Mark 4:26-32 – The Rev. Helen Havlik – 9th Sunday in Ordinary Time – June 3, 2018
“The Mulberry Tree” – Vinvent Van Gogh
When Jesus told stories—or parables—he painted word pictures to help his listeners “see” what he was talking about. He often described things people would have experienced, inviting them to imagine themselves in the bigger story of God, which he often called “the kingdom of God.” During the summer, we’ll do what those original listeners did—picture God’s kingdom through the eyes of many artists. Vincent VanGogh never painted a mustard “tree,” but in 1889 he did paint The Mulberry Tree, shown on our bulletin cover this morning. VanGogh was fascinated by the parable of the sower—he painted more than 30 paintings about it. A person of faith who lived with mental illness, VanGogh saw the glory of God all around him in the natural world, which shows through in paintings that still interest and move people more than a hundred years later. I’m reading from Mark 4, beginning with vs. 26. Listen with me to God’s holy word.
Seeds are amazing bits of the stuff of life. They contain everything needed for the full plant to develop—the unique DNA that makes a dandelion instead of an apple or a pumpkin. There’s probably nothing more insignificant-looking than a seed—the poet Lucy Shaw looks at a seed and finds it hard to believe anything will come from something so inert and lifeless. (Water My Soul, p. 69) (Exactly what I was thinking as I planted zinnias, marigolds and morning glories this week!) It takes faith to plant a seed, she says. And it doesn’t help that when it’s planted, most of the action takes place out of sight as roots start to dig deep into the ground. Some seeds are more desirable than others, of course. The world might appreciate more zinnias—but most of us wouldn’t mind fewer dandelions. An apple has four to eight seeds in it and a pumpkin can have a hundred or more. But a dandelion? Just one of those small sunny heads can produce up to 400 seeds—and a single plant can generate 2,000 in a season! Does anyone cultivate a dandelion on purpose? But once those puffs are ready, the seeds disperse and before you know it your lawn is a sea of yellow. Your neighbor’s lawn, too.
Biblical scholar N.T. Wright says the seeds Jesus is talking about in these parables may look small and insignificant—in fact, in the first parable the farmer sows the seeds and then forgets about them. But just because the seeds grow unnoticed, even mysteriously, doesn’t mean they won’t eventually make your lawn into a dandelion farm! Wright points out that these stories make multiple references back to the Old Testament prophets because when Jesus talked about the kingdom of God, he wanted people to understand he wasn’t doing something radically new. He was fulfilling what God had promised them, even if it was a long time in coming. In the first parable, Jesus quotes the prophet Joel who had said hundreds of years earlier, “Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe,” meaning that God’s judgment was coming and the people’s prosperity would be restored. In the second parable, Jesus refers to Isaiah 40 to ask what God is like. “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compares with God?” Isaiah speaks of the “everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” who “does not faint or grow weary.”
Words like these from Joel and Isaiah may lead us to expect God’s power and might to be on full display, but in Jesus’ vision, God’s kingdom is more like a mustard seed that looks like nothing but just wait till it’s planted, just wait till it grows to its full height and birds find welcome in its shade. As Wright says, “So… nobody should look at Jesus in Galilee… and say, ‘How can this possibly be the beginning of the kingdom of God?’ The mustard seed is the smallest at the start, but in the end it grows into a large shrub. That’s Jesus’ picture of what God’s way of working, God’s way of growing the kingdom is like.” (Mark for Everyone, pp. 48-50) Small things, small steps, as the Apostle Paul says, “God chose what is foolish… God chose what is weak… God chose what is low and despised, so that no one might boast in God’s presence.”
These parables can make you wonder about all the seeds we plant—and not just flowers and vegetables. What about the seeds of love and faith and hope? The seeds of kindness and compassion and honesty and justice? And also the undesirable seeds: the seeds of cruelty and violence, of anger and hatred and shame. How many seeds do you and I plant every day—every thought we have, every interaction with others? Some seeds die, of course, for want of good soil and water and sunlight. Others grow and flourish—not necessarily because we do anything—like the farmer Jesus talks about who just plants and lets nature take its course. But the ones we plant and tend—are they the seeds of the fruit of the Spirit or not?
Planted within us are the seeds of obedience and the seeds of rebellion. The seeds of self-giving and the seeds of selfishness. The seeds of the fruit of the Spirit and the seeds of death and futility. These seeds, like my zinnias, are programmed to grow within us—they just need the right conditions. From just a small bit of fluff can come a thorn bush that bites anything that comes near it. And from just a small bit of fluff can come the generous mulberry VanGogh envisioned that provides shade for the birds of the air. God gives the growth, there’s no doubt about it. Yet we’re given the task to enrich the soil and then to water and weed, to nurture love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—all the seeds of the fruit of the Spirit in our lives and in the lives of others. In just a couple of minutes, we’ll be sharing in the Lord’s Supper—a little cube of bread, a sip of juice. It doesn’t look like much, does it? It won’t substitute for lunch—but as spiritual food, there’s nothing like it. Tiny and insignificant, yes, but it’s the fruit of many seeds, it’s a taste of God’s heavenly banquet. And picture this: you hold in your hand the power and presence of Almighty God.