Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Kingdom Gardening

Sermon preached at the Church of St Luke & St Simon Cyrene (8 am) and St Stephen's Church (10 am) on July 13, 2008: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom…

A sower went out to sow some seed…

Back in chapter 10, Matthew has made it clear that the good news for Jesus was the good news of the kingdom. In Matthew’s Gospel it is usually referred to as “the kingdom of heaven.” In Mark and Luke it is usually referred to as “the kingdom of God.” Same thing.

Furthermore, Jesus sends out his disciples with the message: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

But just what is this kingdom of heaven? Jesus mostly tells stories—parables—to answer this question. There are a whole raft of them in chapter 13 that we’re going to spend the next three weeks reading.
This morning we have the familiar parable of the sower, as we usually call it. In all three of the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) it is the first full-blown parable told. That’s significant. The first one sets the tone, and, in most ways, summarizes all the others.

New Testament scholar and theologian Robert Capon identifies four truths about the kingdom of heaven or the kingdom of God that are contained in the parable of the sower and then keep popping up in all the rest of the parables.[1]

These four things are in contrast to our natural way of looking at the world, including our religion. We tend to be, he says, “parochial” in our outlook. We want to deal with our like-minded group, which means we inevitably end up being exclusive.

We also like things that we can see—that are visible, tangible practical. Third, especially in terms of our religion, we like it to be about the future. But this is true in our daily life as well. We are easily distracted by the next thing. Our attention span is not great.

Last of all we like things handed to us. Our greatest dream is to win the lottery—virtually free money.

In contrast, Capon says, the parables teach us that the kingdom is the opposite of these things. It is catholic (which is to say, inclusive) rather than parochial/exclusive. It is mysterious, hidden, rather than visible, obvious. It is actually present here and now, not in some future time. And it requires our response, usually in the midst of some hostility. It is not just handed over to us.

So where are these characteristics in the parable of the sower—inclusiveness, mysteriousness, actual presence and requiring of our response in the midst of hostility?

The notion that the kingdom is inclusive is the notion that it is at work “everywhere, always, and for all, rather than in some places, at some times, and for some people.”[2] This is literally what our word “catholic means. The “h-o-l” in the middle of catholic comes from the Latin word meaning “whole” or “all.” It is just an example of how we naturally tend to think that the word “catholic” has come to mean something exclusive when it actually means exactly the opposite.

The four kinds of ground in the parable of the sower are clearly meant to cover all the bases—every kind of people. And the sower sows the seed in them all, indiscriminately. It is not a very efficient way of sowing seed. It is as if a toddler were asked to plant a garden. But this is kingdom gardening, so the seed goes everywhere.

It’s important to point out here that God is the sower in the parable. God sows the seed. The seed, we are told, is “the word of the kingdom.” We also might think of the seed as Jesus himself, since we call him “the Word” and he is the embodiment of the kingdom.

This should say to us that the kingdom has already been sown. We too often act as if we take the word to others who didn’t have it in the first place. This was the assumption of the great missionary endeavors of the 19th century, some of which still goes on today. There are heathen out there who need to be brought the word.

Jesus imagined no such thing. The seed has already been sown. Our job, if anything is to point out the fruit that has already been produced by the seed, to find where the kingdom of God has already come near. After all, Jesus told his disciples to say to others that “the kingdom of God has come near to you.” He did not tell them to say, “We’ve got the kingdom and we’d like to give it to you.”

The kingdom has already been sown everywhere. It is a catholic, inclusive kingdom.

Second of all, the parable teaches us that the kingdom is mysterious. This is simply in the nature of seeds themselves. They are wondrous things which store within themselves the energy and the information, if you will, to build an entire plant thousands of times its size. You can barely see it when you put it into the ground and then you cover it up. If you went to look for it after it had started to grow, it would be gone.

To say that the kingdom is mysterious rather than obvious is to say that it cannot known as we are used to knowing things. It can only be believed. Faith is required. I can’t prove to you in any generally accepted use of the word “prove” that the kingdom has come near. I can only believe it and encourage you to believe it as well.

Third is how the kingdom is actually present in the parable. Seeds work. They grow. This is not a story about thinking about planting seeds, it is about planting seeds and their growing. This is even true in the seeds that fall on the sidewalk. The birds eat it, yes, but birds passing seeds through their bodies is one of the way nature works to plant seeds.

The power of the kingdom of God is actually present and working. It does not depend upon our activating it. Here’s how Capon puts it:

The history of Christian thought is riddled with virtualism. “Sure,” we have said, “the Lamb of God has taken away the sins of the world.” But then we have proceeded to give the impression that unless people did something special to activate it, his forgiveness would remain only virtually, not actually, theirs. Think of some of the things we have said to people. We have told them that unless they confessed to a priest, or… accepted Jesus in the correct…terms—or…did penance, cried their eyes out, or straightened up and flew right—the seed…might just as well not really have been sown.[3]

And finally, the parable of the sower manifests the need for our response even in the midst of hostility.

Note first this is not our response in order for the seed to be sown or in order for it to grow. Those two things have already happened. But our response is in a hostile environment. There is pavement too hard to penetrate. There are rocks that make the soil thin. There are weeds which choke the plants.

All these things are ways we or others can interfere with the growth of the seed. In one sense it seems like the response that is required of us is to do as little interfering with the growth of the seed and the plant as possible. As Capon says,

It is not that they do anything, you see; rather, it’s that they don’t do things that get in the Word’s way.[4]

Our response does not affect whether or not the seed is sown, nor does it effect whether the plant grows. Our response affects the bearing of fruit. The whole purpose of the Word of the kingdom being sown is to produce people who bear the fruits of the kingdom. We can either help enable that to happen or hinder it.

So the kingdom that is the good news that Jesus proclaimed and embodied is catholic, inclusive. It is mysterious, which is to say that it is in God’s control and not ours. It is present in the here and now and not pie in the sky. And we must learn to cooperate with it for it to bear fruit.

That’s today’s lesson in kingdom gardening.

[1] Robert Farrar Capon, the Parables of the Kingdom (1985), p. 63ff.
[2] Capon, p. 73.
[3] Capon, p. 80.
[4] Capon, p. 83.

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