Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Proper 6B

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

All things with which we deal, wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, All things with which we deal, preach to us. What is a farm but a mute gospel? The chaff and the wheat, weeds and plants, blight, rain, insects, sun - it is a sacred emblem from the first furrow of spring to the last stack which the snow of winter overtakes in the fields.

What is a farm but a mute gospel? This congregation, then - especially on this Sunday when we ask God’s blessing upon our fields - this congregation is full of preachers. You know far more than I do about growing things, far more about soil and seeds and seasons than I. Yours are the hands, not mine, that sift through seeds, and yours are the hands that hold the harvest. You know that long before the first green shoots appear the land holds life within it, pushing up from the seed through the dark, fertile soil, searching for the wide world in which it will one day offer its fruit. What is a farm but a mute gospel? And you are its voice, its preachers.

What, then, would you say? Would you say that what happens deep in the earth is like what happens deep within us when God plants seeds in our hearts? How would you speak of what it means, literally and spiritually, to grow and flower and bear fruit? Would you talk about how, despite all that you know about planting and tending and harvesting, you still experience wonder and mystery as your fields turn from brown to green? What is a farm but a mute gospel?

Long before Emerson found God in a furrow, Jesus was giving voice to the fertile fields and farms as numerous then in Galilee as they are here in the Mississippi Delta. He often spoke of God as a gardener, a farmer, or a sower of seeds, in one parable after another. The kingdom of heaven is as if...how could he make them understand? The kingdom of heaven is as if, Jesus would begin. I can imagine him taking a deep breath as he wondered how to describe the great and wonderful mystery of the kingdom of heaven, how God grows in and around and among us. With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? he mused aloud, and then I imagine him turning his thoughtful gaze upon a nearby field, plowed and ready for planting. Perhaps a smile rose from somewhere deep inside, like a seedling from the soil, as he turned back to his friends and said, The kingdom of heaven 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.

It is the nature of parables, as it is the nature of a plant, to both hide and reveal the life contained within it. Parables are anchored, rooted, in what the poet Henry Vaughan described as the deep and dazzling darkness of God, who is so far beyond our knowing as to be unknowable, hidden from our understanding. And yet parables also put forth leaves for us to touch and feel and see and become familiar, to understand at least in part.

So it is that any farmer who heard Jesus speak that day would have looked out at the same field and heard it preach through the parable Jesus shared. God’s kingdom on earth would still be a mystery, but they would begin to understand that it is the same kind of mystery as life itself - it grows. Of course none of those farmers, nor any farmers today, would stand idly by after sowing their seeds, as the farmer in the parable does; still, for all their hard work, farmers know that in the end, they are trusting an ancient and mysterious and gradual and fully natural process by which that which is planted simply and marvelously grows.

So it is with kingdom of God, the seeding of earth with heaven, growing even now in and around and among us whether we tend to it or not. I can imagine God kneeling in the dirt, giving voice to the land and the life it holds, singing softly the words of yet another poet as the seeds are gently placed: Inch by inch, row by row, I’m gonna make this garden grow. All it takes is a rake and hoe, and a piece of fertile ground... Of course God isn’t planting cucumbers and tomatoes but heaven itself. And the soil in which God kneels isn’t the red dirt of my hometown, or delta soil, or (thank goodness!) Yazoo clay; rather, the soil in which God plants is the whole world and everyone in it - God plants these seeds in us, and there they will grow, though we do not know how.

Kingdom seeds, like mustard seeds, are quite small. A kind word to someone who is hurting. A reconciled relationship. An act of generosity. A visit to a bedside. A word of welcome. An outstretched hand. In these and countless other small ways we are stewards, farmers, tending the kingdom and nurturing the seeds growing in us and in others. We usually cannot see, and could never fully imagine anyway, how very many people are able to take shelter in the shady branches that grow from the even smallest seed of compassion and kindness. We can count the number of seeds in an apple, one preacher told a group of children; we cannot, however, count or even imagine the number of apples in a seed.

What is a farm but a mute gospel?

The love of Christ urges us on, Paul shouts, knowing full well that the gospel, like tender green growth in a field or in a heart, meets with many things that would extinguish its life. Things don’t always grow as we had hoped they would. There are surprises along the way, frustrations, even devastations. Drought dries up our resources. Floods overwhelm us. Pestilence eats away at us, weeds choke out the light, neglect withers us, disease weakens us. Fields and growing things are vulnerable, no matter how hard we work at protecting them. We are vulnerable.

But life is not. If anyone is in Christ, writes Paul, if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation; everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! On this side of Easter, on the resurrection side of the grave, we have seen the greatest and most wonderful mystery of all, that even from the deepest darkness of a tomb life will push upward and forward and burst into the wide world, into the light of day. God, after all, is life’s Author, Jesus has redeemed it - redeemed even its most devastating loss - and the Holy Spirit daily nurtures and sustains it. The kind of life God plants in this world, the kind of life God plants in us, grows. Inch by inch, row by row, God will make us grow. All it takes is a rake and hoe and a piece of fertile ground, which is to say, our willing hearts...

We are in our growing season, the long green season after Pentecost when we will be fed and watered by the stories of Jesus as he went about scattering kingdom seeds not in neat rows but anywhere and everywhere he imagined they might take root. Season after season, year after year, generation after generation, God’s kingdom continues to grow up all around us and in us. Some of it remains hidden, rooted, deep in the dazzling darkness and mystery of God. But we are called to give voice to those places where the kingdom is in the wide open world, where it can be touched and felt and seen; we are called to make earth familiar with heaven, to preach what we know about growing.

Plant our rows straight and long, season them with prayer and song... Inch by inch, row by row, God bless these seeds we sow. Please keep them safe below... Grain for grain, sun and rain, find our way through nature’s chain, tune my body and my brain to the music of the land. Let us tune our bodies and our brains to the music of this land. Let us tune our bodies and our brains to the life of this land. Let us be tuned to the heaven in this land. Amen.

Artwork: "Psalm 72:6, 'He is like showers watering the earth'", by Jesse P. Mark; two photos I took on my way to preach this sermon in Sumner, MS; "New Growth", by Karen Vath; "The Sower", by Vincent Van Gogh.

1 comment:

Mom said...

Oftentimes "mute gospels" speak more loudly and clearly to me than than spoken ones. Sometimes, though, we need the words to draw us to the unspoken truths. Thank you for your words, Jennifer, that inspire wordless contemplation and embracing of the mystery.