You may listen to Mother Erika's sermon here.
Several years ago, the BBC released an epic documentary series entitled “Planet Earth.” This production was the culmination of five years of extraordinarily intense work. Film crews traveled to the ends of the earth with high definition camera equipment in hand to record some of the rarest and most beautiful sights on the planet. They sat in blinds for months to capture the mating dance of a shy jungle bird, they weathered storms and ice to get just a few moments of footage of the rare snow leopard, they dangled out of helicopters to film enormous flocks of birds as they flashed and wheeled across the sky. The series is truly stunning stuff. Like everything that the BBC does, it is, in a word, brilliant.
One of the most memorable scenes for me was of a dark, lush South American rainforest. A giant tree has just crashed to the ground, ripping open a bright hole of sunlight in the thick canopy of the jungle, and what happens next is breathtaking. In seamless, fluid, time-lapse photography, the film shows us what the narrator calls the “race to the light.” Suddenly awakened by this shocking stream of sunlight, plants of all shapes and sizes start growing as fast as they possibly can, pushing up slender stems from the rich black earth, stretching and reaching as far as they can, wrapping long tendrils around tree trunks and pushing their fat leaves in the faces of other plants that are trying to grow just as fast as they are. It is an explosion of green, of plants yearning for the sun above their heads, longing to be the first green and growing thing to expand into that lone hole of light that beckons from above. And then, just as suddenly as it began, the growth stops. The hole is filled, the sun blocked out by all of the new growth, and the forest resumes its natural cycle of birth and death, of breathing out and breathing in.
It is a remarkable, stimulating, moving scene of Creation at work, a reminder that even with only the tiniest window of hope, even in a fierce plant-eat-plant world, growth happens. The conditions may be harsh, the moment of opportunity may be brief, but growth happens. We see this all the time in the city. Grass winds its way into the tiniest crack in the sidewalk and shoots up into the sun; flowers planted right on the sidewalk’s edge turn bright faces to the sky and hold on for dear life as they are whipped about by each passing truck; whole forests of majestic weeds tower in impossibly tight alleyways. With the smallest of opportunities, the narrowest of constraints, growth happens. And this, Jesus says, is just like the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is like a man who does only one little thing and then reaps a bumper crop of wheat. He scatters seed on the ground and then basically does nothing. He doesn’t hoe, he doesn’t water, he doesn’t fertilize or clear weeds or prune or pinch or run to Home Depot to get Turf Builder or Miracle Grow or some other Scott’s brand concoction. He just scatters the seed and waits. He sleeps, he rises, the sun goes up, the sun goes down, he breathes in, he breathes out…and growth happens. The seed becomes a sprout, and then the sprout becomes a stalk, and then the stalk begins to bear fruit until there is a full head of grain bursting and ready to be harvested. The man has no idea how. He has done just one small thing, and growth happens anyway. And this, we are told, is like the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God is like the tiniest of seeds that grows into the heartiest of bushes. The mustard seed is so small that when it is cast into the ground it looks less planted and more swallowed up by the earth. The mustard seed is so small that Mark tells us it is the smallest of all seeds even though it really isn’t – but that’s his point. It’s so small it should be the smallest seed on the earth; it’s so fragile, so seemingly insignificant, and yet when it grows it becomes a full, vibrant, life-giving bush, where birds find home and safety and a place to sing their songs. This sanctuary begins with just one small thing, and growth happens anyway. And this, Jesus says, is just like the kingdom of God.
The kingdom of God was ushered into this world as one, tiny, vulnerable, seemingly insignificant thing – an infant boy child born of a poor virgin in the backwater of Bethlehem. But this child sprouted and grew into a man, and began scattering seeds all over Judea – “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand.” “Your sins are forgiven you; rise up and walk.” “Do this in remembrance of me.” His disciples planted their own seeds in the offering of their teaching and their preaching and their very lives. Then Paul planted, Apollos watered, and Timothy and Barnabas and Lois and Phoebe strew their own seeds and by all of the saints through all of the years, God gave the growth. And so from this one God-made-man, this one moment, the kingdom of God has grown into a forest of mercy and love and truth. It towers around us now, with growth as majestic and as immovable as a mountain. The kingdom spreads out beneath us thick as a jungle, with green growing things of all shapes and smells, each succulent and bearing fruit. It runs to the very ends of the earth, so that each shrub and bush has room to fan out roots in rich earth, room to find a window of light open to the sun, room for birds to nest in its branches. The kingdom breathes in and breathes out all around us, night after night, day after day. The earth is filled with glory of God as the trees cover the forest and as the waters cover the sea.
And the kingdom is not finished growing. The final harvest has not yet come. You and I stand in a long line of saints and sowers, each of us charged to plant whatever seeds we have, no matter their size. There is room yet in the kingdom for what we have to give, for our own seeds of Gospel proclamation – what we do and what we don’t do; what we say and how we say it; who we choose to embrace and how; how we give of our time, how we spend our money, how we treat our bodies, how we care for Creation, how we pray, how we reach out to one another, how we look to the poor and the lonely and the sick and the prisoner and the persecuted and the voiceless, how we “proclaim God’s truth with boldness and minister his justice with compassion.” These are the kinds of seeds that you and I can plant, and tiny or not, God will use them to grow a bush, a tree, a forest, a kingdom.
So it turns out, somewhat surprisingly, that today’s parables are not just about planting and growing. They are not just about size and production and harvest. They are also, most profoundly, about fear, about how you and I need have no fear for the kingdom of God or for our place in it. The kingdom will grow, because when God is involved, growth happens. We need not fear that our words are too silly, too insignificant, too small. We just need to plant them anyway, and let God grow them how he will. We need not fear that our ideas aren’t thriving and will never come to anything. We just need to wait and watch as the sower did, paying attention to them as they germinate in the darkness, noticing what they look like when they begin to sprout, and keeping a close eye on them when they begin to bear fruit. And we need not fear even when we see some part of the kingdom topple over, because each such fall leaves behind it a hole where the Son can pour through, an open space for new growth that sprouts and dances and bends into the light. We need not fear. Growth happens, for God gives the growth.
What would you do if you had no fear? What seeds would you plant if you had no fear that they would take root and grow? How would you live if you wholly trusted God to grow good things? Imagine what you would do, what you would say, who you would feed, what good news you would share if you had no fear – and then ask yourself why not? Why not grab your seeds and go? Go out into the city and plant your seeds with boldness. Keep watch for them to grow and bear fruit. And while you’re out there, take a good look at the kingdom of God that is already green and lush and growing all around you. And give thanks. Because it’s a wonderful, beautiful, grace-filled and glorious jungle out there.
Preached by Mother Erika Takacs
17 June 2012
Saint Mark's Church, Philadelphia