Knowing the Present

Two weeks ago, the Saint Mark’s Schola had our end-of-the-year party out in the garden. Our Schola children and their families gathered outside around freshly washed strawberries and cups of ice cold water, carefully-cut-in-exactly-half doughnuts with sugary frosting and, of course, the ubiquitous bowls of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. We ate together and talked; the parents relaxed and the children ran around in the grass. At the end of the party, when everyone was heavy with treats and sleepy with sunshine, I took a group of the children over to a little piece of the garden just behind the west end of the church. I showed them some little scraggly green plants tucked up against the stone, and I told them, with a bit of my own doughnut-induced delight, that those flowers had a very special name. What name? they asked as they looked up at me, wide-eyed. Well, I said, anticipating their excitement, those flowers are called Erica.

Honestly, they were less than impressed. I realized later that it would have been a better reveal if the flowers had had one of their names, like Vivienne or Thomas or Claudia. But they smiled anyway, and then one of them asked, What are they going to look like? I don’t know, I said, we’ll just have to wait and see – won’t that be fun? And they smiled at me, again, and we walked away, me, confident that I had inspired some happy anticipation, some sense of mystery and wonder in those little lovely minds.

It was, I think, about 30 seconds later that one of the little girls, Emma, who’s seven, tapped me on the shoulder. They look like this, Mother Erika, she said, matter-of-factly, and held up her iPhone, upon which was displayed a photo of the Erica flower in bloom, tiny orbs of translucent white clustered around the ends of spiky green branches. How did you find this? I asked. Oh, she shrugged, I just asked Siri, and she walked away. So much for my ability to inspire mystery and wonder in little lovely minds.

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. But he would not be anxious, nor would he worry, for he would have a smartphone, and he would ask his phone, Siri, what will this plant look like when it blooms? And Siri would show him a selection of photographs from various gardening websites, and he would relax and put his feet up, for he was able to know the future before it happened.

Not the parable that we were assigned to hear today. As much as we might like to hear Jesus tell us that the kingdom of God is exactly what we expect, and that we can find a full description of it on the interwebs, this is not what Jesus actually says. There is no website, there is no Siri, there is no little Burpee seed package to stick into the dirt so that we know precisely what this kingdom will become. There is only Jesus, speaking to us, telling us that the kingdom of God will sprout and grow, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head, and that we know not. There is no way for us to know what the kingdom of God will look like before our time; there is no way for us to know our future in God before it happens. We only know that the kingdom of God is part of our present and the full promise for our future, but we cannot jump ahead to find out what that future might look like.

And this is, at times, supremely frustrating. When we are anxious or afraid, when the things that have supported the structure of our lives are suddenly pulled away, we long to just ask some all-knowing search engine, “What is this going to look like when it’s all done?” We don’t feel like this all the time, thanks be to God; sometimes our outlook is sunny and bright, and when we look into the future we imagine nothing but joy and beautiful blooms. But there are those other times, times when we look at the seeds around our feet and see only the dust; times when we cannot imagine that this prayer will ever be answered, that this thing will ever change; times when we hear I don’t know if we’ll have a position for you next year or I don’t know how I feel about you anymore or We’ll just have to wait for the test results; times when the thought that the next forty years of our life might look just like the past thirty fills us with a cold dread; times when we cast our eyes about and see only questions and what-ifs and how-can-it-ever-be-the-same-again’s. And in those times, we sometimes find ourselves wishing we could see just a bit of the picture of the future. If God has a plan, what is it? If the kingdom of God is growing, it’s growing into what? If something in me is going to bloom, what will I look like when it’s done?

Jesus does not say that we will get that information. He tells us that the seeds will sprout and grow, and we will not know how. We don’t get to know how God gives the growth, as Paul says; and we don’t get to see the flowers before they bloom. We will not know. But that does not mean that this is not a Gospel story. Jesus does not offer this parable to us as a dark tale of doom but as a pronouncement of hope and a call to action.

First, the hope – we cannot know the future, but we can know that our future is in God. Always. God is God of our pasts and our presents and our futures. God is. Always. And so wherever, whenever we go, God is there. When things bloom and grow, God is there, and not just there but there moving the earth, causing beautiful, mysterious things to sprout and flourish. When things wither and die in our lives, God is there, and not just there but bringing life out of death, making all things new. There is no future without God, which means that God is always in our future, no matter what things may look like, no matter what we may look like.

And with that promise comes the call to action. Because Jesus’ parable is not just about a man who sits around watching the grass grow. No, this man sleeps and rises night and day, looks at his plants, watches them grow, pays attention to them, sees the hand of God in them, and when they grow ripe he is ready for the harvest. Just because we cannot know doesn’t mean that we should sit around waiting for our futures to come with our eyes and hearts closed. We can live in a posture of attentiveness, rising day after day to watch what God is growing. We can notice new sprouts and new buds, gifts to be counted right now, in our presents. We can help other people to notice, too, plant a little sign like one of my neighbors did that says Plants loading – do not disturb this dirt! And we can prepare ourselves for the harvest, keep our hearts and minds and lives open to gather in the blessings that are ripe and blooming. We may not be able to know the future, but we can have ready hearts and hands to live it when it comes.

A few days after our Schola party, I told Geoff, our resident head gardener, about my experience with the kids and Siri and the Erica. I laughed at myself and wondered at them as I described to him the photographs that we had all looked at. And Geoff just smiled and said, Actually, that’s not what our Erica is going to look like – our flowers will be pink, not white. And I smiled, knowing that there was still a little bit of mystery and wonder in the garden after all.

We may not know what the world will look like in six months. We may not know what this church will look like in six weeks. We may not know what we will look like in six days. But God knows. For God is already there. And we do know what God will look like then – like a planter of vines, like a grower of seeds, a God who will help those who take root in his house to flourish and to bear rich fruit; a God who loves nothing more than a good surprise, a little mystery, and a lot of wonder. The love of that God is our future, and the comfort of that is our present. That much we know.

Preached by Mother Erika Takacs

14 June 2015

Saint Mark's, Philadelphia


Posted on June 16, 2015 .