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Sunday Worship 8 May | The kingdom of God is like a garden

Updated: Mar 18

Luke 8:4-15, Matthew 13:24-30, Mark 4:26-34 (NIV)
One day Jesus told a story in the form of a parable to a large crowd that had gathered from many towns to hear him: “A farmer went out to plant his seed. As he scattered it across his field, some seed fell on a footpath, where it was stepped on, and the birds ate it. Other seed fell among rocks. It began to grow, but the plant soon wilted and died for lack of moisture. Other seed fell among thorns that grew up with it and choked out the tender plants. Still other seed fell on fertile soil. This seed grew and produced a crop that was a hundred times as much as had been planted!” When he had said this, he called out, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” His disciples asked him what this parable meant. He replied, “You are permitted to understand the secrets of the Kingdom of God. But I use parables to teach the others so that the Scriptures might be fulfilled: ‘When they look, they won’t really see. When they hear, they won’t understand.’ This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is God’s word. The seeds that fell on the footpath represent those who hear the message, only to have the devil come and take it away from their hearts and prevent them from believing and being saved. The seeds on the rocky soil represent those who hear the message and receive it with joy. But since they don’t have deep roots, they believe for a while, then they fall away when they face temptation. The seeds that fell among the thorns represent those who hear the message, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the cares and riches and pleasures of this life. And so they never grow into maturity. And the seeds that fell on the good soil represent honest, good-hearted people who hear God’s word, cling to it, and patiently produce a huge harvest.”
Here is another story Jesus told: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a farmer who planted good seed in his field. But that night as the workers slept, his enemy came and planted weeds among the wheat, then slipped away. When the crop began to grow and produce grain, the weeds also grew. “The farmer’s workers went to him and said, ‘Sir, the field where you planted that good seed is full of weeds! Where did they come from?’ ‘An enemy has done this!’ the farmer exclaimed. ‘Should we pull out the weeds?’ they asked. ‘No,’ he replied, ‘you’ll uproot the wheat if you do. Let both grow together until the harvest. Then I will tell the harvesters to sort out the weeds, tie them into bundles, and burn them, but put the wheat in the barn.’”
Jesus also said, “The Kingdom of God is like a farmer who scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, while he’s asleep or awake, the seed sprouts and grows, but he does not understand how it happens. The earth produces the crops on its own. First a leaf blade pushes through, then the heads of wheat are formed, and finally the grain ripens. And as soon as the grain is ready, the farmer comes and harvests it with a sickle, for the harvest time has come.” Jesus said, “How can I describe the Kingdom of God? What story should I use to illustrate it? It is like a mustard seed planted in the ground. It is the smallest of all seeds, but it becomes the largest of all garden plants; it grows long branches, and birds can make nests in its shade.” Jesus used many similar stories and illustrations to teach the people as much as they could understand. In fact, in his public ministry he never taught without using parables; but afterward, when he was alone with his disciples, he explained everything to them.

Last week we reflected on three gardens from scripture - the Garden of Eden, or the place where things started to go wrong; the garden where Mary met the risen Jesus, or the place where things started to go right; and the garden in the heavenly city, or the place where all will be good again. I find it really interesting that gardens keeps popping up at significant moments throughout the Bible, so this morning I want to continue with that theme, and think about some of the ways in which the Kingdom of God may be like a garden, picking up on a number of parables Jesus taught which have a horticultural or agricultural theme. I did in fact attempt some gardening as part of my preparation for this, and I really don’t think I’m getting any better at it. I’m fairly certain there are at least two thorns now embedded in my hands, and the thyme has almost certainly not survived being planted in the vegetable patch. That’s all to say that I bring absolutely no gardening expertise to this, and would be delighted to hear the wisdom of some more experienced gardeners if you would like to share it. I trust though that not everyone Jesus spoke to was green fingered, and that even a novice like me can take something from the parables we have heard this morning.

(There is also some interesting stuff in these passages about why Jesus taught in parables, and about the disciples alone being given the knowledge of the kingdom. I don’t want to get too waylaid by that, except to note that I don’t think Jesus was deliberately preventing people from understanding him. I think it was that he knew people would struggle rather than that he wanted them to struggle, and so he offered his disciples further teaching to prepare them for the task of continuing his ministry.)

I think the first thing we learn about the Kingdom of God from these gardening passages is that it takes work. Each parable begins with planting, which is an active and intentional task. You have to choose the right seeds and the right place to plant them, then prepare the soil and perhaps even begin growing the seeds somewhere more sheltered, before finally they can be planted and nurtured into full growth. It is work that can leave our bodies aching and make our hearts glad. In the same way, growing the kingdom must be an active and intentional task. We need to discern the right causes to take up and ministries to engage in, then put in place what they need in order to flourish, so that we can be deliberate about planting and nurturing the kingdom values of justice and joy and mercy and grace and challenge and choice. Sometimes that work will leave our bodies aching - I often joke that no one tells you how much ministry is spent moving furniture! - but it will also make our hearts glad.

