He also said, “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.” -Mark 4:26
I want to begin this morning by asking you to go with me to a place where we are scattering seeds. Settle in… perhaps you’d like to close your eyes and take a deep, slow breath. Let yourself feel the hard wood of these old pews, the stillness of the air around us, the light filtered through colored glass. And then imagine that you are standing in an open field. You feel the warmth of the sun, the crumbly earth beneath your bare toes. There’s a warm breeze, that lifts the edge of your shirt and blows back your hair. You pause there, just feeling the warmth of the sun and the movement of air against your skin. And then you dip your hand into the bag of seed slung over your shoulder, grasp a handful, and toss the seed in a long, slow arc across the ground in front of you. And then you move forward and do it again.
What kinds of seeds are you scattering? How far do they fly, when you cast them to the wind? How long will you wait until they germinate? How patiently will you watch them grow? How will you know they are ready for harvest? And will you – like all good gardeners – think about saving some not for this year but for a future, whether or not it will be you who scatters those seeds?
When Steve asked me to share a reflection this morning he suggested I might talk about the months I spent away from Trinity. As I think most of you know, I spent most of Advent, Epiphany, and Lent away from Trinity. During those months, several of you stayed in touch. You sent me e-mails and notes, shared cups of tea and conversation, and let me know you were thinking of me. I felt very held in the heart of this place. I didn’t feel pushed or hurried by your expressions of concern, I just knew you were, in some sense, watching over me. I found myself missing you regularly. But I also knew that I needed to be away for a while. In fact, for some time it seemed possible that I would leave forever. And then – without realizing exactly what had happened – I realized it was time to come back.
When we hear the words of scripture, or sing hymns, or say together the prayers that are in our Book of Common Prayer, we step into an ancient and remarkable tradition. That tradition – these stories, the images in this building, the seasons of the church, our acts of community – mean more to me than I know how to say. They have in many ways made me who I am. The Episcopal Church has “marked me as Christ’s own forever.” The words of the Bible and of our prayers regularly give me both strength and solace. But they also, sometimes, chafe and irritate. Our service can become TOO wordy, or it uses words I can’t relate to, or – worse still – it uses words whose associations trouble me deeply. To give just one example: the word “Lord” has lots of baggage, associations with centuries of abusive power and slavery. The people who put together our Ottawa service (some of which comes from the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer) worked hard to find language that would be beautiful and evocative without reinstating those hurtful relations.
For much of Advent, Epiphany and Lent this year I spent my Sundays – and many mornings – in the quiet of my study, at a table that looks out into the boughs of a hemlock tree. You can see this tree from the banks of the Androscoggin, where it towers above others on New Auburn Hill. But I see it close up, branches that shelter chickadees and squirrels, and sometimes a neighborhood cat who sits above the birdfeeder, hoping for a good catch. The hemlock holds me in its branches, too. Its deep taproot goes as far down into the earth as its crown rides high in the air. It speaks to me of patience, and loyalty, and renewal. It makes me think of Ezekiel’s cedar.
Where does God find me? Where does God find us? Think of yourself now not as the one who scatters the seed, but as the seed itself. You are somewhere in God’s pocket, and his hand has grasped you tight. Then God releases you, joyfully and with hope, into the world. Where has the one who is beyond all names thrown you? Where is the field where you have put down roots and grown? Where is the place you have grown to harvest?
These stories of Jesus – these parables – are wonderful precisely because they do not have any single interpretation or meaning. There’s not a single key to unlock their door. They cannot be contained or limited to their initial situation. The Jewish itinerant preacher who spoke them isn’t just speaking to those who flocked around him; he’s speaking to us. I appreciate the wisdom and scholarship of those who help us grasp historical contexts: what seeds and mustard and harvest and cedars and sprigs might have meant when Mark or Ezekiel were writing. But there’s something miraculous about how stories travel right across centuries, millennia, contexts and ways of life. It’s as though these stories are seeds, too. Jesus’ stories, and Ezekiel’s, and the Psalmist’s…. and maybe even Paul, though with him I need to argue back.
What does this have to do with why I spent those three church seasons away from Trinity – sitting by my hemlock, or walking in snowy Huston Field, or listening to music? I needed to clear my head but also my heart. I needed to remember that in addition to meeting God in our circle of prayer and at the table, God claims me in solitude and silence. I needed to figure out how to speak up – sometimes – when something doesn’t feel right. I needed to slow down, and sit in silence, in order to come back into this place of community.
In last week’s scripture we heard Jesus’ words proclaiming that those who do God’s will are his family. It’s not birth parents and siblings who are “family.” I told Steve last week that the reading and his sermon left me with lots of questions… Like what kind of family is this? Is it really different from the relations we have with the people who raise us? And if so, how? For me, right now, it comes back to the question how do I do God’s will? what seeds do I throw into the world? what seed will the God spirit have me be? and how does this family help me grow and flourish, like the Psalmist’s righteous ones?
When I was looking last night for an image for today’s handout, I found the essay I’ve quoted there, by Brian McLaren, who writes for Sojourners. I think it speaks to the journeying I’m talking about here. If we are to remain lively and spirit-filled, if the pods of light and spirit we blow into the world are to do God’s will, we have to live in a kind of state of vulnerability – and openness. Maybe, as McLaren suggests, the image we need to translate Jesus’ promise isn’t of a “kingdom” at all, but of something joyful, vibrant, rhythmic. Something that will have its seasons, its moments of faithful casting and long patience. Its moments of solitude and listening, its times of community and praise. Patterns that will help us understand how this “family” can bear fruit, can be – as Paul puts it – made new. To do that, I think, requires both that we step into the old traditions, and then step out into uncharted territory.
Shout for joy. Speak loving kindness. Take shelter, and then let yourself be blown into the dancing heart of Jesus.