I must have read our Gospel passage for this morning dozens of times over the years without ever paying much attention to the parable with which it begins. We all just heard it, but it goes by fast so I’ll repeat it.
The kingdom of God is like seed sowed on the ground. The seed sprouts and grows by itself, and the sower has no clue how it happens. The earth produces and, when the grain is ripe, the sower harvests it.
It’s an easy parable to overlook. Thankfully, a group of us are working our way through the Gospel of Mark this year, guided by a book called Fully Human Fully Divine by a man named Michael Casey. Casey devotes two rich chapters to this parable, and our conversation about them helped me to make sense of them. It turns out there is a lot in this little parable. I just needed the right guide and conversation partners to help me see some of it.
Here’s a first, simple observation from Casey’s book. Jesus, or at least Jesus’ father, was a carpenter, not a farmer. And yet Jesus virtually never uses imagery from construction in his parables. Instead Jesus draws on farming. Our parable this morning comes right after the parable of the sower, and right before the parable of the mustard seed, three farming parables right in a row. There are several other farming parables later in the Gospel. But no carpentry parables.
Why? Why does Jesus prefer parables about farming to parables about work that Jesus himself knew better?
Casey points out that construction depends on us, on our work. Nothing happens when we don’t make it happen. If a construction crew calls it a day, the best they can hope for is that the project will be in the same position when they get back to it the next day.
Farming is not like that. Once the seed is in the ground, it develops on its own. It sprouts and grows. The earth produces the stalk, then the grain, and finally the head.
Now, I know that’s an oversimplification, and surely Jesus did, too. I am not a much better gardener than I am carpenter, but I realize the earth doesn’t just produce the things we want it to produce on its own. I watch Carrie watering and weeding our little garden virtually every day.
But it is also true that plants grow on their own. Plants grow even when we are not watering and weeding them. That is Jesus’ point.
And, Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like that. We have a part to play. But God is the real agent of growth. God is the one who makes things happen. God makes things happen even when we aren’t doing anything. Even when we can’t see anything happening, the kingdom blossoms. And we get to share in the harvest that results from God’s mysterious, sometimes invisible work. That is good news. That is the good news of our parable.
And that good news can make a difference in our lives. Just look at Jesus himself.
As Jesus went about his ministry, he was coming closer and closer to his own crucifixion. Jesus knew that. And even though Jesus was God incarnate, Jesus was also fully human. And the fully human Jesus struggled with the prospect of getting crucified. We see Jesus’ struggle especially in the Garden of Gethsemane where he prayed that God would find another way.
We can’t know what was going through Jesus’ mind in his final twenty-four hours. But here’s my guess. As a fully human being, Jesus experienced the uncertainty that most of us experience when confronted with a great sacrifice. Jesus wondered, will my sacrifice mean anything? Will my sacrifice be worth it? To answer yes, Jesus had to trust utterly in his heavenly Father.
In that struggle, Jesus could have returned to the lesson of our parable. As Jesus went to his death, he was sowing a seed, and trusting that God would make sure the seed of his sacrifice blossomed into the kingdom.
In our parable, that is the attitude Jesus invites us to take: to do what we can in service to God’s mission, and leave the rest to God; to trust that somehow God will make our sacrifices, and our suffering, and even our failures mean something; to trust that God will supplement our often feeble and inadequate efforts with the power of the Holy Spirit and so insure that God’s will is done and that God’s kingdom will come.
That kind of trust in God does not come naturally. We have to work at letting go of our attachment to obvious and visible results.
Last Tuesday, I heard a story about a man engaged in that kind of letting go. Recently a county in upstate New York was debating a proposal to dramatically expand the county prison. The argument for expanding the prison was an expanding prison population.
The person telling the story believed a better goal than providing yet more prison beds was to reduce the number of prisoners by investing in other kinds of intervention, particularly with at-risk youth. For him, this was a question of Christian faith and mission.
So, he and others mounted a campaign to persuade the voters of the county. They lost. The man telling the story was obviously disappointed by the outcome, and as he told his story, he was obviously wrestling with what it all meant. Why had their campaign failed, if, as he believed, it was right in God’s eyes? Did some good come out of the campaign, despite their failure?
In the end, he had to fall back on the faith expressed in our parable. He had done his best to sow some good seed. He couldn’t see good results. So he handed the whole effort over to God, with the prayer that God would bring out of it whatever God willed, that somehow his efforts, supplemented by God’s grace and power, might advance God’s kingdom, though he does not see it happening and doesn’t know how it might.
I have no particular stake in questions about the size of a county jail in New York. But have a big stake in our efforts here at Saint David’s to live as God’s people in service to God’s mission. We try to do right. Sometimes things work out exactly as I hope they will. Sometimes things don’t work out at all, as best I can see. Most of the time, we are somewhere in the middle.
But always, no matter what happens, God is at work producing the kingdom. Like Christ himself, like the man battling the prison expansion, although he was still a work in progress, we have the task of sowing seeds and trusting the harvest to God.
And here’s the payoff. If we truly trust God, we come to see—and here I quote Michael Casey—“Every moment of our time here on earth…as an open door, beckoning us to a more abundant life [as we practice trusting God]. Our faith prompts us to pass through that door, even though we cannot know for certain where such an adventure will lead” (113).
And so, on this third Sunday of Pentecost, I give thanks to God for the calling to sow our seeds as best we can. I pray that God will help us to work faithfully and with perseverance. And I pray that God will help us leave the rest to Him.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
 Much of what follows draws on Casey’s book. The relevant pages are 87-115.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan