More Like a Farmer than a Dog Trainer
Mark 4:26-29, Steve Hollaway, Harbor Church, June 17, 2018
If you want to feel loved, try announcing that you are moving away. Suddenly I find that I am appreciated. Almost every day—literally—someone stops me to tell me how much I’ve meant to the community. Sometimes they say they will miss me, which is sweet. Sometimes they ask, “What are we going to do without you?”—which is a little concerning. I’m afraid that some people assume that I am more responsible for good things that have happened here than is really the case.
Some people imagine that churches are like corporations—writing vision statements, developing products, coming up with marketing plans. The more control the pastor/CEO has, the better. I’m not sure that even business actually works that way; lots of things involve luck and accident and unacknowledged co-conspirators. But the church certainly doesn’t work that way. The pastor has a lot less control than some people imagine. The pastor is more like that farmer in Jesus’ parable who plants the seed, then goes to sleep and goes on with life, discovering one day that the seed has grown, although he does not know how it happened.
Two years ago on Pentecost, I gave a sermon on the Holy Spirit and serendipity. I admitted that although I had fallen into writing vision statements and long-range plans in the ‘90’s, I no longer believed in such things. I have come to believe in serendipity. If you just keep your eyes open to occasions when God makes you aware of a need, God can develop ministries that seem on the surface to be a stroke of luck. Every significant ministry in my forty years had its origin not in a human plan, but in an “aha” moment when I practically tripped over an opportunity. Without telling the whole story, I can tell you that the three things I’ve been “famous” for starting on Block Island—the coffeehouse, the mental health programs, and the international student center—all began as serendipities, with the Spirit opening the door, not as the result of brilliant planning. That’s why I was glad to hear Peter Preiser refuse to say what goals he would set as the next pastor of Harbor Church, or what ministry he would emphasize first, other than forming relationships. Anyone who would rattle off his list of favorite programs to try on the island hasn’t been in ministry long enough to learn that he is more like a patient farmer than like a strategic planner.
Jesus’ image for how God works in the world is a seed growing. The farmer plants and waters, but he doesn’t actually know how the seed grows. Jesus is near the beginning of his ministry of proclaiming the kingdom; he is planting seeds. He’s the farmer in the parable, at least so far. Even Jesus doesn’t know how the seed turns into a plant. He’s not a 21st century scientist; we have no reason to think that in his historical human life Jesus understands DNA, even though at yesterday’s graduation the speaker, Sue Gibbons, assumed that everyone understands DNA.
Jesus says that the story of his life is that he plants the seed of the kingdom of God and then goes to sleep and gets up the next day. Like the farmer, the kingdom-planter lives a normal human life and waits. He lives in patience, knowing that as it is the nature of the seed to produce grain, it is the nature of the word of the kingdom to produce obedience.
Jesus is illustrating a whole approach to the world, one that is more characteristic of ancient and indigenous societies than our own. Beginning at least by the 18th century, people in the West committed to an approach to the world that can be called “instrumental rationality.” The premise is that the world can be known rationally; mystery is the enemy of reason and the stuff of childish imagination. Everything can be explained. Everything can be mansplained—and there is something masculine about this approach with its attempt to control. The “instrumental” part means that reason is to be used. The purpose of understanding things is to use them for human benefit. We want to understand things so that we can fix them or control them, not so we can surrender to the mystery.
That way of thinking has its uses, and it gave us much of what we know as science, although in the last century scientists have become aware of the limits of such knowledge. There are things that cannot be known with certainty, we are now aware. There are processes we have no way to explain. For example: quantum mechanics, string theory, black holes, even relativity. These are more like myths by which we describe mystery.
I’ll grant you that Jesus is speaking as a first century man, and as a Palestinian Jew. He is not pro-science or anti-science. But he is illustrating in this little parable a laid-back approach to the world—what he calls “trust” or “belief.” The world is essentially a safe place where the Father’s love is at work in hidden ways. The more you can come to believe that, the more you will see it happening. God doesn’t need you to chant a magical prayer to make the rain or the sun come.
The attitude Jesus wants his followers to have is the attitude of Johnny Appleseed in the Disney film I grew up with:
Oh the Lord is good to me,
and so I thank the Lord
for giving me the things I need:
the sun, and the rain, and the apple seed.
The Lord is good to me [Kim Gannon and Walter Kent, 1948].
Why do you worry, Jesus asks us, about what you will eat, what you will drink, and what you will wear? Your Father knows what you need, and he will take care of you.
Do you imagine that the kingdom that is coming is something you have to build yourself? Not so, says Jesus. It is coming all by itself, a big plant from a small seed. The missionary Paul talked this way about his ministry of planting the seed of Jesus’ message:
I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. The one who plants and the one who waters really do not matter. It is God who matters, because he makes the plant grow [1 Corinthians 3:6-7 GNB].
Paul is not talking about literal plants. He is talking about the growth of an idea and a cause—the one Jesus called “the kingdom of God.” The world and the human heart are so constructed that God’s message of love and forgiveness can grow all by itself. How this works is a mystery we call the work of the Holy Spirit.
