Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself.

Would that that were so with anything I try to grow!

I must admit, I’m no expert in the ways of horticulture, but it’s that time of year where everything seems just to miraculously pop up. Driving around the fields of rural Ohio, I find myself more and more out of my depth with regard to the agricultural imagery in scripture. “Weren’t these parables meant to speak to our own experiences in ways with which we could relate?,” I thought. Well, I have a hard time relating.

We are meant to relate to these stories, and Jesus and his apostles used all sorts of metaphors to appeal to different sorts of audiences. For urban audiences Jesus and the apostles used urban imagery for the Kingdom of God- “the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” of which the writer of Hebrews speaks and which serves as the dominant metaphor in Revelation as well as in Luke’s Gospel.

On the other hand we findeven more agricultural imagery for the Kingdom of God in the scriptures. This is especially so in Mark. The kingdom of God is like a mustard plant or a fig tree or a vineyard. Anyway, we see both types of imagery, both metaphors, throughout the New Testament, and it was probably because, just as the Church does (or ought to do) today, wherever Jesus or his disciples happened to be they were attempting to make their point in contextually appropriate ways. A farmer in some far-flung corner of first century Palestine probably wouldn’t have any way to conceptualize golden streets and the like, or at least it wouldn’t have meant as much to him as some other metaphor. A merchant in Jerusalem or Rome, or a twenty-first century priest who knows next to nothing about farming, on the other hand, might be lost if he were confronted with metaphors dependent on knowing the particularities of planting and reaping crops.

All that said, I don’t know if a modern farmer would relate to the metaphor or not, whether this experience of apparently automatic growth rings true or if the he must baby his crops along during the growing season. I do know, however, that a great deal is out of his hands in that process, dependent on rain and temperature and other factors he must simply accept. Thanks to modern science, I suspect farmers today probably basically know more about how the crop gets from a little seedling to a plant large enough to harvest than did a first-century farmer, but I wonder if that makes it any less amazing when it happens. Despite knowing the physical processes by which this growth takes place, the phenomenon itself can be breathtaking and even mysterious. The farmer planted the field and it just seemed to grow. Day after day, the crop kept getting bigger and he didn’t know how it happened, or even if he did, it was still pretty amazing.

So it is with the Kingdom of God. There’s little we can do to make it happen. In fact, the best thing to do, in some sense, is to get out of the way and let it happen. Like the seed which the farmer spread the Kingdom of God undergoes a mysterious growth. “The earth produces of itself” Jesus said. The Kingdom of God comes about of its own volition, not ours.

This may seem simple enough, but in fact there was a group in the Church during its early years which held precisely the opposite view. These people were called Pelagians, because their leader was the fourth century British monk Pelagius. The Pelagians believed that humankind was so free that it was ultimately capable of saving itself. The Kingdom of God, for Pelagians, was something which the Church was meant to build.

Lest we think we are a lot smarter than those benighted heretics of the fourth century, this very same idea has been extremely popular in modern times. I know this is one of my hobby horses, so I’ll spare you yet another harangue about the mistakes of nineteenth century liberal protestantism. The point is that the same mistake is made by many contemporary believers, and even theologians, who place more emphasis on what we do than what God does, and this is dangerous territory.

This does not, however, mean that we’re off the hook entirely. While on the one hand the seed sprouted and grew he knew not how and the earth produced of itself, it is important to note that the farmer spread the seed to begin with. While we cannot take responsibility for building the Kingdom of God, while it is sheer hubris to take credit for that which only God can do, we nonetheless have a role to play. The fact that God alone brings about our salvation, that He alone is the efficient cause of the Kingdom, does not get us off the hook and permit sloth or quietism.

Hear what St. Paul says in his first letter to the Corinthians:

I planted, Apol’los watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Paul does not degrade his own efforts or those of his fellow apostle and assumed rival Apollos. Rather, he puts those efforts into the proper context. He does not say that human efforts at building up the Church are in vain, but that those efforts are used by God to His ends. There is a strong sense of cooperation in Paul’s account of human effort: “We are God’s fellow workers”, he says.

It seems that this is the case because even though sin disables us, even though it means we cannot do anything without God, we were in some sense made to cooperate with God. The creation story in Genesis tells us that we was made in the image of God. One way of understanding this is that we were made with the same creative capacity as God. God is the Creator, and we, His creation, are also given the ability to be creative. We may work alongside God in His continual, creative effort to make all things new in Christ Jesus. Whether any given one of us is more suited to planting or watering, to serve God through teaching or leading or evangelizing or any of the other gifts which the HolyoHoly Spirit might give us, our precise role in God’s plan is a matter for discernment. What is sure, though, is that we are simultaneously called to cooperate in some way with God and to recognize that God alone gives the growth.

And whether any of us is terribly good at planting or watering or whatever, we can take comfort in the fact that God’s Providence will give the growth in miraculous ways. Like the farmer who just spread seeds and waited or the mustard seed which became a great plant, what God accomplishes will amaze us when on the last day we behold it. For now, let us be content to do a little, put one seed into the ground or dig one hole for the Kingdom, knowing that nothing good that we do, though it be dwarfed by what God Himself does, will be lost for eternity, but will remain in the life of the world to come. For these good works are not really ours, but they are the effect of God working in us infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.

+In the name of the Father and of the Son of the and Holy Spirit. Amen.