What’s a good image for God’s Kingdom?

Sermon given June 13, 2021

One of my favorite things about parables is the complexity found within their simplicity. You can easily take them at face value and walk away from them, or you can sit for hours with them, finding new depths. Some compare scripture to a diamond, you find new things as you look at it from different angles, and this is certainly true of parables. 

Part of the reason why Jesus spoke in parables is that they made people slow down. People couldn’t just blindly follow Jesus. They had to engage their hearts and minds, to allow God to break them open so they could hear the Spirit’s message to them. One of the beauties of the Jewish faith Jesus practiced is their critical engagement with the scriptures. They would mull scripture over, debate its meaning, even create extra-biblical stories, traditions, and laws, things that eventually would be written as the Talmud. The words, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” would have been completely foreign to Jesus and those who followed him. Instead, they might have said, “God shaped it, I engage with it, that opens me up to hear God’s voice.” 

So Jesus spoke in parables, that those who weren’t invested would take them as simple stories, but those who slowed down and took some time to engage with them might find the different faces and spaces of the glittering diamond of a parable. Today’s parables are the perfect examples. You can shrug off a story about a farmer planting wheat or the growth of a mustard plant, or you can critically engage with them and find new gleams and insights you would have never dreamed were there. 

I wonder where you find yourself in the parables today? Do you gravitate towards the sower, spreading the seeds of Christ around and being amazed when some of them stick and grow into a harvest? Do you find yourself in the seed, being buried in Christ and becoming a new creation, with roots sinking deeper into the ground, growing stronger as Christ nourishes you? Or do you find yourself in the soil? 

This week, I found myself reflecting on the soil in these parables. It’s funny, the parable before this one is all about sowing seeds on different kinds of soil, some rich soil, some thorny, some rocky, but I had never thought about the soil as an active part of these parables until a friend commented on them.  Where do we find ourselves in the soil?

If we look at our parables from the view of soil, the seed is placed within us and then begins to break us apart. The roots open cracks within us, creating new pathways that weren’t there before. The seed is a disturbance. It pulls apart what we had so tightly packed together and we can’t always see how this disruption is beneficial or good. But that cracking, that tearing, those new roots that enter into us, support something big and beautiful. Grain sprouts up that feeds others. Mustard blossoms and houses the birds. And the beauty of this ecosystem is that we are not diminished by this. We still have what we need. The nutrients flow from one plant to another. The worms help us out. The rain waters us. The disruption breaks us apart, but it doesn’t break us down. It opens us up with the possibilities that come from new life. Within all of this, God provides enough for each of us. 

But I know I at least am scared of being cracked open. It doesn’t feel good. More often than not, it hurts. It brings up grief, lament, anger, all those emotions our culture encourages us to move through as quickly as possible because we aren’t sure what to do with them. It’s not comfortable sitting with them, whether you are the one grieving or the friend of the bereaved. I’ve found as I’ve sat with grief that the hardest part is that there is nothing I can do to fix it. There is indeed nothing to fix. There’s nothing I or anyone else can do to make it better. We can simply offer our presence, sharing the power of community. One of my favorite examples of this kind of presence is how the community supports Eeyore in Winnie the Pooh. No one tries to fix him or change him. They just spend time with him and allow him space when he needs it. He’s loved as he is. 

I think it’s often within the cracked places that we need Christian community the most. Something is opening us up, supporting and upholding the new life Christ promises. We can see the Kingdom above us, growing and spreading, but in the ground it can often feel like chaos. We need others who can share the vision with us, reminding us that the grief, the lament, the anger, the chaos, are all birthing a new world, one where God’s love is visible and radiates through all that we do. God’s Kingdom is wild and uncontrollable, something that is more than we could ever imagine. A place where everyone is gifted with enough, where the needs of the other are provided for, a place where each person is treated like and feels like what they are, a beloved child of God. 

But in order to get there, the roots need to come in and through our space. And haven’t we especially felt those roots this past year? Now I don’t think God invited a global pandemic and the death of millions to teach us a lesson. I don’t think God killed George Floyd to wake up white people and advance the continuing civil rights movement. But I know that these events have tilled the soil of my heart. They have broken up clods I didn’t even know were in the way of the roots of God’s reign. They have made me deeply aware of how little I can and should control, causing me to fall back into the arms of my Savior, knowing I can do little else. God’s roots are taking hold in new ways because of my experiences with these events. Just think of how much God has changed you. Are any of us really the same? What is God able to do with us now that we are tilled? What can grow out of us?

