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Kingdom Seeds

June 15, 2015

“Kingdom Seeds” Mark 4:26-34 © 6.14.15 Ordinary 11B by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

On May 12, the Pew Research Center released its latest report on America’s changing religious landscape. Immediately, the blogosphere was abuzz with comments. Said one writer: “If my twitter stream is any indication, the latest PEW research survey released on America’s Changing Religious Landscape, was enough to throw the American Church into a collective frenzy, arguing over how to interpret and analyze the stats, strategizing to combat this increasing decline of the American religious” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/cindy-brandt/beyond-the-numbers-of-the-pew-survey-_b_7340236.html?ir=Religion?ncid=newsltushpmg00000003).

So what does the report show? Most notably, the unaffiliated, known as “nones,” have increased dramatically in numbers, so that they are now the second-largest religious group after evangelicals. Christians overall declined in share to roughly 71% of the population, while the nones grew to almost 23%. Most of those describe themselves as “nothing in particular.” The historic mainline church, as well as Catholics, took a hit, with both declining in numbers. Even the ranks of evangelicals were reduced by a percentage point. (For the report, visit http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/).

Here in Mississippi, which as you know is the most religious state in the nation, Christians still dominate, with 83% of the people, but nones accounted for 14%. Presbyterians of our stripe, according to our own denomination’s statistics, are only .3% of the population, and only a little more than that of the constituency of the entire PC(USA). Right now, we have about 60 churches in north Mississippi, with two of the larger ones in process of pulling out. About half that many are in the presbytery that extends from Jackson to the coast.

So what should we do about all this?

Nothing.

Here’s what I mean. Ironically, it’s the obsession of churches with statistics, with increasing numbers and building budgets, that in part drive away the nones. Other reasons are the hypocrisy of self-proclaimed righteous people and the meanness of Christians who embrace a politics of hate and suspicion. No one wants to feel pursued in order to become a replacement for a member who has died or another pledge toward the capital fund or one of those coveted “young families with children” which the pastor is expected to attract. They want to be valued for themselves, whoever they are, whatever they bring to the party, and not just for what they can do for a failing, even desperate, institution.

The common strategies having to do with praise bands, exciting visuals, small interest groups, and social media all feel like religious marketing, which in fact is what they are. Where is the true spirituality, the consciousness of the Holy, the presence of a living God? Some of the nones are atheists, about 1% in our state, but there are still plenty of the unaffiliated who value the transcendent. These nones, along with their cousins the dechurched, want to find God in the churches. They want to have the opportunity to serve in some meaningful way. (See particularly http://www.patheos.com/blogs/whatgodwantsforyourlife/2015/06/6-things-people-need-to-hear-from-churches-but-are-rarely-said/.)

So what I mean by “do nothing” is that more important than strategies and marketing is the recovery of a sense of Mystery, writ large. Jesus pictures a farmer who sows seed that sprouts and grows, without his further effort and outside of his understanding. Mystery is the “know not how” factor in ministry, the acknowledgement that plenty goes on over which we have no control. Indeed, the word Jesus uses to describe the growth of the seed is the one from which we get our term “automatic.” As someone has said: “The seed carries its own future in its bosom and efforts to coerce and force growth are futile” (source unknown).

We are to sow the seeds and reap the harvest when the time comes, but in between we trust that God is at work in ways we scarcely can imagine. What if the churches really did display in their common life such surrender to mystery, such faith in the hidden activity of the divine, and that was their hallmark, rather than constant appeals for money or pushing a political agenda or worse, covering up scandals? Wouldn’t that attract seekers and those who have given up on the church, the people who have become “nothing in particular”?

But if there is an institutional lesson in Jesus’ parable of the seed growing of itself, so is there a personal one for us. At least there is for me. I’ve never been a patient person or one to leave it to others to do things for me. Not even God. God is too slow. I don’t want to wait! I’m like the little kid, who having planted some vegetables, went out and pulled up the sprigs to see if they were growing.

