The sermon for week June 17, 2012
THE FARMER WHO TOOK A BREAK, Mark 4:26-34
Does God expect us always to be busy? You would certainly think so by the way most of us live our lives, and generally it is not without cause, but is it the way it is always meant to be? Are we meant to be so busy? I don’t think so, and I was reminded of it in a little four verse parable I would have otherwise ignored, except it was listed as one of the lectionary readings this morning, and even then it was paired with another parable, much more famous, almost assuring that I probably would have passed by it but this time I didn’t or rather couldn’t. It demanded my attention, not easy, when compared to the other more popular lectionary readings listed for this morning.
First, there is the lectionary reading from I Samuel which is an account of the prophet Samuel anointing the young boy David as the next king of Israel. The second reading is from a passage in II Corinthians where the Apostle Paul writes of his desire for heaven. And the third reading, the two parables told by Jesus, the one, the parable of the mustard seed, so much more famous than the other. At first I thought to myself, this is going to be easy. I have an abundance of riches from which to choose. Every passage presented itself with possibilities for a sermon, but here was the problem, in the back of my mind was the haunting presence of this little four verse parable which in truth had never before been on my radar.
“The kingdom of God 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, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” (4:26-29)
The voice inside of me kept saying, “David, this is your text.” Finally, I laid down all the other thoughts I had for what I could do with the other texts, so familiar to us, and I succumbed to this little parable that hung around like an orphaned puppy inside my head, waiting to be picked up and noticed and all I can say is the rewards for me were not unlike all the affection poured out by that puppy, squirming in your arms, wagging its tail, licking your face with its kisses, so grateful to be noticed.
And perhaps that is why it is there, just a few words of Jesus, barely commented upon in the commentaries I consulted, the only parable not repeated in any of the other gospels. It is there to be noticed when you have too many other seemingly more important things going on in your life, whether it is deciding on which important text to use for your sermon on Sunday, or the important work you are part of at church or in service to your community, or all the other stuff that makes every day feel so busy it almost leads to a kind of resentment, sometimes leveled at the very things or the very ones you love the most.
What this parable is about is the need to step away, the need to take a break. This parable answers the question with which I began, “Does God expect us always to be busy?” The answer given in this parable is, ‘No,’ but it begins to the contrary.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground.” The scattering of seed is the work you do. It is the work of raising your families. It is the work of being active in your church or in your community. It is using your talents to serve others and represent Christ. It is being the best parent, the best neighbor, the best employee, the best employer, and the best citizen of the world you know how to be.
I have seen how hard you work, as individuals and a community of faith. I have read articles in the newspaper about the important work being carried out by members of this congregation. I have seen the amount of dedication exhibited by our members on the ONA committee, the Guest Sunday Committee, the Church Cabinet, the Transition and Search Committee, and the choirs and hospitality committees and mission groups. You are all sowers of the seed. True, you have a lifework to accomplish, everyone one of you, but this does not mean the only reason you are here is to do the work you have been called to do or worse yet, to think that all is doom and failure without you doing all you do.
I think the intent of this little parable is not only to protect us from this kind of grandiose thinking but to remind us that to be human and to participate in God’s kingdom is about far more than the work we do. It is about all that makes us human. It is about not just our work but our total participation in life. What I glean from this parable, told by Jesus, is that life isn’t just about being busy but being.
So, what happened to the man who sowed the seed? He goes to bed, he sleeps, he rises the next morning, but he doesn’t go to the field, or does he the next day or the next or the next. In fact, the Message translation of the parable says, “the man goes to bed and forgets about the seed.”
I like to think the man went fly fishing somewhere. I think this is a parable about taking a break. It is about getting away. It is about family vacations, seeing sights you have never seen before, or simply rediscovering laughter in each other’s presence. Life is so much more than just our doing and I think that is what the sower understands and I think that is why Jesus blesses his absence from the fields.
You can’t know what it is to be fully human if nothing has ever fully engaged you beyond your work. It is one thing to do the work of being a good parent but it is quite another to simply enjoy your children. Both are important, as it is to not only work for God but to enjoy God.
Robert Frost wrote a poem my family gave to me at Christmas. It is entitled, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I would like to read a part of it to you.
Whose woods these are I think I know
His house is in the village, though
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.
My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farm house near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest night of the year.
This is the point: there was no point in the farmer’s stopping, except simply the beauty of it, the holiness of it, the enjoyment on a winter’s night, watching the woods fill up with snow, a break in his errands. We all need such moments in our day, hours in our week, weeks in our year. These times occur when you are willing to lay aside all work, all tasks, all striving, and be it an hour in the day or a week at the beach, you heed the words of the psalmist, “Be still and know that I am God,” taking away one word at a time until you are left only with the one word,”Be.”
