Scripture is filled with comparisons of the human relationship with God to nature. So often Jesus says or shows that the kingdom of God is present and growing and, when someone asks what that kingdom looks like, the parables Jesus uses to explain are like this one in today’s passage from Mark: comparisons to a natural process, like plants growing. These are useful comparisons because the people to whom Jesus was speaking would all have been familiar with the life cycle of plants and the degree of mystery and wonder that comes with watching it happen. Scripture is filled with reminders that while the farmer may plant the seed, it is God who sends rain and who causes the seed to turn from a still, small, hard shell into a moving, growing, life-giving plant.
Trees are especially useful and dramatic representations of this phenomenon of growing. Their seeds are so small compared to the mature plant. Great cedars or, in Winnipeg, the great shade elms that line so many streets, let loose such small seeds. And yet, over time, they change and grow and become these tall, strong, powerful plants that stand through summer heat and winter ice and outlast many human generations. Truly wondrous and beautiful testaments to God’s creativity, power, and imagination.
But the trees also grow where they will and without much regard for human schedules or desires. We can certainly help or hinder the trees, even going so far as cutting them down if we think it necessary or convenient. But they will grow where their seed landed and their roots will block pipes and crack walls, rearranging the space around them and claiming what they need. And in both of these ways—the mystery of growing and the relentless growth that has no mind for human convenience or want—the seeds and plants are like the kingdom of God.
Jesus speaks again and again about the kingdom of God as an event, a state of being that is present and coming ever closer and more obvious, whether people choose to see it or whether they want it. When Jesus sends the twelve to spread word of the Gospel through the land, they are told that the opening line of this good news is to be “The kingdom of heaven has come near.” (Matthew 10.7) It is not a statement of offer or an invitation to travel to where the kingdom is located. It is serving notice to those the apostles meet that the kingdom is near. Just like great trees splitting rocks and damaging pipes, the growth of the kingdom is miraculous and beautiful but also dangerous and upsetting if we are not attentive to it. Especially if we oppose or resist its movement, because the kingdom of God is near and growing and is changing the world.
Just like growing seeds, the transformation of the world by the growing kingdom in its midst is a process that happens on its own time. It is a process of great change, frightening and uncomfortable though it may sometimes be. We can see the great trees that have grown in the past, towering over our streets. But all trees have a life expectancy, even if it is well beyond that of you and me. At some point, even those trees that we have tended for generations and which have offered shade and fruit to our parents and grandparents come to a time of another transformation. They were once small, hard seeds and have grown into great trees. Now their branches hold fewer leaves, some stay nearly bare all year, they become homes to different kinds of birds and insects—now the ones that feed on dead and dying wood. The tree eventually returns to the earth from which it has grown and nourishes a new generation of life.
Death is a part of life and it is necessary for new life to emerge. A good death, like a good life, nurtures the life around it. Today’s reading from St Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians speaks powerfully about what it means to be truly loved by God. God loves us from before our beginning unto eternity, including the messy, frightening transformative experiences of our own lives. The most notable and dramatic of these experiences are birth and death, through which God walks with us, holds us, comforts us, and loves us. This is part of what St Paul is reminding the Corinthians of in this second letter. If we read from the beginning of the fifth chapter, rather than starting a few verses in, we see how this experience of God truly loving us extends even through the strange, messy, confusing portal that is death:
We know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to be clothed with our heavenly dwelling— if indeed, when we have taken it off we will not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan under our burden, because we wish not to be unclothed but to be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord— for we walk by faith, not by sight. - 2 Corinthians 5.1-7
Human life is full of moments when we must experience the unknown. Whether it is great moments like birth and death or smaller moments like meeting a new community for the first time. These moments of transformation are uncomfortable, but they are also where we grow and change most vigorously. Breaking open a hard seed shell and pushing through the soil toward the sunlight is uncomfortable, difficult work for a tree, too, but God tends and coaxes and nurtures it into the beautiful plants we appreciate. Change and transformation are hard work and they often mean leaving some parts of our life behind that we have come to love very much. We grieve and God grieves with us, but like the tree that has returned to the earth to nourish another generation, we pray that those things which have given us joy and are now finished may continue to nourish us, even as we move on from them. We have hope and faith and the presence of God as we journey through times of tremendous change, even when they come close to home. Even when the growing kingdom prompts change in our own lives and communities where we had become comfortable with the way things had been for so long.
We see recently with great clarity the sprouts of seeds planted long ago. We also see the reactions of those for whom the growth of God’s kingdom is frightening and they lash out in fear and anger. George Floyd’s death. 215 children discovered in unmarked graves at the Kamloops residential school. The repeated calls for attention to the epidemics of suicide and missing and murdered women and girls in Indigneous communities. The painful realities of racism that so many black, Indigenous, and people of colour live under, erupting as it did this week in London, Ontario, in a deadly attack. Hatred and violence have no place in the kingdom of God which is growing around us, before us, behind us, under our feet, and within us.
We are called by today’s Gospel passage and by the movement of the Spirit in every minute of our lives to look and see the growing of God’s kingdom around us. We may choose to inhabit that kingdom and work in concert with its growth and the transformation it brings, or we may choose to ignore or resist it and God’s calling to us. But there are no spectators where the growing kingdom of God is concerned. Just as Jesus directed the apostles, whether the people they visited received them or not, it was important that the apostles alert them to the presence of the kingdom. They needed to be told because, ready or not, comfortable or not, the kingdom would touch and change them.
You have heard the same message: The kingdom of God has come near. You have heard about its growth and the ways in which it calls us to be in this world.
Where will you stand?
Preached at Holy Trinity Church, Winnipeg.