A few years ago, my friendly garden-center lady talked me into planting a plant called “painter’s palette” in the rain garden I built at the bottom of the denuded hill in my backyard that had become a mud pit. It had colorful, oval shaped, variegated green leaves with splashes of white and drops of red on it. Do you know this plant? It was so harmless looking, and so pretty in its little pot when I bought six of them.
But its innocent looks were deceiving. And if anyone wants any, I have about six thousand of them looking for a good home.
This plant doesn’t care that the soil in my backyard is clay—it just sees this as a challenge. The instructions about it needing water or real dirt or any sort of light were all lies, lies, and damned lies. Within a short time it had taken over not just the rain garden but the entire hillside like Marines taking back the Pacific in World War II. This plant and its descendants have even spread to the front yard. And their seed is so tiny, it wedges itself between the layers of gravel on pathways. It grows UNDER my hostas. It crowds out my ferns. It knocks over the copper birdbath like a surly teenager. Even though I pull up at least a hundred of its sprouts a day, it just keeps spreading. Painter’s palette grows all over my yard, but no matter what I do, even when all conditions are perfect, roses and bleeding hearts keel over like a delicate Southern belle in a corset that’s too tight.
So I’m going to tell you that the two small parables we get in this week’s gospel had special resonance for me. Mark’s gospel is not a big one for parables. Unlike the other three gospels, there are only two extended parables in Mark. Mark moves too fast for long, drawn-out stories, with its “and immediatelies” moving us from scene to scene to scene at breakneck speed.
Jesus doesn’t tell long drawn out stories in Mark; he is too busy trying to explain to his listeners about the “kingdom of God.” We see it right there in the middle of our reading. Jesus asks, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”
The question Jesus asks in the middle of our gospel reading today is one that many of us probably struggle with when we take the time to contemplate it. To answer it, Jesus goes back to the Parable of the Sower, which is the opening teaching in chapter 4. We didn’t hear this parable this year, because we hear other gospels’ versions elsewhere in our lectionary cycle. Nonetheless, this week the two little stories Jesus tells use the same symbols: gardeners sowing seed, and the soil receiving that seed. Yet the way the kingdom of God grows is rooted in mystery.
The first little parable we hear today only exists in Mark. It’s sometimes called “the seed growing mysteriously or secretly” by commentators. And we are not people who are comfortable with mysteries--unless they can be solved.
Yet Jesus makes it clear that there is a lot of mystery here in how, when, and where the seed grows. The gardener sows the seeds—and then, knowing that he can’t make them sprout, he goes off to bed. Jesus explains, "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…”
As made clear earlier in Mark 4, the seed is the word of God. The gardener represents the apostles Jesus sends out to spread his good news in Mark chapter 3—and even today. The good soil is the “kingdom of God,” within us, which produces its fruit by God’s own power. The earth producing of itself is God’s grace—unearned, coming to us not as the result of anything we have done to earn it, but simply through God’s great mercy and love. But when that grace takes off and spreads within us, when it is fruitful, just like with my painter’s palette all over my backyard, it is not the result of anything that the gardener did other than the initial sowing or planting. The reason why seeds sprout where they do or not is often still a mystery to most of us. God’s kingdom grows through the power of God, and it is not up to us to understand how God makes this work. We aren’t in charge of how fruitful this sowing of seed is going to be, in the end, and we are called to being humble enough to admit that the fruitfulness of God’s kingdom is not in our control.
In our modern context, especially our modern American context, we are uncomfortable with the language of “kingdoms,” which is why some people change the word “kingdom” to “kin-dom.” On the one hand that substitution seems harmless—but at the same time it also dodges the idea that we are called to submission to God’s call, not just going along with God’s call to us if we are so persuaded—it can be a dodge to still allow ourselves the illusion that we have some level of say in the matter of God’s dream for us, some negotiating power.
