PROPER 6, B
Today’s Gospel includes two parables about the Kingdom of God. Sometimes this is translated as the Reign of God, pointing to a time when God’s will, in fact, will be done here on earth. Jesus repeatedly tries to explain this idea to his followers because this is the ultimate aim of his presence with us.
In the first parable we have a sower who sows his seed, which does sprout and grow, he knows not how. Now one commentator said this was a dumb farmer, but I think Jesus meant it this way because the growing is ultimately a mystery, and that means that the growing is God’s work, not ours. We can nurture the plants, fertilize, water, maybe. We can watch and pray, but there’s nothing we can do to make the seed grow.
My Uncle and my cousin were both owners and managers of several farms in southern Iowa, and the thing they did the most of was worry – especially about the weather. All summer long they would fuss and stew about the weather, too much sun, to little rain, etc. It was the topic at every meal, but until the end of the growing season, there wasn’t much they could do about it but wait for the harvest.
So, by implication, the sowing of the word, the planting of the word is our job, but the growth of that planting is God’s worry. And if the crop should fail, we just plant again next season, like all good farmers.
The second parable is the familiar one of the mustard seed, which was the very smallest seed know to the people of Jesus’s time. However, from that seed could grow a large shrub, large enough for birds to nest in its shade.
The parable says this is the greatest of all shrubs. And in the tradition of the old Testament, a great tree that provides nesting for many birds is understood to be a symbol of a great empire, with the birds representing the many nations that are part of that empire.
One of those passages is what we heard this morning from Ezekiel. God speaks, and promises to take a small branch from the very top of a great cedar tree and plant it on the mountain height of Israel. “Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.”
This is Israel, as a light to the nations of the world, drawing other nations into it’s form of life and justice. And not just some nations, but every kind of nation.
Jesus uses this same sort of image, except that for the mighty cedar tree he substitutes the lowly mustard bush. Jesus is not really talking about empire here, but rather a gathering of the people into a place where peace and justice prevail. The bush is much more familiar to his audience than tall trees too. But the idea of it growing from something very small is the same. It is only God that makes such growth possible.
As we well know, people can help or hinder the growth of the kingdom, but ultimately the future of the kingdom is in God’s hands. What we have to remember is that God’s time is not our time.
When we plant something and check it every day, it’s very hard to see the growth. But if we check it once a week or every ten days, we can see the difference rather easily. I know that sometimes I feel like the Kingdom is no closer now than it was in Jesus’s day. But other times something will catch my attention and I’ll think, “Boy, we’ve come a long way!”
Sometime in the last few months I heard a report on TV that claimed that the amount of violence in the world was vastly reduced from what it was several centuries ago. One of the commentators on this Gospel tells this: “When Elizabeth Fry went to Newgate Prison in 1817 she found in the women’s quarters three hundred women and numberless children crammed into two small wards. They lived and cooked and ate and slept on the floor… She found there a boy of nine who was waiting to be hanged for poking a stick through a window and stealing paints valued at twopence.”
Every generation sees great hardships, wars, disasters, and people who are cruel, but our world today has eliminated slavery in this country and many others. We still go to war, but we don’t kill as many people (just look at the figures from the Civil War, for example or even the Crusades). While our prison system is still based on punishing rather than rehabilitating, there are people working hard for restorative justice.
I think it’s at least possible that the people of the earth are still evolving and may indeed be getting better. That’s not to deny that we have a long way to go, so our job as disciples is a very secure one for the time being. Whether we look at our world, our nation, our state, our community or our neighborhood, there is much to be done.
We must remember, though, that the outcome is not our responsibility. We are called to be God’s people right here where we are, and God can worry about the rest of it. Whether this church thrives or dies, whether this community thrives or dies, in the long run God’s harvest will come in.
Meanwhile, we can choose to be kind or rude, caring or not, servant or selfish. We can answer God’s call to us in Jesus or not. I suspect that for most of us it’s more like sometimes yes and sometimes not so much, but as God’s people in this place, we are trying to do what we can to grow the kingdom.
We do this every day — by how we act, by what we choose to do or not do, by how we vote, by how we talk, by how we pray. And we show who we are by the fact that we continue to live in hope: hope that things will get better in the long run; hope that people no longer will die of hunger; hope that everyone will have enough for a decent life; hope that all children of ability will have access to higher education, hope that kindness will overcome judgement, that inclusion will overcome exclusion.
And we still have the hope expressed in an old hymn:
“God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year,
God is working his purpose out, and the time is drawing near.
Nearer and nearer draws the time – the time that shall surely be,
When the earth shall be filled with the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.”