In this week’s gospel reading, we have two parables about the reign of God. Alongside the story of an unlikely king (1 Sam 15:34-16:13) and a discussion of new creation (2 Cor 5:6-17), the lectionary gives us two engaging stories that fire our imagination for how God is working now to bring new creation from what seems so insignificant.
The second parable in Mark 4:30-32 is the parable of the mustard seed, an insignificant seed that is planted and grows to provide life-giving shelter and health to those around it. There are many preaching possibilities in that! My attention this week, however, is drawn to the much less common parable that Mark records just before the Mustard Seed. (4:26-29) It’s a parable that has no parallel in any other gospel, often called, “the seed growing secretly.”
In this story, we hear about someone who scatters seed on the ground, then goes to sleeps at night and rises in the morning day after day. Eventually the seed sprouts and grows, but this “someone” has no idea how. (Mark 4:26-27) There’s a children’s song that my kids love to sing called, “Oats, peas, beans and barley grow,” and the end of the chorus captures this part of Jesus’ parable well. “Do you or I or anyone know, how oats, peas beans and barley grow?” (It’s a fun song, and if you want it to play in your head all day, watch it here!)
If only we could answer the question! How does the reign of God grow? How does the kingdom of God sprout and flourish in the life of an individual person, or a church, or in the community and world around us? If only we could figure that out, we could break it down into a process and a strategy. As pastors and leaders, we live in the complex and maddening interplay between our work and God’s work. On the one hand ministry and mission is our work. We lead visioning processes and create long-term plans and goals; we start new initiatives, allocate resources, and assess results. This is the frame of reference that most of us live in day to day. I think we live in this frame partly because this is the kind of work we can figure out and do. And partly, we live in this frame because the broader culture in which we swim reinforces and rewards this kind of work. Imagine a standard personnel evaluation: you’re asked to list your recent goals, your accomplishments, what you didn’t accomplish and why.
Can imagine writing a personnel evaluation that went like this: “Well, I scattered a lot of seed this year, and I’ve been waiting. So far nothing is ripe. We’ll see.”? And this is exactly the situation the parable puts us in!
Lest we think the reign of God is ours to achieve, Jesus comes along and tells a story about scattering, waiting, and reaping. “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground.” The very wording down-plays our human agency. Spoiler alert: this story is not going to be about what we do. After scattering, the “someone” would simply “sleep and rise night and day.” In other words, at this point in the story someone is just waiting. The active agent in this parable is the earth: “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” We don’t know how it does this; it just happens. It’s a miracle.
Ultimately, the reign of God is like this. It’s nothing short of new creation, Genesis 1 all over again. God’s work and reign among us and the growth of God’s kingdom can’t be boiled down into a process that we can understand. We have a part in it, to be sure we have our work. But the fruition belongs to God, and it happens over time. There is a lot of waiting in kingdom work, waiting for the harvest to be ripe in God’s good time. For impatient people like me, it’s one of the hardest disciplines of Christian discipleship to wait on God and keep our fears and anxiety in check, to not push too fast or too far before the time is right.
But the parable continues, that, “When the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” At once he goes in! Now the active agency of the farmer comes to the forefront, in gathering the harvest that the earth has produced. The farmer may not know how it has come to be, but once it is there, it is the farmer’s work is to gather it in. In the in-breaking reign of God, our work is not to “make it happen.” Our work is to see where God is making it happen, and join in. The pattern of ministry and life for many of us follows something like this: plan, sow, tend, reap. We work out a plan, work the plan, and reap the harvest. But I wonder if through this parable we might imagine a different rhythm of life? Perhaps one that is more life-giving and less anxiety-driven for us all?
Imagine a rhythm that begins with widely scattering seed, many small and seemingly insignificant acts of word and deed that witness to God’s new creation. Then we prayerfully wait to see what will God bring to maturity. And when God has ripened some long forgotten seed, we go joyfully to join God in the harvest.