Scripture Readings: Matthew 13:24-35
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
It’s been lovely today to celebrate the Sacrament of Baptism at St Stephen’s, as we brought to the font Noah (who lives in North Kessock) and his cousin Katie (whose dad is with the RAF in England). Baptism is the way we become part of the Church. So when we baptise children, the hope is that one day, somewhere and somehow, they will find their way for themselves into being part of the church, and being followers of Jesus.
This week, children across Scotland will return to school, and next Sunday our Sunday School children will return to St Stephen’s. It’s very difficult to involve children and young people in the church nowadays, for all sorts of reasons. Often, sadly, children and their families do not feel welcome in church. The worship of the church seems boring, the activities on offer don’t compete well with the many other activities open to youngsters today. Above all, we are living in a society which seems to have lost a sense of the sacred, where religion is treated with disdain, or ignored.
Yet without the participation of children and young people, the church is failing in its mission to be welcoming to all people. In today’s baptism service, as at every baptism of children, I asked the congregation to make a promise:
[W]ill you be faithful to your calling as members of the Church of Christ, and, as Jesus welcomed the little children, will you welcome these and all other children in our fellowship so that they may grow up in the knowledge and love of Christ?
It is hard for us to make that promise today. We are downhearted that so few children, families and young people seem to want to be involved with the church. Many of you remember times when there were many more children, many more people of all ages in the church, and we fondly look back to what can seem like a golden age. We wonder what to do. Where has it all gone wrong?
But this weekend, at Gartmore in Stirlingshire, there is a large gathering of young people from across Scotland, meeting together and, no doubt, wondering about these questions, and sharing their own experiences. The National Youth Assembly has been part of the church for a couple of decades now. It provides a forum for young people to come together to worship, learn, debate and- of course- have fun. As a congregation, we are delighted to have a link to it, as one of our members, Rachel Hutcheson, has been much involved in the Youth Assembly. This past year, indeed, she has been the Moderator of the Youth Assembly, and I know she has had a fascinating time, because, like the Moderator of the General Assembly, she been involved in many activities. It’s been interesting to follow those experiences of Rachel on the internet (the other week she was with the other Moderator on a night out in Perth with the Street Pastors there). Rachel will have much to share, and much to teach us, I expect, now that her Moderatorial year is over.
If it is hard work doing youth work, however, I know that who do it- Sunday School teachers, youth group leaders, and so on- thoroughly enjoy it. And when sometimes they are asked about their motivation, many of them tell me that they are attempting to ‘plant a seed’. For many young people- when they come to a Boys’ Brigade company, or if they attend a church service with the Scouts- that is their almost their only contact with the Church. That is a chance we have to speak to them about Christ and the Gospel. It is a rare change for us to impinge on their otherwise secular existence. And so, even if the church’s youth activities often don’t bring young people straight into church membership, youth leaders like to say that they feel they are planting a seed.
‘Planting a seed’. It’s a lovely image which comes straight out of the Bible. It’s an image which Jesus often used to speak of the Kingdom of God. We’re perhaps most familiar with it in the parable Jesus tells of the farmer who sows seeds, and the seed lands in different places, and according to how good the place is, they flourish or don’t. Matthew’s Gospel has that story, but today we hear a different story, along with two other parables.
Parables are picture stories. It’s a kind of storytelling which Jesus was a genius at. He wants to speak to people of deep matters (‘things unknown since the beginning of the world’, says Matthew the Gospel writer), but he uses familiar things to speak of them. Today we heard just three of seven parable collected together in Matthew chapter 13, in which Jesus speaks of what he calls ‘the Kingdom of God’.
Behind the idea of the Kingdom of God is the sense that the world is out of joint. God may have created the world, and continues to sustain it. But we have become detached from our creator. We live in a world which hardly acknowledges God. God does the universe- but we fail to acknowledge God, and we live as though God didn’t exists, wasn’t important. As a result, we live wrongly- we hurt others, rather than loving our neighbour. We try to live for ourselves, but we end up in despair and loneliness.
