Good morning! This morning we heard in our Gospel reading about the Kingdom of God and two of the many different comparisons that Jesus uses to describe it. Like a lot of them; its agricultural in nature which I have to admit, first and foremost would not be my chosen subject on mastermind.
In our reading Jesus has been surrounded by a huge crowd on the banks of Lake Galilee. He’s just taught the crowd the parable of the sower and the good soil, he’s about to explain it to the disciples, and later on they will all go out on the water and he he will calm the storm. In between these more ‘Hollywood’ moments of Mark’s Gospel we get a small reference to seeds. In the first parable Jesus’ describes the Kingdom of God as like the growth of a seed planted by a farmer. The seed is planted, it figures out what it needs to do and grows, much like seeds do. My GCSE Biology taught me enough about genetics and germination to have a reasonable idea of what is going on but to a 1st century farmer it probably did have a certain mystery to it. They knew the seed would grow in the right conditions but not how. This parable only appears in the Gospel of Mark, and maybe it was omitted from the others because at first glance it isn’t actually very interesting.
Man plants seed. Seed grows.
It’s a shame to look at this passage in that way, I think. I think a single seed is a pretty remarkable item in a tonne of respects isn’t it? A seed contains all the instructions in its genetics to grow into a full plant or tree. Apart from a good supply of water and light, these tiny little bits of organic matter are fully capable of growing and reproducing too. I’ve recently become a dad and my little boy, Jimmy, certainly needs a little more than light and water to grow into a fully grown adult. He requires and will continue to require lots and lots of instruction but a humble seed can just get on with it. What’s more is that the seed contains a history of its entire lineage, its plant family tree, in its DNA. In that respect it’s almost sort of timeless.
There is something so inevitable about the growth of a seed too isn’t there. It’s actually remarkably inevitable, although not always in my experience as an incompetent horticulturalist. If it’s a picture of the kingdom of God, it’s a picture of an irresistible process of growth and multiplication, simultaneously bringing about the future and in full possession of the past. In verse 28 it says “The ground produces of itself” which is a translation of the greek for 'to automate'. In this picture the Kingdom of God is a process of automatic growth. Even though, as the seed is underground, it isn’t visible to those going through the motions of their day to day lives. We live in a world in which the Kingdom of God continues to grow, whether we see or not. There are times when we can see it clearer than others. Like that great quote often attributed to Martin Luther King Jr. although it’s much much older than him, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
It’s a bit of a mad comparison to make if you think about the context of the Roman occupied province of Judah in Jesus’ time and then later in Mark’s time, when he thought it worthwhile to include this parable in his writings. Both lived in a world of foreign occupation and oppression. Further still, in Mark’s time it’s all got a bit apocalyptic, the Christ following communities of his day were expecting for the end times at any moment. I feel like I talk about this a lot but so much hinges around the coming destruction of the temple in 70AD. Mark wrote his Gospel only a couple of decades before the destruction of the temple and hefty portions of Jerusalem with it. Things were probably pretty chaotic and tense at the time. It seems an oddly unhelpful message that "it’ll all work out in the end". I’ve never really found that sentiment super helpful in the midst of tragedy or hardship to be honest. I’m sure people wanted to hear that bad things wouldn’t happen, not that they’d be temporary. But I wonder if the next parable was designed to help.
To anyone hearing verse 31 first hand, I suspect they would have laughed out loud. You might even describe it as the equivalent of 1st century clickbait. If you were to describe a mighty supernatural kingdom and you were going to use imagery from your regions nature, would you use the smallest seed you could think of? The Bible is full of references to the mighty Cedars of Lebanon, the country of Lebanon today still has a cedar tree on it’s flag. That would be any normal person’s choice for a plant-based symbol of a powerful and mighty kingdom, surely? So the mustard seed is an odd choice. Secondly, mustard plants in the Middle East at that time (maybe today too) were a nuisance, a weed. An invasive and aggressively growing weed at that. The concept that anyone would ever sow mustard seeds is absurd. Where we live in Wavertree there is a pretty significant buddleia problem. Lots of house have the plants growing out of their walls and gardens. Some are huge, and left to their own devices there will be no stopping them. I wonder if someone hearing this story then would react how I would react now to the idea that someone might be actively planting buddleia in the Wavertree Dales?
