“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?”
The kingdom of God is as if the parent would put the 5-year-old on the school bus one autumn for his first day of kindergarten, and would sleep and rise night and day, packing lunches each morning and helping with homework afternoon, and the kid would develop and grow, the parent does not know how. The pictures are even there on the refrigerator but the growth still seems like a mystery: the child produces of itself first the lost tooth in 1st grade school photo, then the piano recital in 4th grade, then the cotillion dance and confirmation at church, then somehow the last exam of senior year. But when the child is ready and done with grade school, the principal comes in with the diploma and the scholarship to college, the marching orders for the military, because graduation time has come. That’s what the kingdom of God is like.
And another parable: The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter a few dozen Lutherans at the far end of the dirt and gravel section of Monument Avenue in Richmond. At its start it is one of the smallest congregations around, with a budget and staff to match. They have no money for a sanctuary, and instead scrape by, cramming worship services, Sunday School classes, and the pastor’s residence into an old run-down farmhouse. People in the heart of Richmond repeatedly wonder aloud, “Who’s going to go worship way out there?”
But sixty-three years, seven pastors and one diaconal minister later, they are one of the largest of all Synod congregations. It puts forth many strong ministries which branch into the community and lives of its members. It supports two food pantries, regularly houses people who are homeless, and makes hundreds of quilts each year for an international relief organization. Children and youth and adults of all ages are able to find a church home in its shade. And the branches keep growing: the congregation appoints a long-range Planning Team to help them look into the future and wonder where else the small but powerful seed of God’s word needs to be planted. That’s what the kingdom of God is like.
And another one: the kingdom of God is like a small, struggling congregation that has voted to close its doors and worship as a community for one last time. They look back on their glory years with thankfulness but nostalgia. The memories of filled sanctuaries and vibrant ministries are sweet to recall, some of which include a young pastor from North Carolina, fresh out of seminary, who meets his wife and begins his family among them. But now they feel so small, lost, and they wonder what will become of their church building, their witness in the wider community but a flicker of what it once was. Yet, their faith still grows within each of them, nourished by God’s Word and the sacraments, and they miraculously move beyond their sadness and bitterness to join and become active members of other local congregations, where they share their gifts that had been honed all those years. Their new congregation homes flourish and thrive with this influx of new faces. New possibilities for ministries open up. Energy and fresh vision emerge that produce branches of gospel shelter that engage the neighborhoods around them. That’s what the kingdom of God is like, too.
With many such parables Jesus spoke—and still speaks—the word to his disciples, in order to illustrate the growth and character of God’s kingdom. With images and symbols that his disciples would experience in everyday life, Jesus teaches to explain that the kingdom of God operates and in ways that are usually in tension with the world and with our own selves.
You see, whereas in our kingdoms we would desire total command of things, God’s kingdom is up to forces beyond our control.
Whereas we prefer foreknowledge of what’s going to happen, a glimpse of the final product before it gets here, the kingdom Jesus leads is full of surprise.
Whereas we like to calculate and measure everything, if possible, the kingdom God runs amok with branches and nests and things that defy being counted.
And whereas we are impressed with grandiosity and extravagance, brute force and pizazz—“Hit ‘em with a brick! #MakeAStatement!—God’s reign likes to start small. And silent. And move kind of slow.
In Jesus’ time, the metaphors that worked best in describing this were agricultural ones that might be a little distant to us now. People back then knew what mustard seeds looked like and were familiar with the bushy plant it turned into. Likewise, no farmer really understood the complicated workings of cellular mitosis and photosynthesis. They just knew that they scattered the seeds in the ground and they just did what they were supposed to do without much effort from the farmer until the very end. These aspects helped his disciples understand that God’s kingdom in and around us involves a growth that is not always easy to perceive. And in the case of the mustard seed, in particular, the parable was a lesson that we should never judge the kingdom’s strength and effectiveness by what it looks like or feels like, especially at its outset, because its size and significance will not impress us.
But it goes farther: Jesus also means to show that the end results of God’s kingdom activity are not always what we think they’ll be. Think about it: a farmer usually plants mustard seeds in order to make mustard, and maybe get more seeds in the process, not in order to attract birds. (Well, some crazy people nowadays might plant mustard in order to attract birds, but probably not first century middle eastern farmers!). But that is part of the surprise element of God’s kingdom. What God is working toward with his kingdom and all of its occurrences along the way is not always what we would imagine.
But as foreign as these agricultural metaphors might be to us now, what I actually think we have the hardest time grasping these days is the concept of the kingdom of God itself. Because when we think kingdom, we often think place. We think boundaries. We think castle and armies and power. Maybe some of us think of clouds and some dimension we go after we die. But Jesus’ parables illustrate that God’s kingdom is not exactly any one of those. It is, rather, an occurrence, a happening, any time or any place where God’s love in Jesus reigns supreme.
And those times and places can be anywhere. God’s love has a secret power that can conquer any darkness, a hidden love that can triumph over any suffering. And typically it takes over slowly and without any grand power or force. Jesus will eventually move away from parables to explain it. He will show it himself on the cross. I think every one of us would be unimpressed with that tree and doubt the power that lies within it. Much like we would regard the small mustard seed, we would dismiss the cross of Jesus at the outset: a sign of weakness, a symbol of shame. But nevertheless we would be unaware of how wide its branches would become…branches wide enough for a dying Savior to stretch out his arms and provide shelter for every sinner on the planet. Through Jesus’ own death, God’s kingdom of mercy and peace will prosper in ways we could never imagine at the outset. First the stalk, then the head, then the full harvest of a faith that trusts in God’s eternal life.
At the Virginia Synod Assembly last weekend we heard the true story of one of our former Presiding Bishop’s trips abroad a few years ago. Mark Hanson had taken a group of people from our denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, to China in order to meet up with leaders of the Chinese church and learn about how we can accompany them. What they found everywhere they went was that the church was growing faster and becoming more vibrant than they ever imagined. In fact, our speaker last weekend explained in no uncertain terms that it is difficult for the ELCA to keep track of the growth of the church in China, even as the government remains suspicious of Christianity, knocking down crosses and churches on a periodic basis.
One story our speaker shared with us about that trip involved the ELCA contingent’s visit to a church that was being rededicated in the city of Luzho. The church had actually been founded decades before when western Christian missionaries first arrived in that province, but the congregation had been expelled during the Cultural Revolution and the building had been used as a prison. Now the prisoners had been released and removed and the congregation was moving back in. The service that day, we heard, was absolutely packed. In the pews on the floor, people were squeezed in like sardines, and many of the elderly who were worshiping that day had served time in that very building when it was a prison.
What made the biggest impression on the bishop, however, was the fact that the balcony of the church was also standing room only, made up almost entirely of youth from the city who were holding up their cell phones for the duration of the worship service. They had dialed their friends who hadn’t been able to make it into the church and were using their phones to broadcast the sermon and the hymns so that dozens of others could hear what was being preached and sung in that little church of God. I’d say the branches of the mustard shrub grew quite a bit that day, and the bird nests looked like Samsung Galaxys and iPhone. So in our patch of God’s garden, at this end of the school year with another year of school behind us and summer church programs in front, let us look both within and without and find that small seed somewhere. Because it’s enough. And by the Holy Spirit’s power let us and trust its growth will come. And Let us also give thanks to the God that planted it and look forward to a day when all the world will be gathered in the shade of the mustard shrub cross.