Pentecost 4 – June 17, 2018
I don’t think I had ever read that piece from the book of Ezekiel before this week. It was picked by those who put together the lectionary (the list of readings week by week) as an alternative reading, to match the gospel. And it matches it almost word for word in parts.
Ezekiel is speaking of hope for Israel, at a desperately low point in Israel’s history when all seemed to be defeat and disaster, and Ezekiel says it’s as if God is going to take a little sprig of cedar, and make it become a great tree. And here’s the bit that we hear echoed in Mark’s gospel reading:
“Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”
Jesus is talking about how a tiny mustard seed can grow into a great shrub, and he says:
“It grows 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.”
Using the same image, almost verbatim, Ezekiel and Jesus are each using a parable to explain how God works in the most surprising ways: a tiny sprig becoming a great tree; a minute seed becoming a huge shrub, and both providing shelter and safety.
But the seed analogy goes further in Mark’s gospel passage, because there’s also a teaching about how this growth of a seed has nothing to do with us. Jesus says that when someone plants a seed, he or she then gets on with life, and the seed grows all by itself, without the person who planted it even knowing how that happens. (Like David’s surprise row of garlic this year.)
This parable of the mystery of the growing seed, that does its thing without us engineering it, is a tiny parable in Mark but with huge spiritual implications. It invites us to consider first what sort of seeds we’re planting in our lives. And it says something incredibly important about trust.
So what sort of seeds are we planting, day by day, moment by moment – often without even being aware of it? Are we planting seeds of hope by the way we live, or seeds of despair? Are we planting seeds of forgiveness in our dealings with others (especially those who hurt us) or seeds of bitterness?
As parents, we plant seeds in our children’s hearts daily by the way we raise them, and by the way they see us live and treat other people: seeds of joy and trust and love are constantly being planted, or the opposite. It’s a terrifying responsibility in some ways!
In public and political life we can either plant seeds of inclusion and justice and compassion, for example, or seeds of suspicion and greed and exploitation. Our individual attitudes and actions plant seeds that grow into whole cultures and communities, for better or for worse. How we live and work and vote matter.
The freeing part of this is that we’re only planting seeds. We don’t have to pull off a whole successful harvest. Parents plant seeds in their children’s hearts but as the child grows and matures, learns and deals with challenges, the whole person is formed. Thank God, we don’t create the whole adult through our actions as parents. But we do plant seeds.
Sometimes being able to plant a seed feels like at least SOMETHING we can do, and it’s a relief to be able to do something. When I first went to El Salvador and saw the suffering of the people during and after the civil war, the group I was with badly wanted to do something to help. We met a woman whose whole community had been massacred twenty-plus years ago. And we heard about an organization called Seeds of Learning, that was helping her daughter (born later in the war) get through medical school now. So we clubbed together and raised the funds needed for her to complete her program. It was a tiny act in the face of such vast suffering, but it was a real seed and it made a real difference.
The other freeing aspect of this is that seeds grow without us needing to create or control the growth. And that can actually set us free from obsessing and fretting over results. Sometimes we want an outcome so much that we go crazy trying to make it happen. But Jesus’ parable of the growing seed teaches that it’s God who takes care of the outcome. We can lighten up a bit.
Here’s something Thomas Merton wrote in a letter to a young friend:
“Do not depend on the hope of results… Concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself… The big results are not in your hands or mine… All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself to be used by God’s love… The real hope is not in something we think we can do, but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see.”
One more thought: the great teacher and preacher from the 14th century, Meister Eckhart, wrote this:
“The seed of God is in us. Now the seed of a pear tree grows into a pear tree; and a hazel seed grows into a hazel tree; a seed of God grows into God.”
Now that is quite a concept, is it not? You have a seed of God growing you into God! Our true selves are in the image of God, and God is working in us all the time to make that image evident.
In a few minutes Luna and Harper will be baptized here. Their parents are planting seeds of faith in them that will grow secretly and silently in ways we can’t even imagine. But the same seeds are in each of us, whether we’re baptized or not: seeds of God; seeds of faith and goodness and holiness.
So may we trust the grace of God to work in us.
May we plant good seeds.
And may we leave the outcome in God’s hands, and live without fear and anxiety. Amen.