I very much enjoy driving around in the countryside this time of year. Most of the farmers have gotten their crops planted and the plants are beginning to sprout. Two months ago everything looked like that familiar brownish, greyish, post snowmelt wasteland that Winter leaves behind. Then, the ground got dry enough for the farmers began to plough and till and suddenly the vast expanse of dingy fields became rich, brown soil ready for planting. All the while the winter wheat began sprouting and adding green hope and anticipation to the countryside. A few of weeks ago an opportune warm-spell got the farmers busy planting and now corn is sprouting up all over the place. Heads are on the winter wheat and its soon to go golden. Some brave folks are even beginning to make hay. It’s beautiful. We just need some rain.
It’s such a mystery, such a wonderful mystery, how crops grow. Modern farming can turn the countryside into a broad tapestry of art. In the sprouting you can see the brush strokes of the farmer’s planting. Today’s big machinery makes short work of preparing the land, planting, fertilizing, and harvesting. Technology and science have aided farmers in increasing the yield of the land and added a few years to their lives, I’m sure. I can’t imagine just how back-breaking the work must have been a century or so ago.
Back in Jesus’ day, farming had to be brutally hard. If you had an ox or a good mule that could pull a plough, you were blessed otherwise you pulled the plough yourself. The plots of land were much smaller and usually owned by some “land-owner” who seemed to believe that keeping the tenant farmers hungry and in debt was the best way to produce a high yield. So often, sowing seed was the very wasteful practice of just throwing it on an unprepared field and watching and waiting to see what comes up, and then the harvesting by sickle and scythe, and gathering, bundling, and threshing. Then you only got to keep that small portion that the “landowner” measured out to you. He kept the rest as your rent. Too often the measure of grain you sowed, was the same amount the landowner measured back to you and you couldn’t eat that. It was next year’s crop. You ate from your garden or from what you could earn odd jobbing. Crop farming was tough and unfair to the farmer.
Anyway, crop growth is still a mystery. Today, biologists can tell us that moisture can activate certain enzymes that cause a seed to germinate and then sprout and eventually go to seed and they can genetically modify the seed to manipulate that process to produce a heartier plant and a higher yield. It doesn’t sound very mysterious unless you stick to the simple wonder of it all: it’s still a tiny seed that grows and produces abundantly that we might eat and have enough to plant for next year. In my opinion that’s a God-thing and not just some accident of nature.
Back in Jesus’ day the sense of mystery was much greater. Plant growth was the hidden, mysterious process of how, in Jesus’s words, a grain of wheat can fall into the earth and die, and if it dies, it bears much fruit. In this parable, the sower simply scattered seed giving no mind to soil preparation and then watched and waited and watched and waited day and night and I’m sure prayed for rain and that the earth would give forth abundantly. The sower did not know how the plant grew. Jesus says “the earth of itself produces fruit” – of itself. The Greek word is automatē from which we get automatic. Plant growth is mysteriously automatic in God’s good creation. It’s just the way it is...and it’s abundant.
There’s a “wow-factor” there we need be careful not to miss because, that’s the mystery of how the kingdom of heaven grows. The seed all on its own it grows from being a seed into a seed-bearing plant capable of producing hundreds more seeds and seed-bearing plants. It is a miracle of multiplication, of exponential growth. This is God’s abundance at work. Such and so is the Kingdom of Heaven. The workers simply sow and then wait for the harvest. God looks after the rest.
Jesus also compares the Kingdom of Heaven to a mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds that grows to be a huge shrub. The shrub has sturdy branches where birds can come and safely make their nests and rear their young. Thus, the Kingdom of Heaven grows naturally, abundantly, and provides safety.
I should say something more about what the Kingdom of Heaven is. First, Kingdom of Heaven and Kingdom of God are interchangeable terms. The Kingdom is where God’s reign from heaven becomes evident on earth. There’s also a correlation between where the Kingdom shows up and the presence of faith. So, let’s talk about faith for a moment.
If I had to define what faith is in the Bible, I would say that it is devoted participation in the sphere of reality, the realm, where the promises of God to save and heal his good creation from sin, evil, and death and becoming evident. Hebrews 11:1 is a good verse to look at for defining faith. Most recent translations read, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” These translations reflect Modernity’s idea that faith is just subjective belief or trust, an internal to me thing. But if you look at the Bible and other Greek writings from that period of time faith isn’t simply subjective belief or trust. It is objective, outward, visible. It is devoted participation in the sphere of reality, the realm, where the promises of God to save and heal his good creation from sin, evil, and death and becoming evident. In my opinion, a better translation of Hebrews 11:1 would be “Now faith is the substance of the hoped for things, the evidence of things not seen.” Oddly, that’s the pre-Modern KJV. The word for substance carries the idea of sediment. Get a jar of pond water and let it sit for a while. Though it may look clear initially (or maybe a little cloudy), sediment will eventually appear on the bottom as if out of nowhere. Probably more amazing than that, let it sit for a few days and the next thing you know there are things swimming around becomes visible where in the power of the Holy Spirit the promises of God to save and heal are sedimentizing into the contrary reality of this sin-diseased world and this therefore involves the efforts of those who are faithfully devoted to God through Christ Jesus.
