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

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.

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