When I hear the word “kingdom,” nerd that I am, two usages come to mind: political, and scientific. And I think a broad swath of our fellow Americans are uncomfortable with both of those usages, whether we are talking about political systems of scientific categorizations, especially given so many people’s antipathy for science based on the mistaken notion that science and faith contradict each other.
Ironically, we saw science, and faith, and mystery collide this week. A few days ago, the ashes of Stephen Hawking, the famous physicist (and famous atheist) were buried in what is called “Scientists’ Corner” in Westminster Abbey. His remains were placed between the resting-places of Sir Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin. Hawking’s declared purpose in life was seeking to understand the mysteries of the universe. It is, of course, a goal that first of all acknowledges that mysteries surround us, entice, and compel us, if we live with curiosity and a sense of wonder.
A sense of wonder begins with seeing the extraordinary in the midst of the ordinary. It begins with the discovery of mystery through seeing things fresh, and being drawn to embrace that mystery. That openness to wonder is what led Stephen Hawking to make the great scientific discoveries that he did. That same sense of wonder is intrinsic to the life of faith. The same sense of wonder that propels scientific discovery is the sense of wonder that also calls us as people of faith into seeking closer union with God, and reminds us that we are not in charge.
Some of the things this small parable invites us to contemplate are the mysteries of grace and divine love which sustain us and save us. This mystery of grace and mercy seeks to work within us even when we ourselves fall short of living into our full calling as disciples called to embody God’s love into the world. The kingdom of God happens how, when, and where God chooses—a sower may scatter seed, but the flourishing happens independently of any other action the sower may take. So much so that the sower can go to sleep: the growing takes place in ways that are mysteries to the sower, far beyond his or her control. Talk about an uncomfortable gospel truth to our control-freak ears!
And that is the greatest mystery of all: despite our failures, our proclivity to hatefulness, jealousy, mean-spiritedness, and selfishness raised to an art form, God loves us so much that, if we take this little parable seriously, grace is extended to all. Love that first loved us (especially as we understand that Love Incarnate--Jesus) calls us to return, to seize on the offered gift of heaven in the here-and-now, not off in some distant future beyond the gates of death.
The kingdom of God is not about where you go after you die. It is about how we live, right now, and live life abundantly, not just for ourselves but by living our lives for others—for others who we see as being a part of us. The kingdom of God is about having faith enough to empty ourselves of all that is miserly, fearful, or suspicious-- in order to be a part of a community, and communion, of life throughout creation.
Jesus’s parables we hear today invite us to lean into the mystery of God’s love and grace in our lives, as it seeks to reconcile us to God and each other, to restore us to communion and community—the dream God had for us at the beginning of time. It reminds us that the life of discipleship unfolds in God’s good time, not in ours.
It reminds us to remember that when we invite God into our life, we invite God to plant the seeds of mercy and grace within our own hearts, that we ourselves become abundant vessels of grace and mercy in the lives of those around us. It also reminds us of the ongoing development of the kingdom of God within us and around us—as each of us allows the truth of God’s abundant grace to take root and grow in our hearts, we are called into the service of that grace to go and scatter that seed by our actions in the hearts of others.
In a world in which there is a shortage of grace and mercy wrought by human hearts, may we embrace the mystery of God’s grace and mercy within our lives, and allow them to flourish within us. May we open ourselves to being shaped by God’s will in our lives, especially God’s call to embody compassion and mercy, remembering the mystery of grace we ourselves have received. For only then may we truly pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven.”
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, [11-13], 14-17
1- Hundreds of painter's palette plants on the hillside in my backyard early in the season.
2- Jean-Francois Millet, The Sower
3- Image of the sower in our parable from the Hortus Delicarium by Herrad of Landsberg, at Hohenberg Abbey, Alsace.
4- The memorial plaque over Stephen Hawking's final resting place in Westminster Abbey.
5- A seed sprouting.
Preached at Calvary Church, Louisiana at 10 am, and St. John's Church, Eolia at 2 pm.