After as much time as I’ve spent in ministry, and all I’ve been through by my own fault and at the hands of others, I am very weary. Tired of feeling I have to have the answers, especially when there are none. Tired after seeing so many of my efforts at growth or mission fail or grow stagnant more often than not, especially in campus ministry. And there’s plenty I regret, whether stupid comments or ill-advised decisions or conversely, some opportunity missed to say a kind word or lend a helping hand.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Someone has commented about her life: “I’ve always taken Jesus’ words today as wonderful encouragement to simply do what it is I’m called to do and let the rest go.  For there is much I have no control over.  And thankfully, there is also [a] great deal in our experience that tells us that God is working even when we can’t yet see it.

“And yet, I confess that I am also still learning to trust that this is so.  I tend, still, to try to carry far too much responsibility for what is and for what could yet be.  I wonder how much more energy I might have to simply do my part if I learned to rely more fully on the hope I’ve been given…if I learned more surely, along with the farmer in Jesus’ parable today, to simply scatter the seed and then truly leave the rest to God?” (Janet H. Hunt, http://words.dancingwiththeword.com/2012/06/on-volunteer-tomatoes-and-kingdom-of.html)

Yes, I’m weary, but I have to believe, as this parable teaches, that the seed we sow in faith will grow we know not how by the hand of God. God says if you’re weary, rest; I’ll take care of things from here. Sit down; I’ve got this. What I want you to do is be ready to reap the harvest of the seed you’ve sown when it comes.

If you’re weary, too, this day, burdened with regrets, believing you haven’t done or said or been enough, take heart. Let us all learn to rest in the grace of God that causes the seed of his Word to grow to full fruition just as the earth nourishes the seed of a crop sown by a farmer. And in our rest, let us find fresh creativity and energy. Dream a dream, trusting in God to bring it to fulfillment. As the writer Karen Blixen once said of those who have good dreams: “The pleasure of the true dreamer does not lie in the substance of the dream, but in this: that there things happen without any interference from his side, and altogether outside his control. Great landscapes create themselves, long splendid views, rich and delicate colours, roads, houses, which he has never seen or heard of…” (Karen Blixen, Out of Africa; http://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/8147.Karen_Blixen).

There are those words again: outside human control, without any interference, great landscapes self-created. The seed grows of itself. Mystery abounds. And all while we were sleeping. God is at work, sisters and brothers, whether we know it or not or even want it or not. Let our energy be spent in sowing and reaping, and leave to God what is God’s to do.

But if Jesus invites us in the one parable today to rely on the mysterious work of God, in the other he reminds us to be confident in the effectiveness of humble ministry. The mustard seed is small, so tiny it became proverbial for something insignificant. But it becomes a great shrub. Not a cedar or any other tall tree. Nothing so grandiose. It simply is what it is, no more, no less. And birds find shelter under it, safety enough for nests.

Most churches in our nation are mustard seed small, and Presbyterian (USA) churches are no exception. 77% have 200 or fewer members; 55%, less than 100. The average size of our churches is 175 members; the median size is 87. That means half the congregations are smaller, while half are larger. Overall, the average number in worship in our churches was 97 in 2013; the median was 56 (https://www.presbyterianmission.org/ministries/research/10faq/#3).

But like the mustard seed, our smallness doesn’t mean we are not valuable, doing important, vital work. In 1986 Mel and John Thomas Streety from this congregation and Sister Kathy Quigley and Sister Marie Gilligan from St. Helen’s established the Amory Food Pantry in the garage behind the Annex. It quickly outgrew its space and moved to Main Street. It expanded again not so long ago, and continues to serve the hungry in our part of Monroe County. 2014 saw record numbers come through the doors of the Pantry: 18,921 people representing 6,580 families. 17 tons of food were distributed each month. All those groceries come from innovative programs like Hunt for Hunger and from the USDA, food drives, local grocery stores, and the Mid-South Food Bank (data from Pantry newsletter, February 2015, via Debbie Lay). Two Cents a Meal, another mustard seed idea, provides some of the aid, too, giving back to this town from what this congregation and others contribute. A number of you volunteer regularly. Nobody seeks glory or fame. All anyone wants to do is help those in need.

