Psalm 92, Ezekiel 17: 22-end, 2 Corinthians 5: 6-17, Mark 4: 26-34
In our gospel reading from Mark today we have heard the account of Jesus telling his disciples two parables: the parable of the Growing Seed and the parable of the Mustard Seed. As always, his parables are given in order to reveal something of the nature of the Kingdom of God. Mark would clearly have expected his readers, or listeners, to have understood the first of these two parables, that of the Growing Seed, in the light of the more well-known parable earlier on in the same chapter, that of the parable of the Sower. The parable of the Sower at the beginning of chapter four in Mark is clearly significant: it appears in all three synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke. Here Jesus openly explains the meaning of the parable to his disciples. The focus is on the hallmarks of Christian discipleship. The seed sown by the sower is the word of God. At first some people gladly receive the word, but then fall away. Jesus goes on to explain in detail all the things that can cause people to fall away, such as the thorns of worldly cares and so on. Whereas the seed that falls on good ground represents those with honest and good hearts who hear the word and keep it: they put it into practice in their daily lives and bear fruit abundantly.
Jesus here at the end of the parable of the sower describes the true disciple who is not overcome by distractions and temptations, but perseveres and grows through such temptations in honest discipleship. And there is a challenge for us. Can we be like that? Let’s remember however that the parables of Jesus are above all about God and the Kingdom. The point is that the sower sows abundantly, in all directions, regardless, without discrimination. God’s loving gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ is for all, and God longs for all to respond. We may at times be distracted by the thorns of worldly cares, but in Christ’s strength and Christ’s alone we may persevere and bear fruit with patience, all to the glory of God.
But we are human and sometimes we fail. The reasons for falling away as described in the parable of the sower might be classically described in terms of that triad of “the world, the flesh and the devil”. Of these three aspects of temptation the sixteenth century Spanish mystic, religious and priest-poet St John of the Cross wrote:
“The world is the enemy least difficult to conquer, the devil is the hardest to understand, the flesh is the most tenacious”.
In order to overcome such temptations much patient endurance is required, and this will involve suffering.
So the parable of the Sower earlier on in chapter four of Mark’s gospel is the context for the two shorter parables we have as today’s gospel reading. Today’s parable of the Growing Seed explicitly acknowledges God’s initiative in making the kingdom grow. Here someone scatters seed and then goes to sleep. Meanwhile the seed sprouts and grows, without the sower knowing how. In the same way, God will use our small efforts to serve God and proclaim God’s love, going beyond even our greatest imaginings. We should not be too disheartened if our efforts seem to come to very little. God knows how to use even a little, and bring about great good.
The second of our two short parables for today, that of the Mustard Seed, emphasises that the growth of God’s kingdom is for the benefit of others. Just as birds will come and nest in the branches of the shrub when it is full grown, so others will be drawn to God’s kingdom by the efforts of those who go before them.
What is this Kingdom of God that Jesus proclaims so frequently in his teaching and preaching? A kingdom implies a rule. God’s rule, ultimately, is that of Love. God in Christ is continually reaching out to us and inviting us to share in that love that fills the Godhead. But sometimes we hesitate. This is beautifully expressed in a poem by the seventeenth century Anglican poet-priest George Herbert, entitled Love:
Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked anything.
“A guest”, I answered, “worthy to be here”.
Love said, “You shall be he”.
“I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on thee”.
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
“Who made the eyes but I?”
“Truth, Lord, but I have marred them; let my shame
Go where it doth deserve”.
“And know you not”, says Love, “who bore the blame?”
“My dear, then I will serve”.
“You must sit down”, says Love, “and taste my meat”.
So I did sit and eat.
We live in testing times. With the growing spread of new variants of the pandemic Covid 19 virus, we may need to wait some more weeks before further restrictions are eased in the current lockdown. The eyes of the world have been fixed these last few days on the G7 summit in Cornwall, at which the leaders of many of the wealthiest liberal democracies have been discussing matters of global importance. The Queen and members of the Royal Family were also involved. Whatever decisions are made, whatever actions taken, it is important that they are made, as Prince Charles said, for the good of the planet. And that they are made in love, that is, for the good of the other. As our collect for today puts it, God has taught us “that all our doings without love are nothing worth”. Today, as we gather in this eucharist in these unusual times, may we do so with love and expectancy in our hearts, and may we, at the Lord’s bidding, gladly “sit and eat”. Rev Sister Margaret Anne ASSP