a look through the lens of a microscope at the seeds of human life. There's a lot of waste there. On the Learning Channel I once watched a study on human reproduction. The narrator said, "In the reproductive process millions of human sperm, literally "seeds," die as they touch the acidic walls of the uterus." Each of those seeds bears the potential of becoming an individual human life. Thousands more seeds die along the journey to the female egg. In the end only one sperm out of millions of seeds penetrates the egg to become a unique human being. It takes millions of wasted human seeds for one to finally be productive! Seems like an awful waste of seed. Whoever created this universe should have been more efficient when flinging the stars. And whoever thought up this hair-brained method of reproduction is definitely wasteful! From where we stand it sure looks like it takes a lot of wasted seed in order to be productive.

If we focus on the seed or the soil things do look pretty grim. Productivity has a slim chance. The odds seem to be against us. But, before things start to look too hopeless, let's turn our lens back on the sower in our parable. The sower pays little attention to the condition of soil, or the pathway with human footprints. He seems to ignore the weeds, the thorns, and the hungry birds. He doesn’t seem to be worrying about the odds of success or failure. The sower tosses the seeds everywhere on good soil and bad soil alike. He appears to be oblivious to the types of soil on which the seeds land. And the sower isn't stingy with the seed. With wild abandon he throws handfuls of seed across the field like stars flung across the sky. To us the sower appears to be recklessly inefficient and extravagantly wasteful.

God is the sower. God is reckless with goodness and wondrously wasteful with grace. God tosses the lifegiving Word upon the fields of our lives, landing on saint and sinner alike. God sends the rain on the just and unjust alike. God wildly sows the seeds of the kingdom without an eye to the nature of the soil. God is recklessly, extravagantly, graciously wasteful with good news, scattering it upon productive and unproductive soil. And odds are God can turn the odds around. God isn't worried about success or failure. God sows the seeds knowing that even though the patches of good earth may be small the harvest will be plentiful. The sowing will bear fruit thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold!

Once upon a time a certain farmer went out into his field to sow seeds. A servant had previously plowed neat rows in which to plant the seeds. As he tossed the seeds into the furrows, some of the seeds fell outside the lines. This didn't seem to bother the farmer. As a matter of fact, the farmer rather enjoyed throwing the seeds willy nilly across the straight furrows. The farmer got so caught up in the sheer joy of tossing the seeds hither and yon he hadn't noticed that he had walked right off the boundaries of the field. The farmer walked out onto the roadway leading to the city, grabbing handfuls of seeds from his burlap sack, flinging them here and there and everywhere, laughing as he walked along. Some of the seeds landed on the asphalt and were run over by passing cars or were eaten by crows. Other seeds fell among the weeds or onto the chip bags, cans, and other garbage strewn along the roadside. But, the farmer paid no mind to where the seeds landed. He just kept on tossing his seeds across the wide landscape.

Even when the farmer entered the city streets, it didn't stop him from sowing his seeds. Cars late for work would honk at him. Drivers with their ear to cell phones would yell out their windows, "Get outta the street you crazy old farmer!" But, the farmer kept on gleefully sowing his seeds. Some seeds fell on the drug dealers on the corner and they tried to smoke them. Others fell on the steps of the church and the minister came out and swept them off. A few seeds fell on a homeless man sleeping on a park bench and he picked them off his worn clothes and ate them for lunch. Still other seeds fell between the thin cracks in the sidewalk and they sprouted into flowers. Others fell in a community garden and sprang up a hundredfold. The farmer sowed his seeds wherever his feet took him until the sun finally set behind the rolling hills. Throughout the season the farmer's bag was never empty of seeds right up until the time of the harvest. Whoever has two ears on their head, listen to this parable.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

God's Reign is for the Birds: Matthew 13:31-35

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite CHurch, Hubbard, Oregon on Sunday, November 18, 2012 as part of a series on Seeds of the Kingdom.

The meaning of the parable of the mustard seed seems apparent.  What begins as the tiniest of seeds grows into a tree large enough to house the birds. The reign of God is like that. Small beginning. Big ending. A handful of disciples become a worldwide church. A few fishermen and women followers grow into a Christian empire. We are the world! Kind of makes your chest swell, doesn't it? Makes you feel important to be at the center of such a glorious, triumphant, ever expanding kingdom. Well, that kind of kingdom may be a world away from what this parable is all about. If we scratch beneath the surface of this parable, we will discover that God's reign is for the birds.
The odd thing about the parable of the mustard seed is Jesus' portrayal of God's reign as a tree. In Matthew Jesus doesn't say the mustard seed grows into a tall bush, but rather into a tree in which the birds make their nests. The mustard bush can reach a height of 8 to 12 feet, but it is still not a tree by any stretch of the imagination. So, why call the mustard bush a tree? In several places in the Old Testament the prophets spoke of kings and empires as being like trees. King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream of a growing tree, whose branches reached the heavens and on which the birds made their nests (Daniel 4). The prophet Daniel interpreted the tree as being the Assyrian king and his empire extending its sovereignty to the ends of the earth. The Assyrian empire grew through brutal violence and domination, forcing Israel into economic and political patronage. Israel was one of the birds nesting under Assyria's tree!

