Week of Sunday June 17 - Pentecost 3
Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
He also said, ‘The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.’
30 He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
After seeding there comes a morning when there might be a green tinge across the paddocks, although it could be imagination. Soon it is undeniable; the paddocks are covered with green pick. As a child, it always seemed amazing that this sparse green pick could turn into a heavy crop like the one I remembered from harvest. Yet we would truck away bins full of wheat, year after year.
We know about plant breeding and fertilisers. We’ve mapped out the pathways of ATPases and auxins, and we have rainfall maps and probability charts to help calculate the risk factors, when we sow the crop. But how the crop grows remains a mystery. “... and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”
This is the kingdom of God, a mystery which bears a harvest, and we do not know how.
This same central image exists in the parable of the mustard seed. It is smaller, even, than a grain of wheat, and yet bears a harvest that offers shelter. The kingdom of God will grow.
There’s a kind of Christianity, if I may stretch the agricultural metaphor, which seems to think you can ignore crop rotations, and not keep up with the latest insights into sustainable farming, and yet the crops will keep coming. I do not know whether it is laziness or fear, but according to some theologies, it almost seems that you can leave the tractor in the shed, and the crop will be sown and a harvest will appear anyway!
Mark is not talking about that sort of rubbish discipleship. The farmer goes out and does the hard work of breaking up the soil with inadequate tools, and casts the seed, and then there is a harvest.
Will we have the faith of farmers when we follow Jesus?
I have written about this elsewhere .
Most of us, safe in the city, are unaware of the huge gamble that the farmer undertakes; a monumental act of faith, especially in marginal country. Enormous bills for fertiliser, and fuel, and seed are booked up against the harvest, in the faith that there will be yield enough to pay for them. Weeks will be spent working long hours to put the crop in. And then the waiting happens.
The biggest gamble is to dry sow. After a couple of weeks without rain, the dry fungus in the soil begins to destroy the seed, before it germinates. If there are mice, they can eat the seed; rain or not.
Even if the rains have begun well, and the season looks good, there may not be enough following rain later in the spring, and the crop will wither, and not fill the grain. Frost can burn out the flowers. Wind, hail, and heavy rain can all “lodge” the crop; flattening it into the ground and making harvest difficult, if not impossible. If it rains too much at harvest, the grain can actually germinate in the heads of the wheat, making it unsaleable for anything except low grade feed. Rust, a pathogen that has been under control for two generations is beginning to rise again, in Africa.
That’s just the weather problems.
Cockatoos may come in their thousands, chewing the heads off the sunflowers. In a day or two, locusts can devour a crop that you have watched for months, destroying the harvest. Fire can do the same in an afternoon.
Farming is the great liturgy of faith which country folk enact each season. Insulated by supermarkets and distance, the rest of us have no idea how fragile our survival actually is.
We are being asked to take this gamble in our lives. It’s called faith, also known as actually trusting God. It is Jesus saying that if we will live according to his way, the Kingdom of God will happen. We are not the whole story of the kingdom, of course; God is deeply involved. The crop will grow quite mysteriously, through all kinds of drought and catastrophe, but we are being given a part to play.
The Kingdom is announced early in Mark and Jesus spends three chapters getting started in his ministry. By the end of chapter three, the ‘powers that be’ are out to destroy him. His family has declared him mad. It means they are saying, “It’s not our fault. We don’t agree with him. Don’t blame us!” How can the kingdom of God continue to come to a harvest now that everyone is against him?
It is then, in the beginning of chapter four, that we have the seed parables pointing up the mysterious nature of kingdom which “just grows” if we will be faithful enough to sow the crop. We see that Jesus goes on being faithful, doing the work of the kingdom, even though he knows it will come to a bad ending for him.
What was the context of Jesus’ words?
Jesus was speaking in a culture that knew its insecurity. Failed harvest and famine were common. Only a few very rich had the resources to insulate them from these things, and the ability to buy their way through to a kind of guaranteed safety.
This is our context: We live in a world that does not know its insecurity, a world of false security. We are in a small bubble of history, where in Australia and the USA, a couple of generations of people have had unprecedented wealth and safety—much of it at the expense of others.
We are so removed from the reality of life that although we smile when little children think milk comes from the supermarket, we actually live with the same mentality, expecting things to go on as they always have, and for our mobile phones to improve, and for our food to become cheaper.
It is a foolish dream. In reality, we are living through the decline of the West, and the American Empire is faltering.
Instead of seeking to bolster our security, Jesus asks us to leave the safety of the supermarket and the shopping centre, those great artificial pretences of life, and culture, and reality. He is asking us to go back to the land. He is asking us to actually trust God, not seek to buy our comfortable way through life.
Part of the attraction of farmer’s markets, apart from the fact that the food is usually better, is the sense of getting out of the artificial and back closer to reality. People can see through the shallowness of our consumer culture, and wish for something more real, something ‘closer to the ground.’ They are seeking, I think, a kind of kingdom, a place and a life that has values and ideals worth giving their lives to. They may not agree with my sense that our culture is in decline, but they recognise much of its shallowness.
Pundits will say that farmers’ markets and similar, are all romance; we can’t manage to feed us all with farmer’s markets; the whole world would have to change. They are right, of course, and that’s the point. The kingdom is about changing the whole world. It is not about going back to some romantic ideal, but moving forward to the very practical ideals of Jesus and the kingdom of God.
It takes a great deal of trust, aka “faith”, to believe that this moving forward is not simply another expedient slogan* of the moment, but is worth the giving of our lives.
Yet the challenge is also promise:
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.
Can we trust this is true? Will we actually live according to the principles of the kingdom which Jesus repeats through this gospel, or will we entrust our lives to the flimsy guarantees of the politicians and economists?
*American Colleagues may find this helpful :-)