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1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Psalm 20

2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17

Mark 4:26-34


There is a website which you may have heard of called “The Ship Of Fools”, subtitled “The magazine of Christian Unrest”. It is a mix of irreverence, genuine searching, amusing anecdotes and gossip, all loosely linked by being for those who are somewhere on their Christian journey. On one of the forums, named “Purgatory – our space for serious debate”, there was a query from somebody trying to form some kind of understanding about how Jesus could be wholly God and wholly man at the same time. I won’t go into the debate that this query sparked, but it made very interesting and thought provoking reading.

But it made me think about how often I forget about the humanity of Jesus, the fact that he was truly man, rooted in the poverty of a Palestinian village, making his own living, as the rabbis of the time had to do, and linking up with the people that he met. I very much enjoy the thought of Jesus, plonking himself on the ground in the shade of a tree, round about lunch time and sharing a hunk of bread and a flask of wine with his mates. He was human; he enjoyed the mundane kind of things that we enjoy today, he lived a human life, but that life was shot through with a close relationship with God his Father. And it was this that came out in his conversations, in his teaching, in the very way he lived his life.

He must have been a very personable man, in order to be able to make these connections with people, but I suspect too that he would soon begin to make you feel uncomfortable as you talked with him, as he challenged your long held beliefs and code of living. But what strikes me is that as he was challenging people, most of the time he did it with a smile on his lips, and with a gentle humour that people would respond to. He talked about things that people understood, he put things in a way that caused his listeners to say “Yes, that happened to me…”

One early church writer described Jesus as “working as a carpenter when among men, making ploughs and yokes, by which he taught the symbols of righteousness and an active life”. I can just see Jesus finishing off a yoke for somebody, looking up and seeing a little crowd had gathered, maybe just to watch a craftsman at work, maybe because they knew he told good stories, or handed out bread and fish. But when Jesus saw them maybe he lifted up the yoke, jokingly settling it on someone’s shoulders and saying, “Take my yoke upon you …for my yoke is easy and my burden is light”. And then every time they saw a yoke after that, his listeners would think again about what Jesus had said.

And almost all the parables that Jesus told were linked to every day life; events that happened and things that people came across frequently. Yes, I remember when one of the coins dropped off my headdress and I spent days looking for it. Yes, there was that time when I watched the birds come and eat the seed I’d just sown…

Jesus’ teaching was filled with workplace images and analogies that sparked memories in people’s minds, and which came back to them when the same thing happened to them. And in the two parables in today’s readings, Jesus uses every day similes to talk about the Kingdom of God; he uses things that his listeners would recognise to lead them into making links between this life, and the life of the Kingdom.

The first of the two parables speaks of a gardener, a farmer, who plants seeds…and then sleeps. Does nothing. I can imagine those listening to Jesus shaking their heads: everybody knows that you need to tend to your garden. You need to deadhead, or water, or mulch or whatever. You can’t just leave it to do its own thing.

But Jesus makes us reflect on the mystery of the nurturing, the developing, the growth of the seed: the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

This is what the Kingdom is like: we cannot know how it spreads, but we know that God’s work in the world, God’s love, God’s plan will come to fruition, if we only trust. That is what the gardener does in the parable: he (or she) plays his (or her) part by sowing the seed, but then gives up the growing to the fertile soil, the forces of nature.

The commentator, Debie Thomas, puts it like this:

According to Jesus’s parable, the kingdom of God is both fecund and hidden, both generous and mysterious. It works its fertile magic underground, deep beneath the surfaces we see and quantify. Yes, the soil eventually brings forth abundance, but the process of that bringing forth — all the nitty-gritty details we long to dissect and master — is hidden from our eyes. If anything, we live in the disconcerting time between the planting and the harvest. We look outside and see nothing but dark earth and fragile shoots. Vast expanses of hope, longing, love, and uncertainty. Deep desire and delicate potential.

We do not know, we cannot know, how our words, our actions will grow and spread. We can only act and speak as Kingdom people and believe that in the fertile soil the seeds that are planted will flourish. I have recently come across the expression “You don’t have to feed the 5,000; you only need to bring the bread and fish”. I think this sums up what I’m trying to say: we don’t know how God will use what we offer; we don’t need to know how God will use them. Instead, what we have to do is trust, like the gardener, that we have done our bit, and God will do God’s bit.

