“Expect the Unexpected” - Mark 4.26-34
Every year I prepare my garden by adding compost.
I have one of those composters that turns, but I am an amateur gardener at best
And I don’t really leave the compost long enough or turn it often enough
To make it all turn into dark soil.
So each year, all kinds of mystery plants show up in my garden:
Unusual squashes, grape tomatoes, pumpkins, and one year, musk melon and cantaloupe.
I like the surprise of what appears in my garden.
I figure that’s what the first parable is about in our Gospel Lesson today.
It is a parable about the Kingdom of God, just like the famous parables that precede it:
The parable of the sower, the lamp under the bushel.
Each parable tells something about the way God works in the world.
The Kingdom of God, Jesus says, is like a farmer who sows his field,
And then forgets about it.
He goes about his daily business, sleeping and waking,
Then one day looks out to see—lo and behold, a field ready for harvest!
This parable is often called “The Seed Growing Secretly”
but sometimes I think it should be called, “The Parable of the Lazy Gardener.”
This is gardener is like me, casting the seed, and harvesting far more than what he planted.
I like this title because Jesus’ parables are meant to shake you up just a bit.
They often have a twist, a gotcha moment.
With Jesus’ parables, you can expect the unexpected.
Notice, though, that Jesus focuses here not on what the gardener does, but what the earth does.
The earth produces abundantly— regardless of the efforts of the gardener.
The gardener does have a role, planting and harvesting, but the growth his not his work at all.
The earth produces of itself, Jesus says—it is programmed for fruitfulness.
Likewise, the Kingdom’s fruitfulness in surprising ways is not an excuse for laziness,
But rather an occasion to trust in God’s work.
This parable invites us to focus on planting seeds and sharing the harvest
and leave the growing to God.
Yesterday 3 parishioners joined Pastor Brian and I for synod assembly,
the annual gathering of 400 or so Lutherans from around New England
To worship, learn, conduct church business,
But it’s also a time to share current stories of faith among us and to shape ministries for the future.
It was indeed like the parable of the seed growing secretly
Despite the lockdowns and isolation, people reported growth:
Small groups forming for support and learning
The joy of connecting with people who live faraway or are homebound in zoom worship
A deeper intentionality among those who gather, and a willingness to be vulnerable
Innovation and learning new ways to be church.
The surprise of the pandemic is that though the church has changed,
Surprising seeds have been planted and are growing strong.
We have definitely worked at it, but God gave the growth to the seed.
Which brings me to Jesus’ second parable about growth in our Gospel—
The parable of the mustard seed.
We all know this parable where Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a tiny seed
that grows into a great, big bush.
It supposed to be about small things turning out big.
But I’ve got news for you: the mustard isn’t an impressive plant.
It isn’t that big—usually a couple feet high— but its growth is inexorable.
Once a mustard seed takes root, it is sure to spread
Slowly, deliberately, as if its mission is to colonize every field.
Mustard in the Middle East is like crabgrass taking over your lawn.
Talk about a gotcha parable!
God’s kingdom grows on its own, and sometimes like a weed!
The keynote speaker at assembly, Pastor Guy Erwin,
talked about this parable and its implications for the Lutheran church today
He is a former bishop in CA and now president of United Lutheran Seminary.
Pastor Erwin told us that this parable is set against the backdrop
of the common notion of the majestic cedar trees.
They were thought of as a symbol of permanence, protection and strength.
The mustard, however, did not have the same connotation.
It is not stately, it’s a shrub, and since it is so ubiquitous, people are constantly pulling it out.
Instead of permanence, the mustard is opportunistic, growing wherever it can for as long as it can.
And it works.
Likewise, God’s kingdom is flexible, constantly adapting to new environments and circumstances.
In fact, the church throughout its history has been constantly growing and adapting
—sometimes intentionally, through the seed that was planted,
but also through wild propagation and unexpected means.
This time as we emerge from the pandemic is no different.
God is using this time of change to rearrange and reorient the church.
We need to be flexible and be aware enough to seize the opportunities that present themselves.
Pastor Erwin noted that we are entering a period of de-institutionalizing the church
Organization is looser, there is less infrastructure-- also fewer people and resources.
But the church is also becoming more relational,
as we prioritize truly connecting with one another,
not just gathering as people who only casually know each other.
The church is becoming more about spiritual growth than numerical growth,
Trusting that as we listen and grow closer to God,
the Holy Spirit will direct us to share our faith with other and plant new seeds.
As we as church move away from institutional models and more relational ones
We are becoming a more intentional and authentic community founded on the grace of God.
I think this is important as we re-start ministries at St Matthew.
The pandemic has changed people’s hearts.
We do not take real relationship for granted.
We do not take our faith for granted.
We’ve had a smaller group during the pandemic, but it is a highly committed group of people.
You can see it in the dollars and in the way so many leaders have rolled up their sleeves to reinvent church
The way so many have showed up to Sunday school online and confirmation outside
And church in the blazing hot sun.
The pandemic has also changed people’s habits.
Just as many found the option of working from home to be a healthier fit for their lives,
we also will find that people need flexibility as return to in-person church.
Folks are not as likely to show up at the prescribed hour, once a week,
After finding ways to grow together spiritually with others in a more flexible and organic way.
People are likely to want ways to bring forward what they grew to love during this time
Whether it be the convenience of being able to fit confirmation into a busy life from home
Or enhanced worship with visuals and community prayers from the chat
Meetings where spreadsheets and presentations can be easily shared,
and working people don’t have to skip dinner to attend
Breakouts where people truly share what is on their hearts.
And trusting that God will give the growth.
People of St Matthew, we don’t know what lies ahead, but these parables are a good guide.
This is again a time of creativity, of growth, of starting small.
A time to be a little experimental.
It is a time to dig deep into our faith through prayer and small groups and serving others.
It is a time to devote ourselves to the things that truly nourish us.
It is a time to expect the unexpected.
It is a time to plant seeds, and trust that God will give the growth.