“Jesus 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….” Mark 4:26-28a
It’s been dry and hot here for the last week, but we are lucky. There is no prolonged drought here in the Midwest, so it is easy for me to go and get the hose and water all the new plants in our gardens. Early in the morning I water in the back, and in the evening I water in the front of our house, where we have had to replant our foundation garden after some contractors destroyed it. After cycling through the stages of grief for some months, and finally getting to the point where we had the time to deal with it, we at last got to the point where we saw this as an opportunity to start again.
Hours were spent discussing the colors and plants that might go into it, enriching the soil so that it actually WAS soil and not clay and debris, and then more hours doing the planting itself. Azaleas, some hydrangeas, and hostas were tenderly ensconced in their new homes in the hope of patient, abundant growth. Container gardens were carefully placed in the few sunny places within, filled with impatiens, corkscrew reeds, and jasmine.
Once the old garden had been churned like butter by heavy machinery in the hands of buffoons, we had a temporary blank slate. One of the problems with the old garden had been that it had all kinds of invasive plants growing in it, especially that nemesis my neighbor calls “Chinese honeysuckle,” which seems to be the kudzu of the Midwest, along with choking vines, maple trees, plus a million Rose of Sharon sprouts that turn into sharpened spikes unless you dig them all the way out. After a barren few months, sprouts are beginning to appear here and there. Most of those I pluck up without thinking twice about it, and pluck I do. Now that I don’t have the frenzied pace of mothering small children, I can spend a half hour every day dislodging all these little twerp-plants before their roots can spread too deep. Our garden right now has the kind of stunned, manicured look of a recruit at boot camp after encountering the barber, and I aim to keep it that way until our new plants mature and fill in.
Over years of gardening, though, I have learned that you often can’t tell right away which sprouts are good and which are bad—you have to wait to see which seedlings are which. Yet there’s one type of sprouting plant that I just can’t pull up and leave to bake in the sun. Those are the baby rosebud trees which also took full advantage of the churned earth left by the backhoe to stealthily lodge themselves in hiding places under what seems like every bush, shrub, and leaf on the place. I will admit to being sentimental about them: they are the children of a volunteer redbud who is itself the child of a forlorn, naked little stick my father brought all the way up here from Tulsa on a visit once. My then-toddler daughter and I laughingly planted that stick in the back yard twenty years ago, fully expecting it to go toe-up at the first freeze. But it has since outlived three store-bought brethren to rule over the hillside, and that toddler daughter is now a lissome college student beginning to dominate her own landscape.
These little trees appear as if by magic, of their own accord. Thanks to their provenance as being tied somehow with my late father, my hand is stayed, and instead, I gather these into a bucket and give them away to friends or plant them back in the common ground along our fence-line where there’s an erosion problem. They reminded me of the seeds that are spoken of in the first parable in our gospel from Mark that we will read on Sunday. They too sprout up in secret, as if magically and overnight. They were not deterred even though the soil in which they landed was scattered with broken pieces of concrete and clay before we cleaned it up. They remind me that, however much I may think of myself as the person in control of this garden, the earth will produce of itself, and I can take no credit for it.
The kingdom of God is the same way. The visible face of the kingdom of God is the Church, for better or for worse. When it gets off track, when the Church forgets its legacy as the Body of Christ, its beauty can quickly be eclipsed by weeds and debris. When it forgets to be a garden and instead becomes an institution where people start talking about order over new life and new growth, we forget the lessons that are embedded in Jesus’s reminders to us that the new seeds in the kingdom of God are not under our control but spring up only at the agency of the One Who Makes All Things New. We are called to tend the garden, but never think that we are the force behind the growth within it. The glory and the life belongs to God.
The kingdom of God can be tended but never controlled, and we can labor in the garden without forgetting that we don’t own it or control it. When pulpits echo with the sneers of those who dare to declare ANYONE outside the boundaries of God’s love and forgiveness, it is indeed because we have often devolved into extremes of behavior: we have either become lax in tending to God’s kingdom sprouting within our own hearts, or we have thought that WE are in charge of even how the seeds grow and when.
We can make nothing grow of ourselves in this garden that is the kingdom of God. No matter how much we arrange, we micro-manage, and we attempt to suit ourselves, the seed of the gospel still sprouts where it will, and the rich earth of faith we have been given will produce of itself. We are called to tend the garden, remembering always that our work is to be rooted in tenderness and tender-ness. It is up to us to provide some space for the good to grow, and be grateful when it surprises us in places we never anticipated.
Leslie Scoopmire is a retired teacher and postulant for the priesthood in the Diocese of Missouri. She attends Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, MO. She is a member of and musician at the Church of the Holy Communion in University City, Missouri, in the Diocese of Missouri, and tweets daily prayers and news of note @HolyCommUCity. Her blog is Abiding in Hope.
Image by Leslie Scoopmire