The Kingdom of God is like....
I never realized how stressful gardening can be until we inherited a backyard full of flower beds and vegetable patches with our current home. It’s a lot to keep up with, and I’m glad that Leroy has taken on the challenge. The former owner shows up announced from time to time, subtly giving her approval or disapproval with the current state of things out back. This week, Leroy harvested leaves from our one, robust basil plant. He made pesto for the first time, and gleefully shared his success and his recipe on Facebook. It was a gardening triumph for him. The next day, we attended a reunion of our church’s New Orleans work team. One prolific gardener brought a large basket full of basil leaves, much too much to be used by one family. Leroy was astonished, and I suspect felt a bit put in his place. But then the next day we visited friends in Denver whose gardening skills have always inspired us. Their basil plants were sickly and yellow and have produced very little. We said nothing, but privately felt superior.
Both of our readings talk about seeds that become plants that become trees. Thomas Merton was a twentieth century Trappist monk whose contemplative life and activism are expressed through his writings. Merton often spoke and wrote of the dichotomy between the true and false self. Here he describes the life of a tree that revels in simply being what it was created to be. Trees don’t try to impress others or pretend to be something that they’re not. They simple dig into the ground with their roots and raise their branches to the sky. What could be more solid and inherently joyful than a tree as it beautifies the earth and releases oxygen that benefits all of creation?
Merton says that the seeds of our most basic identity and value and happiness are planted by God. And by becoming our best selves, not striving to be like someone else because we feel inadequate, and not trying to be superior to others (also because we feel inadequate) we are pleasing God, and we will ultimately be content.
I think Jesus would agree with Merton. His word picture of a mustard plant begins with a tiny seed pushed into the ground and ends with a bush that grows large enough to be considered a tree and shelters birds who can rest and feel safe from predators within its branches. The seeds of hope and truth and justice and anything else that reflects the character of God are so powerful that they can’t help but grow. But they don’t just grow for the sake of getting big, they grow because the world and its people need to be safe. There are too many forces out there that prey on vulnerability. The realm of God is a place where the nonsense of bullies and others who display their false selves through self-serving threats are disempowered.
The Gospel reading manages to squeeze six of the parables of Jesus into seven verses. It is a masterful example of biblical editing, and I can’t imagine that the text is anything other than the Cliff Notes version of what Jesus actually said. He was a masterful storyteller, and even a short story like a parable must have been longer than the one sentence devoted to each of three of the six.
The little stories are about a mustard seed, yeast, a treasure, a pearl, a fishing net, and old and new items. All of it common stuff. Each brief parable could be the basis of a sermon, and each can be interpreted differently.
Why did Jesus talk like this? The storytelling part is obvious. He was a great communicator. He understood that people perk up when a preacher tells a good story rather than rambling on about doctrine. But it’s more than that. The stories all had a common purpose, even though each had its own emphasis.
The parable are all about what life looks like in the Kingdom of God. Sometimes in progressive churches, we call it the “Realm of God” when we want to avoid language that is overtly partriarchal. Kingdoms are the realm of kings and are often characterized by abuses of power. God’s realm is not like that. When we change the language, though, it’s still good to remember the context in which it was written. Jesus knew quite a bit about kingdoms, and the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures is about the development of the Kingdom of Israel. For good or bad, kings had shaped the world that Jesus and his followers inhabited. Layered on top of that kingdom was the Roman Empire, a vast, rapidly expanding realm that bowed to the emperor Caesar. Jesus was aware of the competing loyalties and daily dilemmas faced by the inhabitants of two realms. And so he introduced another one!
The kingdom of God, also referred to often as the kingdom of heaven, wasn’t as clearly defined in terms of location, but its leadership was clear. God was in charge, the kingdom’s values were honorable, and its importance was such that no earthly realm could take precedence over it. Although many Christians assume that this kingdom is a synonym for heaven and the afterlife experienced there, most theologians stress the earthly aspects of God’s realm that are obvious in Jesus’ teachings. When we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” it’s pretty clear that we expect good things to happen in this life and not just the life to come.
I wonder sometimes why so few biblical scholars or writers have specifically connected the natural world to the realm of God as taught by Jesus. It’s as though we get so focused on ourselves and our churches and our human systems that we forget God’s deep love for creation itself. How can the earth and the sky and the rivers and oceans and plant life and animals be anything other than expressions of God’s realm? Merton seemed to allude to that in his picture of a tree that not only grows tall but raises its branches like hands lifted in the air to give glory to God.
The parable of the mustard seed urges us to consider what is most important in God’s kingdom. In the story, something that seems very small and insignificant – a mustard seed – becomes something very large and necessary. We never know the impact that something small can have on the whole. We’ve all experienced how a simple act of kindness can make all the difference in the world for someone who is struggling. God’s creation is also dependent on our simple acts of kindness. The megatrends that affect climate are not going to change if I decide to recycle some cardboard today instead of throwing it out. But the act of being faithful in small things is part of a larger effort that changes me and contributes to a larger movement to preserve God’s creation. Little things make a difference.
Jesus told another parable here about the kingdom of heaven being like yeast that is mixed into flour. The leaven is subtle, but it makes all the difference when you’re baking bread. If there is a leaven that our world or more specifically our nation needs right now, what would it be? Truth? Integrity?
I think it’s significant that Jesus used the term “kingdom” in light of the political struggles of his own time. The local kingdom was centered in the faith and ancient values that were important to the Jewish people. The invading empire of Rome was a force taking over their land and trampling their sacred beliefs. Jesus addressed that conflict directly when he said, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar, and give to God what is God’s.”
Don’t mix up your loyalties. You can’t pretend that the Empire isn’t corrupt, so don’t do so. And guard your soul by not selling out to forces that will destroy what you value most.
Kingdom language reminds us that God’s realm isn’t a democracy. God doesn’t invite us to vote God up or down. God is mysterious, God is holy, God is love, but God is not up for election.
That’s not the case in our own realm, which is not a kingdom. We live with a form of democratic rule. The founders of our nation were very aware of the abuses of power that can come with a monarchy, and they set up a governing structure to protect us from that kind of abuse. We are on guard today to make sure that those protections actually protect us. Many were shocked and distressed to wake up on Wednesday to a tweet declaring that transgender women and men can no longer serve in the military. There were problems with that on many levels. While kings might rule by whim and fiat that is not what we have agreed to as a nation. Whether the pronouncement was a diversion to change the national conversation or a genuine attack on those who proudly and competently serve, it is profoundly hurtful to those whose equality we as a church have pledged to uphold. Even if intended as a diversion, those who deserve a place of leadership do not advance their agenda at the expense of the most vulnerable.
Jesus said “The realm of God is within you.” If we’re unhappy with our own kingdom, we don’t have to move to Canada to be citizens of another place. We are dual citizens already. Our first loyalty is to God’s kingdom, and that loyalty means that we bring our highest values to our other, earthly realm. We are like tiny mustard seeds, making a difference out of proportion to our number. We saw this week how just two women and one man saved the health care of millions. Our own determination to live with truth and integrity will be the leaven that affects the whole. You are one person with all the resources of God’s realm on your side. Don’t underestimate what are you capable of doing to advance God’s reign of justice! Amen.