Saturday, June 13, 2015

Who's Running This Joint?

Mark 4:26-34
June 14, 2015
William G. Carter

Jesus said, “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.”
He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up 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.”
With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

One of my most affectionate memories of First Presbyterian Church was a day when the church was in complete chaos. People were coming and going, volunteers were folding the newsletter, a couple of people were doing an annual scrub of the nursery, and one of the self-help groups from the community was convening down the hall. Three people were lined up to talk with me about crises going on in their lives, somebody had a complaint about the flower calendar, and a jack hammer could be heard on the street corner.

In the thick of it all, some good-hearted soul stopped by to inquire about the cars in our parking lot. He wanted to know who was parking in our parking lot. He knocked on my door, opened it, nodded hello to the person that I was counseling, and said, “Who is parking in our lot?” I said, “I don’t have a clue.” He said, “Well, who is running this joint?” And I said, “God.”

With a look of absolute shock on his face, he pivoted around and went back to his car. In all the years since, I have never needed to apologize for that off-handed comment. I really do think that God is running the world. It may not be obvious, because that is the way that God exerts power over the world. God rules over all things, even if it isn’t always obvious. We have to be trained to take notice.

Jesus provides his training by telling brief stories. They are called parables. He describes a slice of life, often from nature, and waits for us to catch on. One of the parables today is a personal favorite. Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like a farmer who throws some seed on the ground and leaves it alone.” That’s all he says. That little story needs to germinate in our hearts for a while.

Now Jesus grew up near the country fields. He often talked about sowing the seeds, and comparing it to God’s kingdom. Earlier in chapter four, he speaks of a sower who throws his seed all over the place. Some seed falls on a hardened path. Some falls on rocky soil. Some seed has no root and gets choked out by weeds. Some of the seed falls in fertile soil.

I’ve been a pastor long enough to know that one is true. Some people cross their arms and close their ears whenever God is speaking, so no Gospel grows in them. Others seem receptive, but they don’t work at it, so the Word withers within them. Still others are enthusiastic at first, but then they get distracted by working, and vacationing, and making money, and staying entertained all the time, and over-programming their kids to make them just as successful and exhausted as themselves; forget about the seed of God’s Word. But then there are some who hear, who receive, who grow, who bear fruit – and praise God for them.

Or there’s that other parable about a seed, which Jesus tells immediately after this one. He said the kingdom of God is like the smallest little seed. It begins as this little tiny thing, but it grows and grows until it becomes the largest of shrubs.

At least one scholar thinks Jesus is poking fun at the cedars of Lebanon, those enormous trees up north that adorned the great palaces of his time. If so, it’s quite a joke, because the mustard shrub was a weed. And when it grew, it could take over a whole field. Jesus said, “God’s kingdom starts small, and then it grows like a weed.” It is as invasive as the kudzu in a South Carolina tree.

Now, we can understand that one, too. When Jesus told that one, the Roman Empire laughed and said, “You are delusional.” But when a friend did some mission work in Zaire, he said the Christian church is growing out of sight. In one small town, he joined up with a preacher who did 450 baptisms in a single day. It was exhausting. They were begging to be baptized. Finally the preacher said, “Listen, I’ll be back in a couple of weeks, and I’ll baptize some more of you then.”

A small seed grows beyond human control. God’s presence among us can be like that.

But the parable for today is different. It is quite bashful and understated. The farmer scatters the seed and then goes about other business. He goes to sleep, gets up in the morning, goes back to bed, gets up in the morning, goes back to sleep. One day he wakes up and suddenly there’s a crop. It happened when nobody was looking.

What’s remarkable is how restrained the parable is. It doesn’t declare how God works, nor does it invite us to do anything more to help the seed grow. No, the growth is a mystery. Listen to that: it’s a mystery.

It’s like the year when I discovered that my front lawn had grubs. I was raking my front yard one spring. I scratched the dry patch with the rake, and the turf came right up. Then I saw a big fat segmented bug wiggling away. That’s bad news in a neighborhood where people pay a lot of attention to their lawns.

So I went off to Lowe’s and got the necessary items. In the shopping cart went a bag of Grub Poison, a bag of starter fertilizer, a bag of top soil to patch the affected area, and a bag of Scott’s finest grass seed. My first task was to hold a funeral for the grubs. The grubicide was spread, and then I murmured the minister’s words, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” I could hear the grubs yelling in defiance, and I even took a little pleasure in it.