The truth is that sometimes what grows out of all this may at first glance seem like weeds. Mustard is wonderful when it’s cultivated and controlled by people. It provides a great flavor to life. Wild mustard is a weed. It can completely take over areas. It’s invasive. If you let it do what it will, it will act like Kudzu, going everywhere. That’s the Kingdom of God. We like to try and cultivate it, pretending that we can control it. We create doctrine and dogma. We make rules about who is in and who is out. We try to cut it down into something reasonable and manageable by human beings, sometimes I think we’re afraid of what will happen if it roams free. But God is cracking us, the roots continue to go down, and the mustard of the kingdom is spreading wide and rising high into the sky. It’s going everywhere. It’s messy. It’s chaotic. It’s a new creation. The old things are passing away, and see, new things have come.

But what do we do when we can’t control God, when we can’t put God in a nice steepled box and come for visits on Sunday mornings? What happens when the God kudzu wraps around that box and even blocks off the doors for a time? How do we use it all in a new way, one that honors what God is doing and also gives us the rooting we need to allow God to work through us? 

I’ve had several friends leave the Church over the past couple of years. Seminary friends. Pastor friends. These are people who invested deeply and then had to walk away, mostly to protect their own health and sanity.  They are people I was formed alongside, whom I’ve had many intimate conversations with and broken bread with. They’ve painted images of God’s wild Kingdom in my mind, dreaming of a community that honors all, that worships the Creator, not the created, who break apart systems of domination, who call out those in power and live into something better, something new. I have one friend in particular who is actively on the move to tear apart the institutional church, to watch it die, because she believes deeply in her heart that only after that death can true resurrection occur. She has experienced too much pain and abuse at the hands of men in power. She’s ready to dismantle the patriarchy that lurks behind church doors and get into actually following Jesus. She wants more. She wants better.

I want the Church to be what my friends dream of, the Kingdom they saw so clearly in their seminary days but have watched fade out of view as they’ve struggled with the institutional Church. I see the pain. I feel the heartache. I know the damage that has been done. I see the mustard leaves creep overhead and feel God’s roots coming into the soil of the Church through their voices. 

Yet, I still believe with all my heart that the institutional Church is being used by God. It doesn’t need to be thrown out. But it does need to be cracked open. It needs to be held accountable. It needs to be transformed. God’s mustard seed is being planted within our soil and God’s ready to take over if we would just allow the plant to run wild. God’s using people like my friends to share what is possible if we only let go and let God take the reins. 

Probably the most exciting thing I’ve seen come out of this time of pandemic is the Reverend Canon Stephanie Speller’s new book, The Church Cracked Open. Canon Spellers is on our presiding bishop’s staff, leading efforts for Evangelism, Reconciliation, and Creation Care. In her book, she speaks openly about the sins of the Church, our alliance with the powerful and elites, our obsession with respectability. But she also shares the stories of saints and martyrs who stood up for God’s reign, who called the Church out and whose commitment to the Church made us all better. 

She invites us all into a new way of being. We must lose our lives, our tight control, opening ourselves up for the sake of the other. We must gain our lives by working in solidarity with those who are oppressed, and finally we must walk the path of discipleship, living in God’s love and letting God guide us in all that we do. The roots of God’s Kingdom must come down into our tightly packed soil and free us to live in new relationship with God. The old things are passing away and new things have arrived. 

St. John’s, this way of being is not new to you. It’s not foreign. It’s all about relationship; relationship with God and with others.  One of the reasons I said yes to this place was because I saw how committed you are to one another, how much you love being together. I saw your flexibility, your willingness to open yourselves up to new ways of being and your embrace of all of God’s people. I believe the future of the church is intentional community, building places where you can be fully yourself and live into God’s dreams alongside one another. You get that. It’s just part of what you do. 

I’m not asking you to embrace new ways of worship, I’m not abandoning the Book of Common Prayer or what makes The Episcopal Church distinct and beautiful.  We aren’t entering a new worship war. Debates about changing the style of worship on Sunday morning have waged throughout my lifetime and I think have only distracted the Church from the true work of Evangelism, which is the embrace of others as Christ embraces us. 

What is at the heart of this new movement, this wave of the Spirit, is not about worship style, it’s not about Sunday mornings, it’s all the other days and how our connection to God impacts our relationship with one another, with people outside of the church walls, and with all of creation. How will we live in a way that we grow strong in God’s love, committing ourselves to being a part of God’s Kingdom, giving control over to God? Worship feeds us so we can hear the Spirit’s voice in our lives. It isn’t the end all and be all of what we do. What matters most is the greatest commandment. We have to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and love our neighbors as ourselves. 

So how is God breaking apart your soil? How are you being tilled? Where do you fit in this mustard Kingdom that is growing like kudzu across the world? Today, God calls us to be cracked open, to grieve, to lament, to be angered by what is ungodly and to allow God to root us in love that can move mountains. Amen.