So I suppose Jesus starts this parable in this way to get the crowd’s attention, or in modern day terms, they’d clicked ’15 things you won’t believe have been found in Tory MPs' garden ponds’ or something like that.
The mustard plant would pop up everywhere and left unattended would take over whole fields and was capable of growing several metres tall. For me this imagery feeds into the earlier parable, an image of the Kingdom of God ready to take over. Even when there may be people out there judiciously spraying weed killer around or ripping up new shoots, the Kingdom of God is spreading and it’s growing. We know from other scriptures that the Kingdom of God works all things for good, for justice, for compassion, for love. So what is this ever growing, ever spreading weed doing?
In the scripture Jesus describes the mustard plant growing and giving cover, shade and hiding places to the birds of the field. The plant can protect them from the hot sun and predators. The Kingdom of God is the same, as it’s influence on Earth or in individuals grows it will offer shelter, comfort and relief to those who have found themselves left out in the heat of the day and vulnerable to attack.
The first time Katie and I came to Christ Church was the first time in the tent at the back. Everyone was sat round tables and I remember Sue giving a talk about the medicinal and health benefits of plants most of us consider to be weeds. I don’t remember if one of them was a mustard plant but I believe there is evidence of mustard being used as a treatment for psoriasis, dermatitis, and a whole range of ailments. Maybe this mustard plant, that is somehow like the Kingdom of God, that most people at the time would have considered a weed is spreading and growing to offer healing and restoration to those in need?
What else do fast growing, aggressive weeds do? They can spread into walls and foundations of poorly maintained buildings and cause real damage can’t they? I saw some warning signs up when I was out walking about the discovery of Japanese Knotweed which is famous for this. I believe that the Kingdom of God is growing, but not just into empty spaces. It’s growing and forcing its way into human structures that have been poorly maintained or are rotten and undermining them from their foundations.
So where does that leave us. The individuals who sowed these seeds don’t seem to really be involved very much do they? Is that a call for us to simply sit and wait? Well I would suggest that this parable fails to give credit to the sowers. Even if the sowers played no role in the growth of the seed, we all know that there are lots of things they could have done to help. In the parable of the sower which precedes this one in Mark, Jesus talks about casting seed on the good soil. Perhaps the first role of those hoping to help sow the Kingdom of God, is looking for great places to do it? Looking for those people or places that would benefit from a small seed of God’s Kingdom. Then attempting to keep the seed watered and protected even when it can’t be seen and we can’t be sure anything is happening.
We could all think about practical ways to promote the growth of the Kingdom of God there are many. For me this morning to finish, I’d like to focus on prayer. To me, prayer can be the sowing of Kingdom seeds as much as it can be the tending to them. Prayer brings us in line with God’s will. When we pray we align ourselves with the way God thinks/feels/acts. I don’t think you can pray God’s blessing on someone, or pray for their healing, or pray peace or love in their lives if you don’t feel His love for them. You may not like them, and it may be difficult (Jesus tells us to pray for our enemies doesn’t he, he doesn’t say we need to be best pals first), but to pray for others is to see a glimpse of how God sees them.
The bible has some references to God as a farmer or agrarian such as Genesis or John 15. Having both planted the garden of Eden or in John 15 as responsible for a vineyard. So if God is the ultimate farmer, the more we pray for his ways and his values to be shared on earth, the more we act like him in the way we can nurture his Kingdom. Truth be told whether the Kingdom of God needs our help to grow or not, is a theological debate I have little interest in and the way I see it, there doesn’t seem any good reason not to try. Maybe God sees us as toddlers messing about with the hosepipe as he get’s on with the difficult jobs in the garden? I leave that debate up to your but in my mind, as members of his church, of his family; sowing and tending to God’s Kingdom is our privilege. I don’t think it’s a case of that we have to but that we get to. I spoke earlier about the quote that the moral arc of the universe, of God’s universe bending towards justice. I think it might be worth trying to bend it a little further to make the journey a little quicker.
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