One of the outcomes of the pandemic is that many more of us are digging in the dirt and growing things than we have probably ever done before in our lives. We may have started with houseplants and then graduated to the outdoors where we are growing all sorts of vegetables, flowers, and herbs. This newfound interest in gardening seems to be happening whether we have a half-acre, a small corner of the yard, or a few clay pots on our windowsills.
The Burpee Seed Company sold more seeds in March of last year than it had sold in any time during its 144-year history. [Reuters, “Home gardening blooms around the world during coronavirus lockdowns.” April 20, 2020.] Monty Don’s gardening show has been on British television for 54 years. Once considered “comfort TV,” it was recently called “indispensable viewing.” [New York Times, “How a British Gardening Show Got People through the Pandemic,” March 12, 2021.]
If you do an internet search of “pandemic gardening” you will find page after page describing this resurgence of interest in gardening, in working with the land. You will find seed sources, plant sources, gardening tips, and articles extolling the physical and psychological benefits during our current times. Personally, I’ve received fewer selfies from friends this year and more pictures of their blooming plants.
This newfound interest in gardening provides an interesting backdrop for today’s Gospel. Somehow the seed parables Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of God seem more real after our own hands have spent time planting seeds in the ground and we’ve observed and experienced first-hand how nature operates.
The gardener in the first parable who doesn’t seem to know how plants grow becomes more sympathetic if we’ve ever moved the same plant around the yard three times hoping it will bloom. The wild growth from the mustard seed in the second parable elicits a knowing nod from anyone whose garden has ever been taken over by a mint plant.
Now before expecting an airtight explanation of the parables, remember that parables aren’t intended to work that way. To paraphrase C.H. Dodd, parables are similes or metaphors from nature that grab our attention because of their vividness or strangeness. We are not quite sure what to make of them, but they tease our mind and they make us think.
Today’s parables come from Mark, chapter 4. Jesus tells us that both of these parables about seeds tell us something about the Kingdom of God. In both, we are given imagery of the Kingdom of God. In both, we are given imagery of the Kingdom of God starting as something tiny and almost imperceptible and growing in mysterious and magnificent ways. At its most obvious level, we see that the Kingdom of God is not intended to remain small or isolated but instead is intended to grow and spread beyond our comprehension. The Word of God, the Good News of Jesus Christ, Jesus’ life-giving and all-encompassing love for us cannot be contained and must and will be spread.
Our first parable, known as the “secret seed parable” is only found in the Gospel of Mark, and it is an odd little gem. We might be tempted to skip right over it and head to the more well-known mustard seed parable, but we would be missing out on some life-giving insights.
Here is the parable: Someone scatters seed on the ground and then goes about his way day in, day out, day in, day out, seemingly with no further efforts to nurture the seeds. In due course, the seeds sprout and grow, but we are told this man doesn’t know how this growth occurs. The crop, which we see as some type of grain, continues to grow and ripen; the man returns with his sickle because the harvest has come.
This is a parable of orientation, or perhaps reorientation, from our normal ways of moving through the world and possibly even through our lives of faith. We see in the parable that God’s in charge and we are not, and God’s ways are not our ways, and we don’t know what God has planned. That crop growth in the parable is God’s doing, not ours. While I don’t think the poor sewer was as clueless as he seems, the point seems to be that there are some things that are under God’s purview instead of ours.
For someone who thinks he or she always has to be in charge of the planning, the execution and the outcomes, this parable can take some getting used to. It is humbling because many of us like the knowledge we have accumulated through the years and the control we think it gives us over our lives and everything else. Yet, this parable reminds us that we don’t know everything, and not everything operates like we want it to. If we have gardened of late, humility is a lesson we’ve probably learned there, too. I’m still waiting for that peony I’ve moved three times to bloom.
Once we readjust and, for some of us, dial down our thinking, this can become a freeing and liberating parable in our lives of faith. We are not in charge of the success of the Kingdom of God. Take that off of the to do list. We don’t have to do it all! Instead, we show up, be faithful, do the work of the kingdom that we are given to do at any moment, do it well, and then move on trusting that God’s going to do God’s work.
Here’s another thing: Someday, we may see a positive outcome from our efforts, or we may never see an outcome at all. Get used to it. Moses didn’t make it to the promised land. Remember, that’s God’s part of it and not ours.
Now we are reoriented to what our job is and what it isn’t, let’s play this parable out a bit further and go on that adventure of planting new seeds, planting new crops for the Kingdom. What does that look like? How do we proceed?
Well, first we have to have something to plant. Now that is an absolutely obvious statement, but shouldn’t we think about what we are planting? What do we say about our faith to others? Is it made in our image to appeal to people just like us or does it speak to all people about the all-encompassing love of God through Jesus Christ? We want to be careful about the seeds we are planting for the kingdom.
Next, we have to get those seeds out of the packet. Again, this is obvious, but how many gardens never grow because well-intentioned people never got their seeds out of the packet? Our intentions to plant may be good, we may have this brilliant design in mind, we may have the best seeds on the market, yet nothing will grow if those seeds remain in their packets in the kitchen drawer.
We also have to know where we are planting the seeds. Are we planting in the same old plot year after year not really expecting a different outcome? Or, are we taking our seeds on the road to try new and unexplored plots of land that we’ve never tried before? Many of us have new technologies in our churches because of the pandemic that allow us to plant new gardens all the time. Are we ready to keep moving beyond our comfort zones, and where will we plant next?
We also have to scatter the seeds in an extravagant fashion. We don’t hoard seeds, we don’t make one tiny hill of seeds and save the rest for next time. But we scatter, we spread, we broadcast the seeds far and wide. Will we be generous with those seeds to do our part in expanding the kingdom?
Once we shift into our planting mode, we see the task ahead as a real adventure. We also know from the familiar mustard seed parable that from small things, small seeds, God makes mighty things grow.
In her commentary on the parables, Alyce McKenzie sums it up this way: “The good news is that when we relinquish preoccupation with control in order to participate in the kingdom of God, our participation yields a harvest that is all out of proportion to the scope of our efforts.” [The Parable for Today, Alyce M. McKenzie, p. 43]
It’s time to go to the garden.
Let us pray.
Ever living God who’s will it is that all should come to you through your son Jesus Christ, inspire our witness to him that all may know the power of his forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection. Who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God now and forever. Amen.