Jesus said: “The kingdom (or kin-dom) 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, we do not know how.” (Note: A parable is literally a story “thrown alongside” our lives.) This parable–when thrown alongside my life– which involves daily reading of children’s books, immediately brought to mind the story “Tops and Bottoms” by Janet Stevens.
It begins like this: “Once upon a time…there lived a very lazy bear who had lots of money and lots of land. His father had been a hard worker and smart business bear, and he had given all of his wealth to his son. But all Bear wanted to do was sleep. Not far down the road lived a hare. Although Hare was clever, he sometimes got into trouble. He had once owned land, too, but now he had nothing. He had lost a risky bet with a tortoise and had sold all of his land to Bear to pay off the debt. Hare and his family were in very bad shape. ‘The children are so hungry, Father Hare! We must think of something!’ Mrs. Hare cried one day.”
So Hare approached Bear and offered to be business partners. Hare proposed that he and his family plant a garden on Bear’s land, and do all the work –planting, watering, weeding, harvesting— and then Bear and Hare would split the harvest. All Bear needed to do was sleep. Hare asked Bear whether he wanted the tops or the bottoms of the plants. Bear said “tops” and returned to his slumber. So Hare planted carrots, beets, and radishes. When the time for the harvest came, Bear woke up and saw That he had been left with all the leafy tops while Hare made off with the nutritious roots. He was furious!
During the next season, Bear demanded the bottoms. So Hare planted lettuce, broccoli and celery, tricking Bear again! Finally, Bear got wise—or so he thought— and insisted that he take both tops and bottoms. So Hare planted corn. When the harvest day came, he cut off the roots and tassles and gave those to Bear, while he piled up the corn ears for his family. The story ends this way: “Bear never again slept through a season of planting and harvesting. Hare bought back his land with the profit from the crops and he and Mrs. Hare opened a vegetable stand. And although Hare and Bear learned to live happily as neighbors, they never became business partners again!”
I love the illustrations in this book, especially the ones that depict Bear sleeping. On the cover, he’s draped backwards over a lawn chair on his porch, with knees on the arm rests, butt in the air, and head resting on hands on the footstool. He’s sprawled out senseless on page after page, in various positions, dressed just in clompy brown shoes and a necktie.
The book presents Bear as lazy, but this morning’s parable suggests that he is on the right track. I, for one, envy his ability to rest through all those growing seasons and not seem to care all that much about Hare’s antics. I could certainly use more sleep, more peace and quiet, more releasing of agendas, anxieties, and demands. How about you? Jesus’ teaching gives us a blessing to seek that kind of space in our life.
Both of this morning’s parables offer images for the kin-dom of God and how it emerges in the world, as well as what role we play in that unfolding. Scholars of the historical Jesus, who seek to peel back layers of traditional piety and doctrine, and discover, as best they can, what the bible reveals about the “original” Jesus, stress the fact that the kin-dom of God was Jesus’ main theme. In their view, he did NOT come to die for the sins of individuals so that we can get right with God and go to heaven. Jesus’ mission, his reason for being, was to proclaim the kin-dom as both a present and coming reality. This kin-dom is an alternative way of being and living. It makes us family with all people and creatures. It proclaims that kinship is our true reality, not alienation. It heals the inequity and violence that arises when we fail to honor our interdependence.
Jesus’ parable about the seed declares that the kin-dom of God grows, “we know not how”. “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” The key to the kin-dom’s emergence is not human effort or human understanding. In the parable, the gardener clearly does not worry about the growth of the seed, does not have any illusion that she is in control of this process. It’s not even clear that she’s involved, what with no mention of watering or weeding. She simply sleeps and rises, sleeps and rises – in other words, time passes, with the rhythm of ordinary days. Wendy Farley comments that “trust so deep we can sleep without anxiety is much more useful to us than fussing over the little seed…” And that “The kingdom of God is like this sleepy, restful trust.” She continues: “Jesus is calling us to a very different way of being with ourselves, with one another, with the divine, by asking us to recognize that spiritual growth and intimacy with God arises as naturally as seeds growing. The harvest will come without us having to work for it, because God adores us and it is this love that is the power of growth.” (Feasting on the Word, Year B, volume 3, p. 142)
In short, this parable suggests there is a certain good kind of passivity that is our part in God’s work in the world. Our role is not to make things happen, but to allow them to happen. Our most important job is let go of control, to sink into the peace of a reality beyond ourselves, to release our lives into love and gratitude. When we trust the one who gives life to us and to the world in every moment, then we start to notice the growing of the kin-dom.
The parable concludes: “But when the grain is ripe, at once the farmer goes in with the sickle, because the harvest has come.” Our other job is to recognize and gather the fruits of God’s labors, as unusual and disconcerting as they may be. Jesus’ second parable– about the mustard seed– emphasizes the fact that the kin-dom of God will be grow into a reality that is beyond our capacity to imagine. The kin-dom will not be what we expect or what we want; in fact, it will probably stir up resistance in us.
You see, mustard is an invasive weed that grows out of control. Jesus could have said, “The kin-dom of God is like… crab grass, buckthorn, creeping Charlie, zebra mussels or asian carp”… These invaders are no big deal when they arrive in small numbers; maybe no one even notices their presence. But eventually, left to their own devices, they will take over, kill other species, and make radical changes to the garden and the woods, the rivers and the lakes.
Maybe Hare’s tricks give us a glimpse what the kin-dom’s harvest might look like. While Bear slept, Hare found a way—like the mustard seed— to rearrange the little world they shared. Hare’s actions were bold and clever, and we might admire that. But his methods had an edge; he didn’t shy away from deceiving Bear and perhaps even cheating Bear in order to get what he wanted. Really, Hare tricked Bear into living out, in economic terms, their kinship, their interconnectedness. The end result of Hare’s venture was that Hare’s family could have enough to eat in the moment, and a sustainable future into which to grow. All the while Bear still had plenty for himself.
It’s counterintuitive and countercultural to place trust in an invasive kin-dom that grows “we know now how”. But that’s the invitation Jesus offers. So what would it be like for us to do that? to let go of making things happen and instead allow God’s work to happen, within us, through us, all around us? What daily rhythms of prayer, meditation, exercise, art, play or study might help us release ourselves into love and gratitude sink into the peace of a reality beyond ourselves? May we find new ways and remember old ways to welcome with generosity and joy the new kinship that is emerging without our help and beyond our control? Amen.