I went to see a movie recently and made the mistake of arriving on time. Silly me, I thought if the movie was scheduled to start at 7:10 it would start at 7:10. Instead I had to endure twenty minutes of previews. Each was presented as the newest blockbuster, filling the screen with an onslaught of train wrecks, car crashes, and explosions. The dialogue was incredibly pithy with such memorable lines as “Duck!” which makes sense if the central theme is train wrecks, car crashes, and explosions. The sound track practically made my ears bleed. It resembled a marriage of Richard Wagner and Black Sabbath. Why is it movie folks think bigger and louder will convince me to spend another $24.00 on tickets, coke, and popcorn? Truth is, I’m not going back until they start on time, turn down the noise, and put extra butter on my popcorn, even if I don’t ask for it.
Everything these days seems so over the top. We don’t converse. We engage in dramatic dialogues attempting to prove that my life is more important than yours. So what do we do when Jesus opens one of his sermons with the line, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed?”
Not being the type person who intentionally spends much time in a garden, I had to check with an expert to discover exactly why one would sow mustard seeds. Boy was I surprised. It seems mustard seeds are so small they can easily be blown away by the wind. But once they take root, they grow like kudzu. It actually is more of a weed than plant. It becomes a parasite choking out the other vegetables in the garden. That information makes it difficult to understand how one might sell mustard seeds. Now coming to your local garden, we present the mustard seed. Small to the eye but more powerful to the taste buds than paprika, the mustard seed promises to bring out the dog in your hot dog. But be careful, mustard can leave a stain that last a lifetime.
Somehow I fear a mustard movie is going straight to cable. No matter how loud the soundtrack, the idea that the kingdom of heaven is like mustard seeds leaves me a little disappointed. Where is the pizzazz? Where are the fireworks? What is so special about a little seed eventually becoming an aggressive bush? It is almost as if Jesus is saying, “The Kingdom of God is hardly what you expect.” And maybe that’s the problem. In our minds we already have a clear understanding of the Kingdom of God. In fact the only time we get confused is when Jesus speaks.
What is the Kingdom of God? I spent an endless amount of time this week interviewing any number of folks concerning this very question. Well actually that is not true. Every morning this week from 6:30 to 8:00 I have been painting the outside of my townhouse. As I paint I have been imagining how you might respond to my question. I realize this does not make for a terribly accurate survey but then surveys are notorious for allowing a small sampling to speak for the entire universe. I figure my survey is as accurate as any compiled by CNN or Fox News.
What is the Kingdom of God? Most folks in my survey substituted the word heaven. One person said, “While I have not been there, I believe it to be a place where everything is perfect.” Another added, “When I get there I am sure I will see my dearly departed loved ones.” My favorite comment was, “I am not sure if the streets are paved with gold, but I am certain there are no potholes.” None of the folks I imagined I interviewed suggested that the Kingdom of God was like a mustard seed. So why would Jesus suggest this?
When Jesus spoke of the Kingdom of God he was not referring to an after death experience. When asked when the Kingdom of God would appear Jesus responded, “The Kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” Jesus referred to the Kingdom as the time when the reign of God would be complete. He admitted this had not fully occurred but it was in the process of happening. Furthermore, Jesus warned when it does happen, it might not be what we expect. Who in their right mind dreams of choking out what one considers being essential as a good thing.
We prefer our parables interpreted by someone wearing a pair of alligator shoes and a mega-watt smile. Folks like Joel Osteen promise if we believe in the power of God we will never again have to drive a Kia. God will bless us abundantly. God wants us to have that house and that vacation. As Joel would say, “Believe and succeed.”
The problem is Jesus wears sandals and warns it takes more than mega-watt smile to bring about the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, Jesus is a big fan of Mick Jagger. Late at night the disciples would question Jesus concerning the kingdom of God and Jesus would begin to sing, “You don’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.”
So if it’s not a house, a vacation, or new car, what is it that Jesus might think we need? Perhaps a story told by Desmond TuTu might help. The Archbishop appeared on TV in the early 1980’s when there was no imaginable sign of apartheid ending. He said a curious thing. “When the white people arrived we had the land and they had the Bible. They said, ‘Let us pray.’ When we opened our eyes they had the land and we had the Bible. I think we got the better deal.”
This story and for that matter the parable of the Mustard Seed make no sense whatsoever from a practical point of view. But then that’s one of the many problems we have with Jesus. He is just not all that practical. Jesus enters our world with these words, “Jesus came into Galilee proclaiming, ‘The Kingdom of God is at hand’.” He taught parables and most of them began, “The Kingdom of God is like….” Yet while Jesus spoke often about the Kingdom, he never once paused to define it. To the farmer or the fisherman the term never needed to be explained. It was part of the frequent vocabulary of every Jew. But for us it remains a strange concept lurking on the fringes of our theological language. What is the Kingdom of God? If you are a bird, it is the mustard bush which will provide your family a nest. If you are a woman trying to feed her family the kingdom of God is the yeast that makes the bread rise. The Kingdom of God is the extraordinary in the ordinary.
Last Sunday another Habitat House was occupied by a wonderful woman and her two children. It does not compare with the houses most of us live in but to her it is a palace. Phyllis shared a reading from the 65th chapter of Isaiah during the service of dedication. “I will create a new heaven and a new earth. No longer will an infant live but a day or an old person fail to live out their life. Those who build a house will live in them. Those that plant the seeds will eat of the fruit. You will no longer labor in vain for you shall be blessed by the Lord your God.”
What is the Kingdom of God? It is the radical hope that people shall live together as one. It is the radical expectation that the word of the Lord is more important than the word of those who prey on others. It is the radical promise that even the wolf and the lamb will come to the same table and not hurt or destroy each other.
The Kingdom of God does not arrive accompanied by flashing lights, thundering sounds and buttered popcorn. It comes in God’s time and meets us exactly where we are. And how will we know if the Kingdom of God is upon us? Check a mustard seed plant and witness a robin building her nest. Check the garden next to the bush and witness the produce being shared. Check Jefferson Lane in Arrington and witness a new house which has been occupied by someone who helped build it. Check the hearts of the other folks who helped build both the house and the garden. This is what the kingdom looks is like. It is the world and neighborhood around us when God’s will is done. Amen.