“Growth” Colchester Federated Church, June 17, 2018 (Mark 4:26-34) Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

There’s a terrific movie starring Matt Damon called The Martian.  The movie was nominated for best picture and Matt Damon was nominated for best actor at the 2016 Oscars.  It tells the story of a mission to Mars and a team of astronauts studying the planet.  A fierce storm kicks up and the conditions make the planet unsafe.  So the astronauts must abort their mission and return to earth.  During the evacuation, Mark Watney (one of the crew members) gets hit by a projectile and swept away in the storm.  The crew leaves Mars, thinking that Mark died due to the accident and a rupture in his space suit signifying to both them and NASA that he’s no longer alive.

Except that he is.  Meanwhile astronaut Mark Watney wakes up and gets back into the base on Mars realizing that he’s been left behind and presumed dead.  He cares for the wounds that he suffered during the storm and contemplates his next move.  No one knows that he’s alive and for various reasons he can’t communicate with his crew or NASA in the beginning.  Thus, Mark Watney must find a way to survive on meager supplies including not much food until the next scheduled mission to Mars, which is several years later.  One of the only silver linings in this nightmare scenario is that Mark Watney is a botanist.  If anyone in that crew could figure out how to grow food on Martian soil, it’s him.  Mark must use his botanist skills and eventually grows potatoes in a makeshift greenhouse to survive until someone comes back for him!  Now does he get rescued from Mars?  And if so, how?  (It’s such a good movie and I won’t spoil the ending if you haven’t seen it yet because you really should.)

Now the scenario of Mark Watney stranded on Mars and growing potatoes to survive helps us consider Jesus’ parables of the Growing Seed and the Mustard Seed in the Gospel according to Mark.  Because Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a seed that sprouts thriving grain in unexpected places.  Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like scattering seed on the ground that will sprout and grow in time even if we don’t know how.  And Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed—smallest of all the seeds on earth.  But it can become the greatest of all shrubs so that even birds can nest in its shade.  Unexpected growth in unexpected places providing blessings for all.

Remember in these increasingly difficult days that Jesus taught us that the kingdom of God is one where the first will be last and the last will be first.  It’s the realm where we’ll gather around Christ’s table no matter who we are or where we’re from.  Jesus taught us to be compassionate as God is compassionate.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself.  Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.  The kingdom of God is among you.  Jesus taught us do not be afraid.

In today’s text Jesus is saying that this seed that someone is scattering will sprout and grow in time.  People may be starting off small and even insignificant.  But they can blossom and provide shelter for those who need our compassion whether they are in our families, our communities, or people seeking asylum on our borders.  Birds making nests in the shade of the mustard tree is an image from the Old Testament that suggests protection.  Jesus’ parables here are words of hope and comfort in the face of uncertainty, and we all need to hear them today.  His parables in the Gospel are a reminder that if we’re working to help God create a just and loving world, our words and actions will bear fruit in time.  We need to have some faith and trust the process that is unfolding even if we don’t understand how growth happens or see the instantaneous fruits of our labors for justice.

But let’s face it—we aren’t always the most patient people when it comes to waiting for growth, right?  In our society we increasingly want instant gratification and to see results quickly.  There’s a good story about this phenomenon chronicled in the children’s book adventures of Frog and Toad.  It’s a perfect story about growth and how hard it is to wait for growth.  You see, one day Frog was out working in his garden and Toad stopped by to comment on how beautiful it was, wishing that he had a garden too.  Frog said, “Here are some flower seeds.  Plant them in the ground and soon you will have a garden.”  Toad happily accepted this present and went home, planting his seeds.

“Now seeds,” Toad said, “Start growing.”  But nothing happened.  Toad got closer to the ground, “Now seeds, start growing!”  Still no sign of progress.  The third time, Toad was on the ground and shouted; “NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!”  Frog came running, asking what all the shouting was about.  Toad complained that his seeds would not seem to grow.  Frog mused that maybe the seeds were afraid.  Frog advised, “Leave them alone for a few days.  Let the sun shine on them, let the rain fall on them.  Soon your seeds will start to grow.”

