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Mark 4:26-34
The Undomesticated Kingdom

Earlier this summer, with the help of Fr. John and my kids, we planted two garden boxes outside of St. David’s. In the middle of a year when we can’t be in our buildings, I had wanted to do something that would be an outward sign of the life of the Valhalla Parish community and what it represents in the world. We planted tomatoes and basil, beans, parsley, and, at my eldest son’s insistence, Kale. 

After the kids and I had some lunch and played at the bike park down the road, we came back to plant strawberries. Why strawberries? Because for anyone passing by, whether church folks, food bank clients, or anyone, really, we hoped that the discovery of strawberries might bring delight.

And that’s what the gospel ought to be: a discovery of surprise and delight in the midst of these difficult and extraordinary times.

This week, reflecting on the new garden plot at St. David’s, my mind turned to another community garden plot that I once helped to tend, ten years ago, on a little piece of land in Vancouver’s Downtown East Side. Two vacant lots across the alley from one another, wedged between teeming city streets. A place of quiet right next door to the vibrant and sometimes chaotic street life always found there.

Each week on Wednesdays, I’d go over with my friend Ron, a resident of the neighbourhood, who was looking to gain some skills, connect with other people, and get out in the sun to do something with his hands.

We’d meet up at a local storefront ministry just underneath an SRO that housed hundreds of people in single rooms with shared bathroom facilities. We’d chat for a bit, grab a cup of coffee, and head over to see what Jodi, the urban farmer had for us to do that day.

Those summer afternoons in the garden patch are still significant highlights of my time in Vancouver.

In the garden, the times of silence were interspersed with rich conversation. What I loved most were that the tasks required something of my otherwise sedentary body. At that point in my life, I spent a lot of time behind a computer screen. Getting into my body, bending over to pick weeds, to harvest fruits and vegetables, connecting with real people in real life outside of my home office offered a deep and profound gift. 

And maybe that’s why, in the midst of this pandemic world of online meetings this came to mind. Connections in the garden are the kind of thing I long for once again.

There was something meditative about the slow work of tending to this little oasis in an otherwise busy traffic corridor. But I learned something else that summer. It’s this:

The Kingdom of God is like an invasive species.

I learned this from the thorn pricks on my arms and legs, and the scratches on my hands as I harvested berries to be shared with friends in the neighbourhood.

The biblical writers – Matthew, Mark, and Luke, anyway– record Jesus saying that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. But if Jesus had been with me, joining Ron and Jodi tending to the garden plot at Red Clover Farm, I think he’d have picked a different metaphor.

If Jesus had been with us those summer afternoons he just as easily could have said that the Kingdom of God is like a Himalayan blackberry.

Thorny, prickly, resourceful. The Himalayan Blackberry reproduces as much through the distribution of root and stem fragments as by the seeds consumed by crows and raccoons, released kilometres away in their scat.

Yes friends, if the Kingdom of God is like anything, it’s like that.

I once read a commentary on the parable of the Mustard Seed in a resource called The Wild Lectionary. In his reflection, Jim Perkinson reminds us that Jesus’ original audience “is rural, hip deep in growing crops.” He goes on to tell us that this is a crowd that knows the “prophetic scripts narrating the story of towering trees and their demise.”

There are stories throughout the Old Testament – Perkinson focuses on Ezekiel and Daniel – that caution against the super-sized cedars of imperial power. In biblical geography, these would be places like Egypt or Babylon. In our own times, Vancouver or Calgary might stand in as replacements. Beware of the people who think they’re in control. Beware of those who extract resources from the surrounding countryside to build their unsustainable lifestyle.

Think of large farm monocrops, the cookie-cutter developments invading suburbs, or perhaps luxury resorts encroaching on pristine wilderness and small town life, only to drive the prices higher and make living there less affordable for folks who have called this place home for decades, maybe generations.

But what Jesus is doing here is different. It’s counterintuitive. It’s guerilla gardening at its best, and it points to where flourishing really happens. Not just for humanity, but for all of God’s good creation. Jesus turns our expectations upside down. He undermines the power and dominant story of every age. The Jesus gospel is astonishing. At every turn. In every gathering, like this one in the midst of a community Garden behind a school in New Denver.

The Kingdom of God is like the Himalayan blackberry.

Displace the people, tear up the farm land, put up luxury hotels and glamorous getaways all you want, but the kingdom of God is plucky. It will not be rooted out. It will provide sustenance and home for those you’ve ignored, and those who have been pushed to the side.

No matter how you attempt to control it, God’s kingdom will grow like a weed, and it will grow fruit for the feeding of the nations.

In Matthew's retelling of this Gospel story, Jesus suggests that there’s someone planting these mustard seeds, and he does the same in Luke. But in Mark’s more radical take, human agency is not given. Mark simply tells us of “a grain of mustard, which was sown.” By whom, we don’t know. Maybe it took care of that itself. Nature, like the Kingdom of God, will find a way.

It is wild. Undomesticated. Kind of like the Himalayan Blackberry. It’s sowing itself. People come to chop down the thicket, but the roots and twigs have the power to seed a new plant in a new place, carried on by other members of the creation who are in on the subversive plot. In a time like ours, when Christian communities are few and far between, this is very good news. Despite the many changes to our world, our ways of gathering, and our church, the gospel will not be weeded out. 

The kingdom of God is like the Mustard Seed but also the Himalayan Blackberry. And it’s this kind of kingdom we’ve been invited into, to take shelter in, and to plant recklessly–like a weed–around the edges to bring the delight of the Gospel to feed all who hunger.  

God’s kingdom is not one of strength and power. Not a kingdom of nobility, honour, and prestige. Instead, it is a community of alleyways and abandoned lots, of small town community gardens and family farms. 

It is a kingdom of communities like this one, gathered around tables, embodying the story of Jesus in ways that nourish one another in the food we share, the belonging we offer, the love we give; in the ways we inspire justice and compassion in one another, and in the world that surrounds us. 

At the end of the day, this upside down kingdom reminds those in power, and us–when we find ourselves lamenting Christianity’s own decline from power—that God’s dream is of a commonwealth of bird and mustard seed, raccoon and blackberry, child and beggar, a dream which is both now and yet to come.