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. (Read the whole passage)
Today, we delve again into Mark’s gospel. Last week, we started this long season of green, by hearing how Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. But we also heard that God’s house is the divided house, the one with room for differences and diversity, the one broken open for the sake of the world.
Today, we hear parables. Parable of the Kingdom. And while this teaching may be familiar for us, it wasn’t for those that Jesus was teaching and preaching to. As Jesus tells parables of the Kingdom, lessons that often begin, “The Kingdom of God is like…” we hear them with 2000 years of Christian tradition that has made us ready to hear them. But to the people of 1st century Israel, their understanding of the Kingdom of God was very different than ours. Before unpacking what Jesus said, it is important to know what the people would have expected.
The Kingdom of God for the people of ancient Israel had a very specific form. As we are reminded each Advent, the Israelites were waiting for the Messiah, the Saviour King who would free them from foreign oppressors like the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. And this Messiah King would establish an earthly Kingdom with divine approval. A powerful kingdom with powerful armies – maybe even powerful enough to do some oppressing itself. A wealthy kingdom with abundance – maybe with enough abundance that other nations would come begging to it. This Kingdom would keep Israel from ever being ruled over by foreigners ever again. This Kingdom would find favour with God, and would therefore be a holy and righteous Kingdom. This Kingdom would be centred in Jerusalem, with the temple, God’s dwelling place as its symbol of power. The Kingdom of God was long hoped for but also had to live up to very specific criteria.
Then Jesus showed up. And he started telling parables about the Kingdom of God being like unknown seeds scattered in a field, with the sower having no clue how it would grow. Jesus told parables of how the Kingdom of God was like the humble mustard seed, the smallest of seeds that would grow into the most unruly of bushes / garden weeds.
These parables would not have described a Kingdom like the crowds would have expected. This is not the Kingdom of God they were looking for.
Even though we have heard all the Kingdom parables, we too can have a pretty narrow definition of what the Kingdom of God should look like. We too often want a Kingdom of power, security and predictability. We expect that God will fit into our narrow vision of what Kingdom will look like.
Now, it would be easy to describe the often narrow expectations that churches and ministries so often operated under, expectations of increasing attendance and finances… but I suspect we “get” that by now.
So perhaps it is more interesting to consider the effects of our narrow view of the Kingdom of God.
So let me ask a question. A question that the Bishop of the Diocese of Rupertsland asked Lutheran and Anglican clergy this week. And it is for the gardners among us, in particular.
Does anyone know of a seed that looks like the plant it produces?
I can’t think of any.
You might never guess what plant a seed turns into until you plant it. In fact, many seeds also look similar to each other and it can be hard to tell them apart without labels. Planting seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And churches, like all human beings, don’t like facing the unknown.
Churches often prefer to know that the things they do, the ministries, outreaches, projects or programs that they start will be predictable, identifiable, manageable.
And to stay with the garden image, this is more like greenhouse gardening. In the controlled environment of a greenhouse, small seedlings are grown, produced and sold. Seedlings are smaller versions of the plants they will become. And churches often like the things we invest ourselves into to look a little more like greenhouse gardening than scattering seeds in fields. We like to grow small known seedlings into larger yet similar plants.
In fact, churches are a lot like greenhouses. They are safe, stable environments. They are good at producing life. They are good growing plants that wouldn’t grow out in fields. They are good are growing with intention and purpose. They are places where life is nurtured. They are places with an an abundance of water – communities born in the waters of baptism. They are places with an abundance of fertilizer or food – bread and wine to be precise. Churches and greenhouses produce predictable, purposeful, rich life.
But Greenhouses are not the only place where plants grow. In fact, Greenhouses prepare plants for life on the outside. And churches prepare the people within them for life on the outside. To grow out in the world.
But even still, greenhouses are not the only place where life grows. In fact, most life grows out in the fields.
And like any good greenhouse, churches are in the seed scattering business too.
But scattering seeds is not predictable, or safe. Scattering seeds is not easily managed. Scattering seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And sometimes we end up planting mustard seeds in the middle of the field. A mustard seed which grows into a wild, weed-like over-powering bush.
And yet, this is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like. A sower who scatters seeds, but who isn’t sure just what will grow or how it turns from seed into living plant.
And yet again, this is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like. A small unassuming mustard seed, planted in a garden and treating to take over.
As people of faith, as workers and tenders of God’s garden, we declare that the Kingdom of God is near to us. That it is here. But sometimes we imagine that it is only here. That the Kingdom is contained only within the church. Within these four walls. Within communities who clearly and purposely identify themselves as Christian. We imagine that we allow the Kingdom into our world when we read our bibles, or pray, or attend church or gather as community.
We forget that the Kingdom of God is not contained within us. The Kingdom of God is not grown just in the Greenhouse.
Rather the Greenhouse, the church is contained in the Kingdom. We are just one place where God is growing, one place where seeds have been scattered.
The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.
To people that have a very narrow view of what the Kingdom of God looks like. To the Israelites of the 1st century, and to Christians of the 21st century who often have equally narrow views. Jesus reminds us that Kingdom of God is so much more than what we know.
Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is spread with seed that is scattered all over.
Jesus tells of how the Kingdom is sprouting in un-expected places.
Jesus tell of how the Kingdom of God is growing into life that we would have never predicted from the seed.
Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is teeming with life where we would have only imagined barrenness.
God is scattering seeds of the Kingdom all over. God is growing plants that we would have never have guessed from the seeds. And God’s Kingdom is showing up, taking over, filling the fields with life.
But perhaps most importantly, even as we garden in the greenhouse, even as we continue on as the church, God is growing the Kingdom here too. Not growing a narrow Kingdom within us, but growing us in the wild, broad, surprising and life-filled Kingdom.