Living in a condo has its benefits and drawbacks. Among the drawbacks is not having a yard with space to grow a garden. Among the benefits is not having a yard and a garden to take care of. Right now I have eleven containers of various shapes and sizes arranged on my patio and deck. They are filled with flowers and herbs that will hopefully satisfy my desires for a garden this season.
My first attempt to create a vegetable garden began with much enthusiasm. I identified a spot in the backyard of the old brick church parsonage where I lived. I borrowed a roto-tiller and prepared the soil and planted little tomato seedlings and watered them tenderly. Then I completely forgot about the garden. Maybe I was just busy, or maybe the fenced-in backyard was just too far out of sight. Many weeks later, I wandered into the yard and discovered a forest of tomato plants that had produced enormous tomatoes, most of which were now rotting on the ground.
I’ve become a more responsible gardener since then, but the one of the stories of Jesus actually speaks in my defense: “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, but she does not know how.” I don’t know how those seeds managed to grow without any particular effort, and certainly with no careful tending on my part. They just did. That is a testimony to the power of everything that lives, and it is a picture of the Realm of God.
“Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? With silver bells and cockleshells, and pretty maids all in a row.” There is some debate about the historical and political implications of what most of us learned as a simple nursery rhyme while children. Many believe that “Mary, Mary” is Mary Tudor, sometimes referred to as “Bloody Mary”, the daughter of King Henry the 8th who re-established Catholicism in England. The silver bells and cockleshells in this scenario were instruments of torture used against Protestants, and the pretty maids all in a row were Roman Catholic nuns. Who knew? Doesn’t sound like a very pleasant garden, let alone a suitable poem for small children!
How does your garden grow? Jesus was asked a lot of questions as he wandered around Palestine. Many of the stories that we know as parables were framed to answer questions like “Who is my neighbor?” As Jesus spoke about a new reality that was breaking out all around him, perhaps someone asked a question: How does that reality, that kingdom, that garden, that realm grow? So he spoke of seeds and plants and harvest.
A repeated theme of the parables which is also a central, if not the central message of Jesus is The Realm of God which has most often been phrased as The Kingdom of God. I prefer to use the term “Realm” rather than “Kingdom” because of the political associations easily attached to the latter. Kingdoms are generally understood in terms of dominance and control, with subjects dependent on the benevolence of kings and queens and princes, etc. Jesus did not speak of a kingdom where serfs groveled before lords, but instead created word pictures of a place – a realm – where all share fully in the abundance of God.
Maybe one definition of God’s realm could be this: The realm of God is the place, the time, or the essence of God’s positive influence in our world.
Two short parables are included in today’s Gospel reading. One is about seeds that grow without any particular effort by the farmer. The other is about tiny mustard seeds that grow into very, very large plants.
These are illustrations of God’s realm and how it develops or grows over time.
Jesus said “The kingdom of God is within you.” The reading by Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and an important contemplative voice, parallels the stories of Jesus in its description of growing things. Roots and branches spread out and receive light and oxygen. Merton’s allusion to plants makes it clear that the inner life of a human person is one place where God’s realm is seen. Appropriately, the reading is from a book titled “New Seeds of Contemplation.” The seeds grow within and ultimately bear fruit, just as Jesus described.
One thing we can also say about the realm of God is that it is not a synonym for the Christian Church. For much of Christian history, there has been an uncomfortably close association made between the church and the God’s kingdom or realm. We’re singing a hymn at the close of our worship that traditionally begins with the words “I love your Kingdom, Lord, the house of thine abode, the Church our blessed redeemer saved with his own precious blood.” Our hymnal uses the more theologically nuanced words “We love your realm, O God, all places where you reign, we recognize with hope and joy the world as your domain.” In other words, the realm of God cannot be contained within the walls of any church or within the constraints of any one religious system. God’s influence for good is shared freely with all.
Generally, God’s realm or kingdom is discussed in terms of those human beings who live as citizens of a realm that is not defined by geography or national boundaries. Although some assume that the realm of God is a synonym for heaven and the afterlife experienced there, most theologians stress the earthly aspects of God’s realm that are obvious in Jesus’ teachings. When we pray “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it’s pretty clear that we expect good things to happen in this life and not just in a life to come.
I was wondering this week why so few Christian writers have connected the natural world to the realm of God. Are we so focused on ourselves and our churches and our human systems that we forget God’s love for creation itself. How can the earth and the sky and the rivers and the ocean and the plants and the animals be anything other than expressions of God’s realm?
The realm of God, as spoken of by Jesus, is close to us and it is everywhere. And within that realm, God is doing surprising things that require simple stories in order for us to grasp them. Here are a couple of thoughts that spring from today’s parables:
What we assume is most important is not always what is most important. We see that in what Jesus describes. The farmer in the first story is doing what farmers do: planting seeds and trusting them to grow. Jesus challenges the assumption that if something good happens, it must be because of us. The farmer has responsibility to prepare the soil, plant the seeds, and be ready for harvest. But the farmer does not cause plants to grow.
Isn’t that the same for us? The most important thing we can do to expand God’s realm of justice and peace and abundance is to prepare the soil for growth, starting with ourselves. Having healthy relationships and creating organic means for sharing what is good and right is the starting point. We cannot manipulate the growth of God’s realm, but we can be the best soil that we can be.
The second story challenges us to consider what is most important within this realm. Something very small in the parable of the mustard seed becomes something amazing. We don’t know the impact that something small can have on the whole. I think we have all experienced how a simple act of kindness can make all the difference in the world for someone who is disheartened. God’s creation is also depending on our simple acts of kindness. The mega trends that affect climate are not going to change if I decide to recycle some cardboard today instead of throwing it out. But the act of being faithful in small things is part of a larger effort that changes me and contributes to a larger movement to preserve God’s creation. As we heard this morning, donating a simple, single chair to Intercambio’s new school can help provide a hand up to someone in our local immigrant community. Small things make a difference.
Gardening in God’s realm can be frightening work. It has huge implications for those we know and those we will never meet. It is working toward the transformation of society and creation, and the stakes are high. That is why it is important to do all that we are able to do with all of the power that we possess, and then let God do what only God is able to accomplish.
We are each part of God’s realm. We are each drawn to different parts of the garden, based on how we have been uniquely shaped. Some of us are drawn to garden for justice, for health, for creation care, for spirituality, and for abundance for those who have little. Where are you within that garden? What plants are you best equipped and impassioned to tend? And how can you support others in the work that they are called to do?
God’s realm is breaking out all around us. Put on your gardening gloves and fill up your watering can and pick up your trowel. Join the gardening crew that God is using to transform our world for good.