Jesus, in today’s Gospel readings, speaks of two parables that give us a taste of the Kingdom of God. We all want to know about the Kingdom, and Mark yokes these two parables together to provide a clear glimpse of the Kingdom. But to truly see this kingdom we must contrast it with another Kingdom, the one we materially see and feel everyday, the Kingdom of Man.
The Kingdom of Man is defined by fear.
Fear is the central driver of the Kingdom of Man. Fear of Death is the primary manifestation of this driver. Death, both capital D and lower case d.
Capital D Death is the obvious: premature deaths of a husband, son, mother, or child.
Lower case “d “ deaths are less obvious but more potent in the rhythm of our everyday life. Little deaths happen all the time: the feeling of retirement from a job for 40 years and grieving the loss of your work family. This is relearning to walk after a hip replacement or a transition to a new town or job. Realizing that you cannot pick up a grandchild anymore or that your body hurts a little more than normal after a game of tennis. This is the loss of something, maybe identity or a dream. The latter is so potent with our children.
We fear for our kids not getting into right college, not finding the right job, not having friends, not getting along with their teachers. All of these things would represent a death of a parents’ dream. Or did we say the right thing to a child when in trouble? And I just have three kids, and they are all under six.
There is no greater driving force of this fear then our internal condemnation that keeps us in knots and paralysis.
A lawyer friend told me about an experience he had last summer that captured the intersection of fear and condemnation. He made a terrible mistake on a case and he was mortified. Scared he would lose his job, scared he would lose his license, reputation and so forth. He went to his boss, full of shame and guilt – this after a week of agony. Maybe you have experienced this type of agony – gut wrenching and soul crushing. His boss met his internal condemnation with a 1-hour lecture about what he had done wrong and how it was contra to his very profession. 1 hour of external condemnation. This is the way of the world. Our internal condemnation meets external condemnation, and the result is that we are exhausted.
More often than not our internal condemnation is met with external condemnation leaving us tired, wiped, crushed.
Finding others to give us grace is hard enough because we do not even give ourselves grace.
Fear leads to weariness. We are tired.
Robbie Robertson’s lyrics from The Weight – capture this perfectly.
I pulled into Nazareth, was feelin’ about half past dead
I just need some place where I can lay my head
“Hey, mister, can you tell me where a man might find a bed?”
He just grinned and shook my hand, “no” was all he said
No is what the world says.
What about the Experiences Kingdom of God?
Heady words such as mystery, hiddenness, not yet, the parousia come to mind. Abstract words like love, presence, beauty come to mind as well. We might think of Barth definition: “It is the reconciliation of the world to God.”
These words provide some shade of the Kingdom, but point to a distant and far off kingdom when the reality is that Jesus, the seed, has been planted, and the kingdom grows right now…Jesus has been sowed in our hearts. And it is moving from the head to the heart these parables offer us unique lens at seeing the defining characteristic offered by the parable.
The Kingdom of God is defined by Surprise. “…the earth produces of itself.” The Kingdom works without us. The Greek translation “of itself” serves as the root word for automation. We have zero ability to turn the tiller of the harvest or nurture the garden. We do not even know how it works! The Kingdom planted by God through Jesus, the seed, automatically grows. It does not require a manual, or any work on our part. It grows alongside this Kingdom of Man – offering us a glimpse…And when it shows up, when those moments of perceptibility happen, it is joy and surprise.
A few years ago we hiked Manchu Picchu in Peru. It was my wife, mom and mother in law, and we were on our third day and the most strenuous hike. Five miles until we reached our campsite, and we hiked all day on a narrow path with a 10,000 plus foot drop to my left – for some of you, you know that I have a fear of heights! It rained. It was cold. It was hard, and we were pulverized by the time we reached our clouded summit. As we dropped our packs, we begin to witness the clouds sink, the summit increase, and the clouds descended from heaven leaving us in a cloud sandwich. This open blue sky was filled with the most beautiful sunset any of us had ever seen. It was a moment of surprise and one where we understood the branches of God’s Kingdom growing right around us.
The surprise comes in the inverted power of God’s kingdom. What is small, like a mustard seed, is large and the most powerful – the creator of the world.
It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs,
Jesus choose this image because in 1st century-Palestine a grain of mustard seed stood proverbially for the smallest possible thing. God became the smallest possible human, a baby born in Bethlehem, to
Robert Capon sums up the counter knowledge of God’s Kingdom being described as a Mustard Seed – “given our druthers, our pet illustration of the kingdom would be a giant nail – driven into the world, appropriately enough, by a giant hammer in the hand of a giant God.”
God showing up in weakness or despair is true, but what is even truer in the Kingdom is that God is already there. The Kingdom is already present to you and me. I watched a clip from the BBC show Rev about Rev. Adam Smallbone, a Church of England Vicar running a fledging city parish in London. He has given up in this clip – tried of church work, his marriage is crumbling, his life falling to ground with exhaustion. He is at the point of total despair, and he carries a cross to the top of a hill, looking forlorn, he begins to dance. Having given up, he begins to dance to an old Sunday School hymn in this hillside overlooking London. As he dances, a man in a track suit, played by Liam Neeson, begins to dance alongside him. Joining him and singing with Adam. As they sit down, Adam stares at this visitor, with his track suit and a morning beer in his had, and begins to realize that this is God. God tells Adam, “Adam, Adam, I am always with you.” This is the surprise of the kingdom of God that God shows up Automatically. God’s branches are here for you and me. Here for shade, and support. Jesus says of this tree it, “Puts forth large branches so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
Resting we hear the words of The Kingdom of God “I am with you.”
In closing, a poem from Wendell Berry that so captures the tension between the Kingdoms.
The Peace of Wild Things
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
- Mark 4:26 - 34