The sermon I preached at Community Lutheran Church on June 14.
“With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?” It’s kind of like scattering seed and not knowing how it grows. It’s kind of like a mustard seed. It’s kind of like… Jesus speaks about the kingdom of God at least 17 times in Mark’s Gospel. And with all of these parables and metaphors, it can get a little confusing trying to figure out what exactly this kingdom looks like.
What’s even more confusing is that Mark’s Gospel tells us “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” Jesus spoke and taught people as they were able to hear – and he only gave detailed explanations to his disciples. Why not just come out and explain it, Jesus?!
There seems to be something mysterious and hard to pin down about the kingdom of God. Hmmm… it seems God’s kingdom is just as wily as the Triune God is mysterious and difficult to understand. I think I’m seeing a trend here! But there’s also a tremendous gift in teaching through parables – they are never straightforward and so they cause us to think and to wrestle with what they mean for our lives. They’re even flexible enough that we can hear them and understand them on different levels depending on what we’re going through. But what is Jesus getting at when he’s speaking of seeds, shrubs and birds?
In the Ezekiel reading we hear about the majestic cedar tree, a symbol of power and empire. God’s cedar grows from a tiny sprig that God has transplanted on a lofty mountain. It flourishes and becomes the resting and nesting place for a multitude of winged creatures. God’s anointed, symbolized by the cedar, will rule and point the way to God so that all the nations or birds know who God is.
Jesus takes these ideas and plays on them, saying that the kingdom of God is not like the world-renown mighty cedar, but rather like the mustard plant. God’s kingdom starts humbly and grows, through the action of God, becoming not an impressive tree but a shrub. Mustard is invasive and can be a nuisance – while it can be used for oil, as a condiment, or as an herb, it can take over things you might not want it to take over. Again, Jesus points out that the birds of the air will make their home, not in a huge tree, but in this scruffy plant.
The kingdom of God doesn’t look like the powerful rulers and empires we see in the world. Instead, it starts tiny and crops up in places where we’d least expect it, being able to thrive and multiply. I think of the English ivy that Jeff and I have in the backyard. Last year, when we bought the house, it was all over, covering at least a quarter of the yard, climbing fences and trees, and intertwined with poison ivy. We had a crew come in to clear it out, and they did. But guess what? This year, the ivy is beginning to come back, creeping in from a neighbor’s yard and popping up from the root network that the landscaping crew had a hard time getting up.
The kingdom of God is surprising and persistent. We pray for God’s kingdom to come because we long for God’s rule to be in place rather than the unjust and often abusive rulers of this world. That being said, God’s kingdom, like God, will surprise us, invade our lives and force us to re-examine what we thought we knew time and time again. And that makes us really uncomfortable. As Pr. Joe said last week, so often we want God, but on our terms. And the kingdom of God is no different.
Both the reading from Ezekiel and from Mark say that the birds of the air will nest in the tree or the shrub God has made grow. In the Old Testament, there are many different types of birds mentioned, at least 20 of which are listed as ritually unclean in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. In the Gospels, birds are used as illustrations of God’s care and examples of items of very little value. We hear, “Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?” God cares for the birds, weak and insignificant, and God cares for us as well.
So when a variety of birds nest in the mustard shrub, Jesus isn’t just speaking about birds having a home. He’s pointing to the idea that the kingdom of God has residents from all different backgrounds, nations and stations in life, whether clean or unclean. Birds of all feathers nest in this tree and Jesus is using a shrubby bush to describe the Tree of Life. It may not look like much and it may fly in the face of everything we expect, but it is a tree that brings forth life to all who come to it. In essence, it is the cross. In the cross and Christ’s death and resurrection, dead wood becomes the Tree of Life. It is in the cross that we, and all people, can find shade, shelter, and a space to live.
But as I said before, the kingdom sounds nice until it confronts our comfort, the boundaries we have drawn, and whom we think should be in or out of the kingdom. It sounds great when we hear at Communion, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, shed for you and for all people for the forgiveness of sins.” But then we think, “for all people?” Wait a second! That guy is way worse than I am. She’s done terrible things. That person’s lifestyle is completely wrong. I can never forgive him for what he’s done. You mean to tell me that these are the birds invited to nest alongside of me under the Tree of Life?! Yes, the birds are not only the “righteous,” but the undesirables, the outsiders, the oppressed, the marginalized, and the least of these.
So who are the outsiders we might be called to welcome? Or, who do we need to realize as already welcomed by Christ into the kingdom? Maybe it’s the homeless person we see on the street. Or the person who has just immigrated. Maybe it’s the addict or the person recently released from prison. Maybe it’s someone of a different race or ethnicity or culture. Lately, there’s been a lot in the news about Caitlyn Jenner, formerly Bruce Jenner. Just saying that raises eyebrows. And I realize it’s so easy to become polarized about what we see or hear and to stop there. But how does Jesus’ parable challenge us to look at welcoming people in the name of Christ for the sake of the kingdom?
Listening to Jesus’ parable and admitting that the kingdom, as wonderful as it is, will probably make us uncomfortable, we can let go of trying to control it’s coming. “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” We might not know how or what exactly God is up to, but we can trust that God is at work in surprising and life-changing ways. Like a tiny mustard seed that invades and transforms the landscape into a sea of yellow, God’s kingdom starts slowly and changes the landscape of our lives and our world for the better. And we can rejoice that God invites us to be a part of that transformation by following and inviting others to find rest and new life in the Tree of Life.
There are so many things that divide us. So many ways in which we like to keep God safely in our corner rather than free to do incredible work in the world. But God’s kingdom is persistent and invasive, growing even now in places unsuspected and surprising. And guess what? There’s room in that scruffy mustard shrub for all the birds of the world – for each of us and for birds of all different feathers. Thanks be to God! Amen.
© 2015. Annabelle Peake Markey. All rights reserved.