Sermon: June 16, 2024 Proper 6

You hear me frequently refer to the Kingdom of God in my sermons. There is a very good reason for this. The Gospels are all about Jesus revealing the Kingdom of God. He talks about the Kingdom of God all the time and he tells us that all that healing, and exorcising, and sitting down at table with people the world would rather he exclude is all about showing us what the Kingdom of God looks like.

However, even though Jesus is relentless in his focus on God’s kingdom both in his words and his actions, it is very difficult to figure out what this Kingdom is, where it is located, and what it looks like. I think there is a reason for this. I think God’s kingdom is bigger than our understanding, just as God is bigger than our understanding. Our brains are too small and too trained by the ways of this world. It takes a willingness to let go of all our pre-conceived notions of the way things should be and are supposed to be in order to catch even a glimpse of this elusive kingdom that Jesus is revealing to us. It takes imagination and creativity to embrace with hope the idea that there is something better than what we have and that this better kingdom is possible with God’s power and help. It takes a leap of faith and a willingness to live into the discomfort of the unknown. It takes the ability to accept being seen as a fool at best and a radical at worst by those who cannot take this leap.

So, throughout the millennia Christians, and in particular the institution that is the Church, have domesticated God’s kingdom. We have been told that God’s kingdom is somewhere else that we will only discover after we die, if we live pious and pure lives as defined by the customs of the culture in which we are living. So, the church after it became aligned with the Empire in the 4th century stopped worrying about the enormous gap between rich and poor, because after all, the Church said, the poor will get their reward in heaven. The rich will get their reward too if they just give a lot of money to the church. Protestant reformers, particularly the Puritans who came to this country, said reaching the kingdom of God in heaven is all about God’s grace and not works, but they didn’t behave this way. Their behavior said, “live a sexually proper life as defined by the religious leadership, keep gender roles in place, work hard, and don’t rock the boat” and you will be allowed to stay in this community and when you die you will go to heaven. Today we have American Christians who give messages similar to the Puritans and who also add, “declare that Jesus is your personal Lord and Savior,” and you will go to heaven.

And there have been Christians throughout the millennia who have gone against the grain and resisted this domestication of the Gospel. I think of Francis of Assisi who gave away everything that he had and lived the life of a pauper, gathering others around him to live the same life. He gave us a glimpse of the Kingdom of God as a place in which power comes through weakness and love. Sacrifice is more important than attainment of worldly comfort and success. Francis showed us that the power of the Kingdom of God does not look like worldly power at all and can exist right here and right now.

Or there is Harriet Bedell an Episcopal deaconess who in the 19th and early 20th centuries gave up her comfortable life of privilege to live with and care for the native peoples of Alaska, South Dakota, and Florida. Or Harriet Tubman, who after escaping and gaining her own freedom, set that freedom aside to return to the place of her enslavement to free other enslaved people. Or Martin Luther King Jr, who described God’s Kingdom on earth as God’s beloved community in which the entire diversity of God’s good creation lives together in love and peace and works for the good of all and who lived these values in his fight for civil rights even though it ultimately led to his assassination.

Or perhaps we could hold up Archbishop Desmond Tutu who led the fight against apartheid in South Africa and then led the work toward peace and reconciliation amongst native black South Africans and the white settlers who had so brutalized the native peoples. From Archbishop Tutu we also get a description of the Kingdom of God that you often here me use in my sermons. Archbishop Tutu called the Kingdom of God, God’s dream for the world—a dream in which all of humanity lives with dignity, has what they need for a healthy and whole life, no one has so much that it harms others, and power is defined by God’s values, not the values of the world.

But still, though the idea that the Kingdom of God is God’s dream for the world is helpful we still want to know more, so we return to Scripture, in particular Scripture like the parables we heard in our Gospel reading for this morning. And we probably find ourselves wondering why Jesus had to be so opaque. The Kingdom of God is like a sower who sows a seed and then does nothing else but sleep and go about his other tasks, and then this seed, all on its own, sprouts, grows and is ready for harvest, Huh? Ok, let’s look at the next parable then. The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, that tiny seed that grows into a large overgrown bush. A bush that does provide something that is good in cooking and healing, and can provide shade for the birds of the air, but is also kind of pesky, growing out of control and often where it is not wanted. What?

