The Kingdom of God – we have just heard Jesus talking about it in today’s Gospel reading; he says the Kingdom of God is like someone scattering seed on the ground, or the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
These are odd associations – seeds and kingdoms – but maybe for us the whole idea of a kingdom itself is a little odd, sort of quaintly old-fashioned, after all: didn’t we give up the idea of kingship in this country two-hundred-and-thirty-six years ago? For most of us, kings are people found in history books or fairy tales; they don’t have much to do with us.
And yet we hear Jesus speaking about the Kingdom of God – and we’ll hear more about it as time goes on: so many of the Gospel stories we get in this Season after Pentecost are stories of the Kingdom. In fact in Matthew, Mark and Luke combined, the Kingdom of God is mentioned forty-one different times; and in Matthew alone the Kingdom of Heaven is mentioned another thirty-one times. Don’t get confused; for Matthew the terms Kingdom of God and Kingdom of Heaven are interchangeable. Clearly, this idea was very important for Jesus if there are seventy-two different references to it in only three books!
So what is this Kingdom stuff all about? What’s Jesus trying to get at? When Jesus preaches and teaches about the Kingdom of God/Heaven, he is trying to tell the disciples, the Pharisees, the general public and anyone who will listen to him (including us) what life in this world is like when God is in charge, when we move into that place where God’s dream and God’s vision for us and for this world start to become a reality, even though we will never see a complete fulfillment of it.
The most fundamental, the most basic prayer we pray is the one Jesus taught the disciples - we call it the Lord’s Prayer – and the version of it that we know best includes this petition: Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. We always need to keep in mind that when Jesus taught us to pray this way, he wasn’t telling us to pray that God’s will would be done in our lives only, but in society as a whole, in the world at large – beginning with us who follow Jesus, and spreading out into our neighborhoods and communities. The Kingdom of God, as Jesus tells us, is about the flourishing and well-being of all people, of all that God has made.The God’s Kingdom is fundamental to Jesus’ teaching and to his understanding of his mission.
So – here is Jesus telling us that the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. OK, you might think, I know all about that, checked that box: a mustard seed is really tiny and then is grows up to be a great big plant, and that’s what our faith is supposed to be like – it starts out very small and then, over time, it grows and becomes substantial. That’s all very true, but it’s also a little tame – because, in reality, the wild mustard plant that Jesus would have been familiar with was actually much more like an invasive weed that got into everything, including the carefully planted and cultivated crops if you weren’t watching.
So Jesus is saying that God’s Kingdom, God’s activity in and for the world is like an invasive plant; you didn’t plant it yourself, you don’t really know how it got there, it’s gotten right in the middle of everything, and now it’s taken over your garden! It’s like pachysandra where you don’t want it, or bittersweet, or even poison ivy. The Kingdom of God appears in human life and the world like this invasive wild mustard plant that takes over and changes everything, including attracting birds that you may not want among your crops or fruit or fields.
Well that’s a very different way of thinking of the Kingdom of God; it’s very dynamic and surprising and not easily controllable – a far cry from the old stereotype of God as an ancient being with a long white beard sitting on a throne in the clouds somewhere far removed from us. But that’s exactly Jesus’ point: the Kingdom of God happens where we live and work, among us and around us; it is vibrant and eager and full of surprises in all kinds of places we might not expect.
Many of you will remember that a number of years ago we had to close our parish nursery school. It was a good school, and it had served the children and families of our community well for fifty years, but times had changed, and the needs of families had changed, enrollment dwindled, and the vestry made the hard decision to close the school. We did not know where that decision would take us, we did not know fully what the financial impact would be. But we were pretty sure that God wanted us to do something different with that building, to use it in some way that would serve our community.
And over time, that is exactly what happened; we have been able to exercise a ministry of hospitality for many different groups and events for the wider community – some sponsored by us, like the Rummage Sale or the Fish and Chips or the Solar Screening; and some are events and programs by outside groups – Scouts, Moms Club, the recreation department, being a polling place for Long Hill Township – and especially Alcoholics Anonymous.
AA has been a presence here at All Saints’ for many years, meeting either in the Undercroft of the Church or the Lower Room of the Parish House, but in the years since the nursery school was closed three more meetings have been added – there are now seven every week, offering hope and strength and healing to people who suffer with the disease of addiction. Even more remarkably, when the lunchtime meetings were bursting at the seams in the Undercroft, we were able to move those meetings to the Parish Hall, where there was not only more space, but a lovely room, with more convenient facilities, and very few stairs to deal with.
When the lunch-time meetings moved across the street attendance at them grew even more, and reached more people; and we started the annual Gratitude Mass where AA members and their families could come and give thanks for the AA program and fellowship in an explicitly Christian setting. Yesterday’s Gratitude Mass was the fourth annual; when I mentioned to the assembled congregation that we pray for them on an on-going basis, there was an audible sigh of surprise and appreciation. After the service one man asked if we could increase the frequency of our prayers for AA – from every five or six weeks to every three weeks, because there are still so many out there suffering from alcoholism.
It was a great day, people were indeed full of gratitude, and what I was seeing and experiencing was the Kingdom of God in action, in flower. People’s lives are being saved: they have stopped drinking, they’ve recovered their health and sanity, marriages kept intact, families restored, jobs secured – the Kingdom of God, indeed!
But we didn’t know that was going to happen, back when we closed the school; we didn’t know how or why God’s Kingdom would show up and develop in us and through us and around us, but it did – not all at once, and not in any steady progression, and what has taken place so far is certainly not the fullest expression of the Kingdom, but it’s rolling out in the way the Holy Spirit is directing for the good of our neighbors and our community.
There are many other examples and stories of how the Kingdom of God is unfolding all around us that we could highlight, both here at All Saints and in the lives and experiences of the people around us.
I’m going to give you some homework. Set yourself a little challenge in the next week or two: see if you can notice and identify examples of Kingdom of God activity in your neighborhood, where you work, among people you know or groups you are aware of. Talk to people; be curious about what is important to them; listen with the ears of the Spirit.
Ask yourself what God might be up to for the good of the community, and the well-being of both individuals and groups of people; see if you can recognize that wild mustard plant of faith and action growing where you least expect it. And then ask God how you can cooperate and join in with what the Spirit is doing so that God’s mission and God’s plan can become an even truer reality in the here-and-now.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus, you call us to be your disciples, always learning and growing in the ways of faith, and in the hope and joy of new life; open our eyes to see your hand at work in the world about us, gives us courage to step forward further into your Kingdom, and gives us hope that we will see glimpse of your glory on earth as it is in heaven. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 17, 2012