The Undomesticated Kingdom of God - When we say yes to it, The Kingdom of God it is so invasive, so blessedly disruptive to our carefully laid plans in life - that some are tempted to give everything up for it!
Deciphering Jesus’ parables is always a challenge, and these four parables that describe the Kingdom of God are both deceptively simple and so familiar, that I think it’s easy to overlook just how revolutionary their message is. And our task is made all the more difficult because I think we’ve lost some of our edge. Let’s face it, Christianity has been the establishment religion in the west for the last 1,500 years - basically since becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire. When the Christianity went from an underground, persecuted band of spiritual rebels, to becoming the compulsory religion of the world’s most powerful empire, I think it’s fair to say we lost a little perspective. And while the Roman Empire would crumble, the church’s cozy relationship with the state would continue in one form or another through most of the 20th century - we even have elements that linger today: Our presidents are buried in the National Cathedral, clergy still get asked to do invocations at civil events - heck, we even have the flags of every branch of the United States military might adorning our parish hall. And so, I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that the church’s alliance with the kingdoms of the world, just MIGHT have clouded our vision somewhat, for the kingdom of God.
I was reminded of that reality this past week when I came across this children’s book it’s about Noah’s Ark - which is for some inexplicable reason seems to be one of THE favorite bible stories for children really? I am going to read my girls a bedtime story about the time that God decided to drown the entire world! It’s an R-rated disaster film at the very least!
But have no fear, the story has been sanitized of all of the alarming, challenging bits and turned into a simple sweet story that’s safe for kids about had God saved Noah and the animals, 2 by 2, in a REALLY BIG BOAT. In fact, it’s SO stripped down that its barely recognizable. And that’s kind of my point, I think that when you go from subversive, underground movement, which challenged the power structures of church AND state by proclaiming a new kingdom built on radical compassion, when you move from that to becoming the established religion of the state - there’s a unavoidable tendency to domestic the message, to water it down, to turn it into ‘good moral teachings’ - that leave our power structures unchallenged and our privileged lifestyles firmly in place. But by sanitizing scripture into safe, G-rated, stories, we risk missing out on the radical, life upending, reality of what it means to be an agent in the kingdom of god! A movement that when taken seriously, should be threatening to the establishment because threatens to flip power and privilege upside down!
The parable of the mustard seed is a classic example of this. The most common interpretation is a rather straightforward if not somewhat simplistic: That even the smallest things like the tiny mustard seed, can with faith, grow into something big and wonderful. What a lovely notion! Many of you might remember singing songs about it in Sunday school - and preachers often use the growth of the church as a somewhat self-congratulatory example that big things can come from such small beginnings. And it’s all got a nice ring to it, it’s almost like a fortunes cookie. In fact, I remember getting one as a kid - couldn’t have been much older than 10 - that said essentially the same: ‘your hard work will lead to something big one day’ - how nice I thought. That same dinner I also got one that said I would be married within two years!
But there’s actually more to the mustard plant than meets the eye. In fact, contrary to this serene picture of a big beautiful tree with pretty yellow flowers and birds chirping, the people of Jesus’ time would be desperately trying to pull the thing out by the roots! Because nobody would have wanted a mustard tree in their fields! While it had some medicinal value, they were incredibly invasive, once it took hold, it spreads everywhere and was impossible to eradicate. Modern farmers hate it because it gets in their crops. Ranchers hate it because it irritates the eyes of their livestock.
For you southerners out there, think kudzu!
Or how about you lawn owners out there – crabgrass anyone?
As a former proud lawn owner, who loved his perfectly manicured lawn, I do not miss the battles I had with crab grass: I’d pull it out by the roots, but it came back, and then I got some special spray, but it kept coming back, bigger and bigger each time! Until I finally gave in and just pulled out the whole lawn…and if you ever talk to someone about their call to ministry, just about every one of them sounds just like that…you resist, it comes back, you resist and the call keeps coming back, until you finally give in and it totally disrupts any plans you thought you had made for your life. now THAT sounds more like the kingdom of God, doesn’t it?