Jesus said, The kingdom of God is like a man who scattered the seed, and then he went off, he forgot about it, he took a break, he went on vacation, but here’s the ending; while he was gone, the seed grew, the earth produced of itself, and at the end there was a great harvest.
You don’t always know the outcome of your work. Whether it is serving on a committee in the community, teaching a Sunday School class, or being a parent, you do the best you can do, but the seed that grows from your planting is not your doing. That is beyond your job description, but you trust in God for the increase, you trust in God for the outcome, and this I believe is the core teaching of the parable: ultimately, God is in charge, there is a providential aspect to life, and the direction of that providential movement is toward God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Switching metaphors, we want to be in that stream, we want to be moving on that river, therefore, our life’s work is involved in issues of peace and justice and the proclamation of God’s love for the world, a love that excludes no one; we commit ourselves, we serve, we work, we parent, we love, we forgive, we devote our lives to serving Christ, but the fruition of our efforts, the outcome and the results are guaranteed, not by our effort, but God’s Spirit making real God’s kingdom.
So, in one of the best short stories I ever read, though I can’t recall the title or the author, a high school principal, unable to focus on work, looks out the window of his office upon a rural, beautiful, late spring landscape, gives into the urge inside of him, opens the window, crawls out the window, and plays hooky from his own school, and heads across the field toward the woods and riverbank. He takes a break. This is the lesson of the parable. Sometimes you need to play hooky, it is okay to take a day off, waste an hour or two every day, take a vacation, step back and relax, enjoy yourself. God is in charge. It will happen and in the end, all that we have seen and heard in Christ, will come to be.
We are part of that movement but not all of it and realizing God’s kingdom on earth means not only working for it but participating in it as it already is and that means walks in the woods, dancing, laughter, time with family and time alone, prayers and silence, not always being busy, but simply being.
The temptation for many Christians is thinking it all depends on us, and it doesn’t, and sometimes, even, we get to harvest fields we didn’t cultivate. Other times we may not get to be a part of any harvest. Someone else will have that privilege but still, we are able to be at ease with it because our faith is in neither our work nor our rewards, but the sufficiency of God’s grace, sometimes witnessed to when we give ourselves a break from all our doing and simply spend an evening watching a sunset, or an afternoon with our children, or snuggled up alone with a good book and a cup of coffee.
I have never been good at memorizing but there are two sentences or phrases I committed to memory many years ago and they have become for me a kind of mantra. The first is by the Catholic theologian Hans Kung who wrote, “God’s will is our well being,” and the second, which applies to this parable and this sermon is by Julian of Norwick, a great medieval mystic, who had lived close to death and an uncertain future. She wrote, “All will be well. All will be well.” That, for me, is the meaning of this parable.
Wendell Berry, one of my favorite essayists and poet, would every Sabbath, leave his farm house in Kentucky, cross the fields of his farm and spend time in the woods or by the creek, doing nothing but being present to those moments and that place. Out of these early morning Sunday walks a series of poems evolved, published in a book simply called, Sabbath. I would like to end with two of these poems.
It is about Sabbath rest, the providential nature of God and our existence, and in that rest, that letting go, that recognizing, all will be well, is as well what you pray to give yourself to in dying, this elementary faith, all will be well, God can be trusted for what will be, lessons learned, when for a while you stop being busy and simply “be.”
I go among the trees and sit still.
All my stirring becomes quiet
around me like circles on water.
My tasks lie in their places
where I left them, asleep like cattle.
After days of labor,
mute in my consternations,
I hear my song at last
and I sing it. As we sing
the day turns, the trees move.
Then this poem:
Another Sunday morning comes
And I resume the standing Sabbath
Of the woods...
The bud swells,
Opens, makes seed, falls, is well,
Being becoming what it is:
Miracle and parable
The mind that comes to rest is tended
In ways that it cannot intend;
Is borne, preserved, and comprehended
By what it cannot comprehend.
Your Sabbath, Lord, thus keeps us by
Your will, not ours. And it is fit
Our only choice should be to die
Into that rest, or out of it.
This congregation works as hard or harder than any congregation of which I have been a part. I applaud your commitment and dedication, individually and as a church - to your community, your family, your own goals and to the cause of Christ. It is praise worthy, but in your active, energetic lifestyles, don’t forget Jesus little four verse parable about the farmer who took a break.
We need to be as well as do. We need to be reminded, God is in fact the One who grows the seed and bring the kingdom, and we need to be reminded as well, we all harvest fields we did not tend. Amen.