Keep us, O God, in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness.
When I first moved to Portland, I visited with an old friend of my aunt’s, who had been her professor at Reed College. He lived in a lovely house tucked behind the Waverly Country Club. He had an amazing garden. I told him how much I loved it, and he said: “You’ll find that a big difference between gardening in New England and in this part of Oregon is that there, you have to work hard to get things to grow. Here, you have to work hard to get things not to grow.” I’ve always remembered that. William Stafford said “Oregon is insanely green. It is the thin light left over from Eden.”
This is not the natural world Jesus inhabited when he offered this morning’s parables about the person scattering seed, and about the mustard seed.
I’ve never visited the Holy Land, but I think all of Oregon is holy land. From what I’ve seen in pictures, the trails that Jesus and his disciples walked could just as well be in the John Day Fossil Beds, or in Tygh Valley. Think high desert. If you’ve ever driven to Bend, along Highway 26 through the Warm Springs reservation, imagine Jesus talking about planting and growing on those dry hills. Imagine standing on one of those slopes, maybe near a river winding down below, and scattering a handful of seed. That would be an act of faith.
Have you ever done something like that? Acted with that kind of faith? Luckily for us, this is not the question Jesus asks in this parable. This is not the point. The point is not the successful sower of the seed, but the grace that happens while the sower is asleep. The kingdom of God operates differently from life as we know it. This may seem like bad news for us who are over-achievers or control freaks.
This challenges the notion that we get what we want only by working hard for it. There’s been a lot of discussion in my household the past year or so about the value of hard work, the importance of setting a goal, no matter how ambitious, and working hard for it every day. These are values my husband and I hold dear, values we were raised with. What does this description of how the kingdom comes say about that? I think most humans are wired to get personal satisfaction out of completing a task, or a job well done, whether it’s a work project, a child’s birthday party, a garden, or something much bigger. Hard work, getting things done is what makes the world go ‘round, right?
But the economy of God is not the economy of the world. The reign of God is that place where the person who works for one hour gets the same pay as the person who works for eight hours. The same kingdom as the one where someone scatters seed, falls asleep, and there it is: sprout, stalk, a heedful of grain, and all. The kingdom of God is an economy of grace.
Both of the images in today’s gospel show us the infinitude of God: the reign of God includes that which can be measured—a handful of seed, a single mustard seed the size of a pencil dot—and that which cannot be measured—a harvest of grain or a mustard shrub big enough to hold all the birds of the air.
This passage should settle any lingering question in our mind as to whether, when Jesus speaks about the Kingdom, he is talking about the present time and space or the afterlife we only get to when we die, if we’ve been good. The kingdom of God has come very near to us. The kingdom of God is an earthy, immediate abundance all around us for the scattering and the harvesting.
Someone once said to me: you can count how many seeds are in an apple, but you cannot count how many apples are in a seed. Our job as proclaimers of the Good News of the kingdom is simply to scatter the seeds. We don’t know what will happen to the seeds we scatter, and we can’t make it happen.
Mark and I used to work with a guy who was part of the company’s sales division. He was not known as someone with, shall we say, a particularly vigorous work ethic. But no matter how hard the other sales guys would work all year long, this guy would take the prize, year after year, for getting the best results. Every year when this was announced, he would shrug his shoulders in mock modesty and say “I just take them to dinner and they buy our stuff.”
It’s an imperfect analogy, of course, but I always think of this as scattering seeds. We do our job and God does God’s job. How do we know when we’re successful?
How do we measure the kingdom of God? Is there a “kingdom version” of average Sunday attendance? Is there a “kingdom-sized” paid staff that says we’ve arrived? Is there a specific kingdom budget we should be shooting for? How does all of that square with what this parable of the seed says about the kingdom?
The reign of God includes that which can be measured and that which cannot be measured.
How we measure our success is also not the question this gospel asks. I think the question today’s gospel asks is:
What are we going to do with all this grace? All this abundance?
That’s for you to answer. The essential message of the gospel is this: The reign of God has come near to you. Repent and believe the Good News. Change your mind. Turn around. Turn around and look at God’s abundance springing up all around you. Share it. Take people to dinner. Or brunch. Or coffee. And rest in the kingdom of God.