- Parish House
Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – Mark 4:26-29
The Rev. Ragan Sutterfield
Jesus 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.”
I lived for a time in rural Arkansas, just south of Morrilton and east of Petit Jean. Each spring the traffic patterns of the mostly empty roads would adjust as tractors began their creep along the pavement and pickup trucks would bump along with big trailers carrying silver funnels, “Agri-COOP” stamped across their sides. Inside these funnels was lime, white pulverized chalk that had once been the skeletons of ancient sea creatures. It had been mined from some quarry, crushed into a powder, and shipped across the country to agricultural supply stores. Now, along these country roads, it was making its way to be spread across spring pastures.
Grass, like many other annual plants, prefers a neutral soil–not too acidic, not too base. Many soils in Arkansas tend to be on the acidic side. They need to be balanced and so lime is the generally recommended remedy. Pour some lime over the fields and the acidity will be neutralized for a season, drawing up good grass. The spreading of lime is usually followed by the seeding of grass, the spreading of nitrogen rich chicken litter, and the mowing of hay–a cycle that continues into the fall when the fields either lie fallow or are seeded with a winter rye. It is a great deal of work, managing the growth of these pastures–it requires the control of a great many conditions–but machines and transportation have made it possible to consistently produce a good pasture with enough time and money to give.
At the time I was living in the county, I was dreaming of my own green pastures and cattle grazing them. Having not raised cattle before, I was doing what I usually do when I need to learn something new: I was reading books. The one that proved most helpful was Joel Salatin’s “Salad Bar Beef,” a book that argued that farmers should not start with lime, but with learning the rhythms of nature. Get cattle, he advised, let them graze, begin to rotate them around the pasture the way buffalo would graze–eating everything in a patch and then moving on until the grazed area regrows.
Salatin has become America’s most famous farmer because of innovative approaches like these, but his innovation is really just imitation of what works for free in nature rather than employing expensive inputs and machines. A farmer could buy thousands of dollars in lime and manipulate the growth of the pasture through continued work and money or she could wake up the fertility of a pasture through following the patterns of creation.
These different modes of pasture management–inputs and implements or the patient cultivation of creation, seem to me a good way of drawing the contrast behind our parable this morning. In saying what the Kingdom of God is like, Jesus is also offering us a picture of what it is not like. It is a picture of what might look like powerlessness but is in reality a revolutionary patience that trusts the rhythms of grace.
The Palestinian peasants who gathered around Jesus were mostly dry-land farmers. They would cultivate the soil and sow seed, but then there was waiting. They had no irrigation, no chemical fertilizers or herbicides to spread. They planted when the conditions were right, prayed for rain, and waited for the rhythms of soil and sun and water to bring growth. Their work would not come again until the harvest was ready. And Jesus tells them that this is what the coming of God’s reign is like; this is how God’s justice will arrive in the world.
That could have been disappointing news for many of them. They were peasants mostly, working rented land. A whole season’s labor would go to the landlord for rent, the Romans for taxes. They felt burdened, and their religious authorities rather than offering solace only added to the weight with temple taxes and religious duties. True hope for the kingdom in those days seemed to be with the zealots who were at least getting revenge–the kingdom a little closer with each Roman caravan raided along the rocky highway. God helps those who help themselves is an old heresy.
In answer, Jesus offers them a different way to imagine the Kingdom coming. Don’t manipulate or force it. It is not something you can build or accomplish. The kingdom is something that can only be sown and harvested, but its actual growth comes mysteriously, of itself. Jesus is here in a long tradition of prophets, one we find reflected in our reading from Samuel and in our Psalm where Israel is reminded that it should not to trust in the might of chariots but in the righteousness of God.
That can be disappointing news for many of us. Some of us are builders and achievers and we want to create the kingdom of God here through just the right program of spiritual formation, just the right outreach, just the right kind of advocacy work on behalf of the excluded and exploited of our world. Some of us are tired and exhausted and ready to see the fruits of the kingdom. We want to say with the psalmist “how long, O Lord, how long.” It seems that the reign of God is a long way off and we hope for some method that will help us bring it here into our midst, now.
But Jesus is telling us: it doesn’t work that way. Our work is to move into the rhythms of the kingdom, the rhythms of God’s grace. God is the one who will bring the growth, God is the one who will bring justice, God is the one who will usher in resurrection life. We can work all we want and spend all we want, but unless we are resting in God’s power and relying on God’s strength we will make little progress in welcoming God’s kingdom. Instead we will likely end up exhausted and disappointed, angry that we could not accomplish the kingdom when despite us it was actually working its way up around us all along.
One day, Jesus tells us, if we have patience then we will be among those reapers who go into the harvest. The kingdom will come, justice will arrive in the world. But what if, in our waiting, we have also been growing? What if, in patiently tending to the fields, waiting for God to give the growth, God has also been growing us?
I was recently reading another agricultural writer, Ben Falk, about an apple tree he had cultivated. As he ate the first apple from his tree, he writes that his reaction was, “Victory at last! This is what I’ve been working so hard for!” But then he was “quieted, humbled.” He realized that this apple he was now eating was “not a reward [he] deserved, but a gift.” “You see,” he writes, “the tree had already fed me. The tree had already given me so much…Somehow, in tending to the tree I had come to appreciate it in and of itself, not for some future thing it could offer me, but just because it was there. Quiet, serene, beautiful in form, patient…I realized that I had lost my ambition about the tree–that the mental place in which I had planted the tree had faded. The apples I was dreaming of then had been replaced with an appreciation for the mere presence of the tree and for the opportunity to care for it.” He concludes: “’Abundance’ has never meant the same thing since.”
We all long for that day when God will make all things right with the world, when our sorrows will be wrapped in God’s love and we will experience all the fruits of God’s kingdom. But now, as we await that fullness with patience, we plod along with our weekly worship and our daily praise. We seek to love our neighbors and pray for those around us, not as means of progress but as acts of faithfulness. We try to welcome the sprouting seeds of the kingdom wherever they begin their growth. And when the kingdom comes in its fullness, we will enter it, realizing that it has already been among us for quite sometime; the rhythms of its grace working in the roots of our hearts until the day they burst forth with growth.