It reminds me of that old line about– If you ever want to tell God a really good joke, one that gets him every time – just tell God about YOUR plans!
That joke gets at the truth of this parable. The kingdom of god is like an invasive and disruptive weed that when you stop trying to resist it, and say yes, it blessedly destroys all of your carefully laid out plans….
This theme continues with the parable of the yeast which can be reduced to a similar benign notion: That without God, life is flat and dull like unleavened bread. Well isn’t that special? But first century Christians, were Jews or Jewish converts – to their ears, yeast was a contaminant, something you wanted to keep OUT of your kitchen. Hebrew scriptures used "unleavened" as a metaphor for the Holy. So again, Jesus is basically saying that very things that religion and religious leaders have told you is unclean and corrupting – is actually like the Kingdom of God! Now THAT’S radical notion! It would be like Jesus telling us today, to look for the Kingdom of God not at church or among the converted, but amongst the unclean, the outcasts or “sinful” of today? Might he be sending us today to the truly ‘sacred space’ of the local watering hole or bar? Would he be sending us to a support group for transgendered youth – 40% of whom struggle with suicide? Or into the homeless communities that have formed in parks and under bridges? Maybe even into our local mosque or into the canyons behind our homes where undocumented workers live in hidden camps by night, so they can harvest our food by day?
The last two treasure parables give us hint of how we respond when we stop resisting disruptive nature of the Kingdom of God - we give up everything! And again, in our wealthy consumer culture, there is often an effort to water these down as well - just as we do with the story of the rich young man - and to insist that he’s not actually suggesting we sell EVERYTHING - our house, our car, our furniture - in order to follow Jesus. Well that’s crazy, right? Certainly, it’s all just a metaphor! He wouldn’t be calling us to reject the American Dream – after all we all know that God blesses the American way – right? Every president ends their speech that way!
Well, I actually know people who have, maybe you do too - I know someone who sold their home in La Jolla to live in National City in order to live IN a community of the marginalized, to get to know them, to intermesh their lives, and in the process, see a more complete picture of God. I know people who given up lucrative careers in business, to join non-profits so their career might mirror their baptismal call – I even know someone who gave up a law practice, and sold his sail boat and Maserati, to go to work for the church! And I happen to know he doesn’t miss the boat one bit, oh but the car. I know a woman who decided it was too expensive to live in San Diego. She was finding herself stressed out and anxious about money, and after a time of prayer and discernment, she chucked it all and moved to a ranch in Montana where she grows chickens, but feels for the very first time in her life, she can be fully present to her family and to God.
You see, the reign of God that Jesus is describing is WILD! This kingdom Jesus is preaching about isn’t about benign moralisms, or safe words of wisdom, and it’s not something that can be reduced to fortune cookie or a children’s cartoon - it’s invasive, dangerous, and it will upend our life AND the world - if we let it! And when we do, it feeds the hunger in our hearts in a way that the world never could; it satisfies our spiritual thirst in a way that all the money and leisure never will. And it piques our curiosity about a life lived in God’s dream that reveals the American Dream, to be as shallow, as self-centered and as boring, as its been all along.
I had someone after the early service tell me, “Chris, I’m with you, but I’m not 20 years old anymore. I don’t just like my air conditioning, I need my air conditioning! I can’t just pick up and disrupt my life at my age.” And that’s absolutely true, but can we also agree that is no retirement from being a disciple of Jesus? And so sure, how we respond to God’s call will do doubt look different at different seasons in our lives. And that’s as it should be. Because it’s not so much about what we do, but whether we keep listening, and whether we keep responding.
Have you been nudged by the Spirit to disrupt your life? If you’ve found yourself avoiding those moments, dodging God’s call, our Gospel today is telling us, that the thing we so try to avoid, the thing that our society or culture says to stay FAR away from, may be the EXACT thing we need to embrace.
~The Rev. Chris Harris