God of the Inscrutable Seed and Magnificent Harvest

June 13, 2021

Mark 4:26–34

He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’

He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

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During the marvelous month of May I enjoy stops at area greenhouses. After the dark, cold winter, the greenhouse is a paradisical feast of color and fragrance. Often, I come home with plants that will be enjoyed in the yard until the frosts of fall wrest the glories of summer to memory. Occasionally I purchase a plant that I have not grown before in order to enjoy the experiment it offers. That plant becomes the one I check daily to monitor its growth and vitality. I also assess how I am doing tending it. I am watering enough? Does it need more shade? Are any pests bothering it that I should eliminate? I am intent upon controlling the conditions for my unfamiliar plant to prosper.

The hard truth is as a backyard horticulturalist I am reminded daily that I do not have ultimate control. I cannot force plants to grow, thrive, and produce by some fool-proof combination of hard work and sheer willpower. I would like to though because I like sure results. I like knowing that if I do A, then B will happen.

Many people impose such thinking in other areas of life. Work, marriage, parenting, friendship. The ideal of control. The ideal of linear progression. The ideal of defined labor and tangible reward. Of course, the inevitable corollary to this ideal is anxiety: am I doing enough? Have I covered all bases? What will happen if I fail? Thankfully, our ideal is not God’s.

In the first parable Jesus offers, a gardener scatters seed on the ground and goes off to sleep. The seeds fend for themselves or, as Mark puts it, “the earth produces of itself.” When the grain is ripe, the gardener harvests it. In the second parable, someone sows a tiny mustard seed in the ground, and it grows into a gigantic bush, large enough to offer birds shelter in its branches.

Both of these parables are intended to show us what the kingdom of God looks like. Neither make sense and they include subtle humor and obvious hyperbole, precisely because they are intended to stretch our imaginations far beyond any place we would take them on our own. What is the kingdom of God like? Are you sure you want to know? Okay, brace yourself: the kingdom of God is like a sleeping gardener, mysterious soil, an invasive weed, and a nuisance flock of birds.

Let’s walk through them. Do you see what is funny in this first parable? Good gardeners don’t toss a bunch of seeds into their backyards and then snooze away the growing season. Not at all. They plan the garden. They carefully plant. They protect it from birds, rabbits, and deer, all along the way watering, fertilizing, pruning, and weeding.

But the gardener in Jesus’s parable? He sleeps! There is a chuckle. This gardener trusts the seeds and soil and all the ingredients needed for growth. Beneath the surface of the soil, the kingdom of God works its fertile magic unseen. Then when the time is ripe, the sower gets to work, having never been illusioned about being in charge of the growth.

In this story of the kingdom, it is not our striving, our piety, our doctrinal purity, our moral uprightness, or our impressive prayers that cause us to grow and thrive in God’s garden. It is grace alone. Trust the soil. Trust the seed. Conveyances of grace.

There are many areas in life where we struggle to trust the soil and the plant. Consider where you “plant” your prayers, but then refuse to let them rest and germinate in God’s care. To do otherwise, using Jesus’s gardening metaphor, is faithlessness, a futile attempt to play God.

In Jesus’s second parable, a person sows a mustard seed in the ground. The humor here is not only that mustard seeds are tiny, but that the people in Jesus’s day did not plant mustard because it was a weed, lacking beauty and desirability. In Jesus’ time farmers knew it was foolish to plant mustard because it would take over the land. It would be like us planting a yard of buckthorn. We would never intentionally cultivate it.

So, what is Jesus saying when he describes the sacred and the holy as a mustard seed? How does an invasive, spindly weed — a plant we would sooner discard than sow — represent the very heart and center of God’s kingdom?

Perhaps Jesus is helping us see who and what counts in God’s economy. What is beautiful? Who matters? Who has access to the garden? Where do we see the sacred? Maybe we miss such views because we discount the tiny seeds.

The last image in this set of parables is that of nesting birds finding shade in the branches of the mustard plant. On its face it is a pretty image, but also humorous. Birds are why farmers put up scarecrows.

But Jesus is not a scarecrow kind of gardener. Why? Because, according to Jesus, the kingdom of God is all about welcoming the unwelcome. Sheltering the unwanted. Practicing radical inclusion. The garden of God does not exist for itself; it exists to offer nourishment to everyone, and perhaps thosemost often deemed unworthy. It exists to attract and to house the very people we would rather shun. Its primary purpose is hospitality, not productivity.

How many times have our Christian communities and the world-wide Church shooed the birds away because they have been so busy policing their gardens? Whose needs, hungers, and hopes have well-meaning believers ignored because our eyes are locked on the ground of our own efforts, intentions, priorities, and strategic plans?

Here is what the kingdom of God looks like: slow, mysterious growth. Periods of fallowness. Plants we can neither control nor contain. Weeds that run wild and still nourish. Hungry, raucous birds. Feasts we might mistake for waste. Gardeners who take naps.

All of this is good news, but it is not always easy news. The truth is it hurts to surrender our imagination and our control and incessant striving to God’s expansive, life-changing care. It hurts to loosen our grip, to trust and accept mystery, to seek God in the commonplace, and to embrace the unwanted thing as beloved.

But whatever our temperaments and our circumstances, the challenge remains to scatter seed and rest in God’s grace. To embrace even the weeds, and allow them to become havens of rest. Can we lean into this bizarre and laughable kingdom? Can we let go? Might we trust that the God of the inscrutable seed is also the God of the magnificent harvest? May we learn to do so.

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Kurt Jacobson

Author of “Living Hope” & “Welcoming Grace.” Lutheran preacher (retired) but still writing to inspire and aim for a world of mercy, love and respect.