Sermon: While You Were Sleeping


Mark 4:26-34, Ezekiel 17:22-24

Every young kid growing up during Jesus’ time would have been familiar with the prophecy from Ezekiel that Diego just read.  Our kids recite Kendrick Lamar lyrics; those kids recited this prophecy — that God was going to take this small, vulnerable group of people and make something great of them. In the Bible, political kingdoms are often likened to trees or branches, so the people of Israel are the tender sprig from the top of the lofty cedar that God is going to plant on a high mountain. No longer would they be easily and often invaded, at the mercy of the massive superpowers surrounding them. Not only would be they be self-governing, autonomous, free – they would be more than that. They would be beacons of hope to others of the goodness of life lived under God’s reign. They would like be a noble cedar planted on a mountain that bore fruit and provided shelter for many creatures. Ezekiel’s’ stirring prophecy with that stirring image ends with these stirring words: I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it. 

But almost 600 years later, God’s promise still has not been fulfilled. The people of Israel have lived under a series of oppressive regimes. Throughout the centuries, revolutionaries and small armies have risen up, had small victories against these oppressors, but no one has been completely successful. Throughout the centuries, the people of Israel have tried to be faithful – tried to keep the commandments, tried to keep their end of the covenant – they fail, of course, but they keep trying. But God doesn’t seem to be fulfilling this promise to make of them a great nation, a noble cedar. It must have been so easy to fall into despair. To believe that their small acts of resistance or faithfulness didn’t stand a chance in the face of the largeness of their oppression. To believe that nothing they did really mattered, that their actions were bearing no fruit. 

At the age of 24, I was probably too young to be world-weary and despairing, but I was. I was working at a large food bank in Phoenix, as the communications director – doing newsletters, writing press releases, going around to schools and community organizations talking about the food bank. We gave away surplus food to hundreds of local non-profits who could then use the money saved to run other programs; we provided emergency food boxes to hundreds of people every day; we started a food coop, where people of all economic classes could get monthly boxes of discounted cheese, meat and produce. While at the food bank, I also worked with people who were doing political advocacy and community organizing around issues of hunger and poverty, trying to get beyond the band aid of an emergency food box and work at root causes.  In addition, I was somewhat connected to the Central American sanctuary movement – where congregations and other activists provided safe havens for refugees fleeing political repression and violence in Guatemala and El Salvador.

Given that I moved in worlds where people were actively putting their values of service and social justice into action, given that I was every day interacting with people whose lives were better because of these actions – given all this, why would I be in despair? Because, all I could see was how much hunger, how much poverty, how much injustice remained. What we were doing seemed so small in the face of it all. I couldn’t see how this “fruit” added up to anything much in the face of the largeness of the problem. What did it matter? 

It’s quite human to want to see the fruits of our actions, to see how what we are doing results in something that matters. It’s how we motivate ourselves to keep doing what we’re doing.  And everything in our mass culture magnifies this natural desire. Get rich quick! Lose weight now! Everything in our capitalist culture values the fast buck, the short-term profit, immediate results. We live in a Silicon Valley world where the expectation is that your company will make millionaires of lots of people within the first decade of its existence. I remember when Facebook went public several years ago and investors were hugely disappointed when Facebook stock didn’t instantly soar high above its initial offering price on the first day of the stock offering. In other words, they were disappointed because they didn’t become gazillionaires the first day Facebook went public.

In such a culture of immediate results, all of us “kingdom workers,” all of us who long for and work to help bring about the realm of peace and justice and compassion that Jesus proclaimed and enacted – a lot of us wonder if what we are doing really matters, what it’s all adding up to. Where are the fruits? I think I’ve mentioned before the hospital chaplain who was my supervisor the summer I did a chaplaincy internship. Every day, this man would bind up the emotional and spiritual wounds of people in that hospital. He’d meet with people once, maybe twice, and then he’d never see them again. He suspected he was meeting people’s needs, and he often got sincere thank-yous, but it was hard to see how this work all added up, hard for him to glimpse the fruits of his actions. He told me he always needed to have a project that he was working on at his house, so he had some feeling of accomplishment. He had a lot of decks around his house. I remember talking to a young man in our congregation years ago – he’s no longer here – who was despondent when, after marching in several anti-war marches along with tens of thousands of people in 2003, our country still invaded Iraq. What good were all their actions, he wondered, when it didn’t produce the desired fruit? I have talked to ministers who have tended congregations faithfully for years and have never seen them grow spiritually the way the way they had hoped, and they retire wondering if their life’s work has really been worth it.  

