September 24, 2023
Outback, In the Dark, While You Were Sleeping (Mark 4:26-29)
I’m cutting it close with this sermon. I intended to preach it in August or early September, but we were immersed in the fruit and gifts of the holy spirit. Now here we are the day after the fall equinox, from yesterday on those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere will begin to see more darkness than daylight. The signs of the changing of the seasons appear all round us: birds flying south, temperatures cooler, leaves changing colors, animals putting on their winter furs.
But that does not mean the growing season is over. I double checked this with Farmer’s Almanac and DavesGarden.com. The risk for frost in Lebanon County is from October 15 through April 29. But the certainty of frost is from October 30 through April 14. So, the possible frost-free growing season in Lebanon County is 169 days. That means we still have at least 3 to 5 more weeks to plant those mums, cut that grass, wait for those pumpkins, cabbages, and potatoes to mature, the apples and grapes to ripen. This thing, this incredible, intractable, undeniable, startle-a-child-when-they-check-on a-seed-they-planted-just-a-little-while-ago thing, this growth, is going on outback, in the dark, while we were sleeping.
While Jesus was sleeping too. It is generally assumed that growing up Jesus was a carpenter apprenticed to Joseph. He made things of wood with his hands and his tools. Or it is assumed that Jesus was experienced in fishing with a net on a lake, either as paid work or to supplement the family groceries. While no one claims Jesus grew up on the farm, he certainly seemed to ponder farm life, long, hard. Some of his most potent parables have their origin there.
Jesus watches farmers as they scan the horizon and other indicators of coming weather; scatter seed on all sorts of soil; plow and not look back; trim vines and branches; fight weeds and pests; bring in the sheaves at harvest. Jesus also understands the farmer’s daily drama. He puts it like this. “The kingdom of God [the way things will be when God’s presence is recognized, God’s rule accepted] 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.”
Farmers work long and hard hours, especially in the planting and harvesting days. I remember Bud, a sweet corn farmer in Maryland in the field before dawn and after dark cutting ears from the stock to supply his roadside stands. I remember Ed a Christmas tree farmer in central Pennsylvania who stood in the cold, and occasional sleet or snow so the last procrastinator could get a tree the day before Christmas. Bud and his helper Elizabeth, Ed and his helper Nancy, worked the earth sometimes 12-14 hours a day, 6, sometimes 7 days a week, worked it like farming was all up to them. And then at the end of the day they did what all the rest us do: they let it go in the trust that outback, in the dark, while they are sleeping an unstoppable, movement of measurable growth occurs.
If only we had ears to hear! There are all sorts of night sounds out there. Some of them are gentle reminders that not everybody or everything is on first or second shift: owls, trains, trash haulers. Some of them are rude (screeching tires, sirens) and we try to block them out with white noise machines. But if we had ears to hear (a phrase Jesus often uses with his parables), we could pick up other sounds at night. I’m told that growing plants emit sounds at a frequency too high for humans. But if you put a powerful microphone on a plant, record and condense the sound, translate it into a frequency humans can hear, you get something like popcorn popping or bubble wrap bursting. (That’s a tomatoes plant!) Farmers sow seed, sleep, while they sleep: snap, crackle, pop. Farmers awaken: the seed has sprouted and grown. They don’t know how.
We all need help with egocentric illusions. The tendency to overestimate our place in the drama of life. The tendency to be so self-absorbed as to miss our cues from the outside world. The tendency to be cut off from feelings of sympathy and empathy. We were made to turn toward God and others, says the great Augustine, but instead we sin, we become incurvatas in se, turned in on ourselves and miss the good things God dangles before us. We all need help with egocentric illusions and here’s a good place to start: Now I lay me down to sleep… I may wish I could go 84 hours without sleep like a walrus or get by on giraffe’s 30-minute daily nap leaning against a tree, or put half my brain to sleep while the other works like a dolphin does. If I were only like them: how much more I could accomplish! But the Creator made me and our species to surrender as much as a third of every day of our lives to sleep. And while the physical, emotional, and psychological benefits are undeniable, I wonder if God also intended a spiritual best practice.
Now I lay me down to sleep. I pray the Lord my soul to keep. Because I’m going to be out of the picture the next 6-8 hours. I can’t keep my own soul. I can’t keep the souls of my loved ones. I can’t keep my bread-and-butter sweet corn growing or my blue spruce Christmas trees going. “But Lord, you are there. And as the psalmist says: you ‘neither slumber nor sleep’ (such a marvelous promise -especially if you’re a human not a walrus, giraffe or dolphin), so the sun will not strike by day when we’re awake, but also “nor the moon by night” when we’re asleep (121:4-6)… The very time that we are in the dark and out of control, God is awake, alert, making
moves and countermoves.
Now God is not the only one making moves and countermoves in the night. Jesus tells the darker story of another farmer who sows his good seed, then goes to sleep. But in this story “an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away” (Matt 13:25). So, this Ume the farmer awakens not only to the miracle of growth of wheat but also to the alarming spectacle of a crop being attacked by weeds put there by an enemy. What to do? The farmhands ask: tare out the weeds now? The farmer says, No. You’ll damage the wheat in the process. Let them grow together and we’ll sort it at the harvest. It’s Jesus reminding disciples they need direct contact with the unbelievers with whom they want to share good news of God’s kingdom. It’s Jesus reminding the church to be slow to excommunicate. But it’s also Jesus reminding us to rest in the providence of the God who neither slumber nor sleeps. There’s a Ume to ferret out and fight your enemies who sew weeds in your seeds and there’s Ume to turn those rascals over to God. “Don’t let the sun set on your anger” is the way Paul puts it. (Eph 4:26).
I knew we were moving close to the Swift Dairy Farms processing plant when we moved from Mechanicsburg to Lebanon. We were leaving behind the Friday night roar of Williams Grove Speedway, but what night sounds were we moving to? I soon got my answer: all through the night there was the muffled sound of tankers pulling in with milk and trailers pulling out with containers of the milk processed into various products and ready for the store shelf. It was a process driven by nature: cows will be cows! And in the very late or very early hours or doing one of those sleepless nights that sometimes accompanies a move, I took solace in that sight and sound. An incredible, intractable, undeniable, force goes on working through the night and that force would be visible in the morning. Sleep in faith!
The next to last word is one of my favorite lines from one of my favorite poets, Robert Frost: “When most happiest, how do I know I can keep any of us alive?” The last word goes to the Psalmist: “He who keeps Israel (or this congregation, or you and me) will neither slumber nor sleep.” Will you join me in prayer?
• God you are God and there is no other like you.
• “If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me and the light around me become night’,
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day…”
• We commend ourselves & those for whom we are responsible to your sleepless care
• We pray for those who must work the third shift to keep us safe and well
• We pray for those of every age who suffer from insomnia…
• We pray for those throughout the world who have lost e/t include their beds and safe
surroundings and are sleeping on cots or floors as best they can…
• Summon your resources, including us your willing disciples to bring to all these
situations the irreplaceable pleasure and blessings of a good night’s sleep…
• We ask this in the name Jesus who fell sleep in a small boat in a big storm, the Jesus who
chides anxious disciples again and again, “where is your faith?”, the Jesus who taught us
to pray… “Our Father…”