Sermon for Third Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, June 14 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
1 Sam15:34-16:13; Ps 20; 2 Cor 5:6-17; Mk 4:26-34
We have tamed the strange parables and sayings of Jesus, over time; somehow, we have managed to turn them into pieces of good life advice, or helpful exhortations about building up the church as institution. They are, in fact, neither of these things; they are invariably, if you look at them without the overlay of later readings, very strange little stories about people behaving in very strange, often comical, and quite unsustainable ways. Our first reading today is a narrative reversal, yes, but it is a containable, controllable, even predictable reversal – the youngest son always wins in fairy tales, and anyway we are assured that David wasn’t some kind of loser; he may have been the youngest, but he was apparently super-handsome, so, you know, obviously a natural monarch. But the parables of Jesus, although occasionally containing some of the more typical narrative reversals, tend to wander into a whole other territory, where nothing happens as you expect, or as any kind of good sense might seem to dictate.
Today’s vignettes are no exception. First we have the small story of a man who barely qualifies as a gardener at all, and whose agricultural method consists of throwing some seeds at some land, and then going to sleep. That is, if it is even intended to be an agricultural method in the first place; it’s not entirely clear from the Greek, but there’s some suggestion that he’s not even so much deliberately planting a garden, as just throwing away something which happens to contain seeds. Either way, he contributes very little to the eventual outcome, and seems a bit surprised by the whole thing, though he is willing enough to enjoy it.
I like to think that I am a slightly more engaged gardener than our protagonist here; but at the same time, there is something uncontrollable about plants, and sometimes it is best to leave them to it. In our own garden this year, we have large patches of cilantro and dill which self-seeded and spread, which are not where I might have chosen for them to be; there are self-seeding tomatoes, possibly spontaneously hybridizing; there are unplanned little clumps of lettuce sprouting along the north wall. The natural world fights free of our intentions for it. We can reassert our control, up to a point; and for our own purposes, we may often need to do so. But we are also, sometimes, the undeserving recipients of the green world’s grace, the plants which simply grow.
Then we get Jesus describing a small, invasive weed – for that is what mustard was, and in fact not only that but a small invasive weed which was ritually unclean – as a great tree in which birds build their nests. Imagine him describing the birds nesting in, say, gigantic dandelion patches, and you’ll have some idea of just how peculiar this image actually is. It is surreal, surely deliberately surreal, at least as comical as the haphazard seed-thrower and his random harvest.
So how is all this, or really any of this, like the kingdom of God? Well, first of all, our understanding of passages like these is significantly hindered by the long-standing habit of identifying the kingdom with the church, and trying to read any agricultural metaphors as images of church growth. And this really doesn’t work at all. What these stories are telling us is something very different – that the kingdom grows in this world beyond our knowledge and control, that it is invasive and often unwanted, always unpredictable, an unexpected gift sometimes, sometimes hilariously surreal. The kingdom is feral. It fights free of all our plans. Fruit springs up from garbage, and birds roost in the dandelion forest.
The kingdom, that community which turns all our socially-conditioned values upside down, where the humble and meek are lifted up and the mighty cast down, grows from small acts of love and healing and resistance. It grows among guerrilla gardeners and pipelines protesters, grows from small exchanges of respect and compassion between those who have been rejected and despised, grows from an overheard phrase or a line of music which begins to turn our minds around and ends who knows where. In homes, or in homeless shelters, or on the street, at a poetry reading, in an allotment garden in High Park, in the hills of a territory under seige by powerful occupiers, wherever we are starting to change. And yes, sometimes even in a church; because when we, as church, manage to be our best selves, we can be that community of change, one of the patches of ground where the kingdom may root itself.
Or sometimes we may be that eccentric accidental gardener, tossing our images, our narratives, our story of a vulnerable God who suffered and died for the love of all creation, out into the world, and letting them grow there if they will. We seem afraid, sometimes, to do this, as if our stories must be guarded within the purity of church space only, as if the world will somehow damage them by using them – as if our core story itself did not tell us that there nowhere God does not gladly go, that nothing is unclean, nothing too strange or foreign for God to touch, that nothing power can do will ever overcome love. That despite all the evidence to the contrary, this sad old order has already passed away, and somehow, in a way we will someday know, the world has already been made new.
I remember once hearing our national Aboriginal bishop, Mark MacDonald, respond to a question with a story – and I honestly can’t quite remember if it was a question about people who don’t identify as Christian using Christian narratives and images, or if it was about the syncretism we see being created between traditional Indigenous practices and Christianity – and it doesn’t really matter, because anxious well-meaning Christians ask both questions, worry about border control, and the story Bishop Mark told as an answer works either way. It was about how he was visiting a cultivated cranberry bog, down in Massachusetts, and he spent a long time listening to the grower talk about how carefully the cranberries had to be cared for, the fragility of their growth, their vulnerability to disease, the constant work involved in tending to them. Then they got into the man’s truck and headed out through an overgrown road, and Bishop Mark saw something growing off in the wild swampland, and said to his companion, “So, what’s that plant there? Because, you know, it looks …”
“Yeah,” said his companion, probably a bit unwillingly. “Yeah, that’s wild cranberry.”
“But you were just telling me how delicate it is, and how hard it is to grow, and there it is, just all over the woods there.”
“I know,” sighed the man. “See, once the buggers jump the bog, you can’t kill ‘em.”
The church these days is strangely uncomfortable to see our faith jumping the bog, to see our visions and our values and our stories growing in the wild and uncomfortable places. But we are well-advised to bear in mind those wild cranberries and their resilience, the cleverness of feral cats, the persistence of mustard and mint and dill in waste ground. Because this is our story, because this is most precisely where we should expect our troubling, boundary-violating God to be found.
There’s a place for the tended garden. It is a practical and necessary thing, in this world, as we will acknowledge when we bless our own community garden at the end of this service. A well-kept garden – or even a half-decently kept garden — can feed us and others, can sustain us, enable us to go on doing the work that must be done. And there’s a place for the church, for exactly the same reasons. But we must never mistake a garden, however good and lovely, for the fully redeemed creation; and we must never mistake the church for the kingdom. The kingdom jumps the bog, jumps it over and over, and calls us into the wilderness, along with all the other children, to grow and to be made new.