Yet Jesus is convinced that God is at work in the world. Slowly, the world will return to him. ‘The Kingdom of God is among you’, he preaches. And if we will only look in the right places, if we will only allow it to happen, gradually God’s reign will re-establish itself in our broken world. Peace, justice and hope is coming, for God is at work, even in our broken world.
We heard three parables today. The last two are very short- more images than stories. Jesus tells of a man who plants a mustard seed in his field- the smallest of all seeds. But this one grows to incredible proportions- to the biggest of plants, into a tree where birds come and nest. We all know, and the people who first heard the story all knew- that mustard seeds don’t do that, they can’t grow up into trees. But Jesus uses this exaggeration to make a point about God’s kingdom. He’s saying- you do something small, plant a tiny seed, and what comes out of it is out of all proportion. That’s what the kingdom is like.
Sometimes that happens in life. A small thing grows out of all proportion to the seed that started it. I was telling someone the other day about someone I knew as a teenager, who had never been on a mountain on his life, but who joined a youth group which did a lot of hill walking and skiing. That man is now one of Scotland’s top mountaineering experts. A small move in his life- I’m bored, perhaps I’ll go with my pals to that youth group- has spawned a career he’d never imagined, a book on mountain safety, a thriving business which seen thousands of people trained in mountain skills. A huge tree from a tiny seed.
Jesus has a second image for us. This time he’s not really speaking about seeds, about another substance which causes surprising growth. You’ve all seen a woman making bread, Jesus says. She puts yeast in, and the bread will rise. This is a different sort of parable. Nothing miraculous is going on here, like the mustard seed turning into a tree. Everyone knew, in Jesus’ day, that the way to make dough rise to make tasty bread, was to add a little yeast. Nowadays we even understand the chemical processes. It’s a natural process, it’s not miraculous. But the yeast has an effect way beyond its volume- a tiny amount makes a whole batch of bread rise.
Jesus points to what the yeast does to the bread and says, again- that’s what the Kingdom is like. A small amount changes everything else. And we know that that’s also true in life. A few good people can make life better for everyone else. You probably know of people in our community who have made life better for everyone, because of the way they live, because the volunteer and get involved with helping others. Like yeast in the dough, they make the whole world rise with them. Elsewhere Jesus used a phrase about such people which has become proverbial- they were, he said, ‘the salt of the earth’. For just as a tiny amount of salt flavours the whole dish, or a wee bit of yeast can make bread rise, so a few good people can make the world a better place, can help to bring the Kingdom of God to earth.
Many of the housing schemes in the big cities around Scotland were, when they were first built after the Second World War, places which people flocked to from the slums of our old industrial cities. People have told me about how they felt that, when they moved out of a dilapidated Glasgow tenement, their new house in Carntyne or Easterhouse felt like moving to a palace in the country. There were large, light, bright modern rooms- even indoor toilets, which most people had never had before. Often there was a patch of garden that your family could all its own, or at least common grassy areas, and parks for the children to play.
But sadly, in many schemes, it did not stay that way- for various, complicated reasons. One thing that people who lived in these communities often say that their communities were disrupted later on by people whom nowadays we might called antisocial. People involved in crime or drugs. Families with apparently uncontrollable children. So part of the problem of the schemes was that just a few people could make them go wrong.
That’s the opposite of that principle that a few good people can make the world better- that a few bad people can make things go wrong. And Jesus, realist that he is, also tells us today a parable about that.
Again, the story begins with good seed: ‘The Kingdom of heaven is like this. A man sowed good seed in his field’. So far, so good. But there is a villain in this story: ‘One night, when everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. When the plants grew and the heads of grain began to form, then the weeds showed up’.
We have recently tried to reclaim some of the manse garden from trees and bushes, to make plots where we can grow vegetables and plant out with colourful shrubs. We’ve got some strawberry and rhubarb on part of the cleared ground. But a combination of a wet summer and being away on holiday has led to much of the ground being taken over by weeds that look like they came from a jungle somewhere by someone who had it in for us! Some of these weeds are taller than me- it’s all a bit of a disaster, for people like Katharina and I who don’t understand much about gardening, and aren’t able to give it a lot of time. So I have sympathy for this poor farmer in this parable.
