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Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 16, 2024

Mark 4:26-34

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

There’s a show on Amazon Prime my wife and I have been watching for three seasons now called “Clarkson’s Farm.” We’re not really into reality TV, but I guess this is part of that genre, as it follows the real-life attempts by British media personality Jeremy Clarkson to run a successful farm in the Cotswolds of England. I’m not giving away too many spoilers in saying that he encounters all kinds of challenges. There is bad weather. There are local bureaucrats and stifling regulations. He reckons with disease and death among crops and livestock and in his farm hands. There are the ever-changing prices, which are influenced by world events far beyond his control. Most of all, though, there is his own ignorance. This is what makes the show so compelling and funny. He has come to farming late in life, and mostly he has no idea what he is doing.

(If you’re thinking about checking it out, know that Jeremy Clarkson deals with his frustrations with a very colorful vocabulary, with many words you don’t hear at church. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.)

I think the situation Jeremy Clarkson finds himself in as he tries his hand at farming has some striking parallels to the situation we find ourselves in in the church today. We too are trying to grow things. We would like to see Christian faith grow in our hearts. We would like to see Christian faith grow in the lives of our loved ones, particularly our children. We would like to see the Christian church and specifically our own congregation grow in numbers.

But it seems, at times, like nothing is going right for us. The cultural winds are blowing in directions that are not in our favor. There are church bureaucrats who only seem to make things worse. You may remember there was a pandemic which has left a deep mark on the church, perhaps more than any other institution. There are demographic realities mostly beyond our control, such as the breakdown of family life and the steeply falling birth rate, which profoundly impact the life of the church.

On top of all of this is the pervasive feeling across the church that we have no idea what we’re doing. So many Christians seem to be struggling to grow in their own faith. There is so much concern about how we can grow faith in the lives of our loved ones who seem to be slipping away from the Christian faith, especially the younger generations. It feels to many like we don’t know how to grow anything in the church anymore.

In the past, all of this seemed to come so easily to us. The Christian faith was in the air people breathed. Boats and babies kept the pews full in Lutheran congregations for generations. For decades, the Navy practically dropped off new families to this congregation’s doorstep every few years. But none of this is true anymore. And so there is this sense that we have no idea what we’re doing. It can be discouraging. It can be frustrating. I try really hard to not use some of the words Jeremy Clarkson uses, but there are days when I know exactly how he feels.

The parables in front of us this morning provide some comforting assurances to those of us who long for growth in the Christian church, who long to see faith in Christ grow in ourselves and in our loved ones. These parables of our Lord Jesus are full of promises that can keep our discouragement and frustration in check.

Jesus says the kingdom of God is like someone going out to scatter seeds. After this farmer scatters the seeds, he goes home and goes to bed. He sleeps and rises, night and day. And while he is sleeping, while he is away, without him seeing, the seeds sprout and rise. And then comes the kicker: “He does not know how!”

The farmer in this parable doesn’t know what he’s doing either! Jesus says he does not know how the seeds sprout and grow! He simply scatters the seed and goes to bed! He rests – quite literally – in the promise that they will do what seeds do!

Jesus continues with a second, more elaborate and better-known parable – the parable of the mustard seed. Jesus says that the kingdom of God is like this small, small seed which is put into the ground. There it remains – unseen, hidden – until it eventually grows into a large shrub where many birds come to make their home.

There’s a layer of irony here that is easy for us to miss. As we heard in our first reading, the kingdom of God had often been described as being like the mighty cedars of Lebanon. Jesus uses a decidedly less impressive species of plant to describe this kingdom. It might not look like much. It might not be all that valued by the world. The mustard plant was seen at that time as something of a weed to most people. The Jewish Mishnah, an early form of Bible commentary, even forbade the planting of mustard, describing it as “a useless, annoying weed.”

I think Jesus is cracking a joke here. I think he’s saying that this kingdom may not always look like much. It might be as modest and lowly-seeming as the scotch broom we see along the highway, but it will grow, and it will become a home to many.

Our job in all of this is simply to scatter seed. In a parable just before the ones we hear today Jesus tells the parable of the sower, which he actually explains. There he says that the seed represents the word of God. Our job, then, is to spread God’s word. We may or may not understand how it works in people’s lives. We may or may not see any results, immediately or ever. Just as the farmer sowed the seeds and went to bed, our job is to sow the seeds and relax, trusting the seeds to do their work. We are called to be seed sowers, not bean counters.

We are not totally helpless and ignorant when it comes to how we grow faith. There is much we can learn. There is much we can do. Being in the word ourselves is so important. Being regularly nourished by the Lord’s Supper is so important. Having prayer and faith conversations in the home, especially in homes with children, is essential. So is inviting people to worship with us. But none of this is a magic formula which guarantees immediately recognizable results. None of this is Miracle-Gro. We need patience. We need to sow, and then we need to relax, trusting the seed to do what God has promised it will do.

We were out back at our fire pit here a church a couple of Sundays ago and some of us got to talking about the seedlings which were planted a few years ago to replenish our forest behind the sanctuary windows here. Some of those seedlings seem to have withered, but many have taken root and are slowly growing.

It occurred to me later that it will be years and years before the efforts of those who planted the seedlings – which includes several of you here today – will be evident. Those trees only grow a foot or two a year, at best.

I don’t mean to be morbid, but I can do a little math, and the math suggests that most of those who did the planting will never see what those trees will look like out back when they come into the fullness of their towering glory.

But that isn’t why they planted them. They didn’t plant those seedlings expecting immediate results that they could observe and enjoy. They planted those seedlings trusting that they would grow in their own good time. They planted them trusting that God would tend to them long after they were gone. They planted them for others, trusting that many others would continue to make a home here under their branches.

Brothers and sisters, I know this is a concerning time to be the church. I know it can be discouraging and frustrating at times. I feel it too. Sometimes it seems like the challenges we are up against are too great. Sometimes it feels like we have no idea what we’re doing, like we don’t know how to grow anything anymore.

But it isn’t our job to know how the growth will come. It is our job to scatter seed. It is our job to let the word be planted first in our own hearts, and then to share that word with those around us, in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our circles of influence. It is our job to scatter seed and then to be patient – patient with ourselves, patient with our children and other loved ones, patient with the church, patient with this stubborn world of ours.

Our job is not to know how things grow. It is not to plant with the expectation of immediately visible results. Our job is to scatter, and then to trust. It is to trust that a harvest will come. It is to trust that the smallest seed will become a mighty shrub. It is to trust that God’s Word will not return to him empty. It is our job to trust that the God who began a good work in us will bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ. It is our job to sow the seeds and then to relax – trusting God bring the growth in his time.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church