A Sermon for the Third Sunday of Pentecost. Preached via Zoom to All Saints, King City, Anglican Diocese of Toronto, on 13 June, 2021.
Texts for Today: 1 Samuel 15.34-16.13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5.6-10,14-17; Mk 4.26-34
28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.
Today I want to talk about how Jesus’ seed parables in today’s gospel encourage us to think of how God is always active, often in ways that we can’t immediately understand and anticipate. God’s activity and agency, I suggest, should encourage us as we try to imagine the uncertain future of our churches.
Let’s start by remembering that in each parable, when he says “The kingdom of God is like this or that”, Jesus is telling us something about who God is and how God works. What do we learn about the kingdom of God in today’s gospel reading?
Well, I’m struck by how, in these seed parables, the kingdom of God has a mind and a will of it’s own. In the first parable, there is no human agency after “someone” scatters the seed. Once it hits the ground, it has a process and a power all of its own – the sower “does not know how” the seed grows, but it does! The agency and initiative in the story are within the earth and the seed, which becomes the green independent of any human activity.
In the second parable, it’s not even clear that there is any human activity. The mustard seed is “sown upon the ground”, but it could be self-seeding. In my neighbour’s yard is a mature cotinus or smoketree, a beautiful thing whose blooms, like tumbleweeds, come off in the late summer and blow around. As a result, we now have four young smoketrees growing in our front garden beds, so if you want one, I can help you out. For all we know about the parable, the mustard seed grew in this way, independently of human hands, true to its nature. If the point of the parables is that the kingdom of God is God’s initiative, then we should be profoundly relieved, because we can relieve ourselves of thinking that we need to do God’s work. God’s work is God’s to do, God merely invites us to cooperate, though often, it can take us a while to perceive what God wants us of us because God often works in times of flux.
This week I attended the Diocese of Toronto’s clergy conference, and our speaker was talking about how God works in liminal time. The word “liminal” goes from the Latin word limen meaning threshold, the place where you are between in and out. A liminal time as our speaker described it is a transitional time where you don’t know exactly what will happen, but you know you will be different. Think of the time between, say, when you first met your partner and when you were expecting your first child. In that in-between or liminal time, the memory of when you were single and unattached was still strong, and the anticipation of being a first-time parent was intense. You knew that you had changed and would change more, but didn’t know exactly how the change would remake you.
Our speaker challenged us to this time that we are in as church is a liminal time, in a way that’s far more than just to do with Covid. Her main point was that it would be a profound mistake to think that once we are revaccinated and back in the pews on a Sunday, things will go back to normal. They won’t be back to normal because even before Covid there was no normal. We were in a liminal time, a time of transition, before Covid, and we will be after Covid. I think at some level we all know this to be true.
It’s true in part because the overall church has been in decline for a long time. According to numbers released by the Diocese of Toronto, we had 279 congregations with an average Sunday attendance of 33,323. Today we have 199 congregations with an average Sunday attendance of 17,000. The bulk of that decline has occurred since 2000. Even if you don’t notice the numbers, you just had to look around the church on a Sunday to see that most of us aren’t getting any younger. I’d be lying if I said that the fate of the church doesn’t keep me up at night, worrying about what will be left of us in a decade.
Which is why today’s gospel gives me hope, because whatever happens in the next decade, or two, or three, is really up to God. That’s the point of the parable, that the seed grows where it will, or, as Jesus explains the Holy Spirit to Nicodemus in John’s gospel, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes (Jn 3.8). The thing about a liminal time is that while we don’t know what’s beyond the threshold, we can be sure that God will be at work there. Often in the history of the church, we see new eras and new futures unfolding, like the Gentiles being invited into the body of Christ, a story we hear every Pentecost.
Here some things that I think we can hopefully glimpse in the future of the church. Our seminaries are producing young men and women who will lead the church long after we are gone, in directions and forms we can’t imagine. I have faith that these young clergy can reach people that people like myself, with gray beards, might not be able to reach.
New Canadians, from countries where Christ’s church is young and strong and growing, are forming congregations and bringing their faith and gifts. Our Diocese includes some of these, like the Ahadi, a Kenyan congregation that my wife Joy works with. I think we’ll see more such congregations forming and perhaps sharing our physical space as immigration continues to change King Township.
Immigration also means New Canadians of other faiths, and our older Christian churches will have many opportunities to be centres for the interfaith hospitality and dialogue that lead us away from fear and hatred. We’re all shaken by the murder of the Muslim family in London, ON, last week, and we are all looking for ways to avoid such violence in future. How wonderful if our churches could be involved in building bridges between the faith groups of Canada.
Finally, as we see the housing market follow it’s own perverse rules, freezing lower income people out of affordable housing, our churches can have new roles to play. There’s a fascinating discussion starting in the Diocese of Toronto about the future of some of our properties, and our Diocese owns a LOT of property. It’s entirely possible that some of our church properties can be repurposed as places of affordable and transitional housing in neighbourhoods where the need is greatest.
What can we do as a congregation while this future comes clearer and nearer? Certainly we need to be attentive to God and to God’s initiatives, and perhaps less certain at the outset that we our plans and answers are what God wants. We need to be good stewards of our physical space, and think about how, post-Covid, that space can serve the community. We need to preach and live the gospel with conviction and hope. Most importantly, we must never lose heart. However All Saints figures in God’s purposes, there will be a church. The unpredictable God of seed and spirit will act, in ways that we may not yet imagine, just as God has acted, from generation to generation, in the church and in Christ Jesus. Amen.