The Third Sunday after Pentecost
Watch the sermon here.
This last week we watched the film ‘Inception’ for our Friday Family Film Night. Mostly we agreed it wasn’t the best movie, for a variety of reasons. But the story revolves around an interesting Big Idea, about the state we go into in our dreams, and whether it might be possible to manipulate someone else’s dream to achieve a certain result. In the film, the main character goes into another man’s dream in order to plant an idea, a seed of an idea, with the aim of shaping that man’s actions. Deep inside his subconscious, a seed is planted, and it grows enough to change a major decision the man makes later in the film. He thinks it’s his own independent decision – but the audience knows it wasn’t at all.
Planting an idea in someone’s head is not a novel concept, of course. Think of the play Othello, when the villain Iago plants the idea of Desdemona’s unfaithfulness in Othello’s brain, with disastrous results. Or perhaps you’ve heard this one: If I were to say to you, whatever you do, don’t think of a large purple elephant, what would you think of? A large purple elephant – because I’ve planted the seed of that idea in your mind. Even without going into dreams, we can manipulate and be manipulated. Before we’ve even consciously reacted or responded, a seed can be planted that changes how we think, feel, act.
I’m thinking about all of that because our readings today, appropriate for the start of summer, are all about planting and transplanting to bring about change, to make the world into what God wants. The prophet Ezekiel tells a parable about God taking part of a huge cedar tree and rooting it to grow into its own tree, a noble tree that will bear fruit, and that birds will take shelter in: God’s chosen nation, to bring blessing to the earth. In the gospel, Jesus tells parables about seed sown for the harvest, and a mustard seed that sprouts into a huge bush – both of these images for the kingdom of God.
Any gardeners here today? Houseplants count. I have an increasing number of houseplants because I am nearly obsessed with rerooting my plants when a piece breaks off or is pruned. I can’t just throw the branch away – I’ve always got to stick it in water or dirt and see if it will start a new plant, even when I don’t really care for the original plant that much. So I love thinking about God doing the same thing. But I’m fairly useless with seeds, and that seems to run in the family. Every time the kids have brought home some project involving a seed and a pot, we’ve all failed to make it sprout. I think there’s a truth here about how my brain works, too – I can always expand and improve upon another person’s idea, but I don’t often come up with truly new ideas on my own. Give me a branch to root and plant, and I’m great. Ask me to sprout a seed, and nothing happens.
But I digress. Ezekiel and Jesus are really talking about the same thing in their different parables: God is doing something new, and it’s taking root and growing. You could say that Jesus wants to plant a seed in our minds just like the character in ‘Inception.’ But he’s not doing it in order to manipulate us. He wants to plant the seed of the kingdom of God – or what we also call the reign of God, or the commonwealth of God, the world as God wills it to be – and to watch as that seed grows into a life that can change the world.
Last week the St Michael’s outreach committee met and talked about how to inspire service and outreach here in our parish. Being a Christian means seeking and serving Christ in other people, like our baptismal vows say. But we can all get ourselves so busy with other things, the constant go-go achievement focus of our lives and all the complexities of our daily schedules – which are already filling back up again after that long hiatus during the shutdown. Our busyness and distraction is one reason it can be difficult to get enough volunteers to help with our Saturday Kitchen meal, or our various other ministries at church – everyone thinks they’re important to do, but few make the time to do them. The committee thought that we might need more preaching that reminds us that service is part of the Christian life – to see if by saying it more often, we might more effectively plant that seed, if you will. Jesus’ teaching, and much of scripture, is very clear: We have a mandate to care for the poor and vulnerable among us, heal broken systems, restore creation – to change the world and make it a better place.
But sometimes we can get pretty focused on our need to change the world and forget that it’s not something we do all on our own. We have a vision in our mind of how the world should be, and we can make ourselves believe that if we just vote for the right candidate, use the right words, design the perfect program, we’ll get there. We try hard to manipulate things to make our idea grow – and then we’re so disappointed when the idea of a better world doesn’t bear fruit. Try as we might, we can’t argue the kingdom of God into existence, no matter how clever our rhetoric; we can’t get everyone to always see it our way, even if we really do think we’ve got the solution. And so we exhaust ourselves trying.
But the parables today are about what God is up to – not us. It’s God who grows the new tree from the cutting of the old one. The seed is planted and grows, not because of anything the farmer does, but just because. The mustard seed, tiny as it is, grows into a great big bush – a weed that’s unstoppable, no thanks to us.
These parables are reminders about the power of God at work in the world – at work in the simple amazing miracles of life, and in our own lives as well. The kingdom of God just happens, like a weed. With us or without us, these parables are telling us, God is bringing about God’s beloved community. We don’t make the seed grow; we don’t make the roots take hold from the cuttings; we just watch it unfold.
But, it’s clear, we have a part in what God is up to. There’s that other parable Jesus tells, about the different kinds of soil, and how the seed only grows well in some of them. We can improve the conditions for God’s seed to grow – we can tend our soil with prayer and quiet and nourishing friendships; we can pull up the brambles of sabotaging behaviors that get in the way; we can shoo away the birds of cynicism and selfishness that might try to destroy or consume it. We can reach out our hands to care for others, to show them love, to offer what we can to make their lives easier. We can do our own work on our own selves, our priorities, our lives – really the only thing we have any control over at all.
But still, in the end, the reign of God is not of our doing. The seed is sown, it grows and flourishes, and then God invites us to take part in the harvest, to be nourished with the grain, to make our nests in the shade – not to create and control it all. Before we do anything, God has done it. Our actions of love and care and outreach, all we do to build the beloved community, all of it comes first from the love of God for us and for this world. God’s love is what makes it possible for us to love. God’s image, planted within us, is what enables us to love and serve and create. We don’t do it on our own.
God’s always planting seeds, liberally and extravagantly. The harvest is always abundant – there is always more than enough. And God bids us: Come to the table, eat and be satisfied, rest in prayer. And then go to share the harvest. Fed and sustained, go and feed others – because that’s what God’s already doing anyway. May God richly bless all we do together in Christ’s name. Amen.