Planting is easy; trusting is hard
Today's gospel lesson is the sort of text you might expect an old farm boy like me to really get into. Plowing ground, planting seeds, watching them grow. Good stuff, right?
Well, truth is, I wasn't much of a farmer; just never really had any interest in it. I mean, I could do the work and I did it well. It just didn't excite me.
Frankly, I found the whole business, well, boring. It took too long, it was too unpredictable, too uncontrollable, too frustrating. Plow the ground, put in the fertilizer, plant the seed, chop out the weeds, and wait and wait and wait; and pray and pray and pray.
Pray for rain; pray it doesn't hail; pray for the rain to stop; pray for it to warm up; pray for it to cool off. While you're praying, you need to be spraying: spray for bugs, spray for weeds; praying and spraying for weeks on end.
And after all that, it's out of the farmer's hands anyway. No matter how hard you try, sometimes it doesn't work. Most of the time it's too hot or too cold, or too wet or too dry, or prices are too high or too low.
If it's a good year, everybody has a good year and there's an oversupply of the crop and prices are too low. If it's a bad year, everybody has a bad year and supply is down and prices are high, but you don't have anything to sell.
In the end, there was too much luck involved for me to be a farmer. I wasn't a very good farmer because I didn't have the right disposition. I'm not patient enough. I'm not comfortable with the fact that success ultimately is in the hands of fate, or the weather or God -- depending on how you look at it.
So, you can see, this text from Mark about farming really bothers and challenges me. If the kingdom of God really is like farming, like sowing seed and being patient, or like the text from Ezekiel about planting sprigs and waiting for trees to grow, well, I'm probably in trouble. Reading this text reminds me that the same things that made me a lousy farmer also work against me as a pastor and a Christian. I worry too much and I want to be in control and I don't trust God enough. There, I said it and I feel better for it.
There is a difficult lesson here for those of us who have a hard time letting go and letting things take their natural, God-given course. Jesus says to us that we are to plant the seed and let God worry about the growth. Jesus says we are not responsible for making the church grow. We are not responsible for making sure everybody "gets saved." We are not responsible for making the kingdom of God a smashing success. Our job, our responsibility, is planting the seed and reaping the harvest. God is responsible for the growth.
Faith is often defined as trust, and in this case, faith is trusting that the things we do for God will turn out right, in God's way, in God's time. Faith is keeping on with the work of the gospel and trusting that in God's own time the crop will grow, even if we never live to see it. Faith is, in part, letting go of our control over the results.
We live in a world in which people are afraid of losing control, or more correctly, of letting someone or something else control their fate. We have been taught that in order to succeed, one must have a goal -- after all, as Yogi Berra said, "If you don't know where you're going, you might end up somewhere else."
Jesus teaches us that the kingdom of God, the work of grace and mercy and compassion -- in the world -- works from a totally different theory.
These parables remind us that we are called to do the work, indeed we are called to do the work to the best of our ability, but they also remind us that the ultimate purpose and outcome of this work is not in our hands but in God's, which is, I assure you, a reality that is both frustrating and reassuring.
It is frustrating to those of us who don't like to wait, who like to be in charge and in control of our own fate and destiny, who like to see progress being made, who like to be able to measure, calibrate and control.
But it is also reassuring and liberating to know that in God's eyes success is not judged by the size of the harvest but by our faithfulness in sowing seeds.
Amen and amen.
• How in your life do you plant and reap and let God tend to the growth?
• How successful are you at letting go and trusting God?
Delmer Chilton is an assistant to the bishop of the Southeastern Synod of the ELCA, with responsibility for eastern and central Tennessee, northern Alabama and northern Georgia. Ordained in 1977, he has served parishes in North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee.
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