Dear Youth and Those Who Still Seek to Grow,
I am writing a letter to you on this day because we have been through an amazing time together, which—among many things—has taught us more about ourselves under pressure and in isolation than we probably wanted to know. I am in awe of the ways in which many of you adapted uncomplainingly to all the craziness since last year this time—virtual, political, environmental, medical, and societal. You have dealt with health restrictions, virtual classes, curtailed activities, stressed out parents, grandparents and teachers, social unrest and upheaval, insurrection, injustice, while enjoying much less social interaction, support, and friendship bonding when we probably needed it most of all.
And while there is still a whole lot of uncertainty on the horizon (there always seems to be in life), I want to say as your pastor and friend, that I am proud of you. If you only knew how many times your getting up and signing on to whatever virtual schedule you had inspired me to rise again and again when the pace of change seemed to be too much. Your willingness to simply show up on-line with your video “on” or with whatever reservoir of energy you had to meet this day on its own terms helped those of us who were still wiping sleep from our eyes and who were – for the first 6 months at least– still looking backwards with wistfulness.
So—I want to tell you a story today in appreciation for this year and ½ that we have managed to survive together. Something that I wish I would have known a bit earlier in my life.
Years ago, as a beginning college student, I worked in a bookstore. I had worked other places before, so earning a paycheck outside my home wasn’t a novel experience—but what was new and wonderful was the independence, the understanding that someone was counting on me, and the greater responsibility that helped me to know that my decisions had real consequence. Not showing up had consequence. Someone might have to stay overtime or do double the work. A lack of focus could lead to making incorrect change which would mean that we’d have to count our register drawers more than once and everyone would need to wait together until we figured it out. Forgetting to straighten or restock my section periodically through my shift would mean more work at the end of the day. For a variety of reasons at the time, I took those demands and challenges quite seriously, and became quite determined to prove myself—perhaps to myself more than to anyone else.
The desire to prove oneself: do you know this feeling? Some people, no matter what you do or say, will believe that you are smaller and less knowledgeable than you actually are. You show up prepared and you try to put your best foot forward and someone will expect that you won’t have anything worthy to contribute or believes that you are hopelessly naïve. Sometimes this person is an adult who should know better than to underestimate your dreams or your dedication. But sometimes this person is like a hidden gremlin in your soul, trying to get you to give up and shut down.
And so you decide that you will prove them and/or your pet gremlin wrong. At an early age, you might decide that you will make yourself bigger, better, and bolder. You will show them and you will show yourself what you are made of: Your mettle. Your power. Your grit and Your determination. Your drive. You say, “Just watch this.” I. will. do. it. I will make this “no” that you have uttered a “yes.”
But then, something happens, as it can and will. Maybe your gremlin wreaks havoc. Or you want to make a good impression but you stumble upon your limits or your limitations or some boss or co-worker who believes or expects or reacts differently. You make mistakes; you try your best and it still falls apart when you least expect it; you strive and you push and you pull and you try to control outcomes with all you have, and it works pretty well until it doesn’t any more.
I was assigned the “self-help” section of the bookstore, among others. I consider this irony since I didn’t know the first thing about helping myself at that tender age. I shelved books on “how-to” programs and affirmations and the power of positive thinking. There were dozens and dozens of 12 step this or 12 step that, how to grind down your difficult edges, how to read someone’s body language, how to win friends and influence people, and how to not make a total butt of yourself. As I sorted these books into categories with my new found independence, I decided to master all the self-help advice I could digest, even if it were just the titles, authors, and cover blurbs. Adding to this, I tried to ingest the philosophy and religions sections as well, since I had to shelve them too. I was also assigned the cooking section, but I missed the memo that learning to feed oneself is part of self-care. In any case– some of those books were good; some of them were pure malarky, but all of them taught me something about life and perspectives.
The problem was – and still is—that we can not force ourselves to grow entirely on our own in our own particular ways; we are only one part of the equation. Most adults, if you corner them, will tell you that they are still stumbling along in this—this believing that they can grow just fine on their own efforts, thank you very much. And that is what brings me to our parable for today. Because the disciples, in all of their adulting, also missed the part about how we often forget the One who tends our souls and even our pet gremlins.
