Saturday, June 9, 2012

On Volunteer Tomatoes and the Kingdom of God...

.Mark 4:26-34

This is a great lesson for those of us who are living in farm country at this time of year, for the image Jesus offers now abounds all around us.  Now I have to say that I’m not much of a gardener myself, but friends everywhere are putting their energy into the annual task of sowing seeds and planting seedlings and tending to watering and putting up fences trying to keep out various pests on four legs which would rob them of their much anticipated harvest.
Even so, I do know that such efforts require dedication and sometimes just plain hard work.  I used to watch my dad get the rototiller out every spring and dig up the huge expanse of garden in our back yard where he would spend time most every summer evening.   I also remember it seemed to be a labor of love for him, for he took great pride in the buckets of tomatoes and overgrown zucchini he would give away come August.  I remember, too, the delight he took in the ‘volunteer tomatoes’ which he hadn’t planted but which had miraculously found life via seeds inadvertently left behind from the previous fall’s harvest.  He would laugh, pointing out how they would show up in odd, but expected places, like the compost pile.  It was clear that the fruit of those plants was all the more wondrous for his having nothing to do with their being.
We shared together in a ‘blessing of summer’ last Sunday morning at worship.  Various ones among us brought in symbols of summer.  We had a pair of sandals and a beach towel.  There were a couple of bicycle helmets, some grass clippers, a GPS unit and some sidewalk chalk.  One very hopeful fan brought in a Chicago Cubs t-shirt, for whom no amount of blessing is likely to help this season!  And one of our farmers brought in three bags of seeds:  one of corn, another of beans, and another of wheat.  After worship, I bumped into him following our coffee hour.  He had all three bags in hand.  His eyes were dancing and there was a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as he said to me, “Now all I have to do is leave these be, right?  Since they’ve been blessed they should just grow all on their own!”  We both laughed then for we knew he wasn’t serious.
And  yet, although that’s not quite what our Gospel lesson would have us do with the ‘Kingdom Seeds’ Jesus speaks of here, it’s pretty close.  And I believe this still speaks even though our practice of farming or gardening differs greatly from how it would have been in Jesus' time.  For even though unlike in the time of Jesus, today one may spend time and other more sophisticated resources tilling the earth, testing the soil, and guarding against weeds and other pests, there is still mystery in how a seed actually grows.  We can control many things.  We may be able to enhance a seed's ability to take root and grow.  But you and I?  No matter how hard we may try, in the end we can't make it happen. 
And, in fact, the parable offered this week has the seed being scattered but after that, until the harvest the farmer’s effort is negligible.  Indeed, the emphasis in Jesus’ image today is on what God does when we’re not looking; on all that happens for which you and I cannot begin to take credit.  To be sure, this parable points to the hope that belongs to us all because of our confidence that God is working even or especially when we're not looking, in ways mysterious and profound.
And so it is 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 a also 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?  
  • And I wonder now especially just what this would look like with the children we are called to mentor in faith and in life? 
  • I wonder what this would look like when I get up to preach again in a few days.  Or plan a stewardship series.  Or bless a Vacation Bible School Staff.
  • I wonder what this looks like in a difficult encounter with a co-worker. 
  • I wonder what this would look like in my conversation with a neighbor for whom faith seems to have little value or meaning.  
I wonder what it would look like to simply scatter seeds and then trust God with the rest.

Some questions to ponder...
  1. Why are 'volunteer tomatoes' more delightful than those we plant on purpose?  How does this image live for you in your life of faith? Where have you experienced and rejoiced in 'volunteer tomatoes?'
  2. What would it mean for you to 'scatter the seed' and leave the rest to God?  What are you struggling with in your life today for which this bit of wisdom might just speak?
  3. What are the seeds we are called to scatter?  Does it make sense to equate these seeds simply with God's love?  (John 15:12-17) What does that love look like in the situation you find yourself challenged to respond to today?
  4. Who have been the gardeners in your life who have scattered 'kingdom seeds' which have taken root in you?  How did you experience God making them grow?


  1. Hi Janet -
    Sandy Van Zyl, from seminary days...
    Stumbled upon your blog a month or so ago and now I read it almost every week. I always appreciate your wisdom and insights - especially this week's.

    1. Sandy, it's so good to hear from you. I'm glad you're enjoying the blog... I'd be eager to receive your thoughts and feedback any time. I do hope you're doing well!

    2. Janet, I've been wondering how I can talk about my non-gardening father on Fathers' Day. When you pointed out the mystery of God's work while we are sleeping,I remembered he planted a tree for each daughter now towering over the old house in St.Paul. These trees not attended by our family anymore are still growing. Thank you for seeding the sermon inspiration. Deb

    3. I love the image of your dad planting trees... I think it works wonderfully for both this text and for Father's Day! Blessings in your proclamation!

  2. Very helpful reflection - I'm going to take your phrase 'what God does when we're not looking' as the title for my sermon this Sunday.

    1. Nancy, that sounds like a sermon title that will work well. God bless your preaching this week-end!

  3. Janet-
    My wife also calls those plants that have not been sown "volunteers", and they too are special to her. I explain that the definition of a weed is "any plant growing where you do not want it to grow". She frowns mightily when I say this and forbids me from pulling those plants which have been bestowed as gifts to us through no labor on our part.

    I had a charity where the kids and I on our block (block being relative as I live in the country) would cut flowers from our gardens and stuff from the "side of the road". These flowers would be arranged in small bouquets and sold to the local WholeFoods for @$2.50 apiece, and they would resell them at $5.00 apiece. All the proceeds would go to charity, alternating between social causes, environmental and local food/energy charities. The bulk of the flowers always came from the side of the road and it was a motley group of flowers. I remember cutting Queen's Anne Lace from the side of the road, and the farmer who owned the property stopped to ask what I was doing. I gave him the short version and pointed to his field and started naming the wildflowers that popped up periodically in his field. Everyone I pointed to and gave it's name he would say "that's a weed", and gave me permission to cut them whenever I want. My favorite farmers field was a field of 2 acres of Larkspur...glorious in its clothing of purple, pink and white.

    Thank you for your recounting of the works of your father and your relationship with those "volunteers".

    Peace and love,

    1. Tom, those are some great images that work well with the text.

      You are most welcome. Thank you for your sharing as well!

      Peace to you...

  4. Just a quick note to sat thank you for your blog. I find it a useful tool for preaching the Good News.

    Michelle Kanzaki