July 20, 2014

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Genesis 1:9-13, Psalm 126, Mark 4:26-32

Dreams in the Dirt

Today we continue our summer worship series on the days of creation. As you can see, this is the day of plants. We remember the day God planted the earth with plants yielding seed, fruit trees of every kind. Now we human people conspire with God in this work of creation. Everybody who manages crops on a farm or plants a garden in their yard; every clay pot of herbs above the kitchen sink; every styrofoam cup with a marigold dutifully entrusted to kindergartners. See, there is something you can learn from working with plants, you just can’t learn anywhere else.

In full disclosure, I must tell you that my experience with the growing of plants is incredibly limited. Namely, I can pull weeds. In the last few years, I’ve had the chance to get better at this through several youth mission trips. On one, we went to a farm run by adults with Autism. In order to make room for raised beds, we were asked to dig long gangly weeds out of the ground at their roots. On a trip to Philadelphia, we were each handed big clippers and sent down into the forest along the Schuylkill river. Our job was to thin out the invasive species so other plants could grow.

On a farm in Massachusetts, we were sent to an enormous hill of compost-turned-soil, covered with bright cheery weeds. Looking at this green mountain, we thought it would take all day. Turns out, the weeds weren’t deeply embedded. They practically jumped into our wheelbarrows on their own, and we had the whole hill picked clean in two hours. The kids were so proud! We took a silly group photo with all the harvested weeds.

For each of these trips, we spent a year getting ready —raising money and learning about the place we would go. Then the youth were commissioned and blessed. We told them, “This mission trip could change your life. You’ll learn things about yourself you never knew. You won’t come back the same.” We told them they were missionaries, ambassadors from our congregation carrying the light of the Gospel far from home. We promised them an experience that would be strange and exhilarating. It would push them out of their comfort zones, and it would be fun.

Then our group would show up at the site in our matching t-shirts with the enthusiasm to save the world.  And the site directors would smile and say, “We’re glad you’re here. Your project is to pull weeds.” Really? We drove all this way and did all this work, so we could help the world and serve the Lord by pulling weeds? Yes, exactly.

The great thing about pulling weeds is pretty much everybody can do it without needing any special skills. It helps you get to know each other. Working side by side invites conversation that might never happen sitting across from each other at a table. This is work that makes you slow down, and it makes your fingers smell like the living earth. There is something we can learn from working with plants, we just can’t learn anywhere else.

Of course, one of the things we learn from plants is exactly how little control we have. You can do everything right. You can ensure the soil has nutrients and the seeds get the right kind of sunshine. You can water exactly the right amount and take action against the Japanese beetles. You can talk to your planted seeds, and bless them, and pour love all over. Then maybe they’ll take root and grow, or maybe they won’t. We don’t know. All growing things might live, or they might die. Still, we are not in charge. Still, it’s not fair.

It might seem like the limit of our control is the biggest problem. Who doesn’t know how this feels. A high school student studies for weeks for the final. He gives up time with his friends and does all the study questions at the end of the chapter. Still, he gets a C. A middle aged woman takes swift action when they tell her she has cancer. She changes her diet, begins exercising every day. She takes up pottery and never misses a treatment. Still, her cancer spreads. Still, it’s not fair.

We human people are so quick to give our lives to the accomplishment of goals, to measure our worth in the achievement of dreams. Get to the finish line with every item on the list checked off.

Except of course. Even if we manage this, even if we give our lives to the success of our plans, and our plans succeed, there is a chilling moment when you hear a question in the back of your mind: “Really, is this all?”

I know this question well, and I’m pretty sure you do too. In each of us, there is an impulse for living that is not just about getting the grocery shopping done, and the car taken in for an oil change, and the dog to the vet. Oh we are such responsible adults! In each of us, there is the place where God calls, a source of passion unashamed that impels us to set down our plans for a moment and consider our part in God’s unfolding vision for the world.

