Monday, June 15, 2009

We Are the Harvest

The Bible portions for this 2nd Sunday after Pentecost are I Samuel 15:34-16:13; II Corinthians 5:6-17, and Mark 4:26-34.

I love the parables of Jesus, and how he uses them to teach. They tickle our imagination. They claim to be about very earthy things, but they are mystical stories that claim our attention by leaving us wondering. Lean and spare, they use less to say more. They provide sustainable teaching by leaving it up to the hearer to find the point and grasp the meaning.

So let me boldly advertise a summer series I’ll be leading: “Parables: Stories for Life in God’s World” on seven summer Sundays at 9:00 a.m. in the upper room, starting on June 28th. You’ll find a box ad in our announcements today with details.

What kind of course will this be? Thanks to the subject matter, it will be a good fit for you if you’d like to work on your biblical literacy, a good primer in the teachings of Jesus. And thanks to the subject matter, it will be a good fit for you if you’re already well-grounded in the Bible and wish to revisit texts that invite new insight each time you meet them.

Today, it’s two little parables about sowing seed.

Each spring, I think I’m a gardener. I look around the gardens Diana and I have been tending for 17 years now. I reacquaint myself with what’s there. I notice what did and didn’t make it through the winter. I cringe to see the bullies back again, the invasives I’ve surrendered my greenest principles over, only to learn that even Round-up won’t round-up these suckers.

I stand chastened before the oldest section of the garden that I’ve most let go to rack and ruin, and wonder if I should just seed it in and be done with it.

And I perk up with ideas about what I might put there, and there, and—in just the twinkling of an eye—plans emerge.

The dining room table becomes a staging area with seed packets lined up, old favorites like Mexican sunflower, bachelors’ button, state fair zinnias; and newcomers I haven’t tried yet, like Canterbury bells, which surely an Anglican gardener ought to grow.

And so I start my weekly trips to Agway, laying-in manure and humus, and topsoil. I evict the weeds in those few open spaces among the perennials (which always have a mind of their own), and I beef-up my clay-stiff soil with all that good stuff from Agway, and it’s time to sow.

Such a hopeful activity, sowing seed. You let yourself imagine what that open space will look like, when what’s on the cover of the seed packet appears there. And you’re dimly aware of what denial it takes to do that imagining, how you’re holding at bay the recollection of all that can go wrong: all those species with an appetite for seeds, all those conditions that work against seeds (too dry, too wet).

And, next morning, you look out and remember one more species to think about: the cat, the several cats in the ‘hood that can’t believe their luck to find such toilet facilities prepared for them. And, sure enough, you should have transplanted that catnip before seeding around it, because you’ve forgotten how cats roll in catnip, and there go the Canterbury bells.

Now, preaching is meant to be an experience of good news. I notice that St. Mark, in his presentation of Jesus’s parables, does not include here all the woeful things that can befall seeds. That’s because he has done that previously, in the first 25 verses of chapter four in his Gospel. But since our portion today stresses the good that we see in the sowing of seed, I’ll do likewise.

I’ll tell you what surprised me, as I set about freeing those open spaces from weeds. Some of those weeds weren’t weeds. One was a sunflower already a foot tall, self-seeded from last year. And all around the perimeter of one large space (where last year I had sown two types of cosmos), behold, were at least fifteen self-seeded cosmos plants. The more I looked, the more I saw: tucked-in along the edges of open spaces (spaces I tried to control last year with my planting), edging those spaces wherever they could find room, were lupine, rudbekia, flowering tobacco, red tassel-flower—and it’s these guys, the hardy self-seeders, who know the ropes of my garden much better than I do.

They’re the ones I can say Jesus’s words over, “And the seed sprouts and grows, I do not know how.”

And for me, those are key words in his little parable. Jesus celebrates growth as God’s work, evidence of God’s powerful presence within the created order. Hear an echo of incarnation, that to tell the mystery of the kingdom of God, Jesus speaks of what happens in the earth. And speaks of it reverently, as if awestruck by miracle.

“The earth produces of itself,” is meant to get us thinking, “Oh, and so is the Church called to produce of itself, made able and fertile by the indwelling Christ and his Spirit.” And, sure enough, the parable offers its other key: to speak of the kingdom of God is to recognize our mission. We are ripe grain, we are God’s harvest.

We who start in the vulnerability of seed implanting egg grow by wondrous means, by physical birth and human nurture, then by spiritual birth and divine nurture, formed into a likeness of Christ that God will use to feed and save his world. This is the harvest St. Paul writes about to the Corinthians: “And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

A second parable rides on the wind of the first one. This is the parable of the mustard seed. It’s barely a parable, for there’s no story line except by echo of the first: that somehow this tiniest of seeds has been sown, whether by human intention or by being a hardy self-seeder.

Or is this the story-line? That “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.”

If you attended Nan Alberti’s requiem eucharist last month, this is the Gospel you heard. Her family chose to remember Nan as this great sheltering tree calling into its shade all the birds of the air.

This tiniest of parables holds high the tiniest of seeds and suggests that God’s kingdom comes like that. Doesn’t this little parable teach us what God had to teach Samuel? That “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”?

Do you remember in Luke, the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith? He answers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Or, if you prefer Matthew’s version, “You will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

We’re told that “With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to people, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak in public except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”

I’m not at all sure that speaks well of the disciples, that they needed the parables explained to them. Parables are not rational statements meant for exact analysis. They are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They are about what God wants of us, what God is doing in us and for us and through us—and not just us, but the whole of creation.

But there I go, explaining the parables… when what I mean to do is wonder whether we disciples aren’t meant to let seeds sprout in the imagination and let the gift of sustainable teaching be received by finding the point and grasping the meaning, ourselves.