Inch by Inch, Row by Row

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
June 17, 2012 Mark 4:26-34

As the bulletin suggests, today is the last offering of the program year by our Chancel Choir. They have had a terrific year, and allow me on your behalf to express gratitude for their skill and commitment in sharing the gift of music to enhance our worship of God and our life together. In addition, we are grateful for the 14 year tenure of Kat Nagel as a section leader and soloist with the mighty alto section. Kat is retiring from that role as of this morning. Kat, thank you so much for sharing your gifts and commitments with the choir and all of us.

Secondly, apparently, Rod Frohman is retiring! Many of us enjoyed a wonderful gathering last evening. Again, thanks to those who organized it – it was terrific. You can buy Red Wings tickets for the last time today – the game is Monday June 25. And finally, to do things decently and in order, we will hold a congregational meeting next Sunday, following the single service at 10:00 a.m. at which we will act formally on Rod’s retirement, share some brief remarks and enjoy a reception where you can greet Rod and members of his family.

Finally, happy Father’s Day, with gratitude to and for fathers, grandfathers, father figures everywhere – particularly those we miss as we gather this day.


I have come to terms that I will not be several things in my lifetime. I will not be a major league shortstop. I will not be a U.S. Senator, though that one is less disappointing than the first. I will not be a high-wire walker, thought that one is not disappointing at all.

There are several things I will not be and never really endeavored to be. Some of you are gardeners, and avid ones. You produce beautiful things from the earth, or, rather, you work with the beautiful things of the earth to allow their extraordinary beauty to come forth.

I was recently reminded of a song, about gardening. I first heard it sung by Pete Seeger. Some of you may remember Pete Seeger. John Denver also sang it famously on the Muppet Show. Some of you may remember the Muppets. At any rate, the song was written by a gentleman named David Mallett.

“Inch by inch, row by row/Gonna make this garden grow/Gonna mulch it deep and low/Gonna make it fertile ground

Inch by inch, row by row/Please bless these seeds I sow/Please keep them safe below/'Till the rain comes tumbling down.”

Like any good song, and any good metaphor, this song is about gardens, and more. It is about life. And it is about the spirit, the human spirit and the Holy Spirit.

At the outset of summer, as school winds down and even the church is prepared for a slightly less engaged pace, as we think about time off and time away, I have been thinking about the human spirit quite a bit. What it needs to flourish and thrive. What gets in the way of those things happening? What we need in order to live the lives God intends us to live, to live fully in community, to live freed and forgiven.

Hear a little more of the Garden Song:

"Pullin' weeds and pickin' stones/We are made of dreams and bones/Need a place to call my own/'Cause the time is close at hand

Plant your rows straight and long/Season with a prayer and song/Mother Earth will make you strong/If you give her loving care"

"Inch by inch, row by row/Gonna make this garden grow/Gonna mulch it deep and low/Gonna make it fertile ground

Inch by inch, row by row/Please bless these seeds I sow/Please keep them safe below/'Till the rain comes tumbling down.”

So while I am not a gardener, it seems as if what gardens need and what the human spirit, the soul, needs, are quite similar. Think about this as we think about who we are, as we think about inReach. Building a connected community in order that we enhance our spiritual growth and development, nourished and nurtured in order that we might serve faithfully and joyfully in God’s world. Mulch, rain. Patience – inch by inch. A blessing from the creator, which is to acknowledge that we are not in this alone nor can we do it alone. Weeding and pruning and picking stones. Removing those things from our lives – habits, practices, behaviors, that get in the way of growth. And prayer. Prayer.

Several of us have been at a retreat over this past weekend, working with other Presbyterian churches in the city to discern what our individual and collective futures might be. One word that is a powerful takeaway from this time together is “disciples,” and “discipleship.” These are not words that roll off the Presbyterian tongue. But that is indeed what we are, and what we are called to be. Followers of Jesus who grow in faith as our relationship with Jesus and one another in community grows and develops.

