Friday, June 15, 2018

Planting the Seed: Reflections on Mark 4.26-34 (RCL Proper 11B, 17 June 2018)

Planting the Seed
Reflections on Mark 4.26-34

RCL Proper 11B
17 June 2018

Saint Faith’s Anglican Church
Vancouver BC

            4.26[Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

            30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet 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.”

            33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

         In the summer of 1979 I began a unit of clinical pastoral education at Bethesda Hospital, a mental hospital located in the southwestern corner of Denver near to the University of Denver where I had done my undergraduate degree.  Because I was the only intern who had secondary school teaching credentials, I was assigned to the secure unit housing adolescents who had been held in custody for psychological evaluations.  One of the requirements of their custody was that they continue their secondary school studies, so I served both as a chaplain and as a tutor.

         It was not an easy summer and I seriously considered leaving the hospital.  The work was frustrating and stressful.  I wasn’t entirely sure what I was supposed to do and why I was there in the first place. My supervisor, a wise man and an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church, suggested that I read a particular passage in Matthew’s gospel which, among other persons, spoke about our obligations to care for those in prison.  My young charges were, most assuredly, in a form of prison.  And so I stayed.

         While I was working at Bethesda Hospital, I was living in my old fraternity house which offered summer housing to summer students. As chance would have it, a young man whom I had met in Germany while I was a chaperone for a high school group was also staying in the same residence.  He knew that I was having a difficult time, so he asked me one day why I kept going back.  I think that I mentioned the passage from Matthew 25 and that I, as a Christian, was called to serve those who were incarcerated.  My term ended soon after and I did not see him again.
         Three years later, when I became the curate at Christ Episcopal Church in Denver, an older couple came up to me at one of my first coffee hours.  It turned out that they were the parents of the young man I had met in Germany and who I had spoken to those years before.  They thanked me for planting a seed in their son’s heart.  After years of being disconnected from the Christian faith, he had re-connected and had told his parents that the conversation he and I had had was the catalyst that led him back to the Christian faith.  I had unintentionally planted a seed and it had taken root.

         It is fitting that on this Father’s Day we hear Jesus’ parable about the sowing of seed and the wondrous growth of the mustard seed.  After all, no father or mother, no uncle or aunt, no brother or sister, no teacher or mentor, no wise elder ever knows with certainty what will grow from the seeds we plant in our children and in the young people we have the privilege of mentoring.  We want so much for them and, if we are truthful, we live so much in and through them that it is physically as well as emotionally painful to watch them navigate the rough waters of coming of age.  Even when they become adults and rightfully assert their independence, it is hard for us to let go.

         What is true of our relationship with our children and other young people is also true about the life of faith.  Here I speak as a priest who is leaving one pastoral charge to take up another.  In thirty-seven years I have been given responsibility for a variety of fields: the restoration of the diaconate in three dioceses, the stabilization of a small rural congregation, adult education and youth ministry in a small cathedral church, theological education for indigenous and non-indigenous students at Vancouver School of Theology and, for the last seven years, pastoral, liturgical and educational leadership here at St. Faith’s.  In all of those fields I have planted seeds, some weeds that probably should be gathered and burned as soon as they are discovered, some fruitful vines that may or may not bear fruit in my life-time.  

         But I’ve not planted seeds by myself.  In all the fields that I have served it has been the work of many hard workers, some of whom, whether lay or ordained, had ‘high’ profiles.  But many, many others had ‘lower’ profiles, yet the seeds that they have sown often produce more fruit than those planted by people thought more ‘important’.  

         When I think of the seeds of the good news of God in Jesus that we plant, I come back to a plant that I have spoken of in a previous sermon:  the common mullein.  It was brought to the Atlantic coast of North America in the 1700’s and is now found across the entire continent.  It spread so steadily that many indigenous and settler peoples thought that it was a native species.  Its leaves and flowers can be used to brew medicinal teas, but its seeds are what interest me.

         Mullein seeds can lie dormant for a century until the conditions are right for them to germinate.  During the first year the plant remains close to the ground, but during the second year it can grow more than two metres in height and produce a towering stalk with bright yellow flowers.

         I first met this plant just across the lane to the northwest side of the church.  For years it was a solitary plant, but this year I’ve noticed a large number of first-year sprouts along the walkway in front of our neighbour’s house.  It’s decided that this is the place to grow and you might see their stalks rising about this time next summer.

         Friends, like the mullein, you and I have planted seeds of help, hope and home in this neighbourhood.  Some of those seeds have sprouted and flourished, so much so that they have become the shrubs and trees that form the landscape of our parish. Other seeds have just sprouted and time will tell whether the hope that they promise will become a long-lasting reality for all who look to this place to see God’s new creation come alive.  A few that we’ve planted may remain safely in the soil awaiting a more promising climate in which to sprout.

         Even as I take up my new post in New Westminster, my eyes and ears will still turn west in hope, knowing that the seeds of the kingdom we have planted will bear fruit.  We might even see them turn into large shrubs and towering trees; we may only see the promise of growth as small splashes of green pattern the neighbourhood. But never doubt that there is life here --- even if there are moments of doubt, even if our patience is tested, even if our hope wears a trifle thin.

         You see, the kingdom is here.  The new creation has begun.  And we have the eyes to see it, the ears to hear it, the hands to aid it and the voices to proclaim it.

No comments: