A hot mustard harvest

An unpreached sermon for Sunday 16 June 2024

Pentecost 4B

Mark 4:26-34

He also 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. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

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.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit

Leisa and I have spent most of our married life together in rural communities, in UK and Australia.  These communities are at the mercy of forces beyond their control. For arable or mixed farming, so weather and climate dependent, is the harvest going to be big enough? For beef and dairy, subject to economic and legislative vagaries, is deregulation and consolidation going to kill my farm of five generations? Do we have to sell the farm? 

Our churchy news feeds are constantly filled with articles about how the church can't survive the current decline in worship, why millennials are leaving the church, the rise of the "Nones" who have no religious affiliation at all, and the church's waning influence. Mixed with these are letters to the dying church. We're afraid the community church is going the way of the family farm, so we should better do something. It's not enough to scatter seed; we need to genetically alter the seed so it grows more easily in any kind of soil, so it produces more, so it is heartier and healthier and more resilient. We need a Gospel that will grow in today's world, so let's create a hybrid. We need a bit more prosperity to go with this Gospel to the poor, a bit more glitz and glam to graft onto this humble Gospel. Changing the seed isn't enough, though. We need to change the soil the seed grows in. Let's change the worship: more lights, more entertainment. The Gospel can't grow in thousand-year-old liturgies, after all! We need to till up the worship, break up the unploughed ground of these dusty old sanctuaries.

We're afraid we aren't doing enough or aren't doing it well enough. Doing more, though, is usually a sign that we don't trust what we're doing. We don't trust that the seed will grow. We don't trust the power of the Gospel to grow of itself. The reactionary response is to just throw up our hands and say, "Okay, God, if you want this Kingdom of yours to grow, then you better get to it."

But the parable doesn't release us from all responsibility. Jesus isn't advocating Field of Dreams evangelism. "Well, we put a sign at the road and we have worship, so if God wants this church and his Kingdom to grow then God will bring in the people." If you offer it, they won't necessarily come. Though I think many of us wish that were the case. Right?

On the other hand, the parable shatters any illusions we have that the fate of the Kingdom is in our hands. The Church isn't in a Young Adult Novel; we aren't the plucky, unlikely teen heroes who must rise to some impossible challenge to save the Kingdom of God on earth.

We are Kingdom workers, not Kingdom bringers or Kingdom savers. We plant the seeds and we prepare for the harvest, whenever it suddenly bursts from the earth.

But will it be big enough? It seems to get smaller every year. Fewer baptisms, fewer members, fewer pledges....Will it be big enough?

The Kingdom starts like the smallest seed, a mustard seed, so it's not looking great. How big could it get? Certainly not big enough to fill our sanctuary. Certainly not big enough to meet our budget. Certainly not big enough to put a dent in our city's poverty: moral and financial.

What's a small church, a small denomination, a small Gospel, going to do in a big world?

It grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs. That's what it does.

A shrub? Really? A shrub? The only people who desire a shrub are the Knights Who Say Ni. Just in case you say, look, this bloke is as out of touch as the rest of ‘em, here are shrubbery-desiring knights. Let’s get that out out of the way.

We want an orchard of trees, we want a field of flowers, we want a plantation of cash crops, not a shrub. Not even the greatest of all shrubs. Not even a mustard shrub, whose calorific by-product I so enjoy. We prefer Ezekiel's cedar, in Ezekiel 17: a big, strong tree that houses every kind of bird on the earth. Why can't we have a tree like that? Now that's big enough. We want Ezekiel's cedar. We want the tree, not the shrub We also want forbidden fruit, golden calves, our father's inheritance, and a Saviour who doesn't have to die, so maybe our judgment isn't as great as the greatest of all shrubs.

Ezekiel's cedar symbolises God's restoration of the Davidic Kingdom, an earthly kingdom mighty and proud. But earthly kingdoms rise and fall. And the bigger they are, the weaker they get. Every empire that grows, believing it can become big enough for the whole world, eventually topples like a felled tree. The mustard plant doesn’t rise so high that it may topple and fall. It remains lowly, like a King who enters a city humble and riding on a donkey, who comes not to be served but to serve, and who humbles himself to take the form of a servant. The Kingdom of God is great in its humility and lowness. It stoops to wash feet; it kneels by wounded strangers on the side of the road. It is lifted up, not on the shoulders of servants, but on a cross where all creation is reconciled to God.

This lowly shrub is big enough for birds of every kind to find a home: Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white, gay and straight, rich and poor, introvert and extrovert. Birds of every feather can flock together because this shrub, this Kingdom, this Gospel, this God, is big enough.

The Kingdom of God starts off small and grows of itself, independent of our tricks, trends, and tampering. It grows in ways we can’t see and can’t know, until it breaks forth from the ground and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, big enough for people to come from east and west and north and south, from left and right, from uptown and downtown, to sit at the Table together. If only all of our churches and hearts were so big.

Perhaps at times we think our preaching is in vain. Maybe we believe the soil or the seed has gone bad so the fields will soon be left fallow. We're afraid our efforts and our talents aren't big enough for the harvest we need. We're right: they aren't. The good news, though, is the harvest isn't dependent on our efforts. The seed grows without us, but the seed still needs to be sown. The mustard plant is an annual: it requires renewed sowing to populate the earth, but the promise of its potential life remains in the power of the seed, not the power of the sower. The harvest is coming, and it will not be of our own making or doing, but we get to bring it in.

On that day we will know just how those seeds we sowed grew in people's hearts, sprouted in communities, and bloomed across the world. We will marvel at all the ways the preaching and hearing of the Good News brought hope, peace, joy, and love. We will wonder when it happened, how it happened.

But then we'll remember that the Kingdom of God is like someone who goes out to sow seed and then sleeps and rises day after day, all while the seed sprouts and grows. He knows not how. And those tiny seeds, tiny like a mustard plant, grow to become the greatest of shrubs, big enough for all the birds of the air to build nests in its shade.

We will be amazed, but we won't be surprised.


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