Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15; Mark 4:26-34
Willie and his wife moved into a new house and to put it mildly, the garden was a terrible mess of weeds and brambles and such like, ‘cos the house hadn’t been lived in for maybe eight years, you know; there was thistles five foot high! So Willie got a book on gardening and quickly found that he had a talent for it and he created a garden that everyone for miles around wandered past, just to look over the neat hedges at the beautifully tended flower beds, lawn and shrubbery. Anyway one day the new rector came wandering past and sticks ‘his head over the hedge “Arr Willie,” he says, “Its wonderful what God can do in a garden, with a little help, isn’t it?” And Willie replies “Arr, but you should’ve seen it when ‘e did it all by hisself.“
Our Gospel today contains two parables, both of which say something about gardening. In the first, the gardener sprinkles seed on the ground and then without any further need for effort leaves the rest up to God until it’s time to harvest the crop. God takes care of the germination, does the watering and supplies the necessary heat so that the leaves develop, the stems grow and the seed heads form, swell and ripen.
Anna’s response to this would be similar to that of Willie in the story with which I started – “you just try scattering the seed and doing nothing and see what happens!”
In the second one, the smallest of seeds – mustard but not the plant that you used to grow along with cress on wet blotting paper in school, but black mustard which is a large annual plant which grows up to 9 feet tall. So the tiny dust-like seed grows up into very large plants that birds can nest in the shade of. Jesus frequently uses parables that concern the ordinary things of the daily lives of those to whom he’s speaking and these two are no exception. But parables aren’t simply illustrations, they contain important messages, hidden – if you like – within them.
Several times in the gospels, we hear that Jesus spoke in parables so that many of his hearers (such as the Scribes and the Pharisees) wouldn’t understand exactly what he was talking about . Which is possibly just as well since it was quite often about them and usually not too complimentary.
At the end of today’s passage we hear:
“With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”
So Jesus explained what his real message was to just his followers and so I suppose that’s what I should be doing now.
Last week we were away visiting our seven-month-old grand daughter Alanna and of course her parents, but then it was Alanna that was the star attraction because we’ve seen Andrew and Tracey before. She is growing fast and is starting to out-grow some of her clothes.
So last Sunday, I found myself at the nine-o’clock service in a very traditional-looking parish church. Inside it was anything but. There was no altar, no font and the sanctuary was filled with keyboards, microphone stands and a drum kit. As I sat there wondering what might happen, and praying that it wouldn’t be too noisy, I was reminded of a passage from one of Annie Dillard’s books:
“I have overcome a fiercely anti-Catholic upbringing in order to attend Mass simply and solely to escape Protestant guitars. Why am I here? Who gave these nice Catholics guitars? Why are they not mumbling in Latin and performing superstitious rituals? What is the Pope thinking of?”
Anyway, to some extent my prayers were answered, all this stuff was for the 10:30am family friendly service.
In Churches, one often finds that there’s a considerable industry trying to makes things happen and in particular to find suitable magic to make the congregation grow in number. The Church is often obsessed by numbers in the pews, but that’s not what we are about. As Martyn Percy wrote when he was Principle of the Oxford theological college – Ripon College, Cuddesdon:
“The beguiling attraction of the very first Christian heresies and heterodoxies lay in their simplicity. They presented the most attractive solution to any immediate and apparently unsolvable problems. For us as a Church today, the presenting problem appears to be declining numbers in our congregations. Ergo, an urgent emphasis on numerical church growth must be the answer. Right, surely? But wrong, actually. The first priority of the Church is to follow Jesus Christ. This may be a costly calling, involving self-denial, depletion, and death. Following Jesus may not lead us to any numerical growth. We are to love the Lord with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and our neighbours as ourselves. There is no greater commandment. So the numerical growth of the Church cannot be a greater priority than the foundational mandate set before us by Jesus.”
The spiritual growth that happens in people’s lives is (like the growth of the seeds in the first parable) entirely the work of God through the Holy Spirit. Our responsibility is to plant some seeds by the things that we do and when the work of the Holy Spirit brings forth a harvest, to notice and to gather it in.
And just in case you were thinking that perhaps you were ‘mature enough’ to leave all the harvesting to ‘younger folk’ take another look at psalm 92:
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon. They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God. In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.”
Parables of sowers and seeds may seem a little quaint, but many artists have been captivated by the growth of seeds and plants. Van Gogh had a special interest in sowers throughout his artistic career. All in all, he made more than 30 drawings and paintings on this theme.
He painted “The Sower” in the autumn of 1888. This picture is mysterious, but somehow also luminous. In it, Van Gogh uses colours that are usually meant to express emotion and passion. His sky is greenish-yellow and the field a shade of purple. The bright yellow sun above the sower’s head looks like a halo, turning the sower into a saint. It’s a painting of a quite ordinary scene, but at the same time there’s something really mysterious about it.
There is something mysterious about growth isn’t there. Do you remember at school putting a broad bean seed in a jam jar wedged in by a roll of blotting paper and after watering it and putting it in a dark cupboard, taking it out from time to time to see it produce a long feathery root and a shoot – magic?
The mysterious nature of seed growth is part of what these parables of the Kingdom of God are about. Like the Kingdom, a seed once planted is a mystery slowly being revealed. It unfolds by its own operation in the soil. Its planter may sleep and rise, but the seed’s work goes on whatever Willie or Anna do, much as our grass did whilst we were away.