“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
- Matthew 13: 31-32
They say a person’s home is their castle. Some time ago my wife and I started dreaming about the little castle we lived in at the time—a 1963 two-bedroom bungalow with a nice view across the street to a green space—and how we could shape it more into the kingdom of our imaginings. We started with an ambitious back yard landscaping project. Our house was on a large lot but it was mostly undeveloped except for an out-of-control willow and a gigantic spruce older than the house. We dreamed of a forest garden to surround our castle, an ultimately self-sustaining patch of trees and shrubbery designed to imitate the natural processes of a forest, but shaped by us and planted with fruit-bearing annuals.
So we got together a group that shared our ideas and we collectively hired a consultant to teach us the principles of permaculture (what this gardening and farming philosophy is called), and to use our yard as a demonstration project. With the guidance of our expert we laid down layers and layers of material that would form the foundation of our wonderful forest garden: cardboard to smother the grass, lawn clippings to add nitrogen, straw for more carbon, alfalfa pellets, composted manure, topsoil, and wood chips. Into this rich mulch we planted our garden: saskatoons, currants, raspberries, strawberries, cranberries, haskap berries, apple, cherry, and prairie-hardy apricot trees, and cherry bushes. In between the trees and shrubs we placed native perennial herbs and flowers: goldenrod, prairie sunflowers, giant hyssop, and others. Our permaculture vision was to have a perfect back yard kingdom of abundance, all with no more effort on our part, growing on its own just like a natural forest yet planned by us to yield its annual bounty of berries and fruit. And so it may have been, had it not been for one piece of advice from our expert consultant.
Just before we had put down the topmost layer of wood chips, our consultant had reached into his sack and pulled out a handful of what looked like some kind of grain seed. “What’s that?” we asked him. “Annual rye,” he said. “You plant this and the rye will come up this season. In early fall you’ll cut it down and it will form an ideal layer of top mulch for your forest garden, a perfect mix of nutrients to give all your plants what they need to get going again next spring.
“And it’s an annual,” he said, “so you won’t have to worry about it coming up again. This is for one season only.”
So we planted the rye, and boy, did it grow! By the end of that first summer it was knee height and threatened to choke out all the other wonderful perennials we had planted. It turned out to be constant work to chop it back and pull it up. Worse, the following year our “annual” rye was back, just as strong as ever! Chop, chop, chop; weed, weed, weed. So much for our zero-maintenance forest.
And there was other ongoing work to do too. There were still dandelions and thistles coming up from their deep tap roots—even after we had covered them up with a foot of cardboard and wood chips! And quack grass in the raspberries. The, once those bushes really took, there was all the pruning. We called the currant bush “the gorilla” because it took that much space and intimidated all the other plants around it.
In the long run we worked and tended our forest garden about as much as you would any other garden. It took effort, but it also did ultimately reward us—as with other kinds of gardens—with an abundance of sweet fruit.
There’s something very Kingdom-of-God about a garden. The kingdom of God, also known as the reign of God or the dominion of God, refers to the order of things as God would have it, if God were in charge of the government and not human beings. Not the kingdom of Herod or the governorship of Pilate or the rule of Caesar. Not the government of Kenney or the term of Trudeau—but the reign of God. And this means “justice and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” as Paul writes to the Romans (14:17).
Like a garden, it takes work to cultivate the kingdom of heaven. To live in right and just relationship with our neighbour – this is not something handed to us by the world in which we live. In our civic life we need to constantly trim back the weeds of fear and judgment that choke out the fruit of peace. It takes work to prune back the wild branches of anger and carelessness in our relationships in order to realize the fruit of joy in the Holy Spirit. To let the Spirit of peace rule us, and not the spirit of vengeance and violence – this takes thoughtfulness and care and intentionality and prayer and discipline. It takes work to cultivate the reign of God.
But you can take the metaphor of the garden-as-kingdom in another way. A surprising way. The way that Jesus takes it in his parable about the mustard seed. Which is to say that God’s rule is like that darned annual rye that just keeps coming and will never go away! Or you could say it’s like those thistles and dandelions I battled in our forest garden: rooted so deeply into the earth of our common existence that you can’t even smother it under a foot of manure. The way Jesus says it is that “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” To which we exclaim, “Mustard?! Since when does a gardener want mustard in his or her plot? It may be a nice herb – in small quantities – but like dill, if you’ve got it in your garden you’ll never get rid of it.” But Jesus’ farmer sows a whole field of the stuff. (I wonder how the neighbours felt about that.) The kingdom of God is like this weedy stuff that the world either overlooks or tries to do away with, but it will never go away. Rather, it will spread and spread until the whole world is “infected” with it. In the end, it will not be the mighty cedar of human rule and authority – a rule founded on violence and exclusion – that will provide shade and rest for the weak and vulnerable, but the humble mustard plant of God’s dominion.
Back when we were growing our forest garden, one of the things we learned from our teacher was that one of the first principles of permaculture is that you must be sensitive to your environment. Notice what wants to grow. Instead of trying to impose our ideas of what a perfect garden looks like on nature, you work with the earth to grow something cooperatively. That means all things have their place, weeds and fruit together. The earth is fertile and it wants to grow things. The permaculture farmer or gardener works harmoniously within the natural ecosystem. It took time and work and lots of trial and error – a process that is ongoing – but even today after we have moved on from that house our forest garden is a real oasis for children, little birds, and beautiful butterflies. It is a place of peace for all, and we are proud of what has grown.
Not everybody is going to grow a forest garden, but every one is called to become a gardener of heaven’s kingdom, growing the fruit of righteousness and peace. As permaculturists watch and wait for what wants to emerge from the earth, so gardeners of heaven’s kingdom are quiet and expectant before God’s life-giving activity. They expect to see weeds and they expect to see good fruit. They work with the divine creative energy to bring forth what is good and beautiful and true in this world. They don’t impose their will by force or violence but they do the hard work of being in relationship until peace emerges. They understand that the kingdom of justice and peace and joy is growing right under their noses and they look for it to come.
Together let us take our places as gardeners of the kingdom – practitioners of peace and proclaimers of joy. In Jesus’ name, Amen.