The prophet Ezekiel uses the image of a growing cedar with the birds nesting under its branches as a satire of the empire of Egypt, which falls like a chopped down tree and "upon its ruin dwell all the birds of the air" (Ezekiel 31).  Ezekiel also told a parable of  a twig which grows into a noble cedar and the birds nest in its shade, the same wording found in Mark's version of the parable of the mustard seed (Ezekiel 17). It would appear that Jesus is drawing his images of God's reign from these visions of powerful empires, particularly Ezekiel's parable of Israel as a mighty cedar growing to such a height as to provide a nesting place for the birds. The birds most likely represent the Gentiles, the nations, those outside the house of Israel. What we have in the prophets is an end time vision of Israel growing into a powerful empire which is benefactor to the nations of the earth. What a triumphant vision! And you can understand why Israel hoped to be a mighty cedar overshadowing the nations, when you remember how they had for so long been trampled under the feet of the nations. Imagine the kingdom of Israel dominating all the nations of the earth! What a hopeful vision… at least for Israel.
A mighty tree growing big enough to shade the birds. That would appear to be a more appropriate image of a powerful kingdom. A mighty tree seems to fit Western civilization's vision of a mighty kingdom. Europeans have viewed the expansion of their cultures and empires as being of benefit to other peoples. In our exploits as an American empire we have felt like we have a superior culture and way of life than other peoples and cultures in the world. It’s called “American exceptionalism.” It has been espoused by politicians and flag wavers from the get go of our nation.  Most recently Obama promoted it in his victory speech. On the other hand, other peoples and nations have experienced Western growth and American exceptionalism, as imperialism, colonialism, arrogance, and pride. We want to expand the branches of our imperial tree to overshadow all nations and allow the birds to nest in our branches.

The seed of our nation's beginnings grew into a tree and expanded its branches through violence and oppression of a people who were already native to this land. I once read a book entitled Missionary Conquest written by a Cherokee/Osage seminary professor. It details the exploits of Father Junipero Serra, among other early missionaries to the Americas. People in California know Father Serra as the Franciscan priest who in the 1700's scattered his missions like seeds across the landscape of California. Mission San Buena Ventura is near my home town and Mission Santa Barbara a half hour away.
In order for Christianity to grow into a mighty cedar early mission expansion took the form of forced conversions, physical violence, slave labor conditions, and cultural genocide. Father Serra's mission system was no exception. Native Americans were the birds who nested precariously in the shade of Spain's colonial expansion supported by the roots of the church's missionary work. The sad truth is that we still view Native Americans as the birds who should nest in the shade of our nation's branches, or should I say live on our nation's reservations. The triumphal image of a growing tree which shades the nesting birds is sadly reflected in the scenes of an African-American with lash marks on his back picking cotton on the plantation, an American sailor exploiting a young Pilipino girl near the naval base, and a young missionary trying to expand the kingdom by unconsciously passing off European customs and culture as the gospel truth. This sad parable of our kingdom growing into a mighty cedar is for the birds!

What are we to make of Jesus parable about a mustard seed growing into a big bush for the birds? Jesus' image of God's reign is not of a mighty cedar, but a mustard bush. That's a joke! Get it? Jesus is satirizing Israel's triumphant vision of the kingdom, as Ezekiel did with the kingdom of Egypt. In this parable Jesus compares the reign of God with the tiny mustard seed, which grows into a big bush for the birds. Jesus is transforming our vision of God's reign. Israel’s vision of a growing messianic kingdom based on force, violence, imperialism, and growth through dominating the other nations of the world, led by God’s messiah, is not Christ's empire. It's not how Jesus revealed God's reign.
Jesus revealed God's reign as being like a mustard seed that grew into a big bush for the birds. Mustard seeds and bushes are strange images for God's reign. As we have seen, a mighty cedar would have been a much more appropriate image, or should I say more like what was expected. Then again, speaking of God's reign as being like a woman who puts a small amount of leaven in her dough was just as strange. Leaven was a symbol of evil, something unclean which was purged from one's house. Leaven, like the mustard bush, is an odd image for Jesus to use of God's reign. What Jesus is doing in the parable of the mustard seed is subverting the expected vision of God's reign as a triumphant kingdom with our people on the top in the end. In the same way, Jesus’ own life and mission were subversive of the hope of a coming kingdom of power and domination.

