On my trip to Russia a couple of years ago, I immediately noticed who popular cellular phones were. As soon as we landed in Moscow and cleared customs, I immediately noticed cell phones everywhere. People walking in the airports. People driving in cars. People sitting at outdoor cafes or on park benches. All of them talking feverishly into their cell phones. The man who was sent to the airport to pick us up promptly called in our arrival on his cell phone. I asked our host, a vicar serving in Moscow, about this. He laughed. “Oh, everyone has one. Some don’t even work. People want to be seen talking into a cell phone. It means you’re somebody, you’re important.”
When I returned to New York three weeks later, I wondered about all those people running around JFK airport with their cell phones. Who were they talking to and necessary to be talking to them right there and then? Did they have to make that call? Or did they simply want to be seen making a call? Were they really so important, invaluable, indispensible to the operation that they couldn’t be out of communication for even a few hours? Would the company grind to a halt if they couldn’t be reached? Were the phones even real, I wondered.
Two weeks ago, we attended our district convention in Irvine. I don’t know if it was my imagination, my inattention, or what, but there seemed to be more beepers and cell phones going off this year than three years ago. When you get 500 people in a room, there is sure to be a cell phone going off at any inopportune moment -whether it be a floor presentation or a prayer. I suspect that many more of my colleagues in the ministry are carrying cell phones and beepers these days than ever before. I noticed many of them pacing the halls talking fervently into their little walkie-talkies. I especially enjoy the headset variety that make people look like their talking fervently with themselves. Everyone seemed to have some sort of electronic gizmo hanging off their belt. I’m not sure how many of them actually worked. But the people carrying them sure seemed important, plugged in, invaluable to whomever they were talking.
Now I don’t mean to disparage this latest item in our arsenal of communcations hardware or those who rely on it. I understand that cell phones are very helpful to sales people and others who spend a lot of time on the road. It sure beats standing in line at a pay phone. They’re great if you’re broken down on the road, although since I assume everyone but me has one, I’m even more reluctant to play the part of the good Samaritan. We even put one to good use a couple of times at the convention. Once to find directions to a restaurant while driving; the other to complain to the front desk of the hotel while mired in gridlock in their parking lot. And I can honestly understand the appeal of the cell phone to a generation who grew up watching Star Trek on TV, because those things look an awful lot like the little communicators that Kirk, Spock, & Co. used to talk to each other. The design just makes you want to say, “Beam me up, Scotty.”
But the observation of the Russian vicar still rings true in my ears. “People want to be seen with a cell phone. It means you’re somebody, your’e important.” And that’s what we want. We want to be important. Needed. An indispensible cog on the wheel. We want to be necessary. Without us everything will fall apart. Necessity means job security. I knew someone who never wrote down a single protocol or procedure for anything he did, thinking the company could not survive without him. All the secrets were in his head. Indispensibility means control. That same person would always threaten to quit whenever things didn’t go his way, because “he alone” knew how to do the job. In effect, he held the company hostage.
Indispensibility can also mean anxiety and stress. It’s hard to bear the weight of the world, even your little corner of the world, on your shoulders. I have to think that our obsession with reaching out and touching everyone all the time and our stress disorders are somehow linked together. The person who can’t let go, turn off, and tune out, is either a slave or a slavedriver. I wondered about that with my cell-phone carrying colleagues. Did their congregations make them carry a cell phone? Or did they insist on having them? How did Luther manage a Reformation without a cell phone? How did St. Paul evangelize the whole Mediterranean world, sometimes from prison, without the latest in telecommunications hardware?
Luther had a profound sense of his own non-necessity. He once remarked, “While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer, the gospel runs its course.” That’s how a free man talks. He can preach the Word, and then cheerfully step down from the pulpit, take off his robes, and have a glass of Wittenberg beer confident that the Word is at work doing its killing and making alive thing. He doesn’t need to be constantly busy. In fact, “busy” would not have been one of the words used to describe Luther. Certainly, he had much to do. But he trusted the Word to do its work, and so could pray four hours a day even when there was much work to do. And, of course, have his little glass of Wittenberg beer in peace.
I’m afraid the church today has lost much of that confidence. We are busier than ever, working harder than ever, running around more than ever. Even when we have our little glass of Wittenberg beer, it’s with beeper on the belt and cell phone close at hand. Management by crisis. Just like government, everything seems to be a crisis in the church today. We have a crisis in missions, in catechesis, in rural churches, in city churches, in youth. One crisis after another, as the church runs from one gimmick to the next, one slogan to the next, one program to the next. There are the continual barrages to extend the kingdom, grow the kingdom, further the kingdom. And in all our busyness of kingdom building, we’ve forgotten what Luther taught usin his explanation of the petition “thy kingdom come”, that “the kingdom of God comes indeed without our prayer of itself, but we pray in this petition that it may come among us also.”
That’s the point of the parable of the seed that grow secretly. The sower sows his seed in the earth. And in Jesus’ day that didn’t take much training. We’re not talking soil science here. Just take some seed and scatter it on the ground. The sower doesn’t even care much where it lands, if the parable of the four kinds of soil is any indicator. Good soil, rocks, weeds, hard pack, whatever. And then the sower goes about his day to day routine. He sleeps, he rises. He goes to the store. He makes chamber music with his friends. He fixes dinner. He has his little glass of Wittenberg beer, if he’s Lutheran. And all the while the seed sown in the earth sprouts and grows, and the sower doesn’t have a clue as to how it works. It happens automatically – that’s the key word to this parable – aujtoma/th. Automatically, without any poking or prodding on the part of the sower, the ground with seed in it produces fruit – first the blade, then the ear, then the kernel of grain in the ear. And when the grain is ripe, the harvest. All of it happens automatically.