In the parable, the weeds have been put there intentionally. It’s not just that the birds or the wind brought them, but that an ‘enemy’, someone who wished the farmer ill, for whatever reason, has strewn among the wheat seeds other seeds- weed seeds- which he know will grow alongside the crop and make life difficult. For the weeds will take the rain and the nourishment in the soil for themselves, choking the good seeds, the wheat seeds, so that our farmer has a much lower yield- which, in a poor country such as Palestine was in Jesus’ day, could have very serious consequences.
What do to do? As a very amateur gardener, my reaction to weeds is to pull them out. Before we went on holiday we had this nice plot with plants we had put in, sitting in splendid isolation with loads of freshly dug earth between them. When we got back, we could hardly see our plants for the weeds that had sprung up. And unfortunately, since we got back from holiday, my wife Katharina has been laid low with a stinker of a cold. And she’s the only one who knows the difference between the weeds and the plants we put in, we haven’t been able to get a lot of weeding done!
Exactly the same problem faces the farmer in the parable. If he just pulls out the weeds, the chances are that the good grain stalks will get pulled out as well. So when his farmhands ask if they should pull out the weeds, the farmer takes a cautious approach:
‘Do you want us to go and pull up the weeds?’ [the farmhands] asked him. ‘No,’ he answered, ‘because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them. Let the wheat and the weeds both grow together until harvest. Then I will tell the harvest workers to pull up the weeds first, tie them in bundles and burn them, and then to gather in the wheat and put it in my barn’.
Again, this Jesus speaking about familiar things to speak of the kingdom. Those of us here today are not so familiar with Middle Eastern farming practices, but we get the message. You can’t pull out the bad weeds right away, you might damage the good stalks.
And this, again, is something we know from life. A few bad eggs affect everything else. We were speaking about young people in the church earlier. A church may be blessed with enthusiastic and skilled volunteers working with their young people, with most church members making the children and young people welcome, enjoying the liveliness they bring to the church’s worship and its life together. But it only needs a few people to complain, and all is lost. ‘I’m not coming to the all-age service’. ‘I hate it when the young people’s band are playing’. ‘Something has to be done about noisy children- they’re spoiling church for me, it’s not the church I was used to’. Once people talk like that, the game’s up. It’s like an enemy has sown some weed seeds among the wheat. Just a few grumpy people in a church can make children and young people feel unwelcome, and their youth leaders demoralized. The weeds take over the young plants. And quite often the people who complain about the young people who then complain that their church isn’t growing!
Yet, in the end, I believe that the Kingdom is coming. God will prevail in the end. There will be a harvest some day- a harvest of joy and love, as people recognise their creator, and learn to live in love. Among the weeds there are flowers, stalks of wheat, signs of a better world to come, which God will nurture and do great things with.
Jesus the storyteller came to a sticky end. He spoke of love and forgiveness, but his enemies were like weeds who surrounded him and eventually snuffed him out. He died in a cross, like a criminal, disgraced and likely to be forgotten. But like a seed planted in good ground, Jesus rose again from death at Easter. He hardly lived past 30, his ministry last only about three years, and he lived in an obscure corner of the Roman Empire. But his life and teachings, his death and resurrection, grew as from a tiny mustard seed into an enormous tree, a tree we call the church which has grown through 2,000 years and spread across the world. A tree in which Noah and Katie might, like millions baptised in Jesus’ name before them, we hope will one day find a home because today we have planted a seed of faith within them.
And for the rest of us, the choice is clear. We can choose to nourish the seeds the Gospel plants, and be people who are yeast and salt in the world, planting seeds to make a positive difference in the world, planting signs that God’s kingdom is surely coming. Or we can be agents of the enemy, weeds which snuffle out goodness and hope, making it more difficult for the God’s reign to arrive. But the king will one day harvest his field. Will be taken joyfully into the safety of the barn, or be thrown out to be burned with the rest of the rubbish?
Ascription of Praise
Now to God
who is able through the power
which is at work among us
to do immeasurably more
than all we can ask or conceive,
to God be the glory
in the church and in Christ Jesus
from generation to generation for evermore, Amen.
Ephesians 3:20-21 (REB)
Biblical references from the Good News Bible, unless otherwise stated
© 2015 Peter W Nimmo