How the Holy Things Grow

A sermon for the Room for All worship service
General Synod 2018, Reformed Church in America
Grand Rapids, Michigan

Mark 4:26-34 (CEB): Then Jesus said, “This is what God’s kingdom is like. It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground,  then sleeps and wakes night and day. The seed sprouts and grows, but the farmer doesn’t know how. The earth produces crops all by itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full head of grain. Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.”

He continued, “What’s a good image for God’s kingdom? What parable can I use to explain it?  Consider a mustard seed. When scattered on the ground, it’s the smallest of all the seeds on the earth;  but when it’s planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all vegetable plants. It produces such large branches that the birds in the sky are able to nest in its shade.”

With many such parables he continued to give them the word, as much as they were able to hear. He spoke to them only in parables, then explained everything to his disciples when he was alone with them.

On Thursday afternoon, just before I left New Jersey to come to Synod, I went to the Farminary, perhaps my favorite place in the world. The Farminary is Princeton Seminary’s farm, where seminarians try to sow, reap, and compost their way to endless sermon illustrations.

As I worked at the farm, our first parable came to mind. It features three main characters—an ignorant farmer, the seed, and the earth. I identify so much with this ignorant farmer. I don’t know how things grow either; one of my claims to horticultural fame is that when we were living in Brooklyn, we had three pots of herbs on our steps, in which I managed to kill multiple species, including mint. When I’m at the farm, I have no idea what I’m doing, but I do my very best to look good while I’m doing it.

Thursday was our first harvest of the season—we had beautiful lettuce, some bok choy, plenty of chives. Our daikon radishes bolted, sending all their energy into the stalks, not the roots, so they never matured properly. But some Googling (which tells you what kind of farmers we are) revealed that the blossoms were edible—little white and purple petals of “radishy-ness,” peppery with a tinge of bitter. We picked those for salad. Same with our Chinese greens—all stalks, almost no leaves. We cut those for unconventional, bright-yellow flower arrangements.

I tell you about the daikon blossoms and choy-sum flowers because our failures hint at the core of the first parable. The farmer isn’t the main character; the others—the seed and earth—are. “The earth,” Jesus says, “produces crops all by itself,” which is to say, God does it, not you, human. Don’t forget, Jesus says, who does what. Don’t forget not just how little you know but also how little you do. Don’t forget what you just receive.

Let me be clear: This is meant not to shame us into doing more but to humble us into recognition of this gorgeous grace. This isn’t meant to shame us into doing more because Jesus suggests we can’t do more. Yes, God invites us to help sow seeds, to declare how much God has done for us, to share with others the good news of Kingdom Come and Kingdom Coming, but what’s done with those seeds—the method of growth, the mode of maturity—is divine work.

The second parable points us to a countercultural framework that might make us uncomfortable—perhaps it was meant to. The New Testament scholar Dale Allison describes Jesus as a grumpy critic—a description I love because it makes me think that even my curmudgeonly self could somehow be considered Christ-like. According to Allison, Jesus “dislikes the default setting of our ordinary consciousness, whose defect is precisely that it accepts the present world as the real world.”

Jesus toys with an image that in the ancient rabbinic tradition wasn’t typically seen as a good thing. It was used to describe ritual uncleanness; one manual says that menstrual blood “renders impurity in any amount, even the size of a mustard seed.” Mustard was thought not only to symbolize impotence but also, in some animals, to cause it; another rabbinic source says, “bees are given mustard seed so that they cease to breed.” Rabbis banned cultivating even one mustard plant among other crops; its resilience made it an eager weed.

But a weed is just a plant that grows where we humans have decided we don’t want it—that label, that epithet, says nothing about its inherent value. As he liked to do, Jesus flips the conventional script. What signified uncleanness, impotence, and unwantedness becomes a symbol of redemption, renewal, and God’s care.

We might have expected God’s Kingdom to be a venerable oak or a regal cedar—trees from the Old Testament’s grand arboretum; instead, we get the mustard—not even a tree, just a plant that can grow into the largest of all… vegetables. Culture lesson: This is like a classic Chinese-parent compliment—you think you’re going to get something amazing, something gushing and then: greatest of all… the herbs, according to the King James.

