11th Sunday in Ordinary Time – 2021
Old Testament – 1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13
New Testament – Mark 4:26–34
Our Own Backyard
INTRODUCTION: For several years, there used to be a small clay flower pot on our back porch empty of life.
While it had dirt in it, I had never gotten around to actually planting anything in it. And so there it sat for the longest time, looking forlorn and dejected as the much larger pots next to it flourished with new life every spring.
But then a funny thing happened about three years ago. Whether because of a bird, or a chipmunk, or just a good gust of wind, a maple tree seed somehow found its way into the pot. And so a flower pot that had been devoid of life for years was suddenly home to a sprouting maple tree.
Well, taking the sprout as some kind of sign, I began to water it. After all, while I am no mathematician, or biologist for that matter, the odds that a maple tree might start growing from my unattended clay flower pot seemed pretty slim to me. So I decided it deserved a shot given the long odds it faced to even get started.
And to my pleasure, the sprout soon grew into a small sapling. In fact, it got so big, it eventually outgrew its small clay pot. And so in the spring of, I believe, 2019, Audrey and I found a suitable spot in the front yard and planted the sapling.
And now? Well, it stands about six feet tall and seems to be well on its way to maturity. I still water it when we’ve gone without rain for a few days and put a fresh bit of potting soil around its base every spring, but I think we’re good to go.
A maple tree that mysteriously started sprouting one day in a lifeless clay flower pot is now a few years old and “off to the races,” so to speak.
ONE: Well, that maple tree was on my mind this week when contemplating Jesus’ words for this morning.
After all, his remarks, while not about a maple tree, are also about the mysterious and surprising growth of other plant life, right?
As Jesus tells it, a man goes out one day to plant a grain crop of some kind. He scatters the seed, but then amazingly doesn’t do a single thing after that. Our Bible says after sowing the seed the man “sleeps and rises night and day,” which is the Bible’s way of saying the man is just sort of passing the time as the months slowly roll on by.
Apparently, the sower is either a lazy bum, or a dolt, or a combination of both, since he sows a grain crop only to then stop working the land as soon as he’s done. He doesn’t pull weeds that might compete with the grain for sunlight, he doesn’t work the soil to keep it loose, nor does he bother to put out fertilizer to help foster the grain’s growth.
Why, we can safely assume, I think, that the guy doesn’t even bother to take the time to pray for a little rain when the earth is hard and cracked from lack of water.
Nope. Instead he just sits around all day twiddling his thumbs. Why even a city slicker turned novice farmer after some kind of mid-life crisis knows that’s no way to tend to a crop.
And yet, as Jesus tells the tale, the crop grows anyway! Yep, the very crop left unattended by the sower after being planted ends up growing nonetheless.
TWO: Now back up a bit and take another look at why Jesus told such an odd story in the first place.
“The kingdom of God,” says Jesus “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…” Jesus’ story, it turns out, is actually a parable about the kingdom of God. And the kingdom of God, says Jesus, is like a crop that still manages to slowly grow despite being left unattended.
You see, the pages of the Bible are packed full of images about God’s ultimate plan and purpose for the world. Whether it’s the prophets from the Old Testament or Jesus with his parables from the New, the Bible speaks again and again of a world being slowly and subtly renewed, or perhaps it’s better to say re-made.
One day, says the Bible, the lion and the lamb shall lie down together in peace. One day, says the Bible, the people of the earth will gather at the top of Mount Zion to feast on well-aged wine and the richest of foods with God as host perched at the head of a gigantic picnic table.
One day, says the Bible, the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord and all people shall know him. In fact, the earth will be so full of the knowledge of the Lord, the church as an institution won’t even exist anymore because it simply won’t be needed. Imagine that! Imagine a world where no church is needed because everyone will finally know God.
Back in 1971, as many of you will recall, that beloved and hope-ladened song “Imagine” by John Lennon was released. After asking people to picture a world made right and at peace, Lennon famously says, “You may say I’m a dreamer/But I’m not the only one/I hope someday you’ll join us/And the world will be as one.”
