Proper 6: God the Gardener

The Generous Sower
Vincent Van Gogh’s ‘The Sower’

13/6/21 – Proper 6
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

I would like to welcome you all this morning to Jesus’ Summer School! We recently changed into the ‘ordinary time’ on the church calendar – which I think is anything but ordinary. The world and our times are certainly not ordinary! Over the coming weeks and months our weekly readings turn to the teaching of Jesus and his parables. Today’s lesson is about gardening and the particular use of seeds.

I know that a lot of you are avid gardeners and others are garden appreciators (like myself). Jesus often refers to gardening in his parables as he tries to teach about what the kingdom of God is like. He uses analogies of the seed and sower, lamps under bushel baskets, and today the focus is on seeds. Why these things? I think that lamps and mustard seeds represent everyday miracles. We all know how they work. The kingdom of God is in the everyday stuff of life. This is drastically different from the kingdom of military power that many people thought Jesus would bring; including the disciples.

The first seed parable might suggest that the gardener is rather reckless by the scattering of seeds. You could picture this person flinging handfuls of seed everywhere to fall where they may. This is not neat and orderly rows of well tended vegetables. Then this gardener goes to sleep, and doesn’t pay attention as the seeds begin to sprout. They don’t seem to know how this happens, just that it does. Sometime later they can come back and harvest what has been sown.

If you are a perfectionist you might have picked up what is wrong with this parable. Good gardeners do not toss seeds randomly about and then sleep away the growing season. Good gardeners should tend their garden, watch out for the weather, protect the sprouts from the deer and the birds. Things surely need to be watered and weeded.

Or, is this gardener generous and trusting? They apparently have enough seed to scatter freely and enough trust in the soil to do it’s thing so that not much attention is required. This gardener seems to understand the mystery, the ancient cyclical nature of the growing season. The gardener has done their part by planting and harvesting. Growth will simply happen without any intervention from them.

This gardener seems to know that they are not in charge; they are operating in the realm of mystery. No amount of worrying or control will make these seeds grow. In this story of the kingdom, it is not our striving, our piety or impressive prayers that cause us to grow and thrive in God’s garden. The kingdom of God will grow on grace alone.

The mustard seed is interesting too. Jesus’ first audience would have been surprised with this reference. I read recently that the people of Jesus’ day would not have planted mustard seeds. They were a noxious weed. You also would not want to attract birds to your garden either. Birds who eat seeds and fruit. Once a mustard seed starts growing they need very little care and not much water. They spread quickly and take over where they are planted; not exactly something you would want in a well-tended garden. It would have been seen as a nuisance and not to be cultivated on purpose. It grows like a weed and looks like one too as they are not beautiful to look at.

What does the mustard seed have to say about the kingdom of God? Mustard seeds have small beginnings. Jesus is saying here that this kingdom of God starts small and grows large – much larger than we can ever imagine, the kingdom spreads out and changes the taste of the world around it.
The mustard seed also says something about what counts in God’s economy, what is beautiful and who matters. It is not only the well-tended and well organised. It is the spindly weeds, the small ones who matter. It is the birds, an unwelcome visitor who is welcomed and given a seat of honour too.

If we are going to plant then we need to be sure of the soil in which we are planting. The first gardener seems to trust the soil to do it’s thing. Whatever happens in the soil is hidden, it is generous as it feeds and nurtures the seeds deep below the surface. Eventually the soil brings forth the seedling and it begins life above the earth to be harvested. How is the soil in which we are planting? There are times when we do not trust the soil, maybe we plant our prayers but not let them be cared for by the soil of God’s love and grace.

As a church and as part of a larger benefice, we need to spread out and change the taste of the world around us. Church is not contained to these four walls, this hour on a Sunday and only the people sitting here. Lord help us if that ever becomes our view of His church and his kingdom. Without seed, that is without the word of God being shared, then nothing will grow. Where can we be planting seeds in our villages?

In Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, he is encouraging them to be confident of the love of Christ. We are not just God’s creation but part of his new creation. We walk by faith and not by sight, think of what happens in the soil that we cannot see. Paul is calling us to be confident in Christ. Probably one of the hardest things to do is to ‘walk by faith, not by sight’.

From Psalm 119 ‘your word is a lamp unto my feet and and light to my path’. The light is on the feet; we get enough vision for the next step not the whole journey. Walking by faith in all life throws at us. Growth still comes. New creation is birthed. We are nurtured and cared for by God.

Paul talks about our eternal home: in the heavens that God is preparing for us. We are to be forward-looking people. We have the Spirit as a guarantee. This is where our confidence should be.

How is your confidence this morning? What are you confident in? What we do as a church may feel small and under confident ; but it will grow like a mustard seed if we let it. We need scatter seeds with abandon, trusting that they will fall in the right places to take hold. It is not solely down to our efforts, well executed prayers and piety. There is mystery in the soil, in the unseen where growth happens. If, like Paul, we walk by faith and refuse to let circumstances crush or perplex us and focus on the new creation we can be confident in the love and grace of God.

Conversion of St Paul

The Conversion of St Paul: On the Road to Damascus (26/1/2020)

I don’t know about you, but I love a good conversion story! For a few years I attended and was very involved at Holy Trinity Brompton in London. It was my sending parish for ordination; I am deeply grateful for the time that I spent there and all that I learned.

One of my favourite things was when, after an Alpha Course had finished, Nicky Gumbel would interview people who’d just taken the course, during a church service. I heard some fantastic, some shocking stories about the lives of quite ordinary people. Nicky would inevitably ask each person, ‘What difference has Jesus made to your life?’

It was at this point that their voices would begin to shake, eyes would well up, the insides of the mouth would be sucked in. The most common answers were ‘I know that I am loved’, ‘I am a more peaceful person’, ‘My perspective on life has changed’. For many people, they had had an experience of Jesus and life was now different. Some of these stories were extreme: addictions being broken in an instant, physical healings were witnessed, relationships long thought broken were restored.
Some people prayed the ‘God if you are real, show me’ prayer and immediately received a confirmation that He is indeed real and very much present with them.

I have also heard very similar stories from the most violent of men and women. People in the prison system encountering Jesus and having very dramatic encounters with the Holy Spirit and being totally changed and turned around. Many of whom have gone on to do amazing things with their lives only by the grace and power of God.

It is so reassuring to know that Jesus is not only for the quite ordinary ‘good people’ but also the violent offenders. Many of whom are so broken and damaged. It should give us hope!

Paul, then-known-as-Saul would fall into the latter category – he was not a good man. His religiousness did not make him good. Saul and his other religious friends were attempting to eliminate the newly established church. Which they didn’t manage to do but they were successful in dispersing it. The dispersion meant that the gospel was spread far beyond Jerusalem and this is why he was travelling to Damascus that particular day. The Christian presence was growing in Damascus and Saul was going to make sure he stopped it.

Read from ‘On the Road to Damascus’ (p. 150)

Religion and faith are not the same thing! Sometimes it helps to clarify that in our thinking, certainly I need to. People can be very hostile to religion and in some cases, quite rightly so.

I recently spent some time with some young people and was asked to talk about Christianity. I really tried to focus on the relational aspect of the Christian faith. The love of God & Jesus, His creation of us – rather than the rules and facts. I sat down after and thought of all the things I could have or should have said.

A couple of the students also gave short talks about their faiths. What I noticed is that they spoke in a language of religion. ‘My religion believes this or that, these are the rules/expectations.’ Nothing about love or relationship or knowing God.

This is where I struggle with other religions if I’m honest. The lack of personal relationship. Worshipping something or someone that I don’t know or am not even encouraged to understand, doesn’t do much for me. Nor does following a set of rules or trying to live to some expectation without knowing who is behind it or what it leads to.

