Sunday, June 17, 2018

Toad's Garden; God's Garden

Mark 4:26-34

I am not, by any stretch of the imagination, a gardener, but years ago, my brother and I had a recording of garden stories and songs that I played over and over, and that I keep remembering when I hear Jesus tell the kind of stories he does today.

That tape included a recording of a story* from the award winning Frog and Toad series. It’s a classic little story that starts when Toad admires his friend Frog’s fine garden, and Frog offers Toad some flower seeds.

Plant them in the ground,” said Frog, “and soon you will have a garden.”
“How soon?” asked Toad.
“Quite soon,” said Frog.
Toad ran home. He planted the flower seeds.
“Now seeds,” said Toad, “start growing.”
Toad walked up and down a few times. The seeds did not start to grow.
Toad put his head close to the ground and said loudly, “Now seeds, start growing!
Toad looked at the ground again. The seeds did not start to grow.
Toad put his head very close to the ground and shouted, “NOW SEEDS, START GROWING!”
Frog came running up the path. “What is all this noise?” he asked.
“My seeds will not grow,” said Toad.
[Too much shouting, Frog explains. The seeds are afraid to grow.]
 “Leave them alone for a few days. Let the sun shine on them, let the rain fall on them. Soon your seeds will start to grow.”

Does that sound familiar to you?
It should. It’s what we just heard Jesus tell us a few minutes ago. Leave the grain – or the mustard seed, or the flower seeds – alone and let it grow. God gives the growth.
But it’s easy for us to worry.
We may know we can’t make plants grow, but we sure like to get involved. Fertilizer, pesticide, watering, pruning, wishing. It’s frustrating to know something should be happening, but not be able to see it.
Toad feels the same way.

That night Toad looked out of his window. “Drat!” said Toad. “My seeds have not started to grow. They must be afraid of the dark.”
Toad went out to his garden with some candles. “I will read the seeds a story,” said Toad. “Then they will not be afraid.” Toad read a long story to his seeds.
All the next day Toad sang songs to his seeds.
And all the next day Toad read poems to his seeds.
And all the next day Toad played music for his seeds.
Toad looked at the ground. The seeds still did not start to grow.
“What shall I do?” cried Toad. “These must be the most frightened seeds in the whole world!”
Then Toad felt very tired, and he fell asleep.

Reading or playing music to your plants has gotten more popular – even been scientifically studied – in the years since Toad’s story first got published, but most of us know right away that Toad is wearing himself out doing the wrong things. He’s full of compassion, trying his best to keep his seeds from being afraid. But he’s guessing wrong about the reasons the seeds don’t grow, and he’s trying to do God’s work instead of his own.

It’s tempting to do God’s work. Tempting to try to fix things. To turn on the sprinkler when it hasn’t rained recently, or to pull or push a stuck or stubborn friend to the right answer, the right way of seeing or doing things, that you know will solve their problem. Tempting to nudge and network and persuade to get your kids into the right job, your parents into the right care, your beloved spouse into the right way of loading the dishwasher.

There are a lot of frustrating things that you know how to fix – if people would just cooperate – aren’t there?
Cruelty and injustice and foolishness and even violence in the news that could be cured by common sense.
I bet you can think of at least one situation where you’ve worked and worried and worked and it just doesn’t seem to change things.
It drives me crazy.
And it wears me out.

So Jesus and Frog both remind me today that maybe it wears me out because I’m trying to do God’s work, instead of my own.
Jesus reminds us that our work is sowing and resting and waiting; harvesting and gratitude. Our work is scattering seed, and then marveling at and enjoying the growth and fruit that God produces from the seed.

God’s work turns that seed into something completely different that blesses others. A grain of wheat scattered on the earth becomes, by stages, while the farmer sleeps: a stalk, an ear, a full head of wheat ready to harvest. Ready to feed and nurture God’s people. A tiny, tiny little mustard seed shoots up like a weed and becomes an enormous shrub, a home to shelter birds and little creatures.

Jesus encourages us to sow seeds. Lots of seeds. Impossibly tiny seeds. To keep sowing even if we don’t see growth. And let God work.

About ten years ago, I met a priest friend of mine in St. Louis for lunch. As she took me in to her local coffee shop, she told me how great it was that this shop had hosted her and some of her colleagues when they went out to pray with folks in the neighborhood on Ash Wednesday. I admired the collaborative spirit of the coffee shop and my friend, and promptly forgot all about it while we enjoyed lunch.

A couple years later, that seed stirred and sent up a shoot, when members of my suburban Chicago congregation told me about how hard it was to get to Ash Wednesday services. Before I knew it, six parishioners and I were at the local commuter train station, offering ashes and praying with strangers who were surprisingly delighted to see us on a drippy Ash Wednesday morning.
And I experienced the presence and generosity and grace of God in a way I never had before. So I told friends about it; heard from others who had done it; encouraged colleagues to try it.
A harvest from that tiny seed, and new seeds to sow.

Two years after that, the “Ashes to Go” movement was on the front page of The USAToday; now – eight years later – it’s an international movement that’s bringing the holy experience of repentance and welcome and the everyday practice of faith into all kinds of places – and seeding new ministries and relationships with God.

There’s hard work in the Ashes to Go story. Arguments. Long periods of waiting and barrenness. But friends reminded me to rest, and let God work – and helped me celebrate all the signs of a rich harvest of grace.

“Toad, Toad, wake up,” said Frog. “Look at your garden!”
Toad looked at his garden. Little green plants were coming up out of the ground.
“At last,” shouted Toad, “my seeds have stopped being afraid to grow!”
 “And now you will have a nice garden too,” said Frog.
“Yes,” said Toad, “but you were right, Frog. It was very hard work.”

There’s plenty of work for us to do – you and I – in sowing seeds for God to work with. Opportunities every day – not just with acquaintances and strangers, where it’s easy to let it go, but with the family we love and tend and see all the time, and in our public life – opportunities to sow just a tiny bit of kindness, or generosity, or gratitude, or faith, or trust, or skill, or perspective, or justice or truth.
And we can’t ever stop doing that; can’t stop giving God seeds to work with.

There’s plenty of work for us in harvesting, too; in receiving and sharing the gifts that grow from those seeds. Seeds we sowed, or that others sowed. Plenty of work in coping with the mustard plant of grace that got too big for the little garden plot you planned for it, and is now attracting birds who need shelter and rest. Plenty of work to be done in accepting and sharing God’s abundance, and bearing witness to the miracles we didn’t ask for. That’s hard work, sometimes, but not draining.

The work that exhausts us is when we try to do God’s share of the work; try to force growth, or force it to be visible. When we try to shape exactly what grows out of each seed, or try to get from seed to harvest by our own unrelenting effort without leaving room for God.

But when we remember that our job is to sow, then rest and wait, to harvest and rejoice, then the work strengthens us, and God’s work in us bears fruit, fruit from seeds that others have sown, in love, peace, patience, kindness, grace and joy.

*"The Garden"; Frog and Toad Together, by Arnold Lobel c. 1971, HarperCollins
You can also watch and enjoy this Claymation version of the story.

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