Some of us believe that our learning and thinking about faith ended when we were confirmed at thirteen, or that the only prayer we need is the one offered on a Sunday morning, or that the Bible is for experts or fanatics. Not so, of course. The gifts of a Presbyterian way of doing things, whether we’ve embraced them or not, is that the Bible is a gift to be explored in community, regularly and repeatedly, and that prayer is a gift of the people and for the people and by the people. Eloquent words do not make prayer; the ability to read Greek or Hebrew does not make for Bible study. But I dare say that our spiritual lives, our spirits and souls, individually and then flowing into the larger community, cannot be nurtured to their fullest without such things. Inch by inch. Mulch and rain. Because we are made of dreams and bones. And we are made to be fertile ground.

If I am not a gardener, I am not a bird watcher either, nor an ornithologist – that’s the Jeopardy word for a bird scientist. But for about 2 weeks, we were a family of ornithologists. Unknown to us, a nest was built in a planter in our front entry way. Suddenly, we noticed three little mouths searching skyward for nourishment. At times when we looked out the window, the mother would be there, placing bits of food into the outstretched mouths. At other times, she would be hovering just a few feet away, watching things develop from a branch.

Day by day the baby birds grew, much faster than we knew to be the case. A week later we noticed two little mouths rather than three, and were sad for whatever happened. We wondered how the mother felt.

Then, some 10 days later, they stood up on their own. Soon they wandered out of the nest into the planter itself. And then soon enough, they were on a branch next to the nest. And soon enough, really no more than two weeks, they were gone.

That’s us too, I believe, our spirits, our souls. Not just our biological lives, when we need food and shelter before we spread our wings and fly away. But our spiritual lives. We are not hatched as fully-developed disciples, followers of Jesus. And the difference is that we need care and feeding throughout all our lives, even as we mature and develop. We need a nest – a sanctuary, a physical sanctuary, a place to come together to be nourished, but also a spiritual sanctuary that gives us protection and strength. And like those baby birds, even now, we cannot feed ourselves; we need food and nurture and care from others – in community – and from God. So that when we do spread our wings and fly away, we can do so confidently and joyfully, always knowing that we have a nest to return to.

Jesus’ followers were largely agrarian. They worked the land, or tended sheep, or built things that came from the land. So that when he talked to them, and told them stories, he used images that they could identify with. Perhaps we don’t – or at least all of us don’t – have the same agrarian connections. But we can get the point.

We get the point when he talks about seeds sprouting, naturally, without our full understanding. Growth happens, and then we are ripe and mature and ready to serve. We would understand that.

And we understand that a mustard seed is very small, almost insignificant. But it is tended to, watered and fed, sun and air and rain. And it grows so big. So big that a bird can nest in its shade.

Faith, the life of the spirit, cannot happen on its own, and it grows gradually, inch by inch, until it is full and strong and useful for serving God in the world. We can understand that, even if we are not farmers or gardeners. Tended to, we will bear fruit, not of our own making.

Charles Cousar writes that the “The figure of the farmer represents a wholesome reminder that the consummation of God’s reign is not dependent on our best efforts, whether in social ministries or pastoral care or evangelistic activity. We are freed from determining the harvest, of assuming that our successes or failures hasten or deter God’s plans. What a liberating thought! The fortunes of the kingdom do not rise or fall with programs that succeed or fail. The basis for optimism about the future rests in God, the giver of growth and the sole determiner of the time of harvest.” (Texts for Preaching, Year A, page 391)

I am not a farmer, either. Nor am I a painter or poet. Jan Richardson is a painter and a poet. She wrote a poem about this morning’s gospel lesson.

Blessing that Holds a Nest in Its Branches

The emptiness/that you have been holding/for such a long season now

that ache in your chest/that goes with you/night and day/in your sleeping,/your rising:

think of this/not as a mere hollow,/the void left from/the life that has leached out/of you.

Think of it like this:/as the space being prepared/for the seed./Think of it/as your earth that dreams/of the branches/the seed contains,/and of the nest/the branches will hold.

We are what we are. Bird watchers and lawyers. Farmers and baseball players. Teachers. Daughters and sons. Fathers and mothers. Partners. Gardeners and poets. But we are birds. And we are seeds as well—awaiting the nurture that allows for growth. Sometimes even we can be that growth for others. But more than that, we are disciples, followers of one who gathers us into a nest to shelter us, and then sends us out, that we may grow and thrive, and even provide shelter and nurture for others, and for a world in such great need. Inch by inch. That this garden may grow. Amen.

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