The Magical Garden
Mark 4:26-34 | June 20, 2021
Ok, it’s time for my yearly gardener report. It is not going well. I just cannot figure out what is going wrong. Last year, we planted zucchini and we had great big beautiful plants with gorgeous large flowers that, for some reason, never produced fruit. I took a chance this year and decided what was needed was to change the soil in the box garden, but it’s the same issue all over again. The plants produce beautiful young zucchini plants and nice flowers that die before producing fruit. Where are the pollinators? I don’t see many bees this year, is that the problem? Do I need to start growing bees as well?
But that is only part of the problem. My joy is growing tomato plants and this year began with such hope. The consolation prize for losing the beautiful maple tree in our front yard last year was going to be that now I had more sun and finally could produce some wonderful tasting tomatoes that were not mealy. I moved the box garden out into the sunny area, purchased a highly-praised mix of box garden soil, and placed cardboard under the box to keep out the weeds, just like my gardening book said to do. Everything should be going well now, but they are not. I already had to replace two of the plants. Maybe one night was too cold or maybe I overwatered them, but I finally gave up and replaced two of them. All four of them are looking better, but I am now worried that they just don’t seem to be growing. What gives? Will I not have tomatoes this year at all?
I think back on those times in years past when, in the middle of the flower garden or even in the middle of the yard, a stray watermelon plant or a pumpkin plant started to grow. Not once did I consciously plant those seeds. One of us tossed the remains of a summer watermelon or a Halloween pumpkin in the yard or the flower garden and magic happened. How ironic, we did nothing have such a tasty watermelon or makings of a delicious pumpkin pie. We just left them alone and nature (or better God) did its thing. No special soil or watering or weeding, just picking when the time is right before the ground squirrels get to the fruit before we do. That is what I would like: a magical garden.
Our scripture this morning is a similitude of Jesus’ that tells us that this is what the kingdom of God is like. It is like a person who scatters some seeds and then forgets about it. There is no further need to worry because the earth has all it needs to do the work: First the stalk, then the head, and finally the grain on the head. Then you go and pick the fruit. It’s simple and requires so little of us. No new expensive gardening soil or watering or tilling or weeding and most of all no worrying. No anxious thoughts about whether all my work will leave me disappointed, with no fruit to take to the table. This is the miracle of God’s agricultural grace: a magical garden.
The ancient Greeks must have thought about the earth itself as magical. I am told that the ancient Greek word for the ground used in our scripture is literally “automatic.”* The ground is automatic. It magically does the work in a way we do not understand and produces of itself. It does not require anything of us, at least if we do not overuse the soil and deplete it. It will function on its own and all we have to do is plant the seed and watch it grow.
It’s literally automatic. It’s like our cars. How many of you can drive a stick shift car? Not many, I see. But there is no worry because we no longer need to shift with a clutch. We have automatic transmissions. Now, there is not even any need to steer the car. We have auto-pilot and auto-steering cars. Heck, one day there may even be functional self-driving cars that do not even have steering wheels. Just get in and tell the nice sweet assuring robotic voice where you want her to drive you. We like all things automatic – well, maybe not the self-drive car for those of us, like me, who are control freaks. But give me a way to stop worrying about a part of my life and I will buy it. I like the idea of planting the seed and forgetting about it and being able to come back just in time for the harvest.
Jesus’ simile of the Automatic Garden is just what we need to hear. We need a reminder that this life is not all about us and what we do or fail to do. We live with angst about our lives and the lives of those we love. I like the word automatic because it is a corrective to that other word I live by most of the time: anticipate. There is a part of me like there is a part of you that can take too much control of our lives. We sometimes, often without giving it much thought, have allowed ourselves to live with constant anticipation of what might just go wrong. There is a part of all of us that is like the watchman in the night, on guard for any problems or dangers that will come our way. For every plan A, we have a plan B, and maybe even a plan C and D. We find it so damnably difficult to do what we need to do and then let go and trust.