After a suitable grieving period, I opened a bag of top soil, raked it around, sprinkled a little starter fertilizer, and threw down some grass seed. The garden hose kept the area nice and wet. But time past and nothing happened. It was frustrating. It got so bad I started muttering to the grass seed: “Come on now, get growing!” Nothing happened. I was disgusted.

I got tired of waiting and moved on to other projects.  One night I walked by those dirt patches and said, “If you don’t start growing, I’m going to find some more grubs.” That didn’t work. In a couple more days, I looked outside and there were little shoots of green all over. I’d like to take credit for my green thumb, but I know better.

If you have ears to hear, listen. Jesus says, “The kingdom is like a farmer who throws some seed and leaves it alone.”

That’s hard for us to do. We don’t want to leave anything alone. We hover over our crops, we circle around our projects, we buy cell phones for our children so we can call them at any moment and say, “Where are you? What are you doing?” As somebody quipped, the cell phone is now the world’s longest umbilical cord.

Hovering has become a habit for a lot of people. My nephew worked in a college admissions office for a while. He said, “You wouldn’t believe how many parents actually write their children’s college admission essays.” They stop at nothing to get their kids into the college of their choice.

So it is no wonder this little parable of Jesus is almost universally ignored. Most of us like to keep in touch, to stay involved, to remain concerned. It is difficult to be reminded of how many human situations are out of our control. It’s even more difficult to leave important matters in the hands of God.

I know all about that. I’m a pastor. Every day, I am surrounded by situations that I cannot fix. I really do wish I could fix everything. Sometimes I’m even tempted to think that I can, that maybe if I put in a twelve hour day, everything will go better. But good people still get deadly diseases. Well-educated folks make big mistakes. Pleasant people can be overcome by depression and despair. And one of my daughters told me that a high school classmate recently died of a drug overdose; the deep irony is that he was a pre-med student.

If there’s anything we can all agree on, it’s that the whole world needs a lot of help. The challenge of a parable like the one for today is the challenge of trusting that God is going to fix it. The wise farmer sows the seed; ultimately he or she has to trust that God is finish what we cannot. No amount of shouting over the seed is going to make it grow. We have to trust that another force is at work in the world. We have to trust in God.

The kingdom is like this: we sow the seeds, and go to sleep. And while we’re sleeping, while we are faithfully out of control, God gets busy.

It’s like the story of Martin Luther, the great reformer. Germany was in turmoil, and Luther was leading the charge to dig deeper into the Gospel. The story goes that somebody complimented him one day for his leadership of the Christian revival in Germany. Luther said, “Oh, I have little to do with it.”

“But Dr. Luther, you are a wonderful preacher.” And Luther replied, “Well, I preach my sermons, but then I go home to drink my Wittenburg beer and wait for the Holy Spirit to get to work.” Not a bad story for us to recall on a Sabbath day.

Or there’s that story in one of Frederick Buechner’s books. A Princeton history professor rebukes a preacher with all the terrible things that Christians have done in the name of Christ. And he is thorough; he has a really long list. The preacher’s name is Leo Bebb. And Bebb says, “Professor, I agree the world is full of manure.” (I’m cleaning up the story).

“But look closely at the manure,” he says, “and when you see something green growing, that is the hand of God. God is where something is growing out of the decay and the rot. God is where there’s something no bigger than the head of a pin starting to inch up out of the stink and dark towards the light of day. God so loved the world he sent his only begotten son down here into the manure with the rest of us so something green could happen, something small and green and hopeful.”[1]

Don’t misunderstand: we do what we can. We always do what we can. But ultimately, the Gospel, the Kingdom, and the salvation of the world is not about us. We do our part; we trust God with everything else.

That’s what Jesus says. And do you know what he does immediately after saying this?  He goes to sleep. He says to the disciples, “Let’s row across the lake.” And as they do all the rowing, Jesus falls asleep. A great storm blows in, the waves splash over the sides, and the boat is getting swamped – and the whole time, Jesus is snoring. What is this? A sleeping Savior? Is he so in charge that he can take a nap? Of course he is.

In fact, I remember one of the first stories in the book of Genesis. God works hard for six days. God makes a world and fills it with life. And what does God do on the seventh day? God takes a break. God is so completely in charge that everybody -- God included -- can rest.

This is the Mystery at the heart of today’s text. What is the kingdom of God like? Jesus said, “A farmer scattered some seed and went to sleep. He did not hover. He did not stand over top of the seed and scream at it to start growing. He did his part and let God do the rest.” 

Do I believe that’s the way God is?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Paraphrased from Frederick Buechner, Lion Country, in The Book of Bebb (New York: HarperCollins, 1979) pp. 350-351.

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