Given that today’s Gospel reading has Jesus talking about the realm of God, you might think we would be singing one of our favorite hymns about the realm of God, “We Would Be Building.”
We love the tune, FINLANDIA, and the words are meant to inspire and empower us to get busy building the realm of God.
Which is precisely why I decided that today we would not sing “We Would Be Building”: because my reading and study of these two parables of Jesus have left me wondering if we in the church haven’t misunderstood—at least partially—what our role is in creating the Beloved Community and building the realm of God.
I am reminded of a statement by the late great Black theologian James Forbes on the differences between predominantly white and predominantly Black churches.
“In predominately white congregations,” Forbes told UCC pastor and church consultant Tony Robinson, “people believe God needs them; in predominately black churches, people understand they need God.”
Not only do folks in less white, less theologically progressive, and less politically liberal churches more fully understand their need for God, they also recognize that need as good news.
Now, maybe I’m simply hearing the message that I most need to receive in these challenging days, but it seems to me that one of the things Jesus is saying in these parables is that the realm of God is like something that God does. That how well God’s realm grows and how big it gets is, at the very least, not entirely up to us! That neither the size of our church, the future of the planet, the triumph of justice, nor the making of peace is—not all on our shoulders! That neither the weight of the world nor the future of the church rests only on us.
And ain’t that-a good news?!?
Now, lest you think I’ve lost my theological mind or am suffering from pre-vacation fever, let’s look more closely at our lesson.
You may remember that Jesus began his ministry by proclaiming that the realm of God was near. Then he called his disciples and began teaching and healing. And then he began speaking more earnestly about the realm of God.
Perhaps Jesus realized that the meaning of this term was not clear. Maybe some of the crowds following him, like some of his disciples, understood the realm of God to have something to do with the overthrow of Rome and the reestablishment of Israel’s independence. Perhaps Jesus realized that many people had a hard time thinking conceptually and could hardly begin even to imagine what God might be doing in the world.
And so he began speaking in parables. Jesus knew the power of story and metaphor. Jesus knew that what the people of Israel—and all people—really needed was not a set of doctrines or a list of rules, not a declaration of unchanging truth that they could put into a box and then stop trying to connect with the Holy.
Jesus understood that what those beaten down, suffering, and relatively powerless people needed most was God with them, a new way of seeing the world, and some understanding of the gracious, extravagant, even gratuitous love of God.
And he realized it was almost impossible to explain. And so he became like every parent trying to explain how electricity works. He became like every poet searching for just the right image. He became like every teacher looking for the perfect illustration. He became like anyone who’s ever tried to put the intoxicating, dizzying, life-changing, all-consuming feeling of love into words.
And so it was that, oddly enough, Jesus talked about seeds.
A sower throwing seeds—and all the things that happened to the seeds depending on where they landed.
Someone else scattering seed and then getting on with their life, sleeping and waking and just trusting that something was happening until, one day, they found a tiny sprout poking out of the earth and then some days later a real-live plant, and then a while again later a full head of grain ready to be harvested.
“The earth produces crops all by itself,” Jesus said, shaking his head in wonder and amazement.
The farmers in the crowd shook their heads, too, but for a different reason. Clearly, this guy doesn’t know how hard we work, they grumbled. Clearly he’s never ruined his back pulling weeds all day or worn himself out carrying water from the spring to the field.
What Jesus was trying to say, apparently, is that the realm of God is something God brings about. Sure, we must scatter the seed; we must open our hearts to grace and then share the love we’ve received. But the real work of building the kingdom, Jesus seemed to be saying, the real work of amazing grace, extravagant love, and disruptive justice happens in our hearts and in the world—not primarily because of what we’ve done, but by Spirit’s powerful presence and God’s constant tending.
Jesus wasn’t sure how that parable had landed, and so he tried again.
The realm of God is like a teeny-tiny mustard seed, he said.
This is where Jesus kind of got carried away and revealed even more of how little he knew about farming. Because the mustard seed actually is not the smallest seed, and it doesn’t exactly grow into a bush, much less a really big one. What a mustard plant does do is grow like a weed, invading every crack and crevice and empty patch of dirt, taking over entire fields. If you’ve ever dealt with garlic mustard, you understand.
Once it gets going there’s almost no stopping it.
Yes! That’s it! Jesus said. The realm of God is like that. The realm of God is like an invasive weed; you just can’t get rid of it!
Now, I’m no expert, but I’m also struck by what Jesus didn’t say.
For example, he didn’t say that the realm of God is like a multinational corporation that pays immigrant farm workers almost nothing to work in the hot, pesticide-laden fields for 12 hours a day, six days a week. Jesus didn’t say the realm of God was like a wonderful church that was forever trying to save the world, feed the hungry, visit the sick, balance the budget, teach the children, fix the roof, run yourselves ragged, and . . . on top of it all, figure out how to build community, spread the love, and keep the church alive while protecting people from getting sick.
Jesus didn’t say, “Y’all better get busy now! God’s depending on you!”
Isn’t that interesting!
Isn’t that good news!
So what does all this mean? Does it mean that church doesn’t need us? Does it mean that God doesn’t want the joy of loving us and healing us, and partnering with us to love and heal the world?
I don’t think so.
I think it just means that, among other things, building the realm of God is not all up to us. I think it means that while the church is really important, the realm of God is so much more than the church. I think it means that one of the ways the realm of God invades and takes over the world is that we begin to see differently, to trust more fully, and to live with less anxiety and more joy.
The realm of God is like when a lobster diver on the Cape gets swallowed up in the mouth of a humpback whale, then gets spit out, and then lives to tell the tale of what an unbelievably amazing world we live in.
It’s like when a Black high school graduate in Fitchburg who’s bound for Harvard wins a $40,000 college scholarship and then decides on the spot to give it away to someone going to community college.
It’s like when ministry teams spend month after month doing the work that staff members used to do.
It’s like when people living all over the country gather on Zoom for Vespers or choir practice. It’s like when people we don’t even know gather with us for worship on YouTube. It’s like when people we don’t even know contribute financially to keep our church going.
It’s like when people walking down Main Street in Amherst stop to take pictures of a church building with a Pride flag and a Black Lives Matter banner hanging out front.
It’s like when we can ask forgiveness for misunderstanding and when we can forgive one another for sharp words spoken out of good intentions. It’s like when we can trust that what needs to get done will get done even if we don’t do it.
It’s like when our church services reach people in their homes, all across the country and around the world.
Beloveds, even now the realm of God is at hand. May we have eyes to see and ears to hear.
Thanks be to God.