Saying it better than I, Rev. Dr. Luke Bouman writes: I want to understand, I want to know, I want to see. And yet my brain is just too small to take it all in. So for now, I will have to simply trust that, without my knowing or understanding, God’s kingdom is taking shape, God’s name is being hallowed, God’s will is being done, even as I pray every day. For now I will simply have to trust that what looks small and ineffective to me at the moment will become something greater than I could ever imagine. And in trusting I begin to participate in the very kingdom that is coming, and growing and becoming God’s love in the world.

What looks small and ineffective to me at the moment will become something greater than I could ever imagine.:This is the link between our two parables. We see the agrarian theme continuing with the parable of the mustard seed, in which Jesus speaks about how the Kingdom of God, although starting very small, will – in a way we can neither see nor imagine - become a force to be reckoned with. Through the mysteries of nature the seed germinates, and grows into a great tree, wherein the all the birds of the air can nest, and gather.

And those farmers amongst his listeners would be shaking their heads again – for who wants a gathering of birds, all waiting to peck up the seeds, or the fresh new shoots growing in the fields? If we encourage birds, our productivity will plummet, we won’t grow all the crops we need, we won’t be able to put next year’s plans into place. But no, Jesus says, the Kingdom isn’t about productivity, it is about inclusion. The garden of God doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to offer nourishment to everyone the world deems unworthy. It exists to shelter the unwanted. It exists to attract and to house the very people we’d rather shun.

How many times have we shooed the birds away because we're so busy policing our gardens? Whose needs, hungers, and hopes have we ignored because our eyes are locked on the ground of our own efforts, intentions, priorities, and strategic plans?

This parable reminds us that The Kingdom of God is open to all – not just those we like the look of, or who worship like us, or whose opinions match ours. And sometimes we may feel uncomfortable and challenged, opening our church, our hearts, our lives to these people who are not like us – but that is what we are called to do. As Kingdom people, we work in God’s garden, not our own, and this garden exists for all who need its shelter and its succour.

As I said earlier, the parables of Jesus might well have been meant to serve as reminders, helping people to connect this world with God’s world, to see the divine in the human. When his listeners saw the new seedlings sprouting, they would remember what Jesus had said, about trusting that God was working in the world, that his plans would come to fruition. When they saw the birds gathering in trees, eying up the crops, they might have smiled ruefully as they put up the scarecrow, and remembered that God calls us all to be welcoming and not to be so busy with our own plans that we neglect the work of the Kingdom.

The stories and parables that Jesus told connect back vividly to the lives of his listeners, to the world of agriculture, of fishing, of baking and of buying and selling. Perhaps today he would be telling stories of computing, of the Olympics, of high-speed travel. But these two parables speak to us as gardeners as much today as to his listeners two thousand years ago: we all see seeds growing, we all see trees spreading their branches and birds flying down to steal the seeds, and peck at the ground. And as we see them, we can recognise them as metaphors for God’s action and God’s Kingdom in the world.

The down-to-earthedness of Jesus’ teaching shows that it is possible to see God present and active in everyday things if you look at them with wonder and with open eyes. All of the stories he told of the kingdom ring as true to us today as they did to his audience two thousand odd years ago. What we need to do is to be open to hear his message. As Jesus said in one of his parables “He who has ears, let him hear”.

The kingdom of God is like…things we do not understand.

More than that, the kingdom of God is like things that are impossible.

Starting with ordinary, and moving to extraordinary with a breath, with a word.

Mustard seeds do not grow into trees. And yet.

Farmers do not scatter seed recklessly. And yet.

The kingdom of God is like…things we cannot control.

More than that, the kingdom of God is impossible to control.

Starting with ordinary, and moving to extraordinary with a word, a breath.

Day and night, things happen beneath the surface, hidden from our sight.

Night and day, we work and we watch for the moment it breaks through.

The kingdom of God is like…

a story that opens more every time, with room for all in its branches, feeding whoever will come.

Starting with ordinary and moving to extraordinary with a breath, with a word

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