How does your garden grow?

Pentecost 3 – 2015

Mark 4:26-34

Marian Free

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen. 

For at least the last forty-five years I have been involved in discussions about the future of the church. In particular, I have observed and been party to a lot of navel gazing in relation to declining attendance on Sundays and a variety of suggestions as to how we might halt that decline. Numerous reasons have been offered for this parlous state of affairs – women returning to the workforce, television, Sunday sport and Sunday trading – to mention a just a few. The liturgy has also been blamed for a downturn in attendance. In particular, there are those who express a concern that our form of worship doesn’t appeal to young people. As a consequence there have been a variety of attempts to address this problem, ranging from Folk Masses in the 60’s to Twitter Masses in the last decade.

Focus on the liturgy has not been the only response to this perceived crisis in the life of the church. Programme after programme has been rolled out, each with a degree of optimism that suggests that this time we have the right formula and one that will bring people back to the church. Sadly, over time, these programmes fall into disuse and distant memory as they fail to live up to their promise. Church attendance remains at best static and worse continues to decline.

The cynic in me wonders whether our concern with church attendance has more to do with maintaining the institution of the church than it does with spreading the gospel message, more to do with us and less to do with God. At the very least it implies that without our help God will simply fade into insignificance, that without the church there will be no God!

A perusal of the Gospels reveals that, unlike us, Jesus was not concerned with the religious practice of the people – how often they went to the Temple, or whether or not they attended the synagogue on a regular basis. Jesus seems to be more concerned that the crowds understand the liberating power of the gospel. The Gospels record that Jesus set people free from their diseases and infirmities; he released them from the power of evil spirits and he liberated them from a false understanding of the scriptures and from the misleading teaching of the leaders of the church. Above all, Jesus was concerned that the people fully understood the nature of the Kingdom of God (or heaven).

Jesus himself proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had come near (Mark 1:15) and when Jesus sent out the disciples, he gave them authority over unclean spirits. The disciples proclaimed repentance, cast out demons and anointed and cured the sick (Mk 6:6-13). They did not concern themselves with filling church (synagogue) pews.

Jesus’ primary concern was the Kingdom of God and most of the parables relate to this theme. These parables begin: “The Kingdom of God is like – a sower, a seed, a woman, a shepherd ..”. From all of these images, his listeners were able to build a picture of the kingdom of God in which the lost are sought and found, growth is secret and more abundant than expected, weeds will grow together with the wheat, debts are forgiven and the first will be last. Moreover, the kingdom will be worth more than everything that we own and we will give all that we have to possess it.

The parables do not say or even imply that the Kingdom of God will consist of full churches or of dioceses that are financially secure. The signs of the Kingdom are much more subtle and unexpected. More than that the Kingdom, according to Jesus, is not ours to build, but always God’s. It is the Kingdom of God, not the kingdom of the church and of church-goers. We seem to have convinced ourselves that the Kingdom is entirely dependent on the existence of the church and lost sight of whose Kingdom it is and that we expend far too much time concerned with the survival of the institution of the church and far too little time announcing the kingdom of God as an alternative to the kingdom of this world.

This morning’s parables are particularly challenging in a climate that is focused on church growth. The first, the parable of the sower, is a stark reminder that the growth of the Kingdom is entirely determined by God and not by human effort (‘the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how’). The second, the parable of the mustard seed, confronts us with the idea that to an untrained eye the Kingdom might look like an insignificant herb or weed – nothing like the images that “Kingdom” usually calls to mind. In other words, whatever the Kingdom is, it will not be as we expect.

In the light of these parables, perhaps it is time that we, the church, stopped looking inwards, trying to tweak what we do on a Sunday morning so that it becomes more attractive to more people; time that we moved out from our beautiful buildings into the communities around us; time that, instead of trying to persuade people to come to us that, we found ways to set people free from the chains of individualism, consumerism, ambition, from oppression, injustice and violence.

Above all it is time to take a deep breath and to remember that it is God (not us) who will cause the Kingdom of God to grow and that in ways that we may not see or understand. It is time to recall that the Kingdom that will be unlike any other Kingdom that has preceded it. If we cannot imagine it, we certainly cannot build it. In other words, perhaps it is time to relax, to stop struggling for survival; to let go and let God and then to watch in amazement to see what God will do and then to go wherever God may take us.

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