I am a process guy. That is to say, when there is a good process in place, good outcomes usually happen. The challenge is when the process takes a bit of time. At some point, most of us can get anxious when we can’t see the end of the process, when we think it won’t work out. That’s when we are tempted to tinker, to cut a corner or speed up the process. And it is usually those times, when we get our hands on the process to goose it a bit, that things go awry.
My favorite Aesop fable helps me stay the course with a process. The tale of the tortoise and the hare is a wonderful story about the slow-moving turtle who seemingly does nothing more than keep moving along the race course while the flashy, speedy rabbit weaves and bobs, naps and plays all along the way, until he realizes his shell-encased opponent is crossing the finish line.
It is worth nothing that over the centuries a shift has taken place in how the story is perceived. In the ancient world the focus of the story is the hare. Considering the over-confidence of the hare, the moral of the story was that many people have natural abilities squandered by idleness and sloth. Beginning in the sixteenth century it became a story about the plucky conduct of the tortoise in taking on a bully. As the Renaissance embraced the tale it gained the familiar motto we may recognize, “perserverance winneth.” Which put folks in mind of Ecclesiastes, “the race is not to the swift.” (9:11)
Both morals are worth taking to heart. However, the more modern approach to Aesop’s ancient tale beautifully illustrates what should be our response to God in life. In these parables of Jesus at the end of Mark 4. Jesus shifts from longer more detailed parables to these brief commentaries on the kingdom of God. Here the first thing to note is the unfortunate English translation that has saddled many of Jesus parables since the King James Version with a misinterpretation. Many of them begin with, “The kingdom of God is as if…” or “The kingdom of God is like…” we must recognize that Jesus is not describing a place, he is describing a person, God. Many scholars, then, translate the text, “The reign of God is like…” In other words, Jesus’ parables here, illustrate what happens when God is totally in charge of life.
This first parable likens the reign of God to a feature of plants familiar to any gardener or farmer. The gardener can put the seed in the ground but cannot really do anything about its growing. In fact, the gardener has so little to do with making the seed grow that in the parable the gardener sleeps through the process of sprouting and maturation. The reign of God is like the sleeping gardener. He sleeps and sleeps and when he wakes there is a harvest.
In essence Jesus tells followers, disciples, don’t despair of life, sow! Don’t worry about poor sowing. Just keep sowing. Even if you sow poorly, the crop is not in your hands. The reign of God does not abide by the standard rules of agriculture. The Grower can take anything you sow- anything - anywhere you sow it, anyway you sow it, and yield a bumper crop. So sow! Call it the tortoise approach to life, keep at it.
Yet what makes the tortoise tale applicable is to recognize that the little fellow does no more than keep moving in one direction. It is similar to the image of a passive gardener. Running a race as the tortoise, sowing seed as the gardener, is actually trusting the process of discipleship. And that comes down to this one word: grace. Christ’s grace grows in us as certainly and effortlessly as seeds grow.
But grace can be a tough nut for us to grasp. We want to rely on other words of Jesus, words that tell us to witness boldly, or go and do. When Jesus sends us out into the world, it plays into our all too human egos that idolize independence and control. “We’ve got this Jesus;” “We can do this Jesus;” “Leave it to us, Jesus.” There is work to be done, a race to be run. But it is not simply, or in any way shape or form, in our hands.
The reign of God, God’s grace in our lives is like sleepy, restful trust. It is not like the frenetic busyness of works righteousness, and it is not like anxious modern Pharisees quoting scripture at every turn to root out perceived heresy.
Being busy and dogmatic makes a lot of sense on the surface. It fits with our normal way of being human. We achieve all sorts of goods by working hard and committing ourselves to our values. We celebrate good grades, well-run offices, better schools, the politicians of our choice, neatly trimmed lawns and yards, well-mannered social graces, and so on.
All this is reasonable, and certainly nothing useful would happen if we did not work for such things, or if we were indifferent to the moral and political issues of our day. It is just that this way of operating, despite some so-called evangelicals now claim, is not like the reign of God. Our difficulty arises in confusing the way of God’s reign with our ordinary way of doing things. Jesus is calling us to a very different way of being with ourselves, with one another, and with God. Jesus is asking us to recognize that spiritual growth and intimacy with God arise as naturally as seeds growing.
That is to say, the harvest will come without us having to work for it, because God adores us and it is God’s love that is the power of growth. It is God’s love that transforms the tiniest and most impotent-looking seed into a lush bush that gives rest and shade to singing birds. And God’s loving grace transforms our tiny distorted awareness of God into a magnificent luminosity in which we see ourselves and all the creatures we meet can rest.
A sense of the nature of God’s grace came to me a few weeks ago as I sat at the train station waiting to board. I noticed a young couple with an infant. The baby was staring intently at other people, and as soon as he recognized a human face, no matter whose it was, no matter if it was young or old, pretty or ugly, bored or happy or worried-looking he would respond with absolute delight.
It was beautiful to see. The drab train station was enlivened by the pure joy of the infant. Playing hide and seek with my hands hiding and moving away from my face, elicited peals of laughter. It occurred to me, that beyond what we do, who we are, or what we believe, this is how God looks at us. God stares into our faces in order to be delighted, to see the creature God made and called good, along with the rest of creation. And, as Psalm 139 puts it, darkness is as nothing to God, who can look right through whatever evil we’ve done in our lives, whatever failure we’ve experienced, whatever control we try to exert, whatever despair we’ve encountered, to the creature made in God’s own image.
Perhaps only God and well-loved infants can see this way. For most of us, the prejudices, experiences, defeats and disappointments of life cloud such vision as we age. But it can offer us hope to think that when God gazes as an infant on us, God sees something good that God created,
Peter denied Jesus, and Saul persecuted the early Christians, but God could see the apostles they would become. God stuck with them as they doggedly ran their races. God loves to look at us with God’s grace, at every step and turn we take. Even when we try to turn and run, as Jonah, in the other direction. For as with Jonah, as with Peter hiding in an upper room, and as with Paul, God will find us, and bless us with God’s grace, even when we feel most alone, unsure we can survive the night.
In the end, the tortoise running its race, is the gardener who just keeps sowing, trusting the process of God’s grace. Perhaps too, looking at the charismatic hare whose overconfidence dooms its race, is looked upon by God with the same grace filled eyes that redeemed Peter and turned Paul to a new race.
God will find a way to let us know that God is with us in this place, wherever we are, however far we think we’ve run, however far we think we must still run. And that’s why we are here today to worship, to respond to grace. We praise God, not to celebrate our own faith, but to give thanks for the faith God has in us. To let ourselves look at God, and let God look back at us. To laugh and sing and be delighted because God has called us God’s own. And in God we trust.