Saturday, June 13, 2009

God Does the Heavy Lifting

Vernes Lutheran Church, McIntosh, MN
125th Anniversary Celebration
Pentecost 2/Year B/Mark 4:26-34/
June 14, 2009

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Do you ever get impatient with God? Do you ever wonder when God is going to make good on all his promises to us?

Do you ever wish God would set the world to rights, once and for all, and usher in the New Creation?

Although we Lutherans tend to be more patient than other branches of the Christian family, even we are nagged from time to time by a kind of “sanctified antsiness”—a longing for God to finish off evil, defeat death and usher in the new creation that Paul sings about in our lesson from II Corinthians.

We get that way especially when the world seems to be going to hell in a handbasket--when we’re weary of terrorism and greed and phony politicians and cancer and family strife and everything else that sucks the life out of us.

Then we wonder: “How long, O Lord?”

Our gospel lesson from Mark 4 is a response to that ancient question, “How long, O Lord?”

It’s a great summer-time lesson, because it beckons us out into our gardens, yards, and fields. It invites us to hit the dirt, quite literally: “Stretch out on the ground, get eyeball to eyeball with a seedling, and observe just how it is that the Kingdom, the Rule, the Reign of God is becoming a reality—despite all our antsiness, all appearances to the contrary.”

The first bit of “horticultural theology” that grabs us in these verses is the utter simplicity of the picture Jesus is painting: “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.”

To be honest, I don’t get it either. I studied “plant science” in the agriculture department of Amboy-Good Thunder High School. I still have a vague idea of how germination works. But when my few feeble efforts at gardening actually succeed it’s usually in spite of all my best efforts.

Some years ago I tossed some ancient grass seed on a couple of bare patches in my lawn—never imagining that anything would come of it. But, lo and behold, the stuff came up thicker’n hair on a dog—despite my neglect, despite my lack of a bona fide green thumb.

“The earth produces of itself,” says Jesus—and, boy, is that good news for a poor excuse for a gardener like me!

The earth does such a good job all by itself that I can, for the most part, forget about that seed I planted. God does all the heavy lifting—much of it while I’m snoozing. While I sleep—God is always stoking the miracle of life.

God’s Rule over all things is like a lazy-know-nothing gardener, a less-than-ambitious farmer who lets nature take its course and then shows up—right on cue!—when harvest time rolls around.

What’s the point of this parable? It’s that we farmers, we gardeners can take almost no credit for the bumper crop that results from our planting. The farmer in Jesus’ story spreads no fertilizer, sprays no weeds, pulls no thistles, operates no cultivator. He just dozes in his Lazy Boy rocker while the seed takes off—sprouting, spreading, maturing irresistibly, until harvest comes.

God’s Kingdom, God’s Rule is somehow like that. It doesn’t depend on our best efforts, our noblest endeavors. God isn’t waiting for us to get our act together before God makes good on all his promises to us.

So the question isn’t: will we get busy and do everything we need to do, to help God along?

No. The question, rather, is: will we have a farmer’s faithful patience to trust God to finish up God’s business in God’s good time?

Today we give thanks for 125 years of God being faithful to all his promises to you here at Vernes. In reading your congregational history I was struck by how your parish—like so many churches—has been established and sustained in the face of countless challenges, circumstances that could have destroyed you.

Think of those hardy Norwegian settlers who formed this church in 1884. Imagine them living as a congregation for 15 years without a church building. Recall the hard times they must have faced—the rugged terrain (before we had decent gravel roads), the brutal winters, the always-scarce financial resources. (Vernes ended 1887 with just $2.80 in the treasury…and by 1889 the balance on hand had grown to a whopping $8.50!)

The pioneers who started Vernes were always praying for a pastor to serve them, but for a long time it had to be an “import”—the first six preachers all came from Norway.

In more recent years, many of you no doubt recall the tragic church fire in 1992. Bolts of lightning burned your newly-remodeled church building to the ground. That could have killed your congregation—but it didn’t. God was faithful to you, God is faithful to you. If you are still here, doing God’s work, it is all because of God’s unfathomable faithfulness, making seeds sprout, and grow and bear abundant fruit.

God doesn’t wait for us to do something big and dramatic and decisive for God to set the world to rights and make good on all his promises.

There’s something shocking about that—but also something freeing about that.

It doesn’t all depend upon us.

God doesn’t expect you and me to bring about a heaven on earth. That’s God’s job.

What you and I are good at are smaller things—like trusting God in this moment, loving the neighbor right next to us, caring for the little corner of the earth where God has planted us.

Those are small things, I realize—and small things are often the hardest things for us to do. And yet, the small things are what we’re cut out to do.

In fact, maybe those small things aren’t that small after all!

That’s the promise tucked away in the second little parable here in Mark 4. Once again Jesus beckons us out into nature, to examine the smallest of seeds. It’s just a mustard seed—but don’t let its tiny size fool you. It germinates into a large bush, with branches sturdy enough for birds to roost in.

God doesn’t overlook small seeds and small things—and neither must we. No one and no thing is too small for God to bother with.

God actually prefers small beginnings. God chose the smallest of nations, Israel, to be his precious people. God selected the smallest of ways to enter our world, in Mary’s boy baby, Jesus. God slips into our lives in the smallest of ways—with baptismal water, Communion bread and wine, and the words we share, even in this moment—naming, claiming and sending us.

Vernes Lutheran Church has always been a small-membership congregation. Hardly any of this world’s 6.7 billion inhabitants even know you exist…and yet you are precious—oh so precious!--in God’s eyes.

And over the last century-and-a-quarter God has blessed, God has used so many small things done by you and your ancestors, to foster God’s mission here at Vernes.

Do you know how your first church building was paid for, starting in 1892? By inviting all members to offer up one penny—just one penny!—per bushel of all the wheat, oats and barley that they harvested on their farms. That’s a “mustard seed” stewardship strategy if I ever heard of one!

Think of the old Vernes Luther League kids gathering their coins for world missions, putting up the posts and fence around the old church….Picture the original Vernes Ladies Aid, raising the money to put a basement under the old church, paying part of the cost for bringing electricity to Vernes back in 1948….

And we could go on and on—all sorts of small things, all manner of mustard seeds have been planted by you and your forebears. And God has worked with, God has multiplied all those small efforts, those modest contributions.

So, when you get antsy with God, when it seems as though it’s going to take our Creator forever in setting everything to rights, when impatience with God’s ways and God’s timetable washes over you—remember to do this: Hit the dirt, size up a seedling, and take time to watch a mustard plant grow.

Then, if you still need to work off some nervous energy, take on some small thing. Create something beautiful. Mend a relationship. Say a prayer. Right a wrong.

Do it all in gratitude for God’s grace shown to your congregation for these 125 years. Do it all because you belong to Jesus…Jesus, who has defeated sin, death and the devil….Jesus, who even now is ushering in God’s gentle and glorious rule over all things.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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