He Does Not Know How

Today has come to be known as Christ the King Sunday. Since next week is the beginning of Advent, today is the end of the liturgical year, signaling the end times in which Jesus will reign and the Kingdom of God will be fully manifested. In our gospel passage for today, Jesus comes before Pontius Pilate during his trial before his crucifixion. When Pilate asks him if he is a King, Jesus responds, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.”

Throughout the bible, there is an ongoing tension between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of the world. To boil it down, God just does things differently than we do. The prophet Isaiah says, “’My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways’, declares the Lord.” Or as one translation says, “I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work.”

Because God doesn’t think the way we think or work the way we work, Jesus spends the bulk of his time teaching us about the Kingdom of God. And because God’s Kingdom is so counterintuitive, Jesus relies on similes and metaphors and stories and parables. He tells us the truth, but, like Emily Dickenson says, he tells it to us “slant”, because God’s ways are so not our ways, because his “kingdom is not from this world.”

There are so many examples from which to choose to illustrate the Kingdom of God at work. I’ll tell you why I’ve chosen one particular passage. A week ago Thursday I was supposed to preach at Dave Zahl’s brother John’s Institution as the new rector of St. Matthew’s in Bedford, New York. That was the morning it sleeted and I sat on the Charlottesville Airport’s tarmac for 2 hours before my flight was eventually canceled. Turns out that Westchester County had 8 inches of snow that afternoon and the bishop couldn’t make it either. But, I had already prepared a sermon for the passage John selected, and in the Kingdom of My World, I just can’t let a good sermon go to waste!

The passage comes from Mark 4: just a few verses: “The kingdom of God is as if a man should scatter seed on the ground. He sleeps and rises night and day, and the seed sprouts and grows; he knows not how. The earth produces by itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once he puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Jesus compares the Kingdom of God to a man who flings some seed on the ground and then does nothing tend to its growth.  He just goes about his normal business.  He wakes up, drinks his coffee, does the crossword, works a little bit here, wastes a little time there, occasionally checks in to see what is happening with the flung seed, eats dinner, watches some football, then goes to sleep.

This fellow really doesn’t know much about farming and is therefore flummoxed about the whole project.  But, still he just puts on his pajamas at night and eats his tuna fish at noon. He does this day after day, week after week, month after month. Things seem to be happening, growing, blossoming outside his window though. He can’t really remember where he threw the seed, but the landscape seems to be changing. Or, as Jesus says, “He sleeps and rises night and day and the seeds sprouts and grows; he does not know how.”

He does not know how.  I love that line. The Kingdom of this World puts an enormous emphasis in our culture on expertise. On careful preparation, clear visioning, effective execution, precise mission statements, bold but achievable goals and reviewable metrics. There are books to be read on the shared habits of highly effective people. There are stories to be read about, and lessons to be learned from “successful” organizations.

This pressure applies not only to businesses, but to families as well.  A few weeks ago I heard that a local 6th grade elementary school class asked its students to prepare a resume. A resume! Really?   I’m pretty sure the bible doesn’t say, “Unless you receive the kingdom of God as a little child…with a resume, you will never enter it.” That is a sure way to produce adolescent anxiety.

Sadly and naturally, this Kingdom of the World kind of thinking dominates the church, along with attending pressures and anxieties. The Episcopal Church, especially, likes to mirror the world and wants it’s leaders to be savvy, knowledgeable, and impressive.  In other words, a whole lot of stock is put in “know how.” Clergy are supposed to go all kinds of conferences and workshops to bone up on their “know how.” But what does Jesus say about the fellow in charge of the Kingdom of God project? “He does not know how.”  Apparently, not knowing how is more important in the Kingdom of God than knowing how.

I wonder if any sweeter, more comforting words ever came from Jesus’ lips. He does not know how. There is so much in life in which I do not know how. Being a husband and a parent rank up there pretty high in the “does not know how” department.  What about you? Don’t you have large swaths of your life in which you are just making it up as you go along? Isn’t this why people routinely have dreams about being unprepared for an exam long after they’ve been in school? Or giving some kind of public address in your underwear?

It is important to not make our fellow in the Kingdom of God parable into a paragon of virtue. We wouldn’t want to write a story about the success of his non-interfering business practices.  I do like to imagine a telephone interview with this fellow, however. High up execs call him up to ask him about his best practices so they can share his secrets with the industry.

“Congratulations, sir, on your highly successful harvest!”“Um… thanks?”

If you don’t mind us asking, what kind of aeration method did you use? What school of sowing do you subscribe to?  “Uh… I … just kind of dropped the seed on the ground wherever and some of it spilled out of my pockets.” 

To what do you attribute your astonishing production of blade, ear and grain?”    “I…um…I really don’t know. It just happened. Are we done now? I’m on the 5th season of Game of Thrones and I’ve really got to go.

The point is that our fellow is just a guy like you or me, someone with problems, and insecurities, and resentments, along with the rosier sides of his personality. It seems that the band Dawes has got the right read on this scripture passage.  They sing, “Let’s make a list of all the things the world has put you through / Let’s raise a glass to all the people you’re not speaking to / I don’t know what else you wanted me to say to you / Things happen, that’s all they ever do.”

Sadly, life in the Kingdom of this World will produce an inevitable list of people you’re not speaking to. That’s because…. things happen. There is a more vulgar expression of that saying. Or you might just say, “sin happens.” But, in the Kingdom of God, sin is not the only thing to happen. Good happens, growth happens, blade, ear, and grain happen. And the key point to God’s Kingdom is this – these things happen without us doing anything at all! Or as Jesus says, “the earth produces by itself.

The implications of this Kingdom of God are astonishing for your life lived right now in this world.  Maybe Julian of Norwich was onto to something when she said, “all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” Thanks be to God, things happen, wonderful things happen, although we do not know how.

The one thing we do know is that the day after Jesus appeared before Pilate, he died in the dichotomy between the Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of this world. Had his world been from this Kingdom, his followers would have fought for him and saved him. But God doesn’t think the way we think. He doesn’t work the way we work. So he dies the death that we deserve,  saying, “Father, forgive them. For they do not know what they do.”