I wanted to share my sermon from this past Sunday, 6/17/18. I love conversations around what we can and cannot control, as well as where we foolishly expect the kin-dom to pop up in our world… spoiler alert, it is usually not among the powerful and affluent. Anyways, here it is. Please excuse any grammatical errors, I wrote it with the intention of speaking it, so the breaks and run on sentences would actually be spoken more rhythmically than it comes off on the screen.
“The Mysterious Kin-dom”
Show of hands… how many of us have a hard time with being patient? How many people have a hard time of letting go of control over things we care about? How many suffer from both? If you raised your hands to both, you would have been in good company with the early church. If we remember, the popular belief back then was that Jesus was going to return soon after he ascended to heaven. So a big hope and motivator was this idea of the imminent return of Christ and restoration of the Kin-dom. So after some time goes by, people are starting to get antsy, to get frustrated… they are beginning to turn against themselves and lose hope. As more time passes, there is a mirkiness that begins to accumulate. What is God doing? Which of our human actions truly please God? Are we doing something wrong? Should we be doing more? What works of God, if not the blatant return of Christ, should we be looking for in our world? If these questions sound familiar to you, just know that these questions started thousands of years ago, and persist to this day! So over the course of all this time, we’ve been using these questions to navigate how to be in our world.
This is where all three of the lectionary texts for this Sunday come into play. The first one, that we did not read, is from Ezekiel 17. The prophet is speaking to his own people, the people of Judah, who have been exiled, become refugees in a foreign land, while outsiders rule their home. They are in a much more dire situation than us, but they are asking the same questions. Where is the kin-dom of God? How will we know? The allegory they receive is of an eagle picking a sprig from a cedar tree and transplanting it to places of abundance, fertility, and resources… and while we would naturally expect it to prosper.. It does not. All the ingredients were there, so why didn’t it prosper? Then God says in 17:22-24, “I myself will take a sprig from the top of a lofty cedar… and will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. It will produce fruit and under it every kind of bird will live. I bring low the high tree and make high the low tree.” This should take us all by surprise a little bit. As the mouthpiece of God, Ezekiel is claiming that the strength and prosperityof the kin-dom of God is not limited to the places where we find earthly prosperity. God is distinctly separating Godself from the places of earthly abundance and fertility, instead naming God’s presence to be among a place with little to no resources. What God is highlighting here, is that out of their fear and scarcity, the people of Judah sought security, and resources from corrupt, wealthy, and powerful countries; and in our worldly economic society, that still happens today, and quite honestly that makes sense right? Befriend the rich countries and that will secure resources for our livelihood. I mean, we aren’t actually the ones perpetuating the corrupt and hurtful policies. But it turns out, God is not okay with our complicit behavior. Instead God turns all of that upside down, and describes this crazy third option we just heard. God decides to plant a tree on the top of a mountain… where there is wind, not much soil, lots of rocks, and no river to supply the tree with water… yet this will be the tree that thrives. The distinction God is trying to make here is one that I think we often compound. The power and flourishing of God’s kin-dom, is not the same as the power and “flourishing” of earthly kingdoms. God’s power cannot be domesticated and refuses to be complicit with oppressive behaviors. It is found in the most unlikely of places. We see the heart of God here because we see that for God, the ends do not justify the means. Financial and worldly security at the cost of other’s oppression, is not an option in God’s kin-dom. And I really wrestle with that because in our world today, it is practically impossible to not be involved one way or the other in the oppression of someone else. God is setting a ridiculously high bar for us… and it is not a bar we can successfully explain away with the excuse of Capitalism. And on that same note, what we also see is that humans cannot control or predict the power of God, nor seek credit or recognition for it. The second we think we have a pulse on how God works in the world, God catches us flat-footed and knocks us on our backsides. We are constantly learning and re-learning to have faith in the mystery of God rather than the our expectations of God.
We see this in 2 Corinthians as well. Paul explicitly says in verse 7, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” He is making a distinction between our community as a part of the Risen Christ, and our community here in the world. Now this statement is obviously easier said than done. I myself usually tend to seek understanding of something through books, and school, and google before I get comfortable with it. And that is not bad (I hope), but it does over time erode my ability to easily feel awe, hope, and accept the things I cannot understand in this world. So Paul’s words in verse 9 come as a challenge to me, “So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please God.” So just as we wrap our heads around Ezekiel clarifying to us where God is and is not, Paul comes around saying to his community, “it doesn’t even matter where God is or is not, how close we may think we are to being with God or not… what matters is how we treat the world and those in it for as long as we are here.” Basically, twice we are told in two seemingly opposing ways, to stop trying to pin God down to a place or expectation. Once again, we have been slowly building a jenga tower with do’s and don’ts as a means to understand and get closer to the Holy, then we hear Paul exclaim “everything old has passed away! In Christ there is a new creation!”… and just like that… it all comes crashing down with a loud bang, sending us back into the mystery once more.