One of Martin Luther’s great one-liners is this one: “While I drink my little glass of Wittenberg beer, the gospel runs its course.” That is trusting that God can make the seed of the kingdom grow. I came across a comment on that line by Helmut Thielicke, the greatest postwar German preacher, whom I heard preach a baccalaureate at Princeton. Thielicke said,
That is truly the finest and most comforting thing I have heard said about beer. The conversion of a man is not something that can be “produced.” The new life comes into being only by letting God work. Therefore, Luther can cheerfully and trustfully step down from the pulpit; he doesn’t need to go on incessantly crying, shouting and roaring around the country. He can quietly drink his little glass of Wittenberg beer and trust in God.
Now it’s time to have a beer with all the dads out there. We’ve been thinking about seeds growing all by themselves on Father’s Day. Let me ask you a question: Do you think it could be a coincidence that this scripture reading was selected for the Common Lectionary on Father’s Day? Let me clarify that the Catholic and liturgical Protestants who edited the lectionary don’t believe in celebrating Mother’s Day or Father’s Day in church—or Memorial Day or the Fourth of July or Labor Day or anything they consider “secular.” And, frankly, a good many of the editors were probably celibate clergy with little personal interest in family holidays. Yet here we are reading Mark 4 on Father’s Day. If you believe in the mysteriousness of the world, as I do, then you may find significance in this juxtaposition. I call it a serendipity.
Can fathers learn from Jesus’ parable which says that the way God works in the world is slowly, secretly, working with life-forces to bring a life to maturity and fruitfulness? I think so. Some people think that children are a tabula rasa—a blank slate—on which parents and teachers can write. We form the child by what we teach the child. The goal of education is to form a useful citizen, or at least one who can earn a living.
Other people think of children as more like seeds. Each child, in this view, contains a unique code and a distinctive nature. The goal of education is to assist the person as she unfolds like a flower and reveals herself. As the farmer would tell you, there’s not a whole lot you can do to change the nature of the plant. You can nourish it, water it, make sure it has enough light, and protect it from birds and weeds that would destroy it. Is a child’s life a script that we write, or is it a movie that unreels on its own as we get a glimpse from time to time?
Maria Montessori was a crusader on one side of this issue. She was one of the first female doctors in Italy in the late 19th century, working in pediatrics and psychiatry. For a while she worked on care for those they used to call “retarded.” Then she started a day care called Casa Bambino for normal but poor children in an inner-city neighborhood. One day the teacher Maria hired---the custodian’s daughter—couldn’t make it to work. Maria had not been teaching, only observing. But this day, Maria was late, and when she walked into the day care she made an amazing discovery. The children, with no supervision, had gone to the shelves and taken down their favorite puzzles or manipulables or kitchen tools, and they were quietly entertaining themselves. Actually, they were quietly teaching themselves. Marie began to realize that the children brought a lot more potential and individuality to the classroom than most teachers supposed.
Montessori refers to a child as a spiritual embryo—a hidden living being who must be liberated. Psychic development is guided by something within, just as the seed develops all by itself without the knowledge of the farmer. She refers to “the miracle of creation from almost nothing,” and says, “The human personality forms itself by itself, like an embryo.” The child grows like a seed. Our role is to be protective and to provide the resources the child can use to learn, but our role is not to control who the child becomes.
In Thursday’s New York Times, David Brooks argued that the philosophy we need today is “personalism,” “built on the infinite uniqueness and depth of each person.” He notes that
Back in 1968, Karol Wojtyla (who became John Paul II) wrote, “The evil of our times consists in the first place in a kind of degradation, indeed in a pulverization, of the fundamental uniqueness of each human person.” That’s still true.
“There is a depth, complexity and superabundance to each human personality that gives each person unique, infinite dignity.”
That strikes me as consistent with the Christian message, and it strikes me as an important message for Father’s Day. We need to treat our children as seed growing secretly, beyond our knowledge or control, who have a unique, infinite dignity.
The title of this sermon suggests that a father is “more like a farmer than a dog trainer.” There are schools of thought—especially among Evangelicals—that emphasize the family values of patriarchy, discipline, and control. Books like Dare to Discipline suggest that the problem of American parents is that we are all wimps who want to be liked, and we should be tougher with our kids. I don’t think that a lack of discipline is the greatest problem; I think the failure to treat children with respect and dignity is a deeper problem. I think the anxiety that so many parents feel stems from a competitive environment and the assumption that they should be in control of their child’s development. I think Jesus, like Montessori, would advise that we back off, relax, and respect the mystery of the child.
Too many parents follow advice like that given by Cesar the Dog Whisperer: Establish yourself as the pack leader. Exercise strong, assertive leadership. Your child feels more secure knowing that you are the boss and all the child has to do is obey. I want to say again that the role of a father is more like the role of the farmer in the parable than the role of a dog trainer. What works for pack animals does not work for human beings, especially when we want to see them unfold as spiritual beings able to know God and make decisions for themselves. Putting Cesar in charge of your children might produce good obedient citizens, but not full humans in the image of God.
For a farmer, patience is the way faith expresses itself, waiting for the seed to develop in secret until harvest time. For a father, faith expresses itself as patient love for the child, trusting that God is working and making the child grow in ways we cannot see.