To his disciples, to those who are trying to follow in his way, to those who are building the kingdom of God, Jesus brings his good news. The kingdom of God, he says, 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.”  (Mark 4:26-38)

I’m struck by how detached the kingdom farmer is in this parable. She scatters the seed – and then she goes to sleep. She entrusts the seed to the earth, not knowing how it’s going to grow, just trusting that it will, that it will bear fruit.  This kingdom farmer is the opposite of Toad from our children’s story, who feels he himself must somehow make sure that the seed sprouts and the plant rises from the ground – and then is convinced that his useless ministrations actually produced the fruit.

No, Jesus’ farmer knows it’s beyond her control.    The Greek word for “of itself” here — in the phrase “the earth produces of itself — is the word “automatos.”  So, the farmer trusts the “automatic earth,” the agricultural grace that transforms a small seed into a plant large enough to feed your hungry family. The farmer doesn’t make the seed sprout and grow by force of will – indeed, in this parable, the farmer doesn’t even weed or water! The sower just scatters her seed and then goes to sleep, and the kingdom grows organically, outside of her field of vision, while she is not paying attention, while she is even ignorant of how it grows. Jesus’ farmer isn’t anxious about whether or not the seed is sprouting and growing, producing fruit. She has a humble trust that something is happening, and a kind of detachment from seeing results.

I worked at the food bank for two years, and then eventually moved away from Phoenix and that work. I still sometimes struggled with despair, with wondering about how most things I or anyone did mattered. But I talked to people who were doing kingdom work, especially those who seemed to do it with joy and graciousness over the long haul, and I learned from them. And I began to realize that all of these people had this same humble trust, this same detachment from results. They trusted that God was growing their seed, even if it was outside field of vision, even if they would never see the fruit from that seed. They trusted that they were small farmers in a much bigger garden, and they didn’t need to see the grand plan to trust that they were doing something important, something that mattered. 

I read a line from a Gary Snyder poem that summarized this spiritual stance: that we must “act and renounce the fruits of our actions.” What a tall order! We had to act and renounce seeing the fruit that might come from them. This renouncing the fruit of my actions became a kind of spiritual practice. Could I open my hand and scatter my seeds, and not care if I ever saw them grow? Could I open my hand and scatter my seeds, and trust that something was happening outside of my field of vision?  Little by little, I could do this. Little by little, my despair lifted as I realized I was never meant to get it, to understand it all, that I was never going to see the cedar tree at its full height with the birds nesting in it. That was not my place in salvation history. But I was going to be part of the great work of helping that cedar tree grow – even if I never saw it at full height. I was going to be one of the faithful farmers planting fields, or watering a small, tender, plant — the fruits of which someone else would harvest. Meanwhile, I could rest easy, knowing that agricultural grace was at work.

Years after leaving the food bank, I returned to visit. Of course, in the meantime, many people had left and many new staff had arrived. When I was introduced to one of these new people, she said, “Oh, you’re the person who raised a half million dollars for the food bank at one Rotary Club meeting.” What? I said. I had no idea what she was talking about. It turned out that at one of the last Rotary Club meetings I had visited before quitting my job at the food bank, one of the people in attendance decided to give a half million dollars to the food bank after hearing me talk about the food bank’s work. I am certain this was not because my talk was so utterly compelling. Rather, many people before me had planted seeds in this man’s heart — and while they were sleeping, those seeds grew. And when he got to that Rotary Club meeting, he was ripe; someone just needed to be there to gather in the harvest. That one time, I happened to be the harvester. I happened to be given the grace to see the big result, but I didn’t make it happen. Countless others planted seeds, and then agricultural grace took over. 

This whole spiritual stance is summarized, for me,  in a poem that was written by Bishop Ken Untener in honor of Oscar Romero, the Catholic archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated while saying Mass in 1980 by the repressive government of that country. This poem was originally attributed to Romero, and while he didn’t say these words, his life exemplified these words: 

It helps, now and then, to step back and take a long view. The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the kingdom always lies beyond us. No statement says all that could be said. No prayer fully expresses our faith. No confession brings perfection. No pastoral visit brings wholeness. No program accomplishes the church’s mission. No set of goals and objectives includes everything.

This is what we are about. We plant the seeds that one day will grow. We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise. We lay foundations that will need further development. We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.

We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well. It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest. We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.