We begin today with a wee story.
Picture this: in a dream you are walking along a street and on the corner you spot a shop. It is a rather insignificant shop, not nearly so big or so brightly coloured as the other shops. It has a small difficult-to-find doorway but you are intrigued and so you go over to the window to look inside. The window is also very insignificant. The other shops have all sorts of interesting and colourful things in their window display: Really eye-catching clothes and toys and games and books, pictures of holidays and houses and beautiful furniture. The little shop on the corner is not nearly so interesting on the outside, but you’re a bit fed up of the High Street and all that it can offer so you go for a closer look. There’s not much to see; only a little sign that says that all are welcome and that everything is free. You are amazed and decide to have a peek inside. The door opens easily and you go in. Behind the counter there’s an angel. The angel asks what it is you want and so you reply,
‘What have you got?’
‘Everything,’ says the angel.
And so you think carefully about what you would really want, what would make your life and, because you’re a good and thoughtful person, the life of the world, better and so you list all your heart’s desires. It’s a list a bit like the ones that Miss World candidates used to have, including world peace and everything associated with it. So you say you would like an end to hunger and poverty, an end to disease and war and division, that all people might live together in harmony. You say you would like equality and love to be the order of the day, for lying and cheating and self-seeking power-mongering to end. The angel listens carefully and smiles enigmatically. He waits till you’ve finished your list and says:
‘These are all wonderful things and I’m with you in your list, I agree with it all, but I’m afraid you have misunderstood. In this shop we don’t sell the fruit, only the seeds. You can have them for nothing, but you must plant them yourself. The instructions are on the packet. God will water and feed the seed and you can watch it grow. And in time, with love, patience and faith then all these things will come to pass and your garden will be the most beautiful and the most fruitful of all time.’
What does our modern day parable tell us about the Church and about us?
Well, let’s start with our Bible readings. After all, that’s where every Christian should start when they are thinking about how they are called to live their lives. Most of us are here today because we find we can’t live in the world as Christians without some help, and so we come together regularly to look for God’s word, to hear the stories of his relationship with humankind and to ask God’s Holy Spirit to help us live out our faith on a day-to-day basis. So continuing the analogy of seeds and growth, what kind of instructions for growth do we have today on our seed packet?
First of all, our letter to the Corinthians, written (if you remember) to a persecuted Church in the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ. The letter tells the young Church in Corinth that being a Christian makes you a new person. It says that under Jesus Christ, Christians start to judge the world and its people by different standards. ‘With us therefore worldly standards have ceased to count in our estimate of anyone.’ It tells us we should be controlled by love and that our saviour Jesus Christ died for us all. This portion of the letter concludes by telling us that we are invited to be a part of a ministry of reconciliation. We as heirs of that young Church, are still working on it. It’s very much a work in progress. How far have we got and what is there still to do? Well, I think it’s true to say that we are still often tied up with the standards of the world. We are guilty at times of judging people by their standing in the eyes of the world. We could be accused of seeking out the powerful and the rich and giving them important places at our tables. And where have we got to with our ministry of reconciliation? There have been wonderful times in our recent history when we have healed old wounds and come together with others but currently we are faltering, wouldn’t you say?
Over the last year we have seen the beginning of a process of fragmentation and division. The congregation and minister of St George’s Tron Church is about to secede from the Church of Scotland and now there will be some kind of legal battle. I don’t know the details of the legal case but I suspect it will be over the ownership of the very prestigious suite of buildings, including a well-appointed manse and halls. And so at this time in our history, as far as a ministry of reconciliation is concerned, we are engaged in quite the opposite!
Our reading from Mark’s Gospel consists of two parables on the subject of growth and the kingdom of God. How does the kingdom of God come to pass? How does it grow? How does it grow within the individual and how does it grow within a community? The first parable is difficult to explain and there are a lot of different interpretations but that’s okay because that’s the wonderful thing about parables. They may well have more than one meaning depending on the situation of the reader at the time. The Holy Spirit works with the Word within our differing situations to grant us understanding. In my reading of the situation our Church is in just now and alongside our text from Corinthians, this parable tells me not to be discouraged. God is in charge of the growing seed, for the farmer does little to tend it. The earth produces of itself, first the blade and then the ear and then the full grown plant appears and the farmer doesn’t know how it happened. God is working away in the affairs of humanity, so do not be afraid, neither be discouraged. Do not give up!
The second parable talks about the mustard seed. Never prejudge the results. The size and insignificance of the seed bears no relations to the magnificence of the plant that will eventually appear when God has done his work!
Well, this is all sounding rather contradictory alongside other parts of the Gospel! On the one hand we’re told there are lots of things we have to do to take care of the seeds of faith and on the other that we simply have to sit back and watch it grow.The Christian life can be full of seeming contradictions but it’s that way because we’re still working at it. We haven’t got all the answers yet, whether it’s on the inerrancy of scripture or the efficacy of same-sex relationships. We’re still in a process of discernment.
A letter to the Herald newspaper yesterday on this subject referred to the First Act Declaratory of our Church, the Church of Scotland, our foundational document. And that Act states (and I quote) ‘trusting in the promised renewal and guidance of the Holy Spirit. The Church of Scotland adheres to the Scottish Reformation and to the Word of God which is contained in the scriptures of the Old and New Testament as its supreme rule of faith and life.’ The Word is contained in the scriptures; it is not in fact the scriptures. We may be people of the book but we don’t worship the book itself because that would be idolatry. We are still working out what that Word is on many matters. If only it were as simple as reading out a list of instructions on a packet of seeds. That’s why we have been given the Holy Spirit. The words on the page are not enough. We need prayer and faith and discernment to cultivate the gifts of the Spirit in our growth as a Church. The angel in the shop can give us the seeds for free but we need to wait for God and work together with patience and tolerance and love before the fruit can appear. ‘Do not be discouraged’, says our Lord Jesus Christ. God will tend our little seeds and in time they will grow into a huge and beautiful tree so large that birds of all kinds can nest in its branches.