Sermon for June 17, 2012
Ken Budd’s story (as told in his memoir, The Voluntourist) is in some ways a common story, and in other ways it is quite unusual. I suspect it is fairly common for men to measure themselves against their fathers. I know for sure it is common for men to grieve deeply when their fathers die. But I don’t know very many stories with the kind of “baby hunger” which is usually attributed only to women. Yet, Ken Budd’s story contains all these elements.
Ken Budd was 39 when his father died suddenly and unexpectedly. He mourned this loss and found comfort in the many testimonials he heard from people whose lives had been touched by his father’s quiet generosity and integrity. The death of Ken Budd’s father also sent Ken Budd on a quest for meaning which led him to participate in six short term mission trips over the next two or three years. His worked at rebuilding New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, taught English in Costa Rica, cared for special-needs children in China, participated as a volunteer in research about climate change in Ecuador, assisted refugees in a variety of ways in the Palestinian West Bank, and gave TLC to kids at an orphanage in Kenya.
With a healthy dose of self-deprecation, Ken Budd traveled around the world for these short term stints, sometimes with his wife along but more often without her. He recognized he was making these journeys more for his own purposes than out of saintly altruism. Yet, he nevertheless hoped he just might somehow “volunteer his way into” a feeling of purpose which would reassure him his life was making a difference.
But what makes his story most unusual (at least among the stories of middle aged men that I have come across) is that a huge part of Ken Budd’s struggle was over the fact that he was not and probably would never be a father. Happily married to a woman who did not want to have children, the grieving and soul searching son worked through the knowledge that his life’s achievement (whatever it would turn out to be) would necessarily be quite different than his father’s had been.
I originally picked up this book (as you may be able to guess) because of its story of volunteer projects all over the globe. But it also turned out to be a somewhat fascinating window into the heart of a man who (if you ask me) was a bit slow on the uptake! Of course, when it comes to our own lives, most of us are slow to figure ourselves out! So I’m not being mean when I tell you it seems to me it took Ken Budd a very long time and great many miles to figure out he would have to chart his own course and be his own man. He would have to learn how to live gracefully while accepting all his father had been, without also demanding that he, himself, “measure up” in some visible way that duplicated his father’s life patterns.
The man was 39 year old! But he simply needed to learn that his life was really his own. His life and character showed the beautiful signs of a good and decent father, and he carried with him the lessons his father had taught him. But when it came to charting his own life, he would need to allow all those lessons to bear their own fruit.
Which is what Jesus also taught in the parables we have heard today, from Mark chapter 4. One way to describe these Kingdom of God parables as Mark tells them is to say they are parables of the Automatically Growing Seed. These are not stories of someone’s hard work and toil, working day after day in the hot sun to make the desert bloom. No, these are stories of sleeping our way through the grace-infused creativity of God! We have a farmer who scatters some seed in the ground and then just sleeps and rises, night and day. He has no idea why or how the plants grow, but leaves it in the hands of a provident universe, and a caring God. Even without all that much work, the earth “produces of itself.” Eventually the harvest is there, ready to be claimed.
And we have another story of the tiniest mustard seed growing into the most common and unassuming bush: a mustard plant. Mustard plants evidently grow just about anywhere, even in the hard soil of Palestine. They adapt to their environment. They provide solid shelter and even some comfort to birds who build their homes in the branches of a weedy bush which rarely impresses anyone. We’re not talking the cedars of Lebanon here; we’re talking a bush which IS more like a weed. It’s true that in the parable someone had to take the initiative to plant that tiny seed. But once planted, growth sounds quite inevitable according to the story Jesus told.
Both lessons, each in its own way, tell us something obvious and rather refreshing: good things happen. Both by the initiative of God and by other people (including, perhaps, our parents), seeds are planted within us which just simply grow. And we, too, plant seeds in the course of our lives which may bear fruit far beyond anything we have a right to expect. Our Calvinist work ethic may tell us we should be very dedicated and intentional and industrious and focused in the way we go about investing our lives. Maybe we should even travel to foreign countries to do some good deeds! (Spoken, as you know, by one who not too long ago crossed the globe to pick olives!)
But the parables Jesus tells in our lesson from Mark seem to convey a more leisurely, confident, trusting sort of approach: Scatter some seeds for sure. And don’t let the fruit die on the vines! But in between? Remember that in addition to your work, God is involved too. Things are going on that are not about you. Good things are taking place which you just can’t see. And the outcome may be as wonderful as it is common: perhaps some shelter and a little rest for creatures that need it.
Some would say the parable about the mustard seed which grows into a place of shelter stands for the church. We in the church plant or scatter some seeds. And then we let God give the growth. We take ourselves seriously but not to the point of saying it’s our job to tower above everyone else and become the legendary flash in the sky that people just can’t stop talking about.
In Ken Budd’s case, for example, one of the things he heard about his father following his father’s death, was how kind and thoughtful his dad had been when forced to lay off workers! Not exactly the kind of thing his dad went home from work and described to his wife as a great day at the office. And yet, some simple decency planted a seed and bore a harvest. Something good and memorable and healing (a gentle or respectful way of saying the job was no more) was evidently wrapped up in something bad (the never-welcome news that one is are suddenly unemployed).
And in the church: are we, indeed, like that humble mustard plant? Maybe it’s the shelter we’ll offer to homeless families with children this week, as they live through their difficult times and at least get some shelter and rest and a little TLC from church volunteers who show up to be a face of support. Maybe the church’s way to rise to the stature of a God-planted mustard bush is to teach Sunday School, and hold memorial services, and service dinners to homeless youth, and deliver casseroles when people come home from the hospital, and say prayers, and provide rides, and stand with the marginalized and say “we’re with you.” We let God grow when we support people through their worst times rather than saying, “Come on in … but only when you are at your best … or at least when you are willing to pretend you are.”
Today I intend to take seriously the message Jesus seems to give in these parables, and I invite you to join me. It’s the message that we can go to sleep tonight trusting that God is at work in our world, God is at work in our church, God is at work in our families and God is at work in our lives. Today I intend to take seriously the good news that something is growing within us and among us which has the potential and the destiny to provide shelter and rest and shade and safety when these are needed. Today I intend to rejoice in the fact that even when we feel our lives have somehow not measured up as we think they should, we really only need to let God grow in our lives and it will be enough.
This is because it’s not all about us. We are not the saviors of the world, God is. We are not the ones who came to reveal God, Jesus is. What we need to do is be the place where God can get our attention; where God can do something through us; where God can use not only our successes but also our failures. Maybe it’s not so much working harder and longer but rather learning to trust God enough to believe good things really do happen through us … through our church … through our normal, garden variety lives which all add up to something good.
God is at work in the fields of our lives. Believe that. Trust that. Enjoy that. Find reassurance. Find Christ … planted right here. Growing and growing. Good things are happening.
Thanks be to God. Let the church say Amen.