BIBLE READINGS: 1 Samuel 15:34—16:13 Mark 4:26–34
Jesus must have an
infuriating sense of humor, because the two parables
that make up this week’s Gospel reading do precisely that: they take our idea
of how God works and turn it upside down. How do we think God works? Many
of us think God ought to work like this… I do A and God does B. Predictably and
always. As in, I pray for what I need, and God gives me what I need
immediately. In this perfect version, we understand what the heck is
going on, at least 95% of the time. In other words, when life gets hard, God at
least provides decent answers to the “why?” questions, instead of leaving us to
wallow in the unknown.
In this perfect spiritual world, God makes grand gestures, and does spectacular things. The kingdom isn't commonplace and ordinary; it is straightforwardly miraculous. And there are clear boundaries of what is good and what is bad. Who is in and who is out.
But our ideas are not God’s.
In the first parable Jesus tells us of a gardener who scatters seed on the ground, and then goes off to sleep. The seeds fend for themselves (or, as in one translation, “the earth produces of itself”), and when the grain is ripe, the gardener harvests it. In the second parable, someone sows a tiny mustard seed in the ground, and it grows into a gigantic bush, large enough to offer birds shelter in its branches.
Both of these parables, insofar as they’re meant to show us what the kingdom of God looks like, are ridiculous. They’re big, cosmic jokes. As is the case with all of Jesus’s parables, these are intended to stretch our imaginations far beyond any place we’d take them on our own. Not to keep us comfortable and complacent, but to prod and provoke us into wholly different ways of perceiving and relating to what is sacred. What’s the kingdom of God like? Are you sure you want to know? Okay, brace yourself: the kingdom of God is like a sleeping gardener, mysterious soil, an invasive weed, and a nuisance flock of birds.
Let’s start with the sleeping gardener. If you’re any type of perfectionist, workaholic, neat freak, or compulsive worrier — if you insist on being in control, if you believe in work before play, if you practice vigilance in all things — then you already know what’s wrong with this first parable. Good gardeners don’t toss a bunch of seeds into their backyards and then snooze away the growing season. They plan and plod and hover. They make neat little rows in well-manicured beds. They keep a wary eye on the weather. They protect their gardens from birds and invasive insects. From early spring until autumn, they water, they fertilize, they prune, they weed, and they worry.
But the gardener in Jesus’s parable? She scatters and sleeps. She doesn’t slog. She doesn’t micro-manage. She doesn’t second-guess. Like a well-loved infant in her mother’s arms, the gardener enjoys the deep rest that comes from trusting in a process much older, larger, and more reliable than any she might conjure on her own. In this story of the kingdom, it is not our striving, our piety, our doctrinal purity, or our impressive prayers that cause us to grow and thrive in God’s garden. It is God’s grace alone.
Which brings us to the mysterious soil, or St. Mark describes it, the “automatic” earth. According to Jesus’s parable, the kingdom of God is both fertile and hidden, both generous and mysterious. It works its fertile magic underground, deep beneath the surfaces we see and quantify. Yes, the soil eventually brings forth all kinds of abundance, but the process of that bringing forth — all the nitty-gritty details we long to dissect and master — is hidden from our eyes. If anything, we live in the disconcerting time between the planting and the harvest. We look outside, full of hope, and see only dark soil, only vast expanses of uncertainty and potential.
In Jesus’s second parable, a sower sows a mustard seed in the ground. The joke here is not only that mustard seeds are tiny, but that the people in Jesus’s day didn't plant mustard seeds. Mustard was a weed — and a noxious, stubborn weed at that. If a 1st century gardener in Palestine were foolish enough to plant it, it would quickly take over his land, dropping seeds everywhere, and breaking down all barriers of separation between itself and the other plants in the garden. Imagine a gardener today planting lantana. This is a noxious weed we try to get rid of, not a plant we’d ever cultivate on purpose.
Mustard, moreover, is not a plant that grows with any stateliness or beauty. It’s nothing like a Pine tree or a large gum tree, or even a well-tended rose bush. It grows like a weed, and it looks like one.
So what is Jesus saying when he describes the sacred and the holy as a tiny, insignificant mustard seed? What does it mean to take an invasive, spindly weed — a plant we’d sooner discard than sow — and make it the very heart, the very structural center, of God’s kingdom? Who and what counts in God’s economy? What is beautiful? Who matters? Where do we see the sacred?
The last image in this set of parables is that of nesting birds finding shade in the branches of the mustard plant. It’s a pretty image on its face, but it, too, as it turns out, is a joke: who wants birds taking up residence in their gardens? Birds eat seeds and fruits. They can wreak havoc in a gardener’s carefully tended plot. Birds are why farmers put up scarecrows.
But Jesus isn't a scarecrow kind of gardener. Why? Because the kingdom of God is all about welcoming the unwelcome. Sheltering the unwanted. Practicing radical inclusion. The garden of God doesn’t exist for itself; it exists to offer hospitality to everyone the world deems unworthy. It exists to attract and to house the very people we’d rather shun.
This is what the kingdom of God looks like. It isn’t what we think it ought to be. It doesn’t operate the way we think it should. This is good news, but it isn’t always easy news. The truth is, it hurts to surrender ourselves to God’s expansive, life-changing care. It hurts to trust, to accept mystery, to seek God in the commonplace, and to embrace the unwanted thing as beloved.
This week, I challenge you to find God’s kingdom in the midst of the confusion of life. To trust and to wait for the abundance that lies in deep darkness.
For all of us, regardless of our circumstances, the challenge remains to scatter seed and rest in God’s grace. To embrace even the weeds, and allow them to become havens of rest. May God help us to do these hard and beautiful things. May God help us to say and to live these words with all sincerity: “Thy Kingdom Come.”
Acknowledgement: Rev Debie Thomas