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Mark 4:26-34

For as long as anyone can remember, my ancestors were farmers. They worked hard tilling the soil, sowing the crops, and feeding their livestock. They supported themselves on the strength of the marvellous processes embedded in the natural world and their own toil. 

My generation is the first that is not intimately connected to the land. When I was about 10 years old, I remember my uncles asking me whether I would become a farmer. I promptly answered, No. I’m not sure why I was so quick and adamant with my reply. But as a consequence, as far as this particular branch of the Reinhardt and Bauschke trees is concerned, farm life is a matter of personal reverie rather than personal vocation. It’s something that I remember rather than what I do.

Farming comes up often in the Bible. So, in order to understand what Jesus is saying to his disciples, we have to learn something about farming practices in the Ancient Near East.

In Biblical times farming technology was not as complex and sophisticated as it is now. Even so, farming back then was by no means uninformed. Famers certainly knew how to farm. They had to clear their fields of brush and stones, which they then used to build fences to keep animals out. Then they ploughed the land, using oxen if they owned them, and if not then pulling the ploughs themselves. They did whatever they needed to do in order to break open the soil so that it would receive the seed.

They had specific strategies for different crops. You can read about that in the Psalms and the prophets. Because the information is given in poetic form, it’s not technically precise. But it certainly is clear that ancient farmers were keenly aware of their role in the production of life-sustaining crops.

And so, in today’s Gospel lesson, I find Jesus’ parable about the man and the seed startling.

Prayer of the Day: O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Lord. Amen.

Jesus says, “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.”

Do you notice how in this tale, the farmer has almost no work-relationship whatsoever with the crop? He doesn’t do anything to prepare the soil. He doesn’t even sow the seed; rather, he just scatters it on the ground. And then he doesn’t cover it so that it won’t be blown away by the wind or get eaten by birds. 

Doesn’t he know anything at all about farming?! Doesn’t he know how?! 

Farmers ancient and modern cannot afford to farm the way this man does. It’s just not prudent. There’s too much at stake. Such a farmer would not survive in ancient Palestine, nor in our western prairie provinces, nor in the rich farmland of the Fraser Valley. Such a farmer wouldn’t survive anywhere. 

And yet, Jesus says that the reign of God is as if someone should do as the man did in his little tale. 

The key is what Jesus says about the ground and the seed. He says they produce automaté (that’s the Greek). That word looks and sounds familiar, and gives us our English word, automatic. The meaning is this: the ground that the seed falls into produces of itself, without any visible external force applied. Something is taking place that is beyond human control and human scrutiny. There’s something going on that’s invisible. It’s mystery. That’s what Jesus means when he says the man does not know how the crop is produced from the seed. 

But even if the man in the story cannot plumb the depths of that mystery, he is still caught up by it. 

I think the man in Jesus’ little tale is an exemplary model for discipleship in the coming reign of God that Jesus promises. Faithful disciples of Jesus Christ are caught up by mystery. They will scatter Good News … here, there, and everywhere – on good soil, poor soil, among the rocks – and most certainly in the weeds. And then they will trust that God will produce the crop that God desires. 

It’s as if the gospel-proclaimed-and-received is like the seed-and-ground that contains within itself all it needs to germinate and eventually produce a crop, automaté. Of course, the seed that falls into the soil has to be fed by sunshine and rain. And so does God’s redeeming word in Jesus Christ. But that, too, is God’s business. Like Martin Luther says in his explanation to the petition in The Lord’s Prayer, “Your kingdom come”: God’s kingdom comes indeed without our praying for it, but here in this prayer we pray that it will come to us.

Meanwhile, the people scattering the seed just sleep and rise night and day, as any creatures might. That’s because the scatterers of the seed comprehend that where there is mystery, there is also miracle. 

That’s what faith is all about … except that we typically get cause and effect confused. We hear it all the time: “In order for a miracle to happen, you need faith.” It sounds good and reasonable, but here’s the problem: if there is no miracle, then what does that say about your faith or mine? Apparently one of us didn’t believe sincerely enough. 

You see, it’s actually the other way around! In order for faith to happen, you need a miracle. In order for us to have faith, God has to break into this old creation and do something utterly new — not necessarily a sensational spectacle, but much more likely the hidden, mysterious action of the Holy Spirit, working through the visible, tangible means of grace connected to the proclaimed word.

Here is the key to faithful discipleship. It starts with mystery. It is fed by mystery. As the Good News of Jesus Christ is “done to us” over and over again, through Word and Sacrament, God transforms us outside-in and inside-out. We practice it by praying it and singing it; and then we live it and tell it. It’s in our heart and on our lips. It propels our feet and strengthens our hands. 

It’s very straightforward and direct: Jesus Christ has died for all. Because of Jesus, God is already as happy with you and me as God can possibly be.

Let’s not add anything to it. Let’s not give in to the temptation to do something more, to try to help God out a little. Let us not try to take unto ourselves the authority to transform lives; for that is God’s business and God’s business alone. Neither let us try to invest our church with ultimate authority over people’s lives so that the church becomes the arbiter or judge of salvation. Judging is God’s business and God’s business alone. God’s kingdom or reign will indeed come … but God will reign on God’s terms.

Let us simply trust that God will accomplish what God wants to accomplish – as mysterious and inscrutable as God may be. 

Meanwhile, how about you and me learning to be the creatures that God has always wanted us to be? I want to be: 

  • a good brother to my sisters; 
  • a loving husband to my wife; 
  • a nurturing “Pops” to my grandchildren; 
  • a pleasant and respectful neighbour to the people in my community; 
  • a builder and sustainer of our church institutions for the sake of the Gospel and the faith that it produces; 
  • and a true friend to all. 

For the sake of the world that God created and still loves and sustains, I want to know about right relationships, protection of the vulnerable, justice, and responsible stewardship of the earth and its resources. I want to rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn, and generally take an interest in the people around me. I want to advocate for those who have no voice, and pray for all in need. 

I want to be the creature that God has always intended me to be, “sleeping and rising night and day” … and trusting that God will do it all! I want to take God at God’s word, incarnated in Jesus Christ.

And maybe I should expand my interest in gardening. Who knows, I might learn something thoroughly down-to-earth, here in God’s Farm!

May God grant us the Spirit to produce in us that which God desires. May God produce faith through the miracle of mystery. Your kingdom come, O God!