Monday, June 15, 2009

"God in Between"

I thought is was about time that I got back into the habit of posting my sermons. I don't mind if you borrow them, though I'd like credit even though I admit that these words are not strictly mine, but rather my own interpretation of words given to me by the Spirit.

Disclosure: This title is shamelessly borrowed from a children's story written by Sandi Eisenburg Sasso

Scriptures: 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13, 2 Cor. 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34

"God in Between"

Have any of you ever grown mint? From seed? The mint seed is the tiniest seed that I’ve ever come across. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mustard seed to compare it to, but mint seeds are very, very tiny. Now if you’ve ever planted mint, even from an already started plant from the store, you know how invasive it can be, taking over everything if not kept in check. It becomes a wild, untamed mass of fragrant green leaves, invading spots you had saved for other plants. All from a seed about the size of one of the periods in your bulletin. Or think about a baby. My pediatrician said that babies M’s age gain half to one ounce every day! It is certainly a miracle to watch her grow and change. You all here in -- don’t seem to have much kudzu, but in --, we couldn’t get away from it. Someone once told me that in the heat of summer, kudzu can grow up to 18 inches in one day. You could almost sit and watch that kind of growth take place right in front of you!

This unbelievable, miraculous kind of growth is what Jesus is talking about when he references the mustard seed. This tiny seed, growing into a shrub almost tree-size. Birds can build nests in it and animals can find shade under its leaves. And this, he says, is like the kingdom of heaven. The evidence starts small, but with God’s care, it grows into a huge, sheltering, nurturing tree. One that provides nourishment and security. God takes the smallest seed and transforms it into a great plant that provides sustenance for all.

I’ve heard plenty of pastors use this parable to encourage evangelism and growth in their churches. “Go out, make this seed grow,” they exhort. But I actually think they’ve missed the point. Jesus isn’t talking about earthly things here. He’s talking about the kingdom of heaven—that part, at least, he says plainly. But if we look at the mustard seed parable up next to the parable of the farmer that Jesus tells in conjunction with it, we see that the farmer doesn’t even know how the seed grows. The farmer has so little to do with making the seed grow that in the parable the farmer sleeps through the process of sprouting and maturation.

But truthfully, we don’t need to know how. We just have to trust that God is doing what God promised (and God always does!). While in Matthew, we are admonished to have faith the size of a mustard seed, Mark makes no such admonition. In Mark, the parable is, plain and simple, about the kingdom that provides saving space way beyond our imagining. The parable is not about us, but about the grace of God. “We are freed from the burden of determining the harvest, of assuming that our successes or failures hasten or deter God’s plans.” We plant the seed and reap the harvest, but God does the ‘in between’ work. No matter our efforts, the harvest will come. We have to depend on God for germination, water, sun, etc.

As with the mustard seed, the smallest seed becomes the greatest shrub. In order to be fulfilling its mission, the church must produce some sort of growth, though that doesn’t have to be measured in numbers. Some people think the only way to measure a church’s growth (hear ‘success’) is by new members. I disagree. It can be measured by the church’s outreach, if they are adopting new programs, if they are increasing pledge gifts, if they are getting out more in their community, if they are finding new ways to spread the word about God’s coming kingdom. All of these are ways to measure church growth and success. We start these programs and trust that God will bring them to fulfillment in making new disciples.

The initial evidence of the kingdom may seem small, but the ultimate results are great. If we believe that this is how God does things, then what do we do? We will begin to look for the mustard seeds. We will look for the first signs of the kingdom with faith and optimism. We will not be too quick to dismiss the small and insignificant. We will not give up on ourselves, on others, on the church, or even on the world just because we see many signs of sin and brokenness. Rather, we will believe in God’s possibilities even if the evidence is as tiny as a mustard seed.

Consider David, youngest of Jesse’s sons, so insignificant that his father didn’t even call him in from the fields when a convening of his sons was requested by Samuel. He wasn’t the eldest, he wasn’t the tallest, or even the fairest, yet he was the chosen. He becomes one of the greatest and most beloved kings of Israel. Even when all the others, including Samuel, were shocked at his anointing, God already sees David’s potential and has great plans for him in the life of his chosen people, Israel.

God sees in us what we cannot see from the outside. Turns out, it’s not a beauty pageant. And we see that displayed in the life of Christ. Jesus always sees the potential in others. Their potential to be healed, to be whole, to be redeemed. Intimacy with Christ grows in us as certainly and effortlessly as seeds grow. We have so little to do with Christ’s nearness to us that we can just go to sleep as the gardener did. This trust, so deep that we can sleep without anxiety is much more useful to us than fussing over the little seed: dousing it with pesticide, repotting it, clucking anxiously over the amount of sun it has. The kingdom is like this sleepy, restful trust.

Trouble is, we like to be busy, productive, to feel like we’re being useful. Being busy and dogmatic makes sense to us. It fits with our normal way of being human. We achieve all sorts of goods by working hard and committing ourselves to our values. These are mostly reasonable things, and certainly nothing useful would happen if we did not work for it or if we remained indifferent to moral and political issues. It’s just that this way of operating is not like the kingdom of God. The harvest will come without us having to work for it, because God adores us and it is this love that is the power of growth.

God will not fail to fulfill the promise of salvation. It is already coming to be in this world—like the seed sown in the earth, or the remarkable growth of the tree from the mustard seed, silently but powerfully coming to be. The harvest will happen in God’s way and in God’s time. Meanwhile, we plant the seeds and wait for them to grow. We watch with patience and marvel at the first sprouts. Then we pray for rain and sun from God’s hand and joyfully reap the fruits of the harvest when they are mature.

As Paul tells the Corinthians, we walk by faith and not by sight. Or at least we try to. It isn’t easy for humans to hand over all control of the outcome. Yet faith demands that we do just that. Once we plant the seed, we can’t see what happens under the ground, we have to wait until we see the first sprouts. But we trust that God is always at work, even inside that tiny seed, planted deep in the dark earth.

It is yet another of God’s mysteries, like that of the Trinity, which we spoke of last week. This parable reminds us that God is full of mysteries and surprises. And in an age when we learn more and more with science and technology, all of the mystery and surprise seems to be getting squeezed out of our collective consciousness. If it isn’t tangible or quantifiable or calculable, it must not Be. But Jesus asks us in this parable not to close our imaginations too quickly.

Think about seeds he says. You don’t know how they grow into grain or fruit or trees or flowers. You just plant them and leave them until harvest time. It’s a mystery, an amazing mystery. Or the tiny mustard seed. How does that teeny, tiny seed grow into such an enormous plant? We can’t understand the kingdom of God any more than we can understand how a seed grows. But we can know that God is up to something in between the time we plant and the time we harvest. We can see the sprouts, the leaves, the fruit. It isn’t until then, though, that we can see the plants potential. God, on the other hand, can see the potential in the smallest of seeds right from the start before it even makes it to the soil.

So pray now that our eyes can be like the eyes of God, that we will be able to see the potential in all of God’s children and welcome them into the corner of the kingdom that we have right here at SPC. The kingdom will come, in God’s time and in God’s way; we believe that God will do the ‘in between’ work, allowing us the planting and the harvest. So get your gloves on, grab your trowel and rake, and… wait. Wait for the miraculous potential to break forth from the power of God. Amen.

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