‘Ere we go, ere we go, ere we go!!’ No, not England’s performance against Tunisia in the football world cup, rather it’s another posting on my blog- yes, that is two in the last month… And another baptism too, which brings us up to double figures for the year so far, just before we reach St John the Baptist day, our patron saint’s day.
Here’s what I said last Sunday, responding to the passage in Mark 3 where Jesus tells the parables of the sower and the mustard seed… as always, available on the website here if you want to here exactly what was said, but here’s the text:
Have you ever tried to describe or explain something to someone, who has very little knowledge of what you’re talking about… the words, they know the words you’re using, but when you put them together… they just don’t fit…
How do you explain colours to a blind person? Or the sea to someone who’s lived their life in a desert?
‘Its like…’ and you find yourself reaching for something they will understand… explaining to a blind person that colours are what the eye perceives when light is reflected at different wavelengths may be true, but it’s not helpful… you need to find something that they can understand… but you also have to realise it will have its limits- Imagine the biggest oasis of water you’ve ever seen, but make it so big that you can’t see the other side or walk around it… but you’ve not touched on the tide, the waves, the smell or the feel of water…
Jesus, in the passage we just heard from the Gospel of Mark, has been trying to describe the kingdom of God… For us, today, we’re like the blind man or the desert dweller… we don’t really have a clue what this means. For Jesus’ first listeners it was possibly even more confusing, because they thought they did know… the kingdom of God was surely their country, because they were the chosen people and their kings had been the chosen leaders… they were the ones who God had saved from Egypt so many years before. God had given them the 10 commandments, had brought them through the sea and the wilderness… they knew the kingdom of God. Or they thought they did.
Jesus used simple picture stories- we call them parables, to nudge and knock at their ideas- to gradually challenge them. He used images they understood, that were all around them- plants growing in the field… but in a way that challenged their ideas- the kingdom of God is not quite what you think.
Things in life are often not quite what you think… take children for example… before you have your first, you’ve got an idea of what its like… and then folk take great delight in watching you discover that, it’s not quite what you think. And then you have another, a second delightful child… and guess what? They’re not a clone of the first… or they have some similarities, but not where you were expecting them… and then a third… and well, what if she’s a girl after two boys? Well, it won’t be quite what you think… the only way to find out what it is like, is to live through it, and in 20yrs time you’ll know.
The kingdom of God is not quite what you think. The Christian faith is not quite what you think. Baptism, God, the church and the Bible- not quite what you think… but you only really find out what they are like as you go along.
So what did Jesus mean when he said ‘The kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed’ and yet also ‘like a mustard seed’…
The kingdom of God grows… not when and how we wish it- we do not control it, but we do play a part… just like we don’t control everything when we’re trying to grow plants from seed, but we are important-
We- choose the soil, we prepare the soil, we plant the seed, we clear weeds, we water the seed
We don’t- make it sprout, control the weather, control the way this particular plant grows…
Which brings me to the mustard seed… If we use the picture of a seed about to sprout to describe something, in our mind we think of something small, that is going to grow and become huge… and we can easily fall into the trap of thinking like this when we hear these words of Jesus… but- If Jesus wanted to talk about the Kingdom of God as something huge and strong and tall… he’d have said it was like a cypress tree- they’re massive. But a mustard plant? It’s not small, but neither is it huge… sure, the seed is tiny, but frankly, if you’re trying to impress someone with size and strength, the mustard plant isn’t a great choice. And it’s not exactly a looker- a straggly bush type plant that you could just about call a tree if you felt generous. It’s a tough thing though, growing in hot and dry conditions. So what is going on? If we remember the passage, it says that the mustard plant provides shade and perches for the birds of the air… it’s a place of safety, protection and shelter, it’s tough and it can survive and grow in all kinds of places. That’s the kingdom of God.
It grows in each of us when we respond to the invitation to acknowledge the claim that God is the creator who loves every one of us. It grows in us when we make that step of turning away from the bad practices (or sins) of our own lives and turning towards Jesus as the model of how to live, as the guide, the door keeper and yes, the way to reach God. It grows in us as a community of people when we choose to practice love towards one another, to become more hospitable, to learn kindness to strangers, to feed the hungry and care for those in need.
At times we might wish for this to grow in us faster, or more easily… but our role isn’t to control how fast a plant grows, nor how quickly God’s kingdom grows in us… we encourage growth but we can’t make it happen. Sometimes we need to be patient, to wait; to have faith… sometimes things that look dead (our clematis) just need to need to wait for the right time (the Titan Arum or corpse flower at the Eden project).
In baptism of a child we plant a seed of faith… when we come to church and hear the words of the songs and the words from the front, seeds are being scattered among us…what happens next is in part up to us, and in part up to God… There is an invitation for us all- to grow, to find peace, to shelter… it is up to us, each one of us to make our own response.