The truth is anxiety has become a dominant, if not the dominant emotion in our lives. That was true before this COVID thing, now it is even more true. Just think about how fear is used in marketing to attempt to make you believe you have to purchase what someone is selling:
• An air purification ad says “Are you sure you are breathing clean air? The truth is most people spend 90% of their time inside where air can be 5 times more polluted with germ and mold.”
• One ad marketing testosterone drugs says, “Many men 45 years and old, just don’t feel like they used to. Are you sure you’re not one of them?”
• Then there are the ads promising relief from anxiety. “If history has taught us anything, it’s that we can get through anything — and that beer sometimes helps,” says a Coors Light commercial. I am sure many of us like that one: just drink beer and life will be fine!
Anxiety can be about almost anything: a general foreboding about where the world is going. Maybe a preoccupation, that can become an obsession, to spend more energy than we need on staying healthy and avoiding all those diseases and threats to our well-being. Or just think about those ultra-wealthy families that broke the law to ensure through cheating that their children make it to one of the top universities in the nation. Others have a constant fear that they will not have enough money to survive on even when they are doing better than most. It is not long before we may find ourselves holding our breath, stiffening our muscles, and staying awake at night.
Of course, anxiety is a gift of God. It is a necessary part of what it means to be a human being. Anxiety encourages a wise person to anticipate and think ahead. But there comes a point where anxiety begins to diminish our lives. Anxiety has the power to separate us from others, from God, and disconnect us from ourselves, leaving us cut off from what brings us joy and vitality. At some point, anxiety becomes a lack of faith and inhibits our living with confidence and hopefulness. And that is where Jesus’ simile is such a gift for us. Life is not meant to be lived in a constant state of fear and in expectation of real or imagined dangers. Abundant life is experienced when we have a positive and hopeful outlook open to the world and all the good that comes our way. If we listen to Jesus’ words, then we will realize that all we are asked to do in this life is plant the seed and trust that God will bring abundance. It really is not all about us. Plant our seeds, do what is right, share the good news of our faith in word and deed, and then learn to give things over to God, who has this magical way of taking what we do and making something good come from it.
As much as this is true, this is also relevant for churches. Churches can live with excess anxiety or they can live with faithful confidence in God. Many years ago, when I was in school at Loyola studying pastoral counseling, I was asked by the Methodist church if I would preach one Sunday for a small church in Wicker Park in Chicago. The sanctuary was mostly empty. There were about 20 people scattered about the sanctuary, almost all of them over 60 years of age. To say that I was well-received would be a vast understatement. They seemed to adore one of my less than fully-baked sermons and, afterward, I felt rather swarmed by the congregation who had all sorts of questions. Did I live in the area? Did I have a family? Would I be coming back? I felt I might be asked to join the church at that moment and, by the time I left, I had the sense I could sign up to be the congregational president. Such was the understandable fear to find someone young and capable to help rescue their struggling church.
I had a professor of evangelism who said the only thing that I remember many years later. What he said to us was worth the whole class. He said, “It is really quite simple. You have one job and one job only. Your job is to plant the seed and then trust that God will do the rest. It is not all up to you and it is not all up even to the church. We plant seeds of goodness, generosity, compassion, and good news, and God makes it grow and bear the fruit.”
The apostle Paul give us a visual of what Jesus is talking about when he compares are fragile and limited lives to clay vessels. He said,
“Yet we who have this spiritual treasure are like common clay pots,
in order to show that the supreme power belongs to God, not to us.
We are often troubled, but not crushed;
Sometimes in doubt, but never in despair;
There are many enemies, but we are never without a friend;
And though badly hurt at times, we are not destroyed.”
Let us learn to trust that we live in a magical garden with God as the master gardener. Plant the seeds of God’s goodness in this world. Plant those seeds in your children. Plant them in the darkest and hardest places. Plant them and dare to believe that God will make them grow and you will bear the good fruits of the seeds you planted.
*Barbara Brown Taylor, Mixed Blessing, “The Automatic Earth,” p.113.