People are drawn to such a combination of humility and effectiveness. An evangelical writer notes: “It might be that our first job in responding to the rise of the ‘Nones’ is that we should stop creating so many of them through our own arrogance and our attempts to judge others (contrary to Christ’s express instruction). People are drawn to those who are strong and humble; is there any more compelling combination of attributes? Perhaps it is now the time to be those things, as Christ was… (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/mark-osler/christianity-without-arrogance_b_2533474.html).

We can also make a difference personally with caring, quiet ministry. Years ago, in a denominational magazine, I read the story of ruling elder Emery Crisst. He told about his first Sunday at church school in Phoenix, AZ. Crisst was nine years old, and a little scared as his mother took him through the maze of halls to the fourth grade room. Obviously this was a large church! The teacher’s name, he recalled, was Mrs. Fullweiler. When class was over, she made some Bible reading assignments, but Emery had no Bible and told her so. At that, Mrs. Fullweiler took her own Bible and gave it to the boy. He promised her he would bring it back, but that would not do. She said: “‘Oh, no…. [T]his Bible is yours now. I want you to have it for your very own.’” The teacher took a pen and wrote in the front of the Bible: “Emery Crisst from Mrs. Fullweiler.” “Of course I still have that Bible,” Crisst said. “It has been my treasure and my friend, my link with love for over fifty years. Why is that so? Because when Mrs. Fullweiler gave me her Bible for my very own, she was saying in the most precious way possible, ‘I love you, I care for you. Come, share the gospel that means so much to me’” (Alert, May 1986: 21). A single act of kindness, yet remembered all those years by one who himself became a church school teacher.

The renowned Presbyterian author Frederick Buechner was converted while living in New York City. The church where the famous preacher George Buttrick was pastor happened to be on the same block as Buechner’s apartment. In his biography The Sacred Journey, the writer recounts how he went to church because he had heard of the preacher and “I had nothing all that much better to do with my lonely Sundays.” He kept going back and heard sermon after sermon, drawn by Buttrick’s eloquence and surprising turn of phrase, yes, but more than that, by “whatever it was that his sermons came from and whatever it was in me that they touched so deeply.”

And then there came one particular sermon with a phrase that does not appear in the published manuscript. Buttrick came up with it and ad-libbed at the last moment. Christ is crowned in the hearts of people, the preacher observed, “‘among confession, and tears, and great laughter.” “It was the phrase great laughter that did it, did whatever it was that I believe must have been hiddenly in the doing all the years of my journey up till then.” And, Buechner writes, “…on just such foolish, tenuous, holy threads as that, I suppose, hang the destinies of us all” (108-109).

Imagine: something we just throw out—a chance word, a random act of kindness, a germ of an idea—such things grow into the kingdom of God in someone’s life. We don’t know how. We may not do anything else but that little thing. But God is at work.

My friend Richard Dietrich sums up: “Here Jesus [is] admonishing [us] that the church which understands the worth of the gospel ministry and reposes the ministry completely in God’s hands will be the church that does not concern itself with things beyond its control. This church should gladly broadcast whatever seed it has at the moment, even if it is seed scarcely visible to the naked eye. This church should not be obsessed with results but rest soundly in the sovereignty of God. If mistakes are made, if neglect occasionally creeps in, if less than 100 percent is given, this church should awaken afresh, mount up with wings, and soar to sow some more.

“Jesus forcefully communicates that we are servants of an Other and stewards of mysteries that belong entirely to an Other. So capable is this Other of reigning here on earth that even the tiniest and most insignificant word of hope cast recklessly by the church can be grown into a sprawling refuge of gospel shade for the many.

“Jesus admonishes the church to retain its humble station, to cast generously whatever of the gospel the church has to cast in the moment, and to rest from its labor in the full assurance that the seed which has been mysteriously given has now been rightfully returned to the Giver” (Richard Dietrich, Mark: 42).

The hymn writer put it well: “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand. God sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain, the breezes and the sunshine, and soft, refreshing rain.” And the famous musical adds the conclusion: “So thank the Lord, O thank the Lord, for all his love” (Matthias Claudius, 1782; Stephen Schwartz, 1971).

The seeds we sow in humility grow in secret. Let all of us be encouraged, then. When we wake up tomorrow or the next day, let’s expect a harvest sent from the good hand of God.

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