The church is changing. Many of you remember when the classrooms here at Hope were filled to overflowing with children learning about Jesus in Sunday school. Today we get excited when we have 10 or more children in worship and in Sunday school. Many of you remember a time when everyone was in church on Sunday mornings and on Wednesday evenings for worship and for classes. Today the church has to compete with sports programs and other extracurricular activities, even on Sunday mornings, and many people don’t seem to feel the need to come to worship anymore. Recently large statistical surveys have shown a large drop in the number of people who are identifying themselves as Christian—from 78 percent seven years ago to 70 percent today—and a rise in those who identify themselves as agnostic, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious”. And we in the church wring our hands and try to assign blame. “If we could only do this new program, then people will come back.” “It’s because we’ve lost our moral compass—we need to regain that and then people will come back.” “It’s because we don’t have prayer in school any longer—if we just allowed prayer in school again, everyone would come back.” Do you hear how many times in those statements I said “we”? It’s as if we think that we alone are responsible for bringing in the kingdom of God, and that God will exact vengeance upon us for losing all of these people.
In contrast, today Jesus gives us two parables about the kingdom of God that show us how mistaken we are about the nature of that kingdom. First, the kingdom of God is like seed that is scattered and grows up from the ground, without our knowledge or help. Second, the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which, when sown, is the smallest of all of the seeds, but then grows up into the largest of shrubs, so that the birds of the air make nests in its branches. As I approach these parables, I am very conscious of the fact that I manage to kill plants that I try to raise, and that I know very little about farming. But I think that there is a universality to these images of growing plants that can speak to even plant-deficient people like me, and can give encouragement to us in the church as we face this shift in what Christianity looks like.
First, we have the image of the seed sown in the ground, with the sower not doing anything with it, but the earth producing of itself. I think that some of the plants I have had in the past died because I didn’t leave them alone. I didn’t trust them to grow on their own, and I worried that they didn’t have enough water or enough sun. So I watered them more than they needed to be watered, and they drowned. Or I put them in sunlight that was too direct, and they dried up. Notice in this parable that the person who sowed the seed does nothing after the seed lands in the ground: he sleeps, he rises, and he watches the seed grow, trusting in the earth and the weather to do what the earth and the weather do best. Suddenly, the grain appears, then it ripens, and then it is ready for harvest. The sower of the seed then becomes the reaper, and he goes in and harvests the grain. Even though he did nothing to help the grain grow.
We in the church sometimes need to let things go. We sow the seed, yes. But sometimes, well-intentioned though we may be, we either over-water the seed or leave it out in the sun too long, and it dies. My grandmother’s cousin, Bob, and his wife, Lois, were sponsoring a young Chinese man here in the States. He was Christian, but the men he was staying with were not. Sometimes he would bring them over to Lois and Bob’s house for a meal, and Lois would do her utmost to talk to these men about Jesus, trying to get them to convert to Christianity. They would listen to her politely, but would never take her seriously. She would be just beside herself, thinking that somehow she had failed. My mother finally told Lois that it was okay; that she had planted the seed and it was up to the Holy Spirit to nurture and to grow that seed that she had planted, and it was not up to her. Since my family has since moved away, and Bob and Lois have since gone to be with Jesus, we do not know what happened to those young men that Lois talked to. And that’s okay. The seed may have taken root in these men or it may not have, and we probably will never know. But God knows, and God will see to the growth of that seed that Lois scattered. Sometimes we need to let things go, to give them over to God, and to wait for the Holy Spirit to produce the growth.
Paired with this story of the sower of the seed who does not know how it grows into grain is the parable of the mustard seed. The mustard seed starts out small, but then grows and grows—it’s been said that it’s impossible to have just a little bit of mustard in your field. If you let it go, it will take over everything. In the past, mustard has been derided as a weed, along the same lines as dandelions. Recently, though, some scholars have pointed out that in the ancient world, mustard was used for its medicinal value as well as its use as a spice. Like the mustard plant, then, the kingdom of God starts out as a small and unnoticeable seed, but then grows, overtaking everything else in the field, but also providing both healing and spice to those who harvest it.
Sometimes we want to see the kingdom of God in the big things. We see all of the bad things that happen in the world, and we just want God to come down and put a stop to all of it, right here, right now. That is the hope that we have, and it’s easy to become discouraged when God doesn’t do what we think God should do. But did you ever stop to think what would happen if God came down, Avengers-style, and beat the living daylights out of the bad guys? If it’s anything like those superhero movies, there would be a lot of destruction and a lot of innocent people would get caught in the crossfire. And perhaps we might not like what side we would end up on.
So instead, God tells us that his kingdom does not come all at once, superhero style and leaving destruction in his wake. Rather, it comes in the little, everyday things, in the ordinary way that mustard and other plants grow. The kingdom of God comes among us when we harvest the produce from our gardens and share it with our neighbors. The kingdom of God comes among us when we sacrifice something we have so that another might have enough to eat. The kingdom of God comes among us when we stand up for someone who is suffering an injustice. And the kingdom of God comes among us even when we have an ordinary day and nothing special seems to happen. The kingdom of God comes among us even then. Martin Luther, in his Small Catechism, writing on the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy kingdom come,” said, “In fact, God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” And sometimes we don’t even know that the kingdom of God has come among us until we suddenly look up and see it all around us, taking over everything in our field of vision.
So, as we go about our daily lives, we do not need to ask where the kingdom of God is or when it is coming. We can talk about the kingdom of God existing both now and not yet. This week I saw an article where scientists working on the quantum level—that is, a level even smaller than the particles that make up the atom—have shown that time is, somehow, not linear as we perceive it, but rather, that it somehow flows both forward and backward. That means that events that happen in the future can influence the events that happen right now, in the present, and somehow have already influenced past events. I know, I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it! But let’s think of it this way: the kingdom of God, which will be fulfilled in the future, is somehow flowing backwards to our present time and breaking in all around us, so that we can see glimpses of it in our daily life. So Jesus’ parable of the seeds–the seed that the person sows on the field and the mustard seed—are meant to bring us comfort. So what, if, by the world’s surveys and standards, Christianity seems to be declining in numbers? God’s standards are not the world’s standards. What the world considers weakness, God considers strength. We can see the kingdom breaking in, growing up all around us, without our knowledge, until suddenly we look up and see that it has taken over everything around us. So let us not lose hope. As Paul says in our second reading today, we walk by faith, not by sight. Let us keep up that walk, trusting in the Holy Spirit to give the growth where the growth is needed. Amen.