We’re going to do a little bit of “myth-busting” this morning. And the “myth” we’re going to “bust” today is this: It all depends on you.
This is one of the great myths of modern society. It says that we are the masters of our own destiny. It says that, through the power of reason and technology, we can answer any question and solve any problem. If only we would put our mind to it, there is nothing we cannot do.
Like any good myth, there is some truth to this one: We humans, corporately and individually, certainly have a role to play in the unfolding plan of destiny. Reason and technology are wonderful things that give us insight into the way things are and how they might be made better. Hard work and determination have their place, and are necessary to apply the truths and solutions that reason supplies.
But, on the other hand, there are also limits to the power of human agency. Reason raises just as many questions as it answers. Technology causes just as many problems as it solves. The century that gave humanity antibiotics and the moon landing also gave us the atomic bomb and two World Wars. In spite of the message that motivational speakers would have us believe, there are indeed limits to what human beings can accomplish.
I think this great modern myth has taken its greatest toll on our psyches in the daily pressure we put on ourselves to produce, achieve, and accomplish. When we believe that everything depends on us, we often refuse to allow ourselves a moment’s peace or pleasure so long as some other situation stands unresolved. We drive ourselves to illness in the name of love, but that “love” is little more than “a chasing after the wind” in its power to make a real, lasting difference in the world. There is always one more unanswered question, one more unsolved problem, and one more need to be met at the end of the day.
The modern myth that everything depends on me is really nothing more than our way of stumbling back into the idea of “salvation by our works.” This was the heresy that St. Paul, Martin Luther, and John Calvin repeatedly railed against in their respective ministries. Whether the problem was the legalistic requirements of the Torah or the arcane rites of Medievalism, these reformers spoke out boldly against the notion that there is anything we can do to save ourselves (in either a temporal or eternal sense). Human beings cannot buy or earn their way into God’s good graces any more than a tiger change its stripes or a leopard can change its spots. Salvation is, quite simply, something we cannot do for ourselves… it emphatically does not depend on us. We are saved “by grace, through faith” alone, and not by any works we accomplish on our own behalf.
I believe that this is the great truth that Jesus is communicating to his followers in this morning’s gospel reading. He says, “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.”
It’s those last five words that really strike me. The farmer “does not know how” the seed grows. He plows, he fertilizes, he plants, he waters, but “it is God (alone) who gives the growth.” It does not depend on the farmer.
In both of the parables we read this morning, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a seed. A seed might look like just another stone on the outside, but on the inside it is alive and growing. Though it be small and fragile, it carries within itself the DNA of a forest. Jesus said, “[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
The kingdom of God is alive and growing in the world, but we tend to treat it like just another stone: small, round, and hard. When we come to church believing the myth that everything depends on us, we treat the Church like any other dead human institution. We think the only life in it is what we ourselves bring to it, but nothing could be further from the truth. The life and growth of the Church does not depend on us.
We are members of the Body of Christ with a role to play, according to our vocation, but the work of the kingdom does not depend on us in any way. God knows how to accomplish the divine purposes for world, whether we do our part or not. The only decision we humans have to make is whether or not we want to be a part of God’s plan for the world. God saves a place for us, if we want it. God would even prefer that we willingly choose to play a supportive role in the divine plan, but God can also do what God needs to do without us. The salvation of the world (and the Church) does not depend on us.
Jesus said, “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.”
There is a lot being said these days about church growth and survival. We live in anxious times when fewer people come to church and the church (as an institution) enjoys less cultural privilege than it did a century ago. Many churches face difficult decisions, such as selling their building or sharing a pastor with another congregation.
There is much wringing of hands and pointing of fingers in response to this crisis. People thing the church is becoming too liberal/conservative (or not liberal/conservative enough). They think worship is becoming too traditional/contemporary (or not traditional/contemporary enough). So, they start fights and threaten to split the church over these things. But the answer is “No.” They are all wrong.
The life and growth of the Church does not depend on us, our buildings, our pastors, our denominations, our theology, or our worship. God is able to grow the kingdom from a seed to a forest, with or without us. We have no idea how this growth happens; it’s a mystery.
We get to participate in this mystery of God’s kingdom by virtue of God’s free grace alone. We are here because we are loved… and the only proper response to that is to love one another as deeply and richly as we can.
I think the members of North Presbyterian Church have understood that for the last 151 years. We owe our beginnings, not to “the best-laid plans of mice and men,” but to the grace of God working in the life of Eliza Valentine and her friends: an informal group of teenage girls who wandered into the woods north of Kalamazoo on the second Sunday of June in 1864, armed only with hymnals stolen from the Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church, a hickory club to fend off wandering cows, and a hunch that God loves the children of this city and calls us to share that good news with them.
North Church has continued to operate in that same spirit for the past century and a half. We have accomplished many other good works in that time, but we are here today (and I think Eliza would agree with me on this, if we could hear her voice this morning), not because of the good works of Eliza Valentine, or Don Matthews, Bob Rasmussen, Fred Cunningham, Linda MacDonald, Barrett Lee, or you, but because of the free grace of God that has continued to live and grow in our midst, though we know not how.
This is the truth that has sustained North Presbyterian Church for 151 years and will continue to sustain us for eternity. We are here by God’s free grace alone and we live by God’s free grace alone. It does not depend on us or anything we do. It depends on God, who has invited us to be a part of God’s work in the world… and that is good news.