A few years ago, the writer Anne LaMott was invited to speak at an annual writer’s conference sponsored by a community college in the Kansas City metro area. LaMott has made a name for herself in writing circles as well as the religious realm. LaMott was asked to give part of her lectures on how one goes about creating a writing process. As LaMott took the stage, people awaited with eager anticipation. The previous years had been quite stimulating as authors like John Updike had held court. She began with a few pleasantries, then she read out loud the question for the evening, “how does one write?” She leaned into the microphone, and the audience leaned forward. She said, “Get a comfortable chair.” It wasn’t what we had anticipated as an opening line. Perhaps something more cerebral, more complex. But, her answer was “get a comfortable chair.”
I suppose you would be correct in feeling a little befuddled by the teachings of Jesus from time to time. When someone comes to him asking a question of faith, he responds with parables. And in case you haven’t noticed, Jesus’ stories of what the Kingdom-Reign of God is like are often perplexing. Jesus leans in, looking from side to side, almost as if revealing a big secret, and the listeners crowd in to hang on his every word. And Jesus gives his response....
A seed. A seed? What in the world do stories about a seed have to do with matters of the divine?
As I read these two parables, I cannot help but think of my dad. (It’s Father’s Day, so I suppose this would be an appropriate time!) Dad would hear this first parable, the one about the farmer who plants the seed, and wonder if the farmer was out of touch. The parable talks about the farmer just not doing much to push the seed along. Just wait for the harvest, ‘cause God’ll take care of the rest.
This sort of logic would be antithetical to farmers. Dad would be deeply concerned from the minute that it was the beginning of planting season. Which seed to buy and plant, what fertilizer will be best (or better said, can I afford to buy it?), will there be rain (or too much rain), will I be able to keep the critters away, will I avoid a hail storm or drought, will I be able to get a loan from the farmer’s bank (and somehow avoid winding up with it becoming the banker’s farm?).
Did I mention that TUMS might be helpful? Farming is not for the faint-hearted!
So to hear the story of a farmer who doesn’t hover obsessively over the seed becoming a bumper crop (or we hope at least a profitable one!), this seems a little out of touch on Jesus’ part.
But, then again, we’re in the “other” world of parables, where a prodigal can come home to welcome arms, the wisest person around being the guy with the sense to build on high and solid ground, and so on. The parable about a farmer who leaves a crop well enough alone sounds different, but then again, it’s a parable!
Farming can be all about the technique and the worry, but at the end of the day, a good farmer is more likely the type that allows for a little bit of “patience, prayer, and perseverance.” You can have all of the “trade knowledge” about what seed is best on the market, but again, it’s all down to the stuff that one ultimately cannot control. For the parable, it’s not about your skill. It’s about how well you allow God’s timetable to be kept! The seed will grow and flourish, but there’s only so much that the farmer can do. Trust God could be part of the lesson this parable imparts.
As this congregation looks at what it means to change and transition into a new chapter in life, we will need to be attentive to the fact that not every moment of this process can be micromanaged. Going for the quick fix, the quest for the easiest route, the temptation to give up or force things along. Not routes to growth, my friends.
When I was a preschooler, my dad used to host these “exhibitions” for seed companies. In exchange for free seed, my dad would plant different types of seed so others could come and decided whether they would like to plant that seed next year on their own farms. Just to be helpful, I would go over to some wheat and tug it out of the ground and bring it over to the assembled farmers.
Dad wasn’t crazy about that one bit. “Why’d you do that?” he would ask.
In my preschool age way of thinking, I honestly thought that if you pulled on the plants, you would help them grow. The fact that they uprooted seemed a little lost to me. Nonetheless, despite my best efforts, an uprooted plant, out of its soil doesn’t quite grow.
There will be times that you will want to “see” the change, but the reality is that it will happen in small, sometimes near impercepitble ways. I must admit that there’s a lot less anxiety than some churches I have served. Anxiety comes from the word “to cause to squeeze.” How congregations handle times of conflict and change is often governed by how well we handle the “unknown” and the fears of “what if.”
In three months, we have dealt with a pastoral transition, the issue of a property acquisition, and now we will be in a process of discerning “what’s next” as we go through a change of director of music.
Allen billed me up front to the search committee as “a straight shooter” (which means that Allen and I come from country roots, and we both know that “straight shooters” can be honest, but sometimes to the expense of being sensitive. Thus, I try to be a straight shooter shaped by Paul’s injunction to “speak the truth in love.”) The way I see it is this: we have dealt with three months of big stuff, and we’re still here. In part, the decisions that are being made are nearly incidental to what really matters. What really matters is how we go about making decisions and talking to one another. A church that is in conflict oftentimes forgets the little things like patience, prayer, and perserverance. Church is a place where we learn to trust God. God alone governs the growing process. We are warned against trying to force the issue, or worse, uproot things.
The other parable, regarding a mustard seed, is another exercise in not taking your first guess as the best one. The mustard seed is the smallest of seeds. If you take one look at it, you’ll still have to take another. They’re the tiniest things!
Yet Jesus claims that this mustard seed will grow up into a huge bush, indeed, like a sturdy tree! This little seed will provide so much more: indeed, the birds will find a place to call home. Such a small thing, this mustard seed, yet out of this tiny bit comes something great.
I am reminded of the university debate team when I attended college. The team almost went under, until a group of students stepped up to save it from being disbanded. The image that they chose was rather cute: a rather defiant little pig with feathery angel wings. In other words, the debate team would succeed when pigs fly. The debate team’s success at saving the program was quite remarkable. Pigs did fly! That’s the sort of faith of that mustard seed.
Nora Gallagher, an Episcopal writer that I respect, tells the story of her congregation that nearly went under. Well, until the congregants decided to make a go of it. They brought the church back from oblivion. Indeed, she writes that over the period of a year spent intentionally working toward new life, “we felt grace, learned compassion--for ourselves and others--and sometimes, even sensed rebirth.”
Recently, I came back to the church office after a pastoral visit in the late afternoon. A young couple was sitting underneath a tree just outside Colgate Hall. I had this sermon text on my mind, and I found myself saying, “This is a mustard seed moment!” This couple was out enjoying the beauty of the day, using our front lawn. Persons can find a place here, even if it is for a brief moment’s respite, a time of crisis or need, a desire to learn more about God, a conduit for grace to flow in their lives--all of these things.
When the transition team met on Monday evening, part of our time was looking at ways that just four of your members could see this church in a new and life-affirming light. And with Carolyn, Greg, Lisa, and Cindy, let me tell you that there’s a degree of passion that I hope that they will spread around the congregation, kindling and fanning to flame the notion that this church isn’t just biding its time as if it’s “business as usual” or on a path towards closure.
We often look at this as a “big old building” and ourselves as a “small congregation.” It could be time to say, “Behold! A tree where the birds of the air find their home” and “hmmm....a bunch of mustard seeds.”