Mark 4. 26-34
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning, Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
13 June 2021
This week when I was walking our dog, Bridey, on a dirt trail near our house, I was astounded to see how high the various grasses have grown, and not just on the sides of the path, but even sprouting up in the cracked, parched soil that benefitted from a couple of wet weeks late in May. “The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” Our seasonal cycle is off to a roaring start with all of the moisture we’ve had, and I know that we’ll soon see our vegetables sprouting and blooming. And they all start with seed and are nourished by healthy soil, sun, and water.
You may know the lovely poem by Wendell Berry, called “Sabbaths.” Here are a few lines of this poem that describes the intersection of human work in sowing, tilling, and harvest and the work of God: “And yet no leaf or grain is filled by work of ours; the field is tilled and left to grace. That we may reap, great work is done while we’re asleep. When we work well, a Sabbath mood rests on our day, and finds it good.”
There is so much that we humans affect in plant growth…that is the nature of agriculture, going right back to the Near East millennia ago. And yet there are things that are well beyond our control, things that we should marvel at and see as everyday miracles, like the fertility of the earth, the diversity of plant and animal life, the abundance of water, air, and land. And there are enormous implications for the ways we act as stewards of creation…and that’s a sermon for another day.
There is also a miraculous sense in which you and I are the vessels into which the kingdom of God — God’s liberating reign — is sown and nourished. If you were to think of yourself as a container of potting soil and the Spirit placing one tiny seed within you, isn’t it amazing how that seed can either flourish or become dormant or even die? What happens to seeds that don’t have adequate soil drainage? or don’t get enough water? or get too much or too little sun? or get nipped by the frost? There are all kinds of ways that the seed of the Spirit within you needs tending, some that you may not even be aware of.
Like all good gardening, nurturing the seed of the Spirit within you takes some intention. Nurture is the place where transformation and spiritual growth happen. How do you weed and water the seed of the Spirit within you? We need to love and to be loved, to serve and to be served as part of our growing. We need times of quiet contemplation and times of action to stretch us spiritually. Times of prayer and spiritual practice can help us distinguish what is important in life from that which is simply urgent. And it’s not always pleasant experiences that cause us to grow…surviving and thriving in hard times can sometimes help spiritual seeds grow stronger, too. Part of our purpose as the folks who comprise the church is to keep reorienting us so that we face toward God and grow spiritually.
Have you ever thought of yourself as a vessel that contains a germinating seed of holiness and wholeness? Paul uses a related analogy in Second Corinthians: “We have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” Each of us is an imperfect vessel that grows and spreads God’s love for creation, including humanity.
All of this nurture wouldn’t do much of anything if there hadn’t been a seed of spirituality sown within us by God. As Wendell Berry said, “no leaf or grain is filled by work of ours; the field is tilled and left to grace.” Spiritual growth is a cooperative venture between God and us.
So, what if the seed has been planted within you is a fast-growing, take-over-the-garden kind of plant? Years ago, a neighbor gave us some mint, which we planted in a planter, and in the years since, it has jumped to a patch under some shrubs, the gaps in our patio, and turned into a minty-smelly border in our lawn. (A friend once said that it’s impossible to steal mint…you’re doing someone a favor by ripping some of theirs up and taking it home!)
That’s kind of what the mustard plant Jesus describes is like. It isn’t a nice, little domesticated plant that might be used to produce French’s, or Gulden’s, or even Grey Poupon…it’s more of a noxious weed that takes over the garden. Here is what one ancient author, Pliny the Elder, wrote in the first century: “with its pungent taste and fiery effect [it] is extremely beneficial for the health. It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand, when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.” (Pliny, incidentally, took the National Geographic thing too seriously, and was killed by getting too close while investigating the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D.)
So, the kingdom of God is like a noxious weed that is really potent and has a “fiery effect” and that will probably take over your garden if it gets too close. And if that is the seed God planted within us as Christians, we should be a force to be reckoned with!
Dom Crossan often talks about “the normalcy of civilization,” by which he means the things that humans have done ever since we started cultivating crops and raising livestock instead of hunting and gathering. He contends that one of the marks of the normalcy of civilization is empire: taking for your own group or nation what another has. It is survival of the fittest culture in a dog-eat-dog world. Certainly, one can see the Roman or Babylonian Empire as examples of one culture controlling the land and people of another and cashing in on it. You can see how the British did that in India or how the Japanese did it in the Pacific in the 1930s or how Europeans did it with North and South America. The Greek word used in the New Testament for empire is “basileia,” which is the same word we translate as “kingdom,” as in the kingdom of God. That is critically important: When the author of Mark writes, basileia, he is using the same word to describe the Roman Empire. It’s the way of rule or reign, not necessarily a geographic location. And the contrast is dramatic between the basileia tou theou, the reign of God, and the reign of Caesar.
The reign of Caesar was about dominating conquered peoples, resettling their land, creating a system of military control that allowed everything to work. It was a system that aimed at eventual peace, gained through violence, war, and oppression. The realm of God reverses that by first seeking love, compassion, abundance, connection, justice, and commonwealth as a pathway to peace or shalom. The two systems couldn’t be more different!
The writer of Luke’s gospel puts it succinctly: “The kingdom of God is within you all.” Think about that for a moment…the seeds of God’s liberating reign are in all of us.
Sometimes I wonder whether we Christians actually have two seeds planted within us: the seed of the reign of God and the seed of the normalcy of civilization or empire. Do you ever wonder what is growing in you? Is it a sense of abundance or scarcity? Is it faith or fear? Is it compassion or apathy? Is it generosity or greed? Is it love or is it self-centeredness? Is it courage or is it anxious worry?
If we do all have the seeds of the realm of God and the normalcy of civilization planted within us, which seed are you nurturing? If the pandemic has led us to water the seed of fear, apathy, and anxiousness, that is the seed that will take hold and grow within us. If we water and tend the seed of the reign of God, we will see the fruits of faith, love, and courage in our lives and in the world.
That tiny mustard seed within each of us needs love and attention to flourish and grow. That’s why we are here together as church! And as it grows in you, it will reach out beyond you and have effects far and wide. Always remember: “The kingdom of God is within you.”
© 2021 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
 2 Corinthians 4.7
 see John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography,(SF: HarperSanFrancisco, 1993) p. 65.
 Luke 17.20
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.