When Joseph, our new Ghanaian friend, first came to live with us, I took him on a tour of the house and garden. When we went out into the garden, I proudly showed him our pond, our wildflower border, and our carefully trimmed bushes. I then pointed to what, last year, was a feeble attempt at a vegetable patch. I told Joseph that we had grown some rather pathetic vegetables there last year, but that this year we were planning to grow some more wildflowers and meadow grass. His response was fascinating.
"Flowers!" he said, "Flowers! You can't use God's good earth to grow flowers! Earth is for growing food!"
I protested. "But we can get all the food we want from the supermarket - for a lot less hassle!"
"And where do supermarkets get their food from then?" asked Joseph. "And how much do they charge you for them? You could get all the food you want from your own garden, for free!"
I have to confess, his logic was irresistible...and so began the task of preparing the ground for new vegetables. It was back-breaking work...but now that we've got potatoes, and courgettes, and tomatoes and beetroot and lettuce and all sorts of other lovely stuff popping up through the soil...I think its going to be worth it.
If the slugs don't get there first!
Jesus, of course, lived in an agricultural community. Unless they could till the soil, or throw out the fishing nets, most people in Jesus time would have starved. That's why Jesus' parables are so often connected to the land, or the sea, in some way. It was an image drawn from everyday life. People knew straight away what he was talking about. So when he talked about growing seeds, or the tiny mustard seed that becomes one of the largest of all plants, we can imagine the people around him nodding, agreeing, empathising with what he was saying.
But for us, unless we've grown our own food, some of the intimate connection with these stories can be missing. Of course, we all know the theory...we all know something about how seed grow, for example. But unlike the people of Jesus' day, we are not engaged with growing crops every day. We do not have those daily reminders that people who live off the soil have. Once you have heard the parable of the sower, it is impossible to sow your own seeds without being reminded of the story. As you are sowing, you see some seeds fall onto stones, or onto the path, or into the good soil...and you remember the parable. But that is not the experience of most people. In fact, I'm quite sure that if Jesus had lived today, he would have used some very different stories.
Many - if not most - of Jesus' stories are aimed at illustrating what the Kingdom of his father is like. Perhaps if Jesus had been talking to us, he might have said something like...
"The Kingdom of heaven is like a woman who goes shopping on North End High Street. As she wanders down the road, she decides to spend her money in certain shops. In the first shop, a bakery, she finds some delicious cream cakes, which she eagerly consumes But verily, the fat from those same cakes has attached itself to her thighs...and she feeleth miserable! A little further along the road, she wanders into a betting shop (of which there are a plethora on North End High Street!). Tempted by the slimmest chance that her life would be better if she had more money, she puts a £20 bet on a horse. And verily, the horse falls over at the first fence, and the woman is sore afraid of what her family will say. Her sorrow and fear is such that her next stop is in the Wetherspoons pub, where verily, there is a special offer on. The woman decides to drown her sorrows in a vodka glass or three, and reviews her situation. She realises that she has now gained weight, lost money, and is thoroughly bazooka'ad. What will she do?
Overweight, skint and drunk, she staggers into the St Mark's Community Cafe, where she sits exhausted with life upon a chair. A Cafe volunteer comes over to her, and hears the story of her awful day. He gives her a free cup of strong coffee, and some free advice on the benefit of eating five fruit and vegetable portions a day. He encourages her to be strong when passing the door of one of the many betting shops... and to use her money to bring pleasure and health to her family, rather than to the family of the book-maker. Strengthened by his sound advice, the woman decides to change the whole pattern of her life...and lives happily ever after!
It's a crude analogy, I know...but I genuinely think it is the kind of parable that Jesus would have told. It's a bit of a blend of the Prodigal Son, and the Parable of the Seed, and the Good Samaritan!
One of the points of such parables was to demonstrate that we have clear choices to make, about the kind of people we want to be. The Kingdom of God is a place of growth and positivity. It's a place where people choose to live in a way that embraces life in all its fullness, not fullness as a substitute for life. In other words, the Kingdom of God is a way of living that brings fullness of the spirit... not a way of living which wrongly assumes that being full - of food, of possessions, of bank-account - is the way to happiness.
But there's more. Not only is the Kingdom of God about the choices that we make - its also about the choice that God makes...a choice to keep on acting in our lives, and in the world, drawing us ever onwards, deeper and deeper into the Divine Life. That is one of the possible meanings for the first of Jesus parables in the Gospel reading we just heard.
Jesus says, essentially, that the Kingdom of Heaven is like a man who scatters seed in his field - and then goes off and forgets about it. He sleeps, he goes about during the day doing other things...but all the while, the seed is sprouting and growing - until it becomes ready for harvest.
One way of looking at this parable, is certainly to say that God's seed in our hearts, his seed of love, has a way of keeping on growing...how ever much we forget him. We might forget God, but God never forgets us. God is constantly at work within us, and around us, and through us. We can forget God, obscure God, seek even to run from God...but God never stops reaching out to us.
That's why, as the choir will sing a little later, God sent Jesus into the world. Because, you see, God so loves the world, that he sends his son - not to condemn the world, but to transform it, to re-make it, to build it, to heal it, to 'save' it. And, like the Hebrew mustard seed which grows into a mighty bush, Jesus' actions among us and for us and in us keep on growing.
Of course, there are other ways of looking at this parable of the 'growing seed' - other ways that are just as in tune with the purposes of God. That's the beauty of parables. They can have many layers of meaning, all wrapped up in simple story. One other way, for example, is to view the farmer as us, instead of God. We are capable of sowing seeds. We are capable of touching other lives with small gifts of love - and then going about our own business oblivious to the growth that then takes place. Consider, for example, the potential effect of, say, a gift of five pounds, given to save the sight of one child in Africa. Imagine that child, then, as a result of not having lost their sight, going on to become a politician who solves the current crisis in Zimbabwe...or who becomes a doctor that saves the lives of thousands of others. Five pounds...one small seed...can indeed become a mighty tree.
And that's not just true for Africa. It's true in the life of our own church. The mustard seed of time, given to raise money for our ministry here, means that week by week, day by day, people in this parish are being blessed by our presence among them. School assemblies, people who are mourning, people celebrating their marriage (as a couple did here yesterday) people growing in their own walk with God, lonely people needing visits in their own home - all of this takes place because of the seeds YOU sow, every time you give up time, or indeed money, to keep this church running.
So may you be encouraged this morning; encouraged by the knowledge that God never gives up on us, however much we forget God. May you be encouraged that even the smallest gift that you sow, can grow into a mighty tree. May you be encouraged to know that we worship a God who is on the move; in us, around us and through us...planting his seeds as we plant our own. Amen