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Turn Jungle to Garden: The Third Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, June 13, 2021:
Mark 4:26-34

How does God act in our world? Like, really. Do you have any thoughts on this? My personality is such that I’m usually pretty comfortable with ambiguity — shades of grey — so I often don’t move too deeply into some questions like this, or if I do, I’m fine leaving things somewhat broad and undefined; leaving room for ‘mystery.’

But we must admit that sometimes we, or those around us, have these questions. Especially when we’re confronted with our mortality, or with ethical questions. Some of us have been thinking about these sorts of questions over the last couple of weeks especially, because of tragedies and trials at both national and personal levels.

When we think about how God acts in our world and our lives there’s usually an accompanying question: “if God acts (or doesn’t) in our world, what does this tell us about this God?” In other words, who are we directing our prayers to? And what do world events and God’s intervention (or not) in them tell us about God’s character? Our scriptures — the stories that arose out of communities of faith and their sense of existing in relationship with God — have a lot of images of God; some prominent, others a little less so. God as a parent; creator; potter; eagle, hen; king; warrior; spirit; human being — or “THE Human One,” the Son of Man.

Someone who holds exclusively to an image of God as a warrior or king will probably end up acting in a certain way. Their faith, and actions, will take a certain shape. Their prayers to this God will be shaped and conveyed in a certain way. For some, God as a parent is a reassuring image. For others, it is painfully hard to imagine a loving parent in general…

My response to all this — again, coming from someone who errs on the side of ambiguity and mystery — is to hold our images lightly. Not disregarding them entirely, but instead asking ourselves if our images of God are helping to form us into more loving people; into more compassionate followers of Jesus.

The parables today grapple with that question: how does God act in our world? It uses certain faith terminology for this: the Kingdom of God. Sometimes these days we say “Reign” of God, or the way of God. The way that God is coming into the world and bringing things to a certain endpoint (a “harvest”). What the stories take for granted is that yes, God is active in our world. Maybe that in itself is worth dwelling on. Because the values of our age and the terrible events of history and of our contemporary existence might tempt us to think otherwise. But one of the messages here today is that God is apparently active in our world, working toward some purpose.

So how does God act in our world, we ask our parables? We don’t totally know. “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.” This reminds me of that medieval thinker Hildegard of Bingen; I mentioned her on Trinity Sunday. She wrote about God acting in our world as a lush, life-giving, greening power. God is somehow at work, maybe in a subtle, hidden way, turning seeds into much more than we would ever expect possible, holding them in the palm of our hand at the beginning of the growing season. And, looking to that second parable today, God’s will is for these plants to exist for more than themselves. They are to provide shade — relief, comfort, a home — for others.

These stories tell us something about God. Jesus came to our world and travelled around telling people about how God’s Reign was coming near. Jesus called people to be attentive to the coming of God’s Reign, just as the farmer (or amateur gardener) is attentive to the slow, natural growth occurring through the spring and summer. Sometimes as Christians we get the idea that we’re here to defend God’s honour; to save God from our godless world… Sometimes, and to our shame oftentimes in our Church history, we got the idea that it was our job to bring in the Kingdom. To take out our machetes and saws, and build it from the ground up, in God’s name. You see this tendency in colonialism. You sometimes see it, too, in revolution and in so-called progress. At the root of these movements we often find certain images of God. Or images of Christ. There’s the Christ who spoke of the narrow gate. The Christ who disturbed the Temple. But those aren’t our only images of Jesus, or of God. The task of being a Christian, I think, is not about holding one view or ideology or proposition, but about holding up (and holding together) our world, our lives, and our scriptures, history, and traditions, and holding it all up to be in light of the Cross that shaped the Christian community. And being open to the newness and transformation of Easter that followed Good Friday. This is a long, slow, process. It doesn’t make for exciting soundbites and rarely creates headlines. But it’s the Christian life. I think of the prayer that follows baptism, and many of you will know it: “Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.”

“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.” This story today, to me, says little about us as being the harvesters, and more about being people with discerning hearts, and experiencing joy and wonder as tiny seeds grow into lush plants. Not always terribly dramatic, but infinitely rewarding… Do you have the will and perseverance to gently tend and co-exist with God’s garden? Do you have the humility to know that even if you’ve been called into this, it’s not your ingenuity and brute force that causes the plants to grow?

There’s a tiny, tiny poem by Robert Lax; he was the best friend of the much more famous Thomas Merton, the monk and spiritual writer. The poem’s written in a vertical line, divided up by syllable. It summarizes at least some of what I think today’s parables are getting at:

turn
jun
gle

to
gar
den

with
out

des
troy
ing

a
sin
gle

flow
er.

Amen.