Benediction Online

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The random and stubborn reign of God

Like many of you, I have a compost bin. It makes great compost over time but I don’t think it drains properly so it never gets hot enough to kill all the seeds and from time to time interesting and often unidentifiable plants start sprouting from it. I don’t usually wait to see what they are going to grow into before I pull them up but even though I don’t nurture them little avocado trees and tomato plants often spring up in unexpected places around my yard.

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is like the mustard seed.” Mustard is a very invasive plant. Once you have it, it’s very difficult to get rid of. Even in this drought there is plenty of wild mustard. In fact, in about 200 CE the Mishnah said that it should not be grown in the Jewish garden because it was so invasive. It forms a rather straggly small bush. So in using this particular seed for his parable, Jesus is talking about a plant which is very common but rather despised, difficult to get rid of once you have it and probably not to be planted in the garden of the correct Jew.

Let’s contrast this for a minute with the tree in the passage from Ezekiel. In the midst of talking about the empires of ancient times, Ezekiel describes God taking a little twig from the top of a cedar tree and planting it on a mountain in Israel. From this twig will come a noble cedar in whose branches birds will live. The prophet is of course referring to God’s promises to make Israel a mighty nation. Jesus’ listeners would be very familiar with this passage which had come into the mythology of contemporary Israel as an image for how things would be once the Roman occupation was ended. In the day when God put everything right, Israel would be like a mighty cedar.

So Jesus has turned around the image of the mighty cedar and said, that no the kingdom of God will not be like the cedar they are expecting but more like a straggly and rather annoying bush that grows prolifically and keeps reappearing however hard you try to get rid of it. He even goes as far to say that the birds will nest in the shade of the large branches of the mustard, just as Ezekiel said that birds would live in the shade of the cedar. This reversal would have been very funny to his listeners, but it’s probably one of those jokes where you just had to be there.

So the kingdom of God is not like a national or state political power. Jesus is completely undermining the idea of the reign of God being when Israel becomes a superpower in the world, and replacing it with this new image of the rather unexpected and random appearance of something quite different.
The first of the two parables underscores the sense of randomness or accident. It is as if, he says, a man scattered seed on the ground and then goes about his life and amazingly, a harvest comes. The word Mark uses for seed here is actually spore. I don’t know what the distinction might have been in the time that the gospel was written but for us it’s a microscopic thing that comes mainly from fungi or mold and grows in damp ground. It would be difficult for us to scatter spore unless we threw out some old mushrooms. Like the compost I make. I throw old vegetables and vegetable scraps in it and eventually it turns into good compost but with some unexpected spores or seeds in it. I remember when I was a child my father got a load of mushroom compost from a local mushroom farm. He was very excited about it and spread it all around the garden. It didn’t alas grow mushrooms but it did grow stinging nettles which are as invasive as mustard and cause an unpleasant stinging rash if you happen to brush against them. That was certainly a surprise crop!

Jesus’ image is that someone threw out something which then started to grow and he completely ignored it, going through the rhythm of his own days, getting up and lying down, while the spore or the seed grow in its own way and then suddenly he noticed that it was there ready to eat and so he harvested it. It’s almost as though he is saying, “The Reign of God is something that you sow inadvertently, it grows while you are busy going about your business and, in fact, the whole harvest is simply a big surprise and a gift.” 

Here this morning, we are celebrating seeds and harvests. In the baptism of Jace and Jaxxon we are celebrating the planting of seeds. We baptize children because we believe that God welcomes all of us into the Body of , and in the understanding that their parents and godparents will be bringing them up to understand the promises that they are making on their behalf today until they are ready to make those promises for themselves. They are at the very beginning of their lives in this world and their opportunities to love, serve and worship God in the community of his people.

We are also baptizing Jesper who is coming to baptism as an adult, as a result of the seeds that have been sown in his life. So for him this is both a new beginning – a seeding – as well as the harvest of all the experiences and the deepening understandings of Spirit that have brought him to this moment.
We are also celebrating the graduation of five people who have been working and studying together in the course Education for Ministry. This is a demanding course of study which lasts for four years, though some of those we celebrate today have been doing to for longer than that, as you take one year at a time. They have studied the Bible, spending a year on each Testament, the history of the church and theology. They have gone deeper into their faith in order to understand how their studies are more than just matters of the intellect but connect with their souls and with their lives in Christ.
So this is a harvest time for them. But within every harvest is the seed of the new beginning and so now they start once again in that ongoing cycle of the seasons, to find the new work that God has for them, the ministry to which they are called.

Calling to ministry often sounds very glamorous. It’s like that beautiful cedar tree. We want to make something of our lives, to be remembered for our great braches which gave shade to every winged creature. We want to stand tall and lovely on the top of the mountain. But Jesus says it’s not actually like that. Our calling, our ministry, is to be Christ in the everyday moments of life. We may have particular gifts which God will help us use in particular ways. But the reign of God pops up unexpectedly like a straggly and often unwanted mustard plant.

That is our calling, not to a glamorous high profile life but to spreading the love of Christ in every situation. The people you work with, the people you meet in the market, the people you hang with, your Facebook friends – these are the ones you are to love. This is your primary ministry. In a few moments we will be together renewing our baptismal vows with Jesper and with Jace and Jaxxon’s godparents.

These are not vows to be taken lightly but serious statements of our own commitment to ministry. Commitment to continue to resist the temptations of the satan – to envy and to blame; commitment to continue to build up the Body of Christ; commitment to compassionately serve Christ in all beings; and commitment to transform the world in which we live. It’s going to take us more than a few minutes to keep those vows – they’re the work of a lifetime lived in deep relationship with the God who makes both cedars and mustard plants.

But what else would we want to do? It was for this that we were made and it is in the service of God that we find ourselves fully fulfilled. So let us spread love and the reign of God as prolifically and as stubbornly as mustard.



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