In our parable for today, the parable of the mustard seed, Jesus compares the Kin-dom of God to a mustard seed—a tiny seed that, over time, becomes the kind of bushy plant in which birds and bugs and playful squirrels will want to make their home.
That was a foreign idea to me as a youth. That someone or something might want to make its home in me. I still felt pretty small, even after reading about all the ways I could set about improving myself and creating my own personal environmental happiness. I couldn’t imagine anything wanting to live with me, much less in me. I tell you this because Mark’s parable is really quite shocking to the adults too—and most of us, if we were to be honest, aren’t terribly sure we want birds and bugs nesting in our branches or depending on us for their well-being when ours can be so shaky to begin with.
Jesus says that the Kin-dom of God is like a farmer sowing that smallest of seeds, but then the farmer goes to sleep! This really messed with my idea of self-help and self-improvement and self-reliance. It also messed with my idea of a working God, a capable God, a powerful God who doesn’t slack on the job. Here I was on the cusp of independence, freedom, and showing up to work early to impress my boss and Jesus is telling me that the CEO and Supervisor is in the back room napping, instead of taking inventory. Clearly, Jesus didn’t have a superior who was watching the time-clock and how many bathroom breaks he took.
Jesus says that the kin-dom of God is like this: the seed that we plant will sprout and grow, even when life catches us napping. “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” We might sow and plant and learn all we can about how to be the best human beings we can be, but God gives the growth, and this, in ever-changing, unpredictable, and abundant ways.
Often it is when we aren’t looking, or actively searching, or trying to control the outcome, or exert our independence from any and all matter of thing, that God actually works a miracle on our behalf.
Needless to say, this parable can be unsettling to folks, including your parents and my parents. Because we can and should invest ourselves and have some skin in the game, so to speak. “What kind of farmer,” we protest, “would leave a seed to grow in fair weather and foul without optimizing conditions?” What kind of little ‘ol thing would grow unnoticed until it becomes such a delight that people can find their safety and rest in its fruit laden branches? What kind of people are we to believe that this kin-dom of God is NOT dependent on our efforts and our merits and our desire to deserve it, to earn it, and to fix it up in our preferred ways?
And yet, my friends who are open to growth and change, this is precisely what Jesus means. God gives the growth to small things—small people, small dreams, small seeds, small steps, small hopes, and small yearnings.
O ye of little faith, this is good news—no, GREAT news—because even as we try to plan for every contingency, even as we try to read every chapter in “How to Be a Decent Human Being in 30 Days or Less” and even as we mess up and mess up again, getting addicted and entrapped by our own stubborn ways, God will bring the growth. God – this force that shapes cicadas and cheetahs, tadpoles and trees, human hearts, grand galaxies, and YOU – this force will bring about an exponential growth that we so desperately seek when we least expect it. And this kin-dom of God will arise within us—first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head and heart.
Needless to say, we shall be overcome, surprised, and then terrified. Because we tend to leave God out of the equation where growth is concerned. Because we have truly worked so hard and for so long in a culture that prides itself on its efforts that naturally we think that our efforts can create our larger spiritual reality.
This is not the way we usually think or consider the kingdom of God. Our efforts to sow and to nurture the smallest of seeds definitely matter, of course. But here, in Mark, we have a zen koan. God’s grace does not correspond to our efforts or lack of effort. And that can drive our type A personalities, our management mania, our idealism, and our feverish work ethic into panic mode. Because we want to help ourselves to grow, to reach, and to make our way in life. And we want our youth to grow, to reach, and to make their way in life. And so, understandably, we start to think that the kin-dom of God is just another project on our to-do lists, another achievement to put on our resume, or another class or skill that we can major in and receive a score at, above, or below expectations.
Young friends in Christ and those of you who are older but still with tender hearts, remember this. Now, as we enter into a new time of re-opening and graduating and new beginnings, please remind each other that while much of our lives can and does depend on us, ushering in the kin-dom of God, the growth in your own soul, and your ability to become a home for others does not entirely rest on your tired or aching shoulders. Perhaps you might become a sleepy gardener trusting that God’s life force is at work in you—whether you are striving or sleeping, working or playing, finding or losing your way, like most of us here, much of the time, pandemic or not. From small things and small beginnings, God works wonders to behold.