Just to be up front about it:
I am a really bad gardener. Luckily I only have a balcony to keep track of, and even there plants tend to die before their time. Sometimes because I forget about them, sometimes because I think of them too often; always because I’m not patient enough to wait for them to grow, to figure out what they need in order to grow. I am always sorry when that happens (and miraculously there are some plants that survive my neglect), but so far that hasn’t resulted in much improvement on my part. Although there is a new attempt in the works just now.
Why do I tell you that? Because to me this gospel is all about growth in its different dimensions. And because I tend to be just as impatient with my own growth, and sometimes with that of others and the world in general. And I think I might not be the only one. Growth is something that to me seems only visible in hindsight. Growth consists mainly of hope, and thus is imbued with uncertainty.
Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven and he gives three parables – images that describe what the kingdom of heaven is like, or rather how it will come to be. And they all have to do with growth. That means the kingdom is not something that is suddenly there, fully formed and all-encompassing, but that it is emerging, still growing, slowly becoming.
The first parable, that of the grain and weeds, at first seems a little off-putting to me. At first it sounds like it is threatening judgement day. The image used is that of a man who sows good seed, and his enemy who sows weeds among them. And I immediately wonder: what am I? Good or bad? Harvested or burned? But God knows we humans are almost never wholly one thing. We have within us both: the potential to bear fruit and the potential to waste our energy and talents. And for most of us both happens during our lifetimes. So maybe it is worth a closer look: the translation does not show it, but the weed the story refers to is called darnel. When young it is impossible to distinguish from wheat. And by the time you can tell them apart, their roots are entangled, so that pulling the weeds would mean losing the harvest. Thus the man decides to wait for the plants to fully grow and then take away the poisonous weed and burn it while the grain is harvested. That means this parable is a promise: God will wait for things to grow and bear fruit, in us and in the world. Judgement is wholly up to him, and he will never risk what is good and precious about us in order to throw out what is bad
In the second parable the image for the kingdom of heaven is the mustard seed, the tiny seed that grows into a large bush that draws birds to nest in it. I don’t know if you have ever seen a black mustard seed. They are really tiny and it’s easy to mistake them for a speck of dirt. That even a seed this small holds the potential for so much growth is simply amazing. And like this mustard seed, the kingdom of heaven starts out small, almost invisible. It is not something created by the great and powerful, it grows tall and draws people to it, because they can feel God’s love.
The third brief parable uses yeast as the image. I love this image, because I like baking bread. When I was little I used to do that with my dad. And I love how in a yeast dough the mushy mess becomes something else in my hands. Something solid, something that feels almost alive and that smells amazing. It only takes a tiny bit of yeast, some work and some time to transform the whole thing. In today’s terms: if we manage to start somewhere, acting as if the kingdom of God is already here, the ripple effect will begin to change the world, will bring it together and create something wonderful and nourishing.
These are beautiful images. They speak of so much hope, they are there to encourage a community that feels small and helpless, like many early Christian communities did.
As Christians it is our firm belief that all that is happening has a goal, a destination. We, and the world, are going somewhere, somewhere good. We live and work towards the kingdom of heaven. That’s what we trust in when we follow Christ, when we follow the good news that God is love and the hope that love will win in the end, that the kingdom of heaven is growing in us and in our world.
And to be perfectly honest, these days I find that hope sometimes hard to hold on to. There is so much bitter injustice among us, it sometimes makes it hard to breathe. There is so much suffering, that the hope for justice, love and healing we proclaim when we follow Christ sounds cynical and hollow, because we feel so helpless. It is hard to trust in a good outcome then.
As with gardening I don’t do too well with uncertainty. It’s one of the reasons I sometimes hide my head in the sand, especially when it comes to questioning my own prejudice, checking my privilege, changing what feels familiar to me.
We all tend to find ways to mitigate and ignore the basic uncertainties of life that we are confronted with.
The Coronavirus has shattered that feeling of security for many of us. Unrest about racial injustice, refugee camps at the borders of Europe, revelations of sexual abuse, especially within the church, have done the same over the past months and years.
And although in its extent it might be a new experience for many of us, it is a very old and basic human experience. One that was certainly known to those who first heard these stories.
And even though I find it hard to come to terms with that uncertainty, I also see those who help each other in the face of a devastating pandemic. I see those who protest against systems of racism and oppression, because they believe we can do better. I see people working against climate change who want to secure a hope for the future. I see survivors of abuse finding the courage to speak out, and others who support them. I see people looking for ways to help those trying to cross the Mediterranean sea and those in refugee camps.
And so I cling to this unlikely hope: the hope that many small people in many small places who take many small steps will eventually change the face of the earth.
I might never be a good gardener, I might never be patient enough, or loving enough. I have no idea why some of my plants thrive, or if what I do as a pastoral worker will bear fruit. But luckily I don’t have know, because that is God’s prerogative. God is a good gardener: He waits for us to grow, as a person, as a community, as a world. He waits for us to learn to trust that love will get us there.
Ruth Fehlker, *1979, lives in Coesfeld, Germany. She holds a master’s degree (Diplom) in Catholic theology from the University of Münster as well as certificates in pastoral psychology and pastoral theology after training with the Diocese of Münster for four years. She works as a pastoral worker (Pastoralreferentin) in the parish of St. Lamberti in Coesfeld (www.lamberti-coe.de)
She is a member of the womens’ council to the bishop in the Diocese of Münster. In her parish ministry she is responsible for the local groups of the Catholic womens’ Association kfd, and keeps in touch with the reform group Maria 2.0. In youth work she is responsible for Confirmation preparation and for the community of altar servers. She regularly leads liturgies of the word, preaches during mass and also leads funerals. She is part of the team of pastoral workers who publish a “Thought of the Day” on local radio in a one-minute format.
She has been part of the network Catholic Women Speak (www.catholicwomenspeak.com) since 2015 and an essay of hers can be found in their second book “Visions and Vocations”.
Her spirituality is strongly influenced by the community of Taizé and its vision of a united church.
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