There is a small patch of our back yard that the previous owner obviously used as a garden. It is a bare patch of dirt, roughly 6 ft x 20 ft set off to the side of the yard with a nice sprinkler system that you can move around to water the plants. I’ve never been much of a gardener, but it seemed like a waste to let this little setup go to waste. So I decided to plant some tomatoes. My parents had vegetable gardens when I was a kid so I knew a little about it, and it seemed like the most productive use of our little garden space. It’s been about a month since I planted my three little plants, and as I tend them and watch them grow, I’m getting more than I thought from the plants.
I’m learning (again) that I am impatient. I am also learning that my default view of the world is that I have a great measure of control over when and how things get accomplished. As I tend these plants every day, I’m realizing that there’s not much I can do to speed up this process or to guarantee its success. Sure, I have a part to play. I position the plants in our garden to get sun, set up stakes so the plants don’t fall over, apply fertilizer and pesticide as needed, and most of all ensure the plants are well watered. But I can’t make the plants grow any faster than they were created to grow, and I can’t really guarantee how many tomatoes will be produced. This is frustrating. I want more control over the process than this. Maybe I’m too fully a product of the industrial revolution, but I look at the world and say that there should be a way to make it better, faster, and cheaper.
Then I was reading in the Gospel of Mark this morning and was struck by these passages from chapter 4:
2 He taught them many things by parables, and in his teaching said: 3 “Listen! A farmer went out to sow his seed. 4 As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5 Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. 6 But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. 7 Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants, so that they did not bear grain. 8 Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up, grew and produced a crop, some multiplying thirty, some sixty, some a hundred times.” (Mark 4:2-8 TNIV)
26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” (Mark 4:26-29 TNIV)
“What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” (Mark 4:30-32 TNIV)
As Jesus is teaching his disciples about the kingdom of God – about people coming to know and acknowledge God’s plan for humanity through Christ – he chooses agricultural metaphors. Maybe that was just a reflection of the culture of his day. Maybe Jesus just chose these metaphors, because his audience would understand them. But I don’t think that’s the case. In fact the context seems to indicate that all this was very confusing for those who heard it. In fact, the disciples didn’t get it at all, and Jesus had to pull them aside to explain it all to them. I think there’s something more significant here.
As I work to start a new church at the same time I’m tending my tomato plants, I’m learning how much the two have in common. As with my tomato plants, there is considerable work that I can do to position our church for growth. But in the end, I can’t make it grow any faster than it will, and I cannot guarantee how fruitful it will become. Like the farmer I plant the seeds, and then night and day, whether I sleep or toss in my bed, the seed sprouts and grows though I do not know how. I watch growth happen, not fully understanding how or why, and I look forward to the harvest when I taste the fruit of my labors. God is teaching me to be patient. As I wait for my tomatoes and for the church to grow, I am learning to tend them both the best I can and to trust God to do his work.