You and I live in a society that values “progress”, especially when it happens quickly, in ways that are big and visible. Every night on TV, we see commercials for some new product that promises to make our lives longer, happier, wealthier, and more secure. If only we would buy what they are selling: if we would drink a certain beverage or apply a certain cream, if we would invest in a certain company or drive a certain car, we would instantly find the kind of deep and lasting joy we observe on the faces of the individuals in the advertisement.
Of course, most adults develop over time the critical thinking skills necessary to see through the lies these companies are selling us. There is no such thing as a beer that makes us more appealing to a potential mate or a vacation that will truly take our minds off the troubles waiting for us at home. Every political candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will be able to deliver only a partial fulfillment of those grand campaign promises.
We know all this, but that knowledge doesn’t stop us from expecting the world from the next product, service, or candidate who comes along, promising the world. There persists within our hearts a selfish drive that screams, in the words of the classic rock band Queen: “I want it ALL, and I want it NOW!”
We like things that are big and fast.
I find it odd and confusing that our society, which runs on this urge for instant gratification of desire, claims to be a “Christian” society (or at least a society that was founded on “Christian values”). When I read about the words and deeds of Jesus Christ, as passed down to us in the Scriptures, I see our Lord and Savior valuing things that are directly opposed to the things that American culture tempts me to value. Today’s reading from the gospel according to St. Mark gives us a fine example of Jesus’ values in action.
In today’s gospel, Jesus uses one of his best and most well-known teaching techniques: the parable. Parables are short, simple stories that communicate spiritual truths by comparing them to physical objects and events. To explain it another way: a parable describes that which we cannot see by virtue of what we can see. Today, we heard two such parables from Jesus.
In both parables, the spiritual reality Jesus is describing is “the kingdom of God” (a.k.a. “the kingdom of heaven” in St. Matthew’s gospel). This is one of those oft-misunderstood phrases that Jesus frequently uses. 21st century westerners tend to associate “the kingdom of God/heaven” with the afterlife. We tend to think that “the kingdom of heaven” is the place where people go when they die, but this is not how Jesus uses that phrase.
For Jesus, the kingdom of heaven is not “pie in the sky”, but a present reality on earth. Think about human kingdoms: the term “kingdom” describes the geographic territory where a monarch possesses authority. Those who live in the United Kingdom are subjects under the authority of Queen Elizabeth II; those who live in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia are subjects under the authority of King Salman. In the same way, we baptized citizens of the kingdom of heaven are subjects under the authority of God. The kingdom of God, then, is any place where God is allowed to be in charge. The kingdom of God exists wherever God’s people can be found. The late biblical scholar Marcus J. Borg sums it up beautifully when he says that the kingdom of God is “what life in this world would be like if God were king and the domination systems of this world were not.” The kingdom of God is Jesus’ vision for this world.
Looking then at Jesus’ parables of the kingdom of God, let’s see what spiritual realities he is trying to communicate to us:
The physical image Jesus offers is that of crops growing in a field. This image would have been quite commonplace to his listeners in a first-century agrarian society, as it would also be for any farmers or gardeners among us today. This is important for two reasons: First, the banality of this image is part of the point. When people ask Jesus about the nature of God’s work in the world, he points to a very boring and ordinary thing. By doing this, Jesus seems to be telling us that the place where we can find God is right in front of us, in the everyday stuff of life. God is in the plants in your garden; God is in the person sweeping the floor; God is in the parent dealing with a rambunctious teenager; God is in the bread and wine on your dinner table.
The second reason why Jesus’ image of crops is important is that it demonstrates how God’s work in the world is a living and growing thing. Jesus says,
“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. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.”
This is an important truth for people who say things like, “If you want something done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.” Even those of us who are people of faith can sometimes fall into the trap of acting like “practical atheists”. A practical atheist, according to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is someone who philosophically believes in God, but lives their life as if God didn’t exist. In this world where so much needs to get done, it is easy to trick ourselves into thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus, on the other hand, is leading us in this parable to do our part in life’s process and then trust the living force of God to handle the rest. St. Paul communicated the same point, using a similar image, in his first letter to the Corinthians. He was addressing a conflict in the church between factions who preferred their current pastor or the previous one. To this, Paul says:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.”
In stressful moments, it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking that everything depends on us. Jesus takes this opportunity to remind us that there is more at work in the world than the forces of entropy and chaos. God’s hand is visible within and behind the most ordinary things. Jesus says elsewhere, in his Sermon on the Mount:
“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 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? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
“So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
“Now Barrett,” you might say in response, “These are lovely sentiments, but we live in the real world. I read the news headlines every day and find little encouragement that God is alive and active in the world today. How can I have confidence that this is so?”
Well, Jesus has a response for that as well. It’s in the very next parable we read in today’s gospel. He says, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;”
God’s work in the world, Jesus says, is not some big or flashy thing; it starts small, but doesn’t stay that way. Jesus continues, “yet when [the seed] is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
God is at work in the world in all the little, ordinary ways. God is busy making this place into a home where even the smallest and most insignificant creatures have room to live and thrive. We can choose to look at things like practical atheists, pretending that everything depends on us, or we can look at the world with the eyes of faith, as Jesus invites us to do. We can choose to trust that God is alive and at work in our lives and in the world around us. We can look at all those little and ordinary things and see evidence that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God’s eternal purpose is working itself out.
This good news is critical for those of us who worry about the fate of our world or the Church today. Does our blood pressure go up every time we check the headlines? Are we worried about the future of our little congregation or denomination? Jesus invites us to “let go and let God.”
Shortly after I first moved to Kalamazoo five years ago to take up the pastorate at North Presbyterian Church, I got to sit down with my esteemed predecessor, the Rev. Bob Rasmussen, over lunch one day. As a young, ambitious clergyman, I had all kinds of big ideas for the congregation. I had plans for growing the church, increasing organizational efficiency, and improving our outreach to the community. But then I was humbled over lunch with Pastor Bob.
The first thing I asked him was this: “Bob, as one who served this church faithfully for many years, what do you think is the thing they most need?” I expected some kind of technical response from a fellow professional in my field, but what he actually said floored and humbled me.
In response to my question about what the Church needs most, Pastor Bob said, “Just the Gospel.”
Those are words that I have carried with me ever since. I still frequently fall into the trap of thinking that my big ideas are the solution to the big problems I find in the Church or the world, but when I still my anxious heart, I can hear the wisdom of Jesus speaking through the words of Pastor Bob Rasmussen: “Just the Gospel.”
What God’s world and Christ’s Church needs most is the reminder that we are not alone, that we are loved, and that God is working the divine purpose out in the little and ordinary things around us.
In these parables today, Jesus invites us to stop telling God how big our problems are and start telling our problems how big God is.
Our task is to stay rooted in Scripture, Sacrament, and prayer, trusting God to continue building God’s kingdom within and around us until the whole universe is reunited in an unending hymn of praise. As St. Paul wrote in his letters to the Philippians and the Ephesians: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
“Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.”