Jesus' life is a paradoxical mustard seed parable. The Messiah, ruler of all nations, comes to us as a tiny, vulnerable baby in a nesting place for chickens and cows. He gathers around himself a small rag tag group of misfits. His idea of growing a kingdom is by telling quirky little stories. Jesus expands God's reign by eating with Roman collaborators and sinners. The branches of Christ's kingdom are spread by blessing children and lifting up the weak. People look into Jesus' mustard seed face and say, "Is this the Messiah?" Like a baker woman, Jesus mixes into God's dough the leaven of the unclean and those cast out of the house. The destitute, women, Samaritans, Gentiles, lepers, outsiders nest in the shadow of Jesus' compassion. These odd birds flock to the branches of Christ's kingdom!
Jesus' mission turns away from the hope of becoming a mighty cedar and grows into a bush for birds. On a desert mountain Jesus refuses the devil's vision of ruling the kingdoms of this world. Through the gates of Jerusalem he rides not on the snorting stead of a conquering king, but the lowly donkey of peace. The disciples look down at Jesus washing their toes and wonder, "Is this the Messiah? Is this the cedar of Lebanon?" Jesus gathers no Zealot army to overthrow Rome, but a small band who gathers to pray in a garden, where he tells them to put away the sword. Jesus is nailed on a splintery tree to die a shameful death, crowned with royal thorns as an enemy of the state. And in the end one dirty bird nailed on a cross next to him pleads, "Remember me, Jesus. Let me nest under the shadow of your tree."  

Jesus reveals to us the reign of God in mustard seeds, bushes, and birds. It is a kingdom which begins with the small and insignificant, the forgotten and forsaken, and grows into a big bush for the birds, for outsiders and outcasts, strangers and sinners, for the multicolored robins and finches beyond the borders of our comfort zones. Jesus reveals to us a kingdom for the birds.
There was once a church nesting on the borders of our imagination. It was a little country church on the edge of town. The steeple stood tall and proud and the bushes were neatly trimmed to proper size. The outside of the church was whitewashed, and you might say the inside was also. In a front pew sits little Jimmy next to his mother, Mrs. Lee. Both are first time visitors. “Little Johnny” is picking his nose and wiping it on his jeans. Mrs. Lee is nervously fiddling with her bulletin. “Little Johnny" is thirty five years old. He got his name from his father, who passed away five years ago. His tongue is thick and his speech childlike. He looks out at the world through almond eyes and a fresh innocence as if seeing life for the first time. There were well-meaning family members and neighbors who said, "Wouldn't it be easier on you if he were in an institution?" They probably said that because they were uncomfortable being around Jimmy, particularly that snorting laugh or saying things that didn't make any sense. It was those attitudes that brought Mrs. Lee and Johnny to this new community.

The church they visited on that first Sunday was uncomfortable also, at first. With broken smiles the members would greet Mrs. Lee and Johnny. After that they didn't know what to say. Some members were annoyed when Jimmy would snort at the preacher's feeble attempt at a joke or when he would say something bizarre to a visitor. But, after a while Johnny seemed to blend in with all the rest of those quirky people----the elderly woman who just had to give you every gory detail about her goiter operation, the well-dressed computer programmer who wanted his name on a plaque for every gift he gave, and all those other members who were handicapped by a fear and an in-group mentality which kept them separate from those who were different.
Soon after visiting the little church Mrs. Lee and Johnny invited to their new church a family they had met at the clinic, who also had a child with Down's syndrome. The church welcomed them with open arms, as they had learned to welcome Mrs. Lee and Johnny. Later a bi-racial family who lived next door to Mrs. Lee and Johnny came to visit after they heard about this odd little church. A family with a tattooed teen and headphones permanently implanted in his ears started attending. The congregation welcomed an undocumented couple from Honduras. This new couple was there on the day they repainted the church and trimmed the hedges. Over the years the small church grew. Oh, it wasn't so much growth in size or money, or prestige in the community, that's for sure. The little church grew from its first awkward attempts at welcoming people different from them until they learned to extend the branches of God's love and compassion to whoever graced their doors from whatever life situation. In the end that small church became a nesting place for the birds.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Automatic Reign: Mark 4:26-29

This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite Church, Hubbard, OR on Sunday, November 11, 2012. It is the first in a series entitled "Seeds of the Kingdom."