You gardners know this from experience. You plant seed in the soil, you cover it up, you water it. But most of all, you leave it alone. If you go out every morning and uncover your little seed to see how it’s doing, you’ll kill it. It will never sprout much less grow. But leave it alone and it will do just fine. I have a little garden patch out back on our community garden. It’s doing better than some gardens I’ve had in my backyard because I leave it alone. I don’t mess around with it every day. The seed does its work, and it seems to work just fine without me. A little watering and weeding is all it takes.
The parable tells us that it’s the same way with the kingdom of God. Let Jesus do His work, and He does just fine. Automatically. He is the Word, the Seed sown in the earth. He is the kernal of wheat who dies and is buried, who rises and bears much fruit. The whole earth rises from the dead in the power of His one little resurrection. With Jesus’ resurrection comes a harvest of the new creation, and no one quite knows exactly how it works. It just does. Automatically. Sow crucified and risen Jesus in any old world – this world full of losers, deadbeats, and plain old sinners – and let Him do His work. He works just fine. Sow dead and risen Jesus in any old heart, and He works just fine. He forgives sinners; He raises the dead. Your anxiety and worry and busyness add nothing to what Jesus does. They just take the joy out of being a part of it.
The Word works automatically. All you have to do is sow it, which hardly requires an advanced degree in agricultural science. Or evangelism science, for that matter. I’m afraid we’ve pretty much lost that joy too. We’ve turned the simple task of speaking the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection into something that can only be done by high-trained, paid professionals equipped with the latest tools backed by years of research and development, wearing pagers and cell phones, of course. And once we hand something over to the professionals we’ll never take it back again, because we’ve bitten into the notion that we aren’t qualified enough to do it. You don’t need a seminary degree to say to another person, “God is at peace with you in the death of Jesus. Your life is in Jesus. Now trust Him, let yourself be baptized into Him, live off of Him, worship Him. Anyone can say that. Even the smallest child armed with the Apostles’ creed has more than enough know-how to sow the seed of the kingdom because you don’t have to know how it works. You need only know that it works, and trust that it works automatically.
Part of our problem, and the reason we’re always tinkering and meddling, is that we trust our eyes instead of our ears. We’re impressed with big buildings and large crowds and a good show. We start to think that the reign of God can be measured the way we measure business and celebrities. Success is a sign of God’s acceptance and approval. Successful churches are growing churches, as though all growth were necessarily good. But cancer and crabgrass also grow, often uncontrolled. And the issue is whether the growth is a healthy growth from the good seed of Jesus, or a Christian cancer growing out of control.
Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a single mustard seed – small, insignificant, easily over looked. You can barely pick it up between your thumb and forefinger. If you sneeze, you’re liable to blow it away. After you bury it in the ground, it as good as lost. But it grows into a great big shrub, with room enough in its branches even for the birds of the air, who have probably devoured hundreds of these tiny seeds for breakfast.
This parable isn’t about the growth of the kingdom, but about how small and insignificant God’s reign appears now as we speak. It’s not about growing churches and adding to the kingdom’s numbers but about how God reveals Himself in the small, the weak, the hidden, the insignificant. The crowning moment for the King of this kingdom was a cross. With the exception of a handful of followers, most of them from the lower rungs of society, the world barely took notice that very good Friday when Jesus hung in the darkness between Noon and three. But in that mustard seed-sized death is packed the death of all and life of the whole world, the entire forgiveness of every sin, the resurrection of all the dead, the reconcilliation of the world to God. You wouldn’t have known by looking at Jesus on the cross. You can only trust it. As St. Paul reminded us, what is seen is temporal, what is unseen is eternal, and so we walk by faith and not by sight.
Faith as small as a mustard seed can move mountains. A kingdom the size of a mustard seed is all we are given to see of God’s reign. And signs of the kingdom are just as small: Holy Baptism. Not much to look at, but it is the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Spirit in the death of Jesus. The word of forgiveness. Again, not much to look at, but it is genuine, 24-carat, 200-proof, one hundred percent forgiveness spoken personally to you. The Lord’s Supper. Not much to look at there, either. Yet there is the Body and Blood of Jesus, His sacrificial death by which you live. The power of His death and resurrection in your mouth.
How easy it is to overlook these things! They are the size of mustard seeds in a world that barely notices such little things. Yet here is the power of God to salvation. Here is the power of Jesus to forgive your sin and raise your from the dead. Here is the kingdom that begins like the tiny mustard seed – with one lonely death on a cross – and ends with a tree of life big enough to embrace the whole world including the birds. That’s the powerful little seed God has put into your hands to sow. Scatter it recklessly. Tell the good news of Jesus. Sow it with joy, free from anxiety and worry about success or failure. And then, like the sower at the end of his day, relax. Turn off the beaper and bury the cell phone in a sock drawer. Enjoy a little glass of Wittenberg beer knowing that the hidden Word of Jesus is always at work. Automatically.
In the name of Jesus,