As much as I worry about the potential for my plans to fail, and believe me I can lose a lovely Saturday afternoon to the worry that my plans might fail, the real danger is these plans of mine might be too small. We are part of a greater vision, every one of us. We share a call to look beyond our own families and houses and work for a peace that outlasts violence, a practice of justice not based on revenge, a policy of generosity for those who are poor. We see resplendent possibility for this world we live in, yet what do we do about this? This week I have to go to the dentist and clean out the basement.

We used to have dreams that danced in the stars, now our dreams get locked in cells on our spreadsheets. What do you about this?

Today our scripture comes to us from the Gospel of Mark. It’s still early in Jesus’ ministry; he has just begun his tour as a teller of parables; and right away it is clear. When it comes to the kingdom of God, the people just don’t get it. Before the two parables we heard today, Jesus told the story of the sower who went out to sow. Some of the seed fell on the path and got eaten by the birds, some fell in rocky soil, and some fell into the good soil producing grain upon grain. This morning we hear two follow-up stories about the kingdom of God.

In the first, the kingdom is like this. A sower goes out to sow scattering seed on the ground. Then he goes to sleep and gets up day after day. The seed sprouts and grows, and he doesn’t know how. The earth produces of itself and when the grain is ripe, he goes in to gather the harvest.

I imagine the crowds listening and mulling this over. Okay. The coming of the kingdom of God is beyond our ability to comprehend. Maybe we plant the seeds and it happens by the grace of God? Is what they might be asking each other in whispers while Jesus keeps talking.

I wonder if these early followers imagine the kingdom of God, a new reign that will transform the world, but here are our lives down on the ground. Do we even have time to be listening to this rabbi with his wild vision and dreams in the stars when there is farm work to do, fish to clean, a house to sweep…

This is when Jesus interrupts their worry with a story shocking and offensive. The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. When planted it is the smallest of the seeds, then it grows and becomes the greatest of the shrubs. Birds of the air come and make nests in its branches. What?!

First of all, mustard is not the smallest seed, and it is a strange thing to plant. In this time and place, mustard was an invasive species. It grew all over the place where you didn’t even want it, corrupting perfectly ordered gardens. This is the kingdom of God?

When mustard grows it might become a bush, but Jesus really, it is not like the cedars of Lebanon. Those are the trees that welcome the birds of the air and provide shade and protection. Maybe the kingdom is like those trees… I bet you meant to say the cedars of Lebanon.

But Jesus does not say the cedars of Lebanon. Jesus compares the kingdom of God to the mustard growing right here where we’re sitting. The people just don’t get it. Because when it comes to the kingdom, it’s not something we get, it’s something we get into right here.

It seems to me that Jesus’ teaching sounds an awful lot like the wisdom of those mission trip directors. “You have come here ready to save the world, with your dreams dancing among the stars? We’re glad you’re here. You can help pull weeds.” Because there’s something we can learn from working with plants, we can’t learn anywhere else.

I think there is good news. We don’t have to lose our passion for serving the world or our faith in God’s unfolding vision so we have time to iron clothes for work and feed the cat. This is not the trade we have to make. The beginning of our dreams is not in the tall trees far away. It is right here where we’re sitting. Every caring conversation. Every sandwich shared. Every gun turned in. Every band instrument given to a child. Every flower planted. Then the world is not the same.

Consider the flowers in our courtyard out here. In the Memorial Garden, the flowers pay tribute to the lives of those who have gone before, people we love and remember. By their beauty, these flowers and plants give glory to our God most high. But that is not all.

These flowers make a powerful statement to the neighborhood, that we’re here, and we take care of our property. Flowers are a proven crime deterrent.[1] They proclaim we value new life growing from the ground, even here. We value what is tender and beautiful, even here.

The kingdom of God is getting all over the place, and our dreams aren’t lost in the stars. They are taking root right here.

The earth brought forth vegetation: plants yielding seed of every kind and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it. And God who reigns over heaven and earth, whose glory is beyond our knowledge, God noticed the flowers and saw that it was good. There was evening, and there was morning, the third day.

[1] Kuo, Francis E. and William C. Sullivan. “Environment and Crime in the Inner City; Does Vegetation Reduce Crime?” from Environment and Behavior. Sage Publications, Inc. 2001.

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