I remember as a child being asked by my grade school teacher to bring to class an avocado seed. Each of the students took their seed, stuck a toothpick in each side, and suspended the seed in water in a Dixie cup. We wrote our names on the side of each cup with a felt pen and set them on the window sill. I like to think of this childhood experiment as a precursor to hydroponics.  Each day as I came into class with my binder I would look over to see what was happening to my avocado seed. Neither I, nor any of the other children, did anything to our seeds after "planting" them in the water. We would simply come to class, go home on the yellow bus, sleep in our beds, come back to class, and patiently watch our seeds on the window sill. After a while I saw the avocado seed begin to crack in half. A tiny sprout emerged, then a leaf. The sprout turned to a branch, then to a small avocado tree. I did nothing. The seed grew all on its own. I planted the small avocado tree in my yard. As a child it was wondrous thing to see this seed growing all on its own.

The reign of God is like that. It's also like someone who goes out into the field and scatters seed on the ground. Then he puts on his pajamas, hops into bed, snores the night away, gets up in the morning, stretches, eats breakfast, and brushes his teeth. Day in, day out he does the same thing. All the while the seed in the ground cracks open, sprouts into a stalk, then a head, then grows heavy with grain. There is no plowing, hoeing, digging, or cultivating on the part of the farmer. The wheat simply grows on its own. The farmer doesn't even know how it grows. He just waits patiently until it’s time to pick up the sickle and swing it across the golden field. All the farmer does is sow and harvest. The earth produces of itself.

This parable is unique to the gospel of Mark. It is not repeated in the other gospels as are the parables of the sower, the lamp, and the mustard seed. As with many parables, this one begins with the comparative statement: "The kingdom of God is like..." We naturally ask ourselves, "What particularly is the reign of God like? Is it like the sower? The sowing? The seed? The growth? The harvest?" The comparison is most likely not pointing to one or the other element in the parable, but to the whole parable itself. The reign of God is like what happens in this parable. The farmer sleeps and rises. The grain grows and sprouts without the aid of the farmer.  The farmer doesn't even know how it grows. The growth is mysterious and graceful. The earth produces of itself. The word translated "of itself" is the word from which we derive our word automatic. Something which is automatic operates on its own. In our parable the earth produces automatically, of itself, on its own without human effort.

"Now, wait a minute," someone might say, "Are you implying that the reign of God grows automatically? If that's the case, then I beg to differ with you." We live in a world which says, "If I don't do it, it's not going to get done." This earth of ours doesn't run on its own. Things don't just happen automatically. From our corner of the earth everything depends upon us and our work. This wonderful nation of ours wasn't built by people who slept their lives away. We know how this nation grew into "America the beautiful" with its amber waves of grain. It was built with the callused hands of hard working immigrants, who often held down several jobs and worked long hours to make a better world for their families. Can you see the farmer out there in the corn fields behind the plow wiping the sweat from his brow with a red handkerchief? Nothing was handed to us on a platter. Nothing came to us automatically. Blood, sweat, and tears were the seeds that caused us to grow into a strong nation. However, we must not forget the blood, sweat, and tears of those on the underside of our nation's history, those on whose backs we made our progress and who became victims of our striving and building this nation.

As a people we have believed that anything will grow with enough work, self-determination, and know-how. We believe that everything depends upon us. There is nothing we can't accomplish, if we just work hard at it. We have fed our souls on the Horatio Alger story and our-own-boot-straps philosophy. Once upon a time we believed in the myth of inevitable progress. We got so caught up in our own achievements we convinced ourselves that we were the engineers of history guiding it forward along the never ending tracks of progress. This myth of inevitable progress seems to have been an odd mixture of a Christian view of the coming of God's kingdom, the accomplishments of the industrial revolution, evolutionary theory, an ethic of hard work, and a heady dose of optimism. When liberal Christian theologians got drunk on this myth, they began dreaming of the reign of God as something we would eventually build right here on earth with our own hands. The song of inevitable progress played on the ol' juke box, "If we put our minds and muscles to it, there ain't nothin' we can't do it." Then along came the depression, two world wars, the holocaust, and the liberal myth of inevitable progress lay shattered like a wine glass on the floor of human history.

Even with the shattered pieces of this myth lying on the floor, today we still have this unshakable belief in what we can accomplish through enough human effort and knowledge. Through science and technology we believe we can grow a small version of utopia in our own back yard. In this new millennium we are on the cusp of a biotech century where technology and human effort can grow virus resistant transgenetic plants, but also artificially grow human tissues, organs, and the possibly of clones for organ harvesting. This development of knowledge and ability has not come about automatically, but through intense human effort. These same human efforts have brought us to the brink of altering the very order of creation and twisting ourselves into ethical knots we may never untie.  