But Toad took matters into his own hands.  Figuring that his seeds must be afraid of the dark, he read to them by candlelight that evening.  The next day, he sang them songs.  He read poems and played music—still no growth.  Toad said, “These must be the most frightened seeds in the whole world!” and fell asleep.  Frog woke him up to show Toad the great news—green little plants were coming up out of the ground!  All that shouting and fretting and anxiety was over nothing, the seeds became little green plants anyway.[1]

Sometimes we plant seeds and no matter how much we will them to grow in front of us, they won’t.  Sometimes we won’t be able to see the fruits of our labor at all because maybe we’ve moved on with our lives and we’re not even in that same place anymore.  We must have faith and trust that God is at work even if we don’t see instant results of growth like we want to.  That’s why Jesus compares the kingdom of God to someone casting seeds in the ground.  Jesus tells us that this person sleeps; rises night and day, and the seeds grow, even though they can’t explain exactly how.  The earth produces.  The seed finds a way to become first a stalk, then a head, then grain appears in the head, and finally there is ripe grain.  Unlike Toad reading his seeds a bedtime story and singing songs, this person can step back and watch the growth happen.

This parable of the Seed Growing Secretly is actually found only in the Gospel of Mark.  There’s debate about who Jesus directed this parable toward.  Though Biblical interpreters mostly agree that this parable means that the kingdom of God, inaugurated by God, is coming into being despite any human effort to bring it about or oppose it.[2]  This is most likely realized eschatology at its finest—meaning that the time of Jesus’ reign is here on earth now.  Maybe we shouldn’t be so focused on Jesus coming back at some point in time to save us.  Because maybe the time is ripe for us to start planting some seeds of compassion.  Working to enact Jesus’ example of love of God, love of neighbor, and love of self.  But we have to do so knowing that there is some mystery here and there are things at work way beyond our control.  We must be content with this knowledge that God’s ways are not our ways.  God’s time is not our time.  God is God and we are not.

That’s why it’s good to read the Parable of the Growing Seed alongside the Parable of the Mustard Seed.  Because it’s a reminder that seed scattered can grow (to use other examples from popular culture—potatoes can sustain Mark Watney on Mars and flowers will eventually appear in Toad’s garden.)  And not only can seeds scattered grow, small seeds can grow up to become the greatest of all shrubs that provide shelter for anyone in need.  From small and insignificant beginnings, remarkable things can happen if people are given even half a chance.

Now maybe we are the ones who need to plant seeds.  Maybe God is the one who plants seeds.  Maybe both processes are at work here.  The parable just says that someone scatters seeds on the ground.  Though we are the hands and feet of Jesus in the world, are we not?  The miracle is that growth happens in unexpected places and perhaps in unexpected people and we will never fully understand how.

As today is Father’s Day, our fathers may be on our hearts or we may be thinking about our children and the gift it is to be their father and watch them grow.  We may be giving thanks for the father figures among us.  We also know that it can be a hard day for people who have complicated relationships with their fathers or have lost their fathers, or lost a child or the father of their children.  We also know that there are fathers whose children are being taken away by our own government officials as they seek asylum from violence.  This week both of our denominations (the American Baptist Churches and the United Church of Christ) have condemned these immoral policies of separating children from their parents at the border.  So we must not forget them in our own comfort and security today.  For a gift that every parent seeks to give their children is helping children grow—to live into their potential, to be safe, to be loved.  In tender life moments our loved ones become like that mustard tree providing some shade for the birds to rest.  We can provide shady shelter too by advocating for just policies, being compassionate as God is compassionate.

In the end, growth (no matter how it happens or who exactly planted the seeds) is a gift from God.  We hope and pray to grow from experiences in our lives and sometimes looking back on it, we don’t really know how.  We sleep and rise night and day and the seed sprouts and grows anyway.  Seeds scattered and given just half a chance do miraculously take root.  The earth produces.  The small and insignificant mustard seed becomes a great shrub that protects those birds all around.  And if God can somehow help seeds take root and grow and grow to protect others, just imagine what God can do with us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Arnold Lobel, Adventures of Frog and Toad, “The Garden.”
[2] Arland J. Hultgren, The Parables of Jesus: A Commentary, 388.