Well, I think the first parable is for those who are seeking to take the leap of faith to imagine and live the Dream of God as demonstrated in Jesus’ words and actions. It is for those who are seeking to live seeking God’s power and not the world’s power even if that makes them look like fools at best and radicals at worst. It is hard to live this way. Those who are comfortable with the world as it is, with some being excluded and others not having what they need to live, and a few making the rules for the many while hoarding all the resources for themselves, will see little good news in the Dream of God that Jesus reveals through his words and actions. And they won’t respond well when those who embrace God’s dream seek to speak about it and live it out. It is just too threatening. And this parable is a glimpse of hope. God’s Kingdom coming is not reliant on our efforts. God’s Kingdom coming is 100% under the control of the good and loving God. We are simply called to sow the seed. Embrace the dream. Be the fool. Be the radical. Continue on living out this Dream of God in word and deed, sleeping soundly, living your life in the sure assurance that God is at work bringing the seed to harvest.

And the second parable is a reminder that God’s Kingdom does not look like any worldly kingdom, thanks be to God. Jesus’ listeners would have expected him to compare God’s kingdom to the Great Cedars of Lebanon, as do the prophets of the Old Testament. Instead, Jesus compares God’s kingdom to the tiny mustard seed that grows into a mighty…bush? A scruffy invasive weed that proliferates in scruffy, seemingly disorderly array?!? Huh? Well, I think this parable is also for those of us who are seeking to embrace the Dream of God. We are just as susceptible to the dreams of the world as those who don’t embrace God’s Dream. I can’t tell you how often I have been approached by members of the various churches I have served who wonder what we could do to grow like those great mega churches that dot the American religious landscape. And I have been guilty of the same aspirations. Or you could look at all the great cathedrals that are found throughout Europe, and in a few major cities in the United States. It is easy to confuse God’s dream with our worldly dreams and seek to build a big, wealthy and powerful church. It is easy to become obsessed with endlessly seeking church growth strategies that will bring us power and grandeur. This parable reminds us that when we find ourselves thinking this way we have lost our way. God’s dream is revealed to us by a Messiah who is identified by lowliness, meekness, and humility. A Messiah who promises us not worldly power, or a simple change of guard where those currently holding power are thrown down and that same power is given to those who formerly had none but instead simply promises that everyone will have what they need to live, not more and not less. A Messiah who gives us not order and control but chaos, freedom and love. A Messiah who promises us that in God’s kingdom, God’s dream, everyone will have the shelter they need and the rest that brings happiness and peace and that is enough. We can stop our striving for more and more and rest in the shade of God’s dream.

Every Sunday in our worship and perhaps daily for some in personal prayer, we pray the Lord’s prayer in which we pray “thy kingdom come.” I often find myself, as I pray this line of the Lord’s prayer, thinking about how casually we say this line without really thinking about what we are asking for. Do we really understand that we are asking for God to turn this world upside-down? We are asking God to make the kingdom, the dream real, for everyone to have a place at the table and for those of us who have more than we need (which includes most of us here) to have some of what we have taken away and given to those who don’t have enough. Are we ready for this? The parable of the mustard seed is a reminder that God’s Kingdom, God’s Dream, will not bring grandeur and power to the church and to us by extension. This is not God’s Dream. Other times I find myself as I say these words wondering, “so God when are you going to bring this kingdom to fruition? I’m tired of waiting. Too many people are suffering. Too many people are needlessly dying. Too many people are afraid to be their full authentic selves.” And our first parable reminds me that God will bring this kingdom into fruition, not me, and I simply have to keep living as faithfully as I can each and every day, even if I am labeled a fool or a radical.

It would be nice if Jesus had spoken a little more plainly, but perhaps he spoke as plainly as he could. The Kingdom of God is as infinite and difficult to get our arms around as is God, after all the Kingdom of God is an extension of God, it is an expression of God’s unending love for us. Our minds are small and our thinking so limited and trained by the ways of this world that the Kingdom of God can seem impossible to understand or grasp. So, Jesus gives us what we can understand, brief glimpses that help us to continue to sow whatever seeds we have to sow, that help us to continue to try to love with God’s love, to live as Jesus lived, even when we are labeled fools or radicals, even when it feels impossible, even when it feels as though God’s kingdom will never come.

“Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”