Seeds of the Kingdom
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.
Many of you will remember Mary Turner, who along with her husband Tom, was a faithful member of St. John's before she moved to be closer to her family in Santa Rosa. Mary shepherd me into the Episcopal Church; I sorely miss her perspectives on faith and her devotion to both the greater Church and to our small parish. After a trip to England, she told me, “Many people say that Christianity in England is dead, but let me tell you, that isn't so. The churches may have fewer people attending them, but the Holy Spirit is active and alive and doing amazing things.”
Last month the Pew Research Center announced the result of a survey it recently gave 35,000 people. Headlines such as “Americans Losing Religion” and “America is No Longer a Christian Nation” spread like wildfire over the Internet. The results stated that though the majority of Americans still consider themselves Christian, the number of agnostics and atheists has doubled in seven years. The “nones” are now the second biggest group in America, especially among the Millennials, trailing just behind the conservative Evangelicals, whose numbers are also showing a decline, though they still make up the largest sector who consider themselves Christian. What used to be considered the mainline Protestant denominations...Lutherans, Methodist, Presbyterians, and Episcopalians...now have the smallest number of followers.
As I read the articles, I kept thinking about Mary's comment about the people who are committed Anglicans in England where, as she put it, the Holy Spirit is still burning brightly in their congregations, and about our own parish. I think all of us would love to have what the world would consider a “thriving” congregation, one large enough to support a full time priest, children in the pews, Sunday schools, a larger pool of people for ministries of worship and administration. Here we are, few in number, but committed to our love of Christ, but I believe that the Holy Spirit is as active in our lives and within this congregation as any mega-church in our nation. She...and there is much Biblical precedence to use the word “she” in association with the Holy Spirit...has called us to this church to worship together; quietly, yes, but that is how She is being expressed through us. As we share the gifts of the Eucharist, we find Her still small voice whispering to our souls. We are an intimate family, but one, as our mission statement says, is “a visible welcoming family of Christ resolved to deepen our relationship with God.”
Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “We walk by faith but not by sight.” So our church, and the Episcopal Church in general, is walking by faith. And the good news is that those who will find us will do so from deep convictions, attracted by our liturgy, our openness to divine mystery, our tolerance of paradox, and our welcoming of people who have been traditionally excluded from Christian communities.
People will say that these are the very reasons why we have lost members, and, there is truth to this, but maybe this is because we are doing the harder thing, growing up in spirit and in love. But, as Reverend Ken Howard wrote in a recent article in the Internet magazine On Faith, “We must remember that there are people leaving our tradition because we sometimes confuse tolerance with changing the subject when anyone asks what truths we believe. So before we start thinking of ourselves as “all that and a bag of chips,” we might also benefit from the same kind of self-critical examination that has sent some of our evangelical brothers and sisters in our direction.” So, I challenge all of us to begin discussions about what we truly believe at Saint John's, for us to discuss and explore the larger questions of faith and what space our hearts and minds fill in the midst of these questions.
The work of God has never been a popularity contest, and what the Holy Spirit is whispering to the world through us might very well be like the seeds that have been scattered and lie waiting in ground where God is doing work we can't begin to imagine, germinating in the rich soil of God's vision. We may be surprised one day at what fruit will be brought forth.
So, we have all sorts of images this morning of plants, from the cedars of Lebanon to the tiny mustard seeds. I was so happy to learn that isolated groves of cedars still exist in the mountains of Lebanon, even after being decimated by Phoenicians and Romans for commercial reasons, and even after the British in World War II used these beautiful trees to build railroads. Ezekiel speaks of taking a twig from the mighty cedars and planting it in Israel. He'd been handing out some harsh criticism to the people of Israel for their unfaithfulness, telling them, “Look, you got what you deserved. You've been cut down and sent to Babylon,” while he uses the metaphor of the great eagle as the instrument of judgement. But then, in the middle of Ezequiel's haranguing, he includes the beautiful poem of hope we listened to this morning in which the eagle brings a renewed life and blessings from God.
How often are we brought low, only to be lifted up? How wonderful it is that “every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field will know that I am the Lord.” You and I are invited to rest in the shade of God's love, and God will take even a small sprig, or say a small congregation, and to do wondrous things.
We live in Lake County and are familiar with the persistence of all kinds of weeds. Driving with our windows down in October can be a little intoxicating. On the other hand, we all have gone over Mount St. Helena in the late winter and seen the delicate flowering of the mustard covering the vineyards. They are pervasive and spectacular, and the sight of the flowing yellow fields always takes my breath away. But the wild mustard plant in Jesus' day was a different kind of plant: larger, hardier. It enhanced food and was beneficial for health, but it was invasive, almost impossible to get rid of. It would destroy gardens if it took root.
Jesus was speaking to the common people, peasants who would have been familiar with the benefits and dangers of this plant, who would have seen the birds taking refuge within its shade. Birds were a natural enemy of farmers for they ate the sown seeds, and this fact must have crossed their minds as they listened to Jesus. The mustard they knew intertwined with and choked off the other plants. They would have only only wanted to deal with mustard in small amounts, if it could have been controlled at all. In fact, it was actually against Jewish law to plant mustard seeds in a garden.
Hearing the parable for the first time would be similar if Jesus had said that the Kingdom of Heaven is like star thistle. Bees make the best honey in the world from it, but that's about the only good thing that can be said about it. Like the wild mustard of Jesus' day, it takes over our hillsides and empty yards.
So, the Kingdom of Heaven starts as something infinitesimally small, like a grain of mustard seed, but with the potential to spread like a weed to the point it cannot be ignored. If we let our metaphors extend even farther, think of it as a beneficial virus. Think of the Holy Spirit at work in our church as the virus of love, something that spreads, but not necessarily by looking at huge increases in church attendance, or by advertising, or lauding over others like a towering tree. The Kingdom grows by taking to heart our baptismal vows, by loving one another, individual to individual. This is how we grow a church, how we sustain ourselves, how we become impossible to uproot. The Holy Spirit must work through us.
We must each ask ourselves, what can I do to help sustain my church? What is my ministry? What ministries do I sense that others are being called to? Please listen what the still small voice of the Holy Spirit is saying within your heart. The power of the Kingdom of God in this small sanctuary is real, an atom which power can be unleashed and sustain us as we live our lives and grow toward Eternity.
Let's reflect on the fact that the Kingdom of God is pervasive and tenacious, intermingling God's love into our immediate circumstances and reaching outward towards the world. Have faith that these tiny seeds need time to lay fallow. You and I are not in charge, but God does need us to do our work as a congregation and in fulfilling our Christian path. We do not need to know what the future holds for our church. This is a great relief, isn't it? But we must remember that God is always with us, the Holy Spirit will guide us. If our hearts stay open, and if we're willing to do the work asked of us, the harvest will arrive in God's good time.