Finally that brings us to Mark. And if you weren’t already feeling confused, we are handed two seperate parables about the mysterious kin-dom of God. The first describes a seed growing in the ground while we sleep, and the second describes a mustard seed that grows so robust “birds of the air” can make nests in it. But if we look closer we can see that theme of patience and relinquishing control within the text. The only action that is required of humans in the first parable is the scattering of the seed. The rest of the time we are described as “sleeping and rising day and night.” And the seed never ceases to sprout and grow, “though we do not know how.” For anyone that has attempted to grow something from a seed, you know just how much patience is required. But what’s more, is that a good gardener knows that there is only so much they can do to control the outcome. I have watered and loved so many plants to death out of the ironic anxiety that they were going to die, that I have begrudgingly accepted the identity of having a black thumb. Now, my intentions were good! I wanted my plants to thrive and flourish! I was following all the steps my books where telling me to, convinced I had found the formula to a green thumb. Who needs the Holy Spirit when you have miracle grow, fish poop, and pesticides?! Turns out I did… badly. I was so preoccupied with my role in the growing process and controlling the outcome, that I forgot the main truth of gardening… Nature does the growing. The earth and its mysterious innate knowledge of how to nurture seeds into plants was not something that myself, or any human was going to learn to control with a formula. And that, I think, is an ancient wisdom we get further and further away from as we remove ourselves more and more from working with the earth. I had more faith in the formula than faith in God’s earth. It’s ridiculous if you think about it because obviously the dirt under my feet has been doing this much longer than I. This is a reminder, I think, of how much we as religious institutions should rely on the dogma we have created in an effort to understand God, versus how much we should rely on the trust and faith we have in God’s loving nature. As we have seen through all of these scriptures, God is a radical and wild spirit, impossible to pin down… and it is definitely helpful to have some structure that guides us. But how much is too much? At Annual Conference this past weekend, it was interesting to see how everyone was wrestling with whether certain rules and regulations were right or wrong. Some of them I fully supported, but as a first timer to Annual Conference, I was overwhelmed and confused. I could see how the inundation of so many rules, and the extreme reliance on them as a guaranteed means of being faithful to God were killing some people’s faith, or at the very least making their faith rigid. Where was the mystery? Where did our control stop and God’s begin? When did figuring out what is right and wrong supersede the call to action of loving the unloved. I appreciate that this parable includes the action of the farmer after they have done their job of scattering the seeds because it specifically says that they sleep and rest. Not everything God would have us do is action oriented, sometimes God knows that the best thing we can do for ourselves and everything around us is let it go, and take a nap. The farmer knows where their job ends and God’s begins. They know that the mystery and space given to the seed is an essential part of the growth and without it, we die. So what if this confusion, this murkiness, this necessity to have faith in what we do not know, do not control, and do not expect, is exactly what’s saving us? It is the mystery of faith that is responsible for keeping our faith limber, agile, and alive. And how can we expect to achieve clarity when not even the disciples knew what was going on 50% of the time… and they had the parables explained to them in private! These allegories of eagles planting trees on mountains, parables of growing seeds, and comparisons of our relationship to God in or outside of our bodies… these mysterious witnesses constantly guide and challenge our ability to acknowledge where our work ends and God’s begins. They push us to stay on our toes looking for the true kin-dom of God in the most unlikely places, seeds, and communities. They challenge our perceptions of reality, therefore pushing us to hope, dream, and imagine a more radical God-like world.
But maybe, just maybe, that is the point. Maybe the takeaway is that the more we try to understand, describe, and control the kin-dom of God, the more confusing it gets. Maybe it is time for me to put aside my rationality, my pride, and my Master’s degree, and join the early church and the communion of Saints that followed it in admitting the one mysterious truth we do know about the kin-dom of God…that it is bigger than any allegory, larger than our life here on earth, wilder than any plant we’ve domesticated, and more tenacious than any weed we’ve sought to eradicate. And I find that oddly comforting. Because that means that the only thing more tenacious than our appetite for power and control, is the tiny, unassuming mustard seed. This is the kin-dom of God. And if a seed is more powerful than human destruction, than imagine how powerful the glory of God will be when it flourishes. So let us have the audacity to imagine, work, and rest towards a world where that happens; where love, justice, peace, and compassion are a flourishing reality, and not simply naive ideals. Amen.