We have to admit that even in the church we have put a lot of stock in our human ability to make things grow and develop. Nothing is automatic for us. We can't sit back and sleep. If the church is going to grow there must be the constant finger tapping, biting of finger nails, plowing, hoeing, and watering. We may even need to go out and yank on the leaves, stomp on the ground, holler at the plant in order to get it to grow. We must be ever vigilant with hand to the plow, if God's reign is going to sprout. As God's farmers, we Mennonites are known for our labor in the fields of the Lord. We're know there's so much work to be done for God. Foreign missions. Inner city missions. Agricultural development. Economic development. Peace and justice work. Hospitals. Self-help crafts. Disaster relief. Relief sales. Building houses. Serving the church. Committees. Projects. Sunday School. VBS. Work in our neighborhoods and communities. Whew! There's no time to rest, let alone to sleep! Our zeal for work is seen in many MCC workers, who have been known to work on service projects during their retreats, which should be times for inactivity, refreshment, and renewal! "Work, work, work, while it is yet day" is our motto. I have often heard sincere Mennonites praying rather presumptuously to God about our "building the kingdom." Jesus' parable about a farmer who sleeps and rises and a seed which grows automatic is enough to make us itch with nervous energy.

That's why this parable is ripe for us to harvest. Jesus is telling us as a people in a country with a history of trusting in our own human efforts and a church that relishes hard work that the reign of God grows of itself. Automatically! There's not a whole lot we can do to make it grow. It grows on its own. Think of the growth from seed to harvest as "nature's grace." Farmers participate in nature's grace. Their crops grow as gifts. The poet Emerson once asked, "What is a farm but a mute gospel?" Jesus uses the image of the seed growing on its own as gospel, good news. Plants and crops grow pretty much on their own, thank you. Oh, we water and move the ground around a bit. But, there is a wondrous and graceful power that resides within the seed which causes it to grow and flourish on its own without one human having to lift a finger to cause that growth. Its all gift and grace.

A distinguished American surgeon was asked what he relied upon when he operated. He said, "medical grace." He was pointing to the natural healing power residing within the human body which works on its own...automatic. Whether we know it or not, there is also "cosmic grace." We end our work, lie down to sleep, and rise in the morning, but the planet still spins around the sun, the seasons change, gravity holds...automatic. No human effort is needed to make the world turn. There is an intrinsic power which operates of itself in seed and body and earth. Such is God's reign. It grows of itself...automatic. It is not dependent upon us, anymore than a seed needs us pushing and pulling on it.

Now, this doesn't mean we pull the covers of cheap grace up over our heads and snore our lives away. The farmer still sows and reaps. The doctor still operates and prescribes medicine. The Christian still does the work of God's reign. This parable is an antidote to feverish over activity and the DVD Christian constantly operating in fast forward, always in a panic at the sight of the church's unfinished business. This parable calls us to a "holy passivity," a patient trust in God's providence and grace. There is room and time for waiting and wondering and quietly watching the mysteries of God's goodness already at work in the world. At the heart of the seed is nature's grace operating on its own. At the heart of God's reign is a power which operates of itself...automatic. It is always there working within the world, even when evidence of it seems as small as scattered seeds.

The seeds my mother scattered seemed small. A few words from the Bible, prayers as I went to bed, a joking invitation to my father to go to church with us. He was a hard working farmer who helped the lemon trees grow. But, he was a quiet, introverted, private man, with no interest in religion. I would have thought it odd for my father to be in church. I know my mother prayed that he would become a Christian. But, she never forced the issue with my dad. All I ever saw was a patient trust and waiting.  For twenty five years, twenty five years she patiently waited and prayed and scattered her small seeds here and there.

Something odd happened when Iris and I got married and went away to Bible college and seminary. My mother told me my father had started going to church! I couldn’t believe it. And I know it wasn't because my mother pushed and pulled. The hard seed just cracked open on its own! A few years before my father died my mother told me the seed sprouted. My father had walked forward in front of the congregation and accepted Christ! Right there in front of all those people! That was totally unlike my father. I was dumbstruck with wonder and grace.  God's seeds of grace wondrously sprout on their own...automatic.

So, rest in the assurance that God's reign of new life, justice, peace, reconciliation, and faith, hope, and love will continue to grow until the harvest. The harvest will come! God's reign will grow and bear fruit. Put the toothpicks in the avocado seed. Place it in the Dixie cup. Rest. Wake. Wait.  And with wide-eyed wonder watch the windowsill as the seed cracks open and sprouts of itself....automatic.