Sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost – June 13, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
At the height of the pandemic, I thought about having a customized t-shirt made that I could wear all the time. Emblazoned on the front of the shirt would be the words: “I don’t know.” You see, I have been asked so many questions over these past fourteen months, so many questions that I don’t have an answer to, that my response, “I don’t know,” seems to have become a bit of a mantra. “When will we be back in the sanctuary?” I don’t know. “When will we have coffee hour again?” I don’t know. “When will we be able to take off our masks?” I don’t know. “Will people come back to church when this is all over?” I don’t know. You get the picture. Some days it seemed like having a t-shirt with those words would have made things simpler.
Please don’t get me wrong – I’m not complaining about those questions. Actually, it was, and is, encouraging to hear them. It was, and is, a sign to me that you are antsy to get back to normal, that there is some energy and life that is pent up in this congregation and ready to break loose as we start to put the pieces back together, even if not in exactly the same way.
This has been a wearying season for the church. It has been a time of so much uncertainty. But we were facing challenges even before our fourteen months and counting of COVID. There have been enormous cultural shifts in the last several years which has led to a drastic fall in the number of Americans who identify as Christian. The percentage of Americans with membership in a church has now fallen to under fifty percent, which is the lowest it has been since such records were kept in this country. Why has this happened? There is no shortage of explanations out there, to be sure. I can point you to hundreds of books and articles and blogs and podcasts offering answers, many of which contradict each other in one way or another. I have my own hunches about some of these things, but ultimately, if you ask me why this has happened, I have to say, “I don’t know.”
The questions that cut me most deeply as a pastor are the more personal ones, the ones where these national trends show up in your lives. Questions like, “How can it be that this child of mine who was raised in the faith can so easily walk away from it?” Questions like, “Why aren’t my kids bringing their kids to church? That’s not how they were raised.” Questions like, “Why won’t my spouse come to worship with me? Why do I have faith, and he or she doesn’t?” And though it breaks my heart to say it, the most honest answer I can give in most of these situations is, “I don’t know.”
To ask these kinds of questions is to ask about how God works. It is to ask about God’s ruling activity. And so it is to ask about the kingdom of God. You see, the kingdom of God is not a place with an address. The kingdom of God is not limited to the afterlife. The kingdom of God is not something we will into being through our own efforts. The kingdom of God is God’s reign, God’s rule, God’s activity in our world and in our lives, and though God uses us in some important ways, God’s kingdom, God’s work, often remains a mystery to us.
Jesus gives us some insight into the kingdom of God through the two parables we hear this morning. First Jesus says the kingdom of God is like someone who scatters seed and then goes to bed. Eventually the earth does its work, producing the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. Eventually, the seed ripens into grain. Eventually, there is a harvest. This all happens while the sower of the seed is sleeping. How does it happen? The sower does not know how!
God’s activity, God’s reign, God’s work, WILL bring a harvest, Jesus is teaching us. As it says in Isaiah, God’s Word will not return to him empty. It may not produce on our timeline. It may not produce in ways we can see. It may not produce in ways we understand. Jesus seems to be encouraging patience here. Plants grow slowly. We don’t understand exactly how. So it is with the kingdom of God, with God’s work. So relax. Take a nap. Be patient and let God worry about the harvest.
In the second parable Jesus compares God’s kingdom, God’s work, to a mustard seed that, though it is small, grows into something large, so that the birds of the air make nests in its shade. Personally, I’d rather live among the lofty cedar trees Ezekiel talks about in our first reading than a scraggly mustard bush, but Jesus is making an important point here. From a very small seed comes something which eventually grows quite large, large enough for birds to make nests and find shade. So it is with God’s work: you can’t judge the final size of the kingdom by the initial size of the seed. Here Jesus seems to be encouraging trust. Our seeds can seem so meager, so small. God’s work is so often hidden from our eyes, just beneath the surface of what we can see. But trust me, Jesus is saying here, it will grow. It will grow like crazy! It might start small, it might not look like the grand cedar trees you imagined or hoped for, but God’s kingdom, God’s work, will bring shelter and shade to many.
There’s a lot that I don’t know, but I do know this: faith comes by hearing, so we can never give up on preaching God’s Word and sharing our faith with others. There’s a lot that I don’t know, but I do know that God has promised that his Word will not return to him empty, but will accomplish that for which he sent it. There’s a lot that I don’t know, but I do know that we have a calling as the church to sow and plant and water, and then turn it all over to God. As St. Paul said, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.”
This is hard season for sowing, to be sure. Our hearts ache for signs of life, for signs of growth. Our hearts long to see people returning to the pews and loved ones returning to the faith in which they were raised.
While we wait, the Lord Jesus is doing a little planting in our own hearts today. He is putting his Word in our ears and into our hearts. Through these parables he is telling all of us that it is OK to say, “I don’t know” about a lot of things. There are things that God is up to, ways that God is at work, that we can’t see, ways that we can’t know about. Through these parables he is inviting us to be patient and to trust him. As his Word is planted in our hearts today, he gives us the faith both to keep on sowing, to keep on planting those seeds, and also the faith to find our rest in him. We can sleep soundly, trusting that he will make things grow in their due time.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church