This is the kind of religion that Paul was living out. Following rules rather than relationship. Rules without relationship makes us hard, unloving, unkind and inconsiderate. In the extremes it leads to violence and murder as in the case of Saul. This might not have been the original intent – certainly not of the Jewish faith. But if left to human devices this is where is can end up. I think that God is horrified and deeply saddened by what has been done in his name. I know that I have contributed to that in my sin and shortcomings.

Saul didn’t like Jesus. Not at all. But he also didn’t know Jesus! He had never met him. But he soon would! The most amazing, unbelievably confounding thing is that God still wants to know us and wants for us to know him. He loves us. Loves me, you, the most violent of offenders, the most ordinary of people.

Read from ‘On the Road to Damascus’

‘Saul, why don’t you like me?’
What a haunting question! I have read the ‘Saul, Saul why do you persecute me?’ as read this morning many times. But ‘Saul, why don’t you like me?’ gives this a whole different feel doesn’t it? Maybe it comes from my desire to be liked? Anyone else like to be liked?

Think about a person that you don’t like for a moment. What is it about them that you don’t like? What if they came up to you and said ‘Hey, why don’t you like me?’

Could you answer them? Would you? This is definitely a situation I would want to avoid!

How can you avoid it? Love. If we can love people, it doesn’t matter if we like them or not because love is greater than like. Liking someone certainly makes loving easier. But Christian love is not always easy. Paul knew this and expressed it so beautifully in 1 Corinthians 13.

Do you always like Jesus? Sometimes it is hard when we don’t understand why things happen they way they do. Paul didn’t like Jesus; very actively didn’t like Jesus.

But Paul didn’t know Jesus.
That is about to be rectified!

Read – On the Road to Damascus (p. 151)

As God so often does, he uses other people to help fulfil his purposes. Ananias was that person for Saul. Ananias was one of the growing number of Christians in Damascus who receives a vision in which Saul is identified and located. Ananias is asked to take care of Saul.
What a difficult ask that must have been!
Have you ever been an Ananias to someone?

There will be times in our Christian journeys when we will be asked to do difficult if not impossible things. Or seem impossible at the time. We have a choice to make – we can say yes or no. I think that if we know Jesus – then we are more likely to say yes. It is our obedience that is required – not our ability to predict the future and risk assess.

We can trust and take courage in that He will be with us. Right beside us, to lead and guide us. We can take courage that when Jesus asks something of us, he will be with us. What is asked might be difficult or beyond what we think we are capable of. That’s okay!

Paul went on the live an extraordinary life. The church was reminded of this in last week’s Week of Prayer for Christianity Unity which was written by the churches in Malta. We followed Acts 27 & 28 – the story of Paul’s shipwreck on Malta and the unusual kindness that was shown to Paul and his shipmates. Throughout the week we reflected on and prayed for: reconciliation, seeking and showing Christ’s light, keeping up our courage, trusting and not being afraid, keeping up our strength, hospitality, transformation and giving and receiving generosity. Paul demonstrated and experienced all of these things throughout his ministry. These are a few of the ways that Jesus made a difference in his life.

What difference has Jesus made in your life? That is the question for today. Whether your conversion was big (like Saul’s) or a more low-key affair (like many of us), Jesus meets with us in the way we need him to – he is very good at getting our attention! Whether we know it or not. Jesus should make a difference! He did for Saul now Paul.

Think again about why you might not like Jesus. Do I really know him? The Christian journey is very much about learning to know and love God. To recognize Him in the people we meet and the circumstances we find ourselves in. He is there!

Sometimes we will be asked to do difficult things by God. But he is with us. Jesus was with Ananias as he went to find Saul and restore his vision despite knowing the awful things he had done to Christians. Ananias probably had no idea of what was to come for Saul-now-Paul and yet demonstrates obedience despite unknowing.

As we celebrate the conversion of Paul today, let’s celebrate our conversions too and the difference that Jesus makes.
Read – On the Road to Damascus