Well, long before John Lennon got around to asking folks to imagine a better world, the Bible was already doing it. Yep. The Bible, in its own way, is also into dreaming. Like some Romantic sappy poet from the early 1800s, the Bible also envisions a world being made, finally, right and true.
Someday, one day, the wolf and the lamb shall lie together, and all people will know the Lord.
THREE: But now here’s the thing...Unless we live looking for it, unless we live with the eyes of faith - open to the power and significance of small things - the kingdom of God can be easy to miss.
After all, it just seems to be human nature to look for the kingdom of God in the big and dramatic stuff, right? We hear about a world being made right and good and we, naturally, want to see millions of people from all around the world suddenly holding hands while singing kum-ba-ya. Or, if nothing else, at least holding glass Coke bottles while dressed in clothes from the 70s and talking about teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony.
But for better or worse, well, that’s simply not God’s preferred way of operating in the world.
Jesus, after all, goes on in our reading today to also compare the Kingdom of God to, of all things, a mustard plant. While mustard plants had medicinal uses, the plant was actually considered to be a nuisance weed in Jesus’ day. Once planted, it spread uncontrollably and it was nearly impossible to then remove from an infected area. Think crabgrass or chickweed for you lawn lovers.
No wonder the Mishnah forbids people from planting mustard seeds in garden plots. Because if they did, well, they’d have nothing but a plot full of mustard plants. And yet, says Jesus, that’s what the kingdom of God can be compared to. It’s not a mighty oak tree, or a red wood hundreds of feet tall. Instead, it’s like a mustard plant that typically grows no more than a foot in height.
It’s best to look for the kingdom of God, in other words, not in grand and lavish gestures (as important as those can be), but rather in the small and what appear to be insignificant ones. Gestures of kindness, and grace, and love, and welcome and forgiveness.
“The kingdom of heaven,” says one scholar, “is found in what today we might call ‘our own backyard’ in the generosity of nature and in the daily working of men and women.”
FOUR: In her beloved book Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott writes of a time when small gestures of kindness, love, and support were, for her, life-changing and saving.
You see, at one point in her life, Ann found herself single, pregnant, and barely able to make it through a day after too many years of hard and wild living. But after eventually landing at the Saint Andrews Presbyterian Church out in California, she encountered some remarkable people.
A congregation of mostly elderly women on fixed incomes barely able to make their own ends meet, the women of the church sort of adopted Anne after learning of her pregnancy. Even before she gave birth, they brought her clothes, casseroles for the freezer, and words of promise that they would be there for her newborn baby.
And when Sam was born, writes Lamott, the women were true to their word. While cooing over her newborn son on Sunday mornings, the women would also regularly stuff $20 dollar bills into her pocket – money they no doubt needed themselves.
One woman, an octogenarian named Mary Williams, even went so far as to bring a bag full of dimes every few weeks - dimes that she had painstakingly bound together in stacks with wire twists.
While they weren’t flashy and lavish gestures, to Anne Lamott they meant everything. They were, I would suggest, tangible signs of God’s kingdom right in her own backyard.
CONCLUSION: Well, the kingdom of God can be a funny thing, right?
We hear it mentioned and it’s only natural to start thinking about fragile peace accords and scrupulously worded treaties between disgruntled and long warring peoples.
And while those things are surely important and even, I would suggest, signs of God’s promised kingdom, sometimes the kingdom of God can also be found right in our backyards. It can be found in the simple and small things.
Like in a gesture of kindness, a word of forgiveness and reconciliation from a friend or loved one, a helping hand that sticks a $20 dollar bill in a pocket, a casserole that shows up at the front door, a consoling word amidst loss and tragedy, a hospitable smile that lets someone know they too are loved by God, or even...or even in a mysteriously sprouting maple tree in a clay pot that had previously been empty of life.
To the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.