June 17, 2018

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:14
Mark 4:26-34

“Sleeping While the Kingdom Comes”

Last Sunday afternoon I had a three-hour nap. I haven’t done anything like that in a long time, but I guess I needed it. A few hours later, I went back to bed and slept right through the night, so I guess there was no harm done in sleeping away the afternoon.

Perhaps it was my need for catching up on sleep, or my mood of slowing down for the summer, but when I started to study the familiar gospel text for today, I noticed something that I had always missed in the past: The gardener goes to sleep.

Okay. Let me step back a bit. Jesus is describing what the Kingdom of God is like. He does this quite a bit in his teaching… trying to explain to his friends and followers what it will be like when God’s Reign has taken hold of all people and the whole of creation. And he doesn’t just describe what the Kingdom of God will be like, but how it will come to be.

You see, like us, Jesus’ earliest disciples were probably pretty worried about the state of the world – about the violence, oppression, corruption, and poverty they saw all around them. They were pretty sure that Jesus was going to be a part of setting things right, but when everything didn’t turn around quickly, they had their doubts about whether he would be successful.

So Jesus told them what to look for. He assured them that the Kingdom was coming. Indeed, it was already here!

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, he taught them. It looks tiny and insignificant at first, like it couldn’t make a difference in the world. But when it is planted in the ground, it grows. It grows and grows into a big tree with large branches, and it becomes a safe haven for all the birds of the air.

I know you’ve heard that parable many times before. The folks at Presbyterian World Service & Development love to use that parable for PWS&D theme Sundays. It reminds us that tiny gifts can grow into something with a big impact, bringing help and hope to people in crisis in faraway lands. It reminds us that little people, and little congregations, often with few resources, can make a difference when they give generously from what they have.

It fits well with our Old Testament passage about David too. He was the youngest, probably the smallest, and certainly the least likely to become a leader. But God chose him, and blessed him, and used him to gather God’s people together into one united, kingdom.

Sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Yes, God chose little David to be the king, and that led David into a position of great authority and responsibility, a role that likely involved a lot of stress and heartache, and a very full schedule.

Of course, I’m guessing about the work loads of the ancient kings of Israel, but I imagine it must have involved at least as much stress and strain as such leadership roles do today. So King David would have needed his rest, and some quality time with his loved ones, and perhaps a holiday once in a while. (Although holidays are a modern concept, so I don’t expect he got any of those.)

But there’s always been SLEEP, hasn’t there? Sleep, glorious sleep! Just think about that feeling when you’ve worked hard, or played hard, and you’re physically exhausted. And you just collapse into a soft, supportive bed, in the pure darkness of a cool room, tucked in under a toasty warm comforter. Doesn’t that sound lovely?

You see, the main message we tend to pick up about the mustard seed is that God can do great things with our small contributions. And that usually leads to the conclusion that we better start making some small contributions.

Give some money. Volunteer some time. Make an effort to pray. Pitch in and help somehow. It’s not up to us to do it all, whether as individuals or as First Church in Regina, but we are called to do something, for sure!

But let’s listen to the first little parable again: Jesus also 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.”

Did you notice this time that the gardener goes to sleep? It’s just a passing reference, but perhaps it is important.

Just think about the alternative. That would be a gardener who works day and night without any rest. She doesn’t leave her garden. She hovers over the seeds and the sprouting plants. She worries over the weather and frets over the wildlife around that could potentially interrupt the growing process.

Some people say that talking to your plants can help them to grow, but too much attention can actually backfire in many cases… like when some of us over-water our plants or fiddle around so much with the soil and the leaves and the stalks that we actually cause them damage.

It reminds me of the figurative “watched pot” that will not boil. Or it’s like a soufflé that falls because you keep opening the oven door to check on it. The message for us today could be: “Leave it alone, and take a rest. It’ll be okay.”

Those among us who are students may relate to the temptation to keep studying through the night. You’ve got a big exam in the morning, and an all-nighter seems like the only way to cram all that information into your head.

But former students know that it rarely works. Study hard. Stay up late if you have to. But then go to bed. Sleep. Let your mind rest. And you’ll have a much better chance of success in the morning.

I’m pretty sure the same thing applies to our ministry in the church. After the hectic pace of the last couple of months, I needed a three-hour afternoon nap. And after a first year of immersing myself in the ministry of First Church, I’ll take a good long holiday this summer.

And many of you have been working hard all year too. You’ve been gardeners scattering seeds in this congregation and beyond…

  • in the music ministry and worship leadership, and in the Sunday School program too,
  • as elders and on the Board of Managers,
  • in visiting, and phoning, and providing pastoral care in various ways,
  • in serving and helping with fellowship, and cleaning bees, and special projects,
  • in mission and outreach like knitting mitts and hats and shawls, or working with the Industrial School cemetery committee…
  • And doing many more small and big things that cannot all be named.

And you are invited to rest also. Perhaps not all at once, so that our ministries don’t all come to a stand still! But some of you, more than others, need to take to heart the good news that once you scatter the seed that you have been given, you are welcome to go to bed at night.

There’s a certain amount of trust involved in going to sleep. You’re not going to accomplish a lot of tasks while you’re asleep. You won’t be able to control what happens while you’re unconscious. You’ll have to let go and let God, as the expression goes… whether for an hour-long nap or an 8-hour night.

When it comes to gardening, you have to trust that there won’t be frost, and that rain will fall, and that the sun will rise in the morning. Your job’s not done yet, because harvest time will come. But in between, you’ll have to trust that the plants will grow without you supervising and micro-managing their progress.

We need to trust God about our ministry too. We do our best to scatter seeds, and then we rest. We trust that God will produce the growth, and we prepare ourselves for the next phase of our work.

As always, we can take Jesus as our example and guide, following his lead in ministering to God’s people. Remember Jesus’ busy ministry? Remember the crowds and the people seeking healing?

He worked hard and had long days, but then he rested. He snuck away to solitary places to pray and be renewed in strength. He ate food and laughed with his friends. He accepted the care of a woman friend who anointed him with costly perfume.

But did you notice that he didn’t get all his work done? You thought you were the only one! They lined up at his door, looking for help and healing, and he helped as many as he could. But there would always be more sick people to heal, more lonely people to befriend, more outcasts to welcome, more confused people to teach, more proud people to correct.

And the offer of salvation to all people, the promise of God’s Kingdom being made complete, did not come through the tireless efforts of the earthly Jesus. It was accomplished by God, somewhat mysteriously, and certainly unexpectedly, while Jesus slept.

In the course of his ministry, he scattered a lot of seeds. Seeds of healing, seeds of teaching, seeds of merciful, gracious welcoming and loving. But when he was rejected, betrayed, and denied, he didn’t keep on fighting the good fight. He gave up his life, he died, and was buried. Like a seed being planted in the ground.

And that’s when God did the amazing thing that extended God’s grace to all people. While Jesus slept, God raised him up to live again!

He was like a plant growing up from a tiny seed to become the tallest tree with big leafy branches, creating a resting place for all the birds. Offering healing not just to some people, but to all the people in every time and place. Teaching justice and love not just to some people, but to all the people in every time and place. Proclaiming and enacting God’s gracious love and welcome not just to some people, but to all the people in every time and place.

And we are among those people. We are among those figurative birds who are given a home and a resting place among the big leafy branches of the tree that is God’s Kingdom coming on earth.

We are invited to trust God, and to rest there awhile. Amen.