Growing food involves the hard work and devotion of the farmer, not simply the farmer’s belief that a crop will grow. Likewise, the substance and evidence of the Kingdom of Heaven is what results from our acting according to the compulsion to love that God has planted within us. Paul says in our 2 Corinthians reading. “For the love of Christ urges us on” – compels us. God has planted the Holy Spirit within us who compels us to love both Jesus himself and one another as he loves us.
We are a new planting by God. In 2 Corinthians 5:17 Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” The past couple of weeks I have mentioned that we are a new creation, a new humanity; new in that God the Holy Spirit dwells in us, the followers of Jesus, permanently working to transform us to be more like Jesus, indeed, making us to participate in the new life God created at his resurrection. This new existence – human beings permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit – did not exist before Jesus.
The Kingdom of Heaven is the mysteriously growing New Creation of the fulfillment of God’s promise to save and heal his creation breaking into, sedimentizing into, this sin-broken reality which becomes visible as the followers of Jesus indwelt by the Holy Spirit faithfully act on the seed of the compulsion to love that God has planted within us. The fruits that the plant of the Kingdom of Heaven mysteriously produces are the fruits of the Spirit which Paul lists in Galatians 5:22,23 - Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Just as a seed must die for the fruit-bearing plant to come into existence, so must we also die to this old self of ours that is diseased by sin so that new creation may sprout forth.
The Kingdom of Heaven comes forth automatically, sedimentizes, among groupings of people who in devotion to Jesus and by the empowerment of the Holy Spirit love one another as Jesus has loved us. This is what the Church, the Body of Christ is. The Church is where the New Creation of humanity being saved and healing is beginning to become apparent. Our relationships with each other in Christ are also indwelt by the Holy Spirit who is at work among us urging us to build one another up, encourage one another, and speak the truth to one another in love so that we grow and become human community in which the new resurrected life wrought by and present with Jesus can be sensed, felt, experienced.
Now, I have to say that we must not carte blanche equate the Church that I’ve just described with what has become the institution called the Church as we know it in the Western World. I am reluctant to use the term “true church” because that’s the sort of thing cults and sects are made of, but I will for teaching purposes. The true church can be found among the institution of the church, but the institution of the church does not always act like the Body of Christ it is supposed to be.
Jesus told a parable about a man who planted a field with good seed and in the middle of the night his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, a particular kind of weed that looks like wheat while it is growing with the intent that it would do as weeds do and choke out the good wheat resulting in a reduced yield. The workers wanted to pluck the weeds out but the landowner says not to because they would also uproot the wheat and destroy the whole crop. They would just have to wait until the harvest and separate the wheat from the tares then. The particular weed Jesus was describing is called darnel. It is poisonous to eat and, go figure, there’s a fungus that particularly likes to grow on it that will kill livestock if they graze on it. Poisonous rye is another name for it (not recommended for making rye whiskey). You can distinguish it from wheat because when wheat is ready to harvest, the head of seed bows as if in worship while the darnel stands upright as if to bask in its own glory. Beautiful metaphor, I think.
When we ask how it is that churches can be avenues of racism, homophobia, white privilege, Colonialism, Imperialism, Nazi-ism, sexism, misogyny and so many other evil things it is because there are weeds sown in our field and there are times when the weeds overtake the wheat and begin to choke out and kill the wheat. There have been times throughout the history of the institution of the church that you would be hard pressed to find the wheat at all and then other times and places and moments when the beauty of the true church has shone forth.
Looking closer to home and the problem presented by the church’s involvement in the Indian Residential School system, we need to ask how it is that the church could operate these schools here in Canada in the first place? Any serious disciple of Jesus at the time could have and should have seen the evil in removing small children from their families and communities to strip them of their indigenous culture, but majoratively (almost to the point of unanimously) we, Christians did not. We good, church-going Christians thought we were saving these wretched beings. We were weedy with Colonialism and white privilege. We should also ask how it is then that among such “well-intentioned”, good Christian people such atrocities could happen to these children under the care of our schools? Well, poisonous fungus grows on weeds. When people look back on this blighted part of Canadian and Church history, because the field seems so full of the weeds there are those out there now who literally would love to burn down the whole field of us and on occasion have done so. Nevertheless, we must persevere and take responsibility for our weediness and try to effect healing.
The Presbyterian Church in Canada operated two such schools after 1925 and a handful more before that which were transferred over to the United Church at the union. Did abuse and atrocities happen at ours? We would be naïve to think they did not. But we have confessed our weediness and made apology and are actively striving for reconciliation. The best we each can do is to come to terms with the persistent weediness we each have in us which exists as innate racism, a colonialist attitude, and white privilege, and let the Holy Spirit replace the weeds with the compulsion to love our Indigenous neighbours to whom we, as immigrants to this land, owe a great debt.
I’ll close with this. We are all weedy. We are each littered with ism’s and phobias that we grew up with and which shape the way we view the world. I grew up in the Southern US. I know what racism is and even worse I know what it is to be a racist. I also know Jesus in the power of the Holy Spirit changed things for me, changed me, changed my heart, changed the way I think, changed the way I see and hear, changed the way I act, changed the way I will raise my children. There is hope. That compulsion to love that God has placed in each of us, prayerfully, do not let your weeds choke it out. Go with the urge, compulsion to love rather than the instinct to hate. Amen.