Sermon: The Holy Gamble

Sunday, June 13, 2021
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Third Sunday after Pentecost
watch this service online (readings start around 13:33; sermon starts around 20:03)
image source

I made a couple of trips to Fremont this last week, and as I was driving by the fields, I was amazed at how tall the corn is already getting in some places.  This time of year especially, I’m always reminded of just how beautiful a place Nebraska really is – so lush and green.  And it will never not be amazing to me how things grow.  Planting and growing things is such an ordinary, mundane part of life in Nebraska, but it’s pretty incredible when you stop and think about it.  We take this tiny little pebble-looking thing and stick it in the dirt, and from it this whole plant grows.  It’s this everyday miracle of creation that we actually get to participate in.  How cool is that??

And agricultural science is amazing to me.  It’s amazing how much we can know about exactly what seeds need in order to grow – the amount of sunlight and moisture, the precise proportion of different nutrients, and how we can analyze the composition of the soil and amend it as needed to get the perfect balance.  Modern agriculture has produced incredible technological advances that make it more possible than ever to create the most optimal conditions for crops to grow.  

And yet, even though we have all these amazing advances, at the end of the day, we’re still a lot like the farmer in Jesus’ parable.  We prepare the field and we plant the seed, but we still don’t really know exactly how it grows.  Or to say it another way, we don’t know how to make a seed grow.  It’s not like you can just open up a seed and yank out a plant.  We can do lots of things to create the ideal conditions for a seed to take root and grow.  But none of us can make a seed grow.  Only God can do that.

The farmer in this story that Jesus tells does the work of going out to sow seeds – and later on, he does the work of harvesting.  But in between planting and harvest, the earth takes over – and even while the farmer is sleeping, the seeds that the he planted are busy growing.  We can imagine that he tends his field – pulling weeds, keeping critters from eating the plants – he gives the seed the best chance he can to grow – but the actual growth is a mystery that happens between the seed, the earth, and God.  And, as Jesus says in our gospel reading, this is also what it’s like with the kingdom of God.  

I often hear people joke that farming is one of the few legal ways to gamble in Nebraska.  And it’s true that farming is a gamble.  But to look at it another way, farming is also an act of faith.  You do all you can to create the ideal conditions, but once that seed is in the ground, it’s in God’s hands.  You can’t control the weather or how well or poorly a crop grows or if a plague of locusts decides to come along and devour everything.  Those things are all out of our control.  You faithfully plant the seeds and trust that, somehow or other, God will provide. 

The same can be said of our ministry together.  We are planting seeds that we cannot make grow.  We take care to prepare our soil as well as we can and we try to plant seeds that we think will have a good chance of growing here – but we can’t make these seeds grow.  We can’t make ministry happen through sheer force of will.  We can’t bring the kingdom through sheer force of will.  Ministry grows – and the kingdom comes – through the work of the Spirit.  

Sometimes that’s a bitter pill to swallow.  (Especially if you’re a control freak like me!)  Last year, for instance, we planted seeds of ministry that did not grow as we hoped.  We tried our best to prepare the soil to help it succeed.  But we got hit with a really nasty bit of weather: a global pandemic.  Who saw that coming?  It’s just something we had absolutely no control over – so we didn’t get to reap the harvest that we had hoped for.  That’s a really discouraging experience – putting in all that effort, all those resources, and not getting back the growth you expected.  

But at the same time, it also takes some of the pressure off of us to know that we can’t force something to grow.  No matter the weather, our ministry is in God’s hands.  And so we don’t let one bad year – one bad crop – slow us down.  Because this is our task as disciples: we keep on planting seeds.  We keep on making the holy gamble of planting seeds because we know that whether or not they grow is out of our hands.  We do the best we can to faithfully prepare the soil and leave room for the Spirit to work, but ultimately, we trust that God is the one who will make what we have planted grow.  And that’s why, as Paul writes in our second reading, “We are always confident… for we walk by faith, not by sight.”  We have hope because we know that God is continually at work in the world bringing new life.  (If you don’t believe me, go look outside in literally any direction to see the amazing growth and new life God is bringing everywhere!)  God is continually working to bring about a new creation, even as the old is passing away.  

And Jesus reminds us in this familiar parable of the mustard seed that, when it comes to planting seeds, size does not matter.  God can grow incredible things from even the tiniest seed planted with faith.  And in that vein, I would argue that the size of the field we plant in doesn’t make much of a difference to God either.  And that’s particularly good news for us – because we aren’t exactly working with the hugest field here at St. John’s.  We are a fairly tiny congregation.  We don’t have the people power or the financial resources of a lot of other larger congregations, even here in our own community.  But that’s never stopped God before!  In fact, doing awesome ministry with a small, ragtag band of followers seems to be how God generally prefers to roll.  We may be small, but our God is mighty.  And I know that God can and will bring forth something amazing from this soil, if we are willing to keep on planting seeds and doing everything in our power to help them grow.

I have no idea what kind of seeds God will call us to plant in this new season of growth.  But I do know that we can start to prepare our soil for planting even now – by praying: we can pray for God’s wisdom and discerment to show us where to go from here; we can pray for the Spirit to move our hearts and our hands into action; we can pray that God will make good things grow in this mission field of ours.

I’ll close today by offering the words of one of my favorite hymns as a prayer: Lord, Let My Heart Be Good Soil:

Lord, let [our hearts] be good soil,
open to the seed of your word.
Lord, let [our hearts] be good soil 
where love can grow and peace is understood.
When [our hearts are] hard, break the stone away;
when [our hearts are] cold, warm [them] with the day;
when [our hearts are] lost, lead [us] on your way.
Lord, let [our hearts], Lord let [our hearts],
Lord, let [our hearts] be good soil.

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