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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

June 17, 2018

Mark 4:26-34


When my parents bought their first house, one of the things they did right off the bat was to put in a garden.  They rented a rototiller and converted a large rectangle of earth from grass to garden soil.  They fenced it in to keep the critters out.  They bought bags of composted cow manure and peat moss, shoveled them into the earth, turned them under.  They got out the catalog from Johnny’s Selected Seeds and ordered carrots and beets, green beans and wax beans, zucchini and cucumbers, eggplant and peppers, basil and dill.  And they started an asparagus bed.

Those of you who grow asparagus—and I know that many of you do—know that asparagus is a crop that requires time and patience, not designed for those who seek instant gratification.  It takes several years after you plant it to begin to yield a harvestable quantity of shoots.  And depending on the size and abundance of your patch, you may only get a few small cuttings before the shoots start to fern out and the stems are no longer of an edible texture.  But when you take those shoots and grill them, or roast them, or steam them, or eat them on pizza from Sweet Evalina’s, you will know that asparagus is so worth the effort, so worth the wait.

My parents put in that asparagus bed right away, and it survived and thrived through the 17 years they lived in that house.  But when it was time for us to move across town, things were hectic with two kids, two full-time jobs, extracurriculars, household responsibilities, and all the juggling that family life entails.  So they left the asparagus bed behind.  And when we went back to drive by the old house some time later, we discovered that the new owner had turned the entire garden back to grass in order to make a larger lawn.  The fence was gone.  The flowerbed at one end was gone.  The asparagus plants, several years into the prime of their lives now, had been tilled back into the soil and were gone.

Although we did not manage to save the asparagus when we moved, my mom did dig up her rhubarb patch and transplant some of that to a garden bed at the new house, where now, nearly two decades later, it is still going strong.  The rhubarb had come, long ago, from my grandparents’ garden bed, and I have been promised that the next time my mom digs her rhubarb, she will bring a couple of cultivars to me so I can carry on the family tradition.

That first summer after we moved, we did plant and harvest a garden, and we noticed right away that it didn’t seem to produce nearly as well as the old garden had.  It wasn’t a lack of sun; it wasn’t a lack of water.  It turned out that the nutrients in the soil were out of balance.  So back to shoveling compost and peat and fertilizer we went.  What with unpacking, settling in, and the various exigencies of family life, we were too busy to do much else that year, but in spite of our busyness, and in spite of the unfertilized soil, when the next spring came, we were surprised and delighted to discover yellow daffodils emerging everywhere—poking up through the pine needles, emerging from the weeds, little pops of color everywhere you looked.  It turned out that the previous owners had planted dozens of daffodil bulbs before they left, in order that they might enliven our spirits when they bloomed.

I was thinking about all of this recently when I spent some time visiting with an elder who is not able now to do many of the active, independent things she used to do.  The thing she misses most is gardening—weeding and planting, tilling and harvesting, taking care of the amazing array of vegetables and fruits and flowers her green thumb used to produce.  But even as we sat and talked about how hard it is to lose the ability to do the things we love, we watched her husband through the window, shoveling mulch around the blueberry bushes.  And she told me how her kids had come recently to take care of some of the heavier tasks.  Even as the generations turn and the hands tending it change, the garden continues to grow.


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, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

This is what God’s realm is like, Jesus said.  Like asparagus, like rhubarb, like blueberries, like daffodils.  It takes time to grow.  It takes time to get established.  It takes time to produce.  Sometimes it seems to take a very long time indeed—especially when so much about the world around us, so much of the news we hear each day, seems so counter to God’s way of justice, of mercy, of compassion, of inclusion, of radical hospitality and extravagant love.  But make no mistake, my friends.  It does, it will, grow.

It is not up to us to make it happen all on our own.  It is not for us to carry the full burden of bringing about God’s realm.  Sometimes we are the ones who rent the rototiller and turn over the earth for the first time.  Sometimes we are the ones shoveling manure and compost and peat and fertilizer.  Sometimes we are the ones planting the seeds in the rich, brown soil.  Sometimes we are the ones who water the plants as they grow.  Sometimes we are the ones who pull the weeds that would choke off the seedlings we tend.  Sometimes we are the ones who gather the harvest, who cut the asparagus and pluck the blueberries from the bushes.  Sometimes we are the ones who eat it, who savor its flavor and texture, or who admire the bright yellow of the daffodils when those perennial flowers emerge.

Sometimes we begin the work and tend it for a good, long time—and then, when transition comes, we find our hard work tilled back into the ground like my parents’ asparagus bed.  Sometimes we set out to plant a beautiful garden but are held back by soil that is out of balance or weather that refuses to cooperate.  Sometimes we find ourselves the happy inheritors of someone else’s effort, like those surprising, delightful daffodils.  Sometimes we find ourselves watching from the sidelines as someone else takes up what we have done and carries it on into the future beyond our reach.

It is not ours to do it all.  It is not up to us to make it happen all on our own.  It is not for us to carry the full burden of bringing about God’s realm.  Ours is to do the next right thing, to look around and see what is needed and pick up the shovel, or the seeds, or the watering can, or the sickle, and do our bit, trusting that we build on the foundation of those who came before, and that we will pass on our unfinished work to future generations.

And ours is to trust that God is in the mix.  That the seeds sprout and grow, we do not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.  We may till or sow or reap, but it is God who gives the growth—and God will give the growth, with us or without us, in spite of us or alongside of us.

The great Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, is said to have said, “Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant an apple tree today.”  Some of you have apple orchards on your property that go back centuries and are still bearing fruit.  And every time you harvest them, you are reaping the produce of the hope of your ancestors, and you are tending to the same hope that will sustain your descendants.

This is what God’s realm is like.  It is a perennial, like asparagus, or rhubarb, or blueberries, or daffodils, or apple trees.  It takes a long time to grow—but when it is established, it is sturdy.  It is hardy.  It lasts and lasts and lasts.  It can withstand the blazing heat of injustice.  It can endure the cold winter of despair.  It can survive the parched drought of loneliness.

Whether the soil of our community, our nation, our world, feels fertile and rich or washed-out and weary, this is true:  the Realm of God is growing there.  Whether the landscape of your heart looks lush and green or gray and barren, this is true:  the Realm of God is growing there.  So let us not lose hope, but let us tend to the tender shoots of love and justice wherever they may be found.  Let us do to the part of the work that is ours to do, knowing that we are part of the great and growing garden of God’s Realm, which blossoms and bears fruit perennially.


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