Mustard’s “greatness” has much to do with its versatility; it can thrive in sun or shade, in acidic and alkaline soil alike, in conditions that might seem inhospitable. And in how it grows and what it grows into, we have a sign of enough and more than enough, enough and more than enough to survive, enough and more than enough to provide shelter and solace, enough and more than enough for humble creatures to find safety in its branches, enough and more than enough for a dwelling place in its shade.   

Taken together, these two parables offer both the pastoral and the prophetic—a call to humility and a reminder of God’s mysterious but profound provision, critique of the way we see the world around us and reassurance of God’s promises. The first parable cautions us against inflating our effects on the growth of God’s Kingdom; the second warns us not to mistake the metrics, values, and things of this world with the metrics, values, and things of God. Consider: Who are you to say that you understand how something is planted, how the holy things grow? Who are you, mortal being, not all that different from the grain or the mustard, to decide what’s worthy and what’s not? But also: Who are you, who might need the grace of a place of shelter, some shade to rest?

Dear friends, these parables reek of God’s scandalous grace—of all that we do not and cannot do, of all that we do not and cannot deserve, of all that we are offered and given. The world may push us toward drawing red lines, creating false binaries, and making “either/or” constructions; but in these parables, Jesus pushes back against such narratives. Mark’s is a Gospel of boundary crossing, of transgressing old standards for who’s in and who’s out, and this parable pair suggests that God is already working—and will continue to work—among those we would rather disregard or dismiss. Perhaps even among us.

We will shortly approach the Table together, friends, but before we do, one more thing about the mustard plant, one thing that makes me even more curious about Jesus’s weird horticultural strategies. Unlike a great oak or a long-lived cedar, the mustard is an annual, seemingly not hardy enough even to last a cold winter.

That can’t be the end of the story, can it? That would make for a terrible parable.

It seems apt to take you back to the Farminary one more time, to what I think is its holiest spot: the compost pile. On my first visit to the farm, a sticky hot September afternoon, my professor took my class out there, 19 appropriately dressed people and also me. No mustard plant for shade.

The professor gave us shovels, rakes, trowels, and one instruction: “Look for signs of life, death, and resurrection.” We laughed, because everything about this stank. Flies dive-bombed us. Our shoes sank into the muck of disintegrating spinach, rotting oranges, broccoli stalks and eggshells, moldy melons and the previous autumn’s leaves and the grounds of a hundred cups of morning coffee.

But as we dug, we began to see grubs and worms and other creepy-crawly things, doing the work which God has called them to do. And we moved down in the pile, uncovering the increasingly fine soil that they were helping to make, that the rot had enriched—the soil that will nurture new generations of seeds, the soil that is death become new life.

Death is never the end of God’s story. Every year, the mustard plant must flower and then die. Its seed pods fall to the ground, and maybe they stay there or maybe they get eaten and pooped out by a bird elsewhere. But the seasonal story is always the same: The mustard must die to live.

So it is with us. The death of our notions that we can have any control over growth opens us up to the reality of God’s goodness. The death of our worldly standards—our vanities, jealousies, metrics, our systems of valuation, hierarchies, prestige—opens us up to God’s radical equality. The death of our hatreds and bigotries, our sins and our shame, our false selves and our lies that we aren’t enough, opens us up to the fullness of God’s abundant and true life. The death of our overcrowding selfishness opens us up to the lavishness of God’s love.

God has written the story of life, death, and resurrection into the compost pile, into the mustard, and indeed into so much around us. At the Table, we get to remember that salvation story, that love story, again—we ignorant farmers, we birds seeking shade.

This good news, friends, is for all of us. It is for you. Amen.

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    What a wonderful message! I just wish that I could have been there to hear it in person. You are truly belssed with a gift and calling to pastor.
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  2. Dianne Carpenter says:

    Oh, Jeff. What a glorious insight. Our small weekly Book Club (we discussed your book a while back) is reading Philip Yancey’s, “What’s So Amazing About Grace?” and here you have nailed it so well.

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