I might joke about moving furniture, but it’s important to recognise that gardening is only a metaphor, and we are not excluded from the work of the kingdom if our bodies do not allow for physical labour. Everything we do must be grounded in prayer, and some people speak not of the kingdom but of the kindom, which emphasises the importance of relationship in all that we do. The kingdom needs people who will invest deeply in seeking the wisdom and creativity of God, and in listening to and simply being with those we are growing the kingdom with and for. These are not tasks that are given to those who can’t do anything else, but absolutely fundamental to the work of the kingdom.

The second thing I think these growing parables can tell us about the Kingdom of God is that it involves risk. As we see from the parable of the sower, not all seeds become plants. There are birds and rocks and thorns to contend with, and sometimes it will just be the wrong seed in the wrong place at the wrong time. It might be clear quite quickly that the seed is not going to take root, or it may fail after much work has gone into making it grow. In the same way, not everything we do for the kingdom will succeed. Circumstances change, or sometimes we simply make mistakes. We may realise it straightaway or we may persevere for some time before finally realising that we need to give it up. That doesn’t mean the effort has been lost entirely, for we cannot know what seeds might have fallen onto fertile soil while we were planting seeds in soil which turned out to have hidden rocks, what might happen by accident because of what we were trying to do on purpose.

I think the important thing here is being able to accept that risk. We have to go into each new cause or ministry knowing that it may not work out, but still willing to take a chance on it. That doesn’t mean we go at things in a half-hearted or ill-considered way - we should take a chance on things because we are committed to them and we have thought them through, and sometimes we will need the courage and the patience to stick at things which might be growing though we do not know how, like the seed which puts down hidden roots before it sends up visible shoots - but it does mean we give ourselves permission to try things that aren’t guaranteed to work and to step back from them if they fail. There is no growth without risk, and so we have to be prepared to get things wrong, while doing all we can to get them right.

The third and final thing I think we can learn from seeing the Kingdom of God as a garden is that we need to use our imagination. Gardeners need to be able to picture what is not yet there, thinking about size and shape and colour so that everything is planted in the right place. They need to be able to look at the tiny mustard seed and see the tree it will become, looking forward to the days when birds nest in its branches on the days that nurturing it feels like hard graft. In the same way, the kingdom will call us to use our imagination, to take a leap from what now is to what could be, to have a vision to work towards and give us hope. But of course it is not our imagination alone, because our hope is always that we are inspired by the wisdom and creativity of God.

Often that will take us by surprise, and I think there is a challenge in the juxtaposition of these parables to rethink what are weeds. We heard the parable of the weeds and the parable of the mustard seed from different gospels this morning, but they do follow each other in Matthew, so I think it is intended that we hear them together. An important bit of context here is that the mustard tree, which is more rightly a shrub, was considered to be a weed, because its size meant that it could take over other crops. So in one moment we are told the weeds will be pulled up and burned, and then in the next we are told that the kingdom is itself like a weed. There are of course things that are not good for us or for the kingdom, which are difficult to be rid of entirely now but which will not last into the fully realised kingdom, but we may not always know what they are. Perhaps the kingdom is sometimes found in things which at first seem to be unwanted and unruly, and so we should nurture everything that shows signs of life, and leave the final discernment to God.

(It occurs to me that the Baptist church was very much seen and treated as a weed in its early days, something which the established church tried to pull up or stamp out. The first congregations met in barns or houses with escape routes for their ministers, so they had plausible deniability if a gathering for worship was interrupted, and of our founders dies in the Tower of London, a prisoner of the king who he had offended by arguing for religious freedom. I rather hope we have proved ourselves to be a mustard tree, offering a home for many birds.)

I have focused so far on what we might learn about growing the kingdom, but gardens aren’t just for working in. They are for enjoying too, and so I want to end with some moments of quiet reflection. Imagine yourself in a garden. It may be one you know or it may be one you create in your mind. Look around you. Are there plants which are good for eating? Could you pick a bouquet of flowers? Is there a pond to swim in or a hammock to rest in? Listen now. Can you hear birds? Or water? Or the sound of other people enjoying the garden? Take a moment to simply be. How does it feel to be in this garden? Peaceful? Exciting? Restorative?

God, thank you for the images of gardens and planting and growing that we have explored over the past two weeks. May we commit to the work and risk and imagination of nurturing the kingdom. Help us to hold onto the feeling of being in the garden we have imagined, and show us how we might create spaces that have that same feeling, for ourselves and for others. And help us to remember that when we find places that evoke those feelings, they are shoots of your growing kingdom. Amen.

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