|Today’s scripture reading: Mark 4:1-34||Sermon audio:|
Denise Levertov’s poem “The Avowal” memorably captures the trust in unseen grace at the heart of Christian faith. She writes,
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
Jesus points to such trust in divine care in his parables of seed and soil.
Each of these parables in some way describes the divine life, what Jesus calls the Kingdom of God. Here’s what it looks like, he says, when God’s reign comes on earth as it is in heaven. Like a sower casting seed, and even though three-quarters of it fails to produce, the harvest yields thirty, sixty and a hundredfold. Like the earth which produces sprouting and growing grain, even in the middle of the night. Like a harvest timed just right. Like a tiny seed which grows into a great shrub. Like a plant which not only grows for itself but shelters all the birds of the air.
The story here that most catches my imagination is the one about hidden growth that happens outside of human control. Jesus says that the ways of God are like someone scattering seed on the ground, and with just that bit of human action the seed sprouts and grows. “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” It’s comforting to know that there’s a wisdom greater than humanity in the ways of seeds, soil, water and time. A farmer has a role in scattering the seed, but most of the work is done by the earth. We live in partnership and reliance on a creation that moves by its own ways.
Yet the Bible study group pointed out to me on Tuesday that this parable would go nowhere without some key actions by the farmer. Unless the seed is sown, the growth cannot happen. Without the harvest, others won’t be able to share in the abundant field’s delights. Most interestingly, someone said that the farmer had another job—to sleep! I took this to mean get out of the fields and trust enough to give space, not fixate on whether or not the growth is happening. That is the appropriate work of the farmer: planting what seed is ours to plant, then getting out of the way and trusting God with the growth. The young British entrepreneur Steven Bartlett wrote on Twitter this month: “You wouldn’t plant a seed and then dig it up every few minutes to see if it has grown. So why do you keep questioning yourself, your hard work and your decisions? Have patience, stop overthinking and keep watering your seeds.”
The kingdom of God manifests, then, with equal parts of patient trust and vital action. The kingdom of God is paradoxical like that. Part of a prayer named for the martyred bishop Oscar Romero summarizes this well: “We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.” Our efforts today to care for the planet, to show mercy in the face of poverty, to advocate for peace in this time of national and global strife—these efforts all matter even when we can’t see their full significance for ourselves or for the whole creation at this moment. Such acts are seeds of mystery, of sowing God’s realm on earth as it is in heaven. To forgive beyond what is asked, turn the other cheek, love even the enemy and give beyond what we ought.
These ways are not plain or apparent to people. They are not even understandable for some. But they are seeds of divine life that God has entrusted to the world, and to us. Jesus promises as much in the parable of mysterious midnight growth, the tiny seed becoming something great, and a bountiful harvest beyond all imagining. God will take care of the growth, and it’s on us to do the part that’s before us. “Take the first step in faith,” says Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.” So then take the next steps in faithful efforts for peace, justice, compassion and hope, pair it in equal measure with rest and trust in God, then let yourself be carried by the grace that will see us all through. Amen.