3rd Sunday After Pentecost
Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Cor 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34
If Jesus is so great, and his message of the coming kingdom of God is of such ultimate importance, why doesn’t everyone buy into it? Why aren’t the whole world followers of Jesus? The fastest growing religious group in North America is “unaffiliated.” Why are there such diverse opinions and responses to Jesus?
Apparently it’s always been that way. Even during Jesus’ ministry there were extreme and diverse responses: From chapter 3 in Mark, great numbers came to him from Judea and beyond the Jordan; he’s out of his mind; great multitudes followed him; he has Beelzebul and by the ruler of demons he casts out demons.
The reason for the diverse reaction really lies with the message Jesus brings and the primary way Jesus communicated it—through experiences explained in parables. The kingdom of God doesn’t really fit with what people already know. Parables that reveal the kingdom aren’t intellectual, cognitive imparting of information that one can agree or disagree with. They bypass all that and cut directly to the hearer’s life, attitudes, and assumptions. Parables are kind of like jokes—if you have to explain them, they’re no longer funny, and you’ve lost the experience of it.
I had the opportunity to have a conversation with a young man yesterday. He was recently released from prison, was homeless, is a drug addict and an alcoholic, and is gay. In our culture, there aren’t many people who haven’t passed judgment, ignored, or even hated this man. Yet all through the hurtful, hateful parts of his life he was able to articulate the gospel; he knew who Jesus was; it just didn’t make any difference. He told me that it wasn’t until he experienced God’s unconditional love through the church he’s attending that the gospel had any effect on him. He now owns a business and has been clean and sober for almost a year. He said that he is so deeply loved by his fellow church members that he finds himself actually loving those who have hated him. It wasn’t being able to intellectually understand the gospel that made a difference, it was the experience of the living Christ—enfleshed in the love he experienced in his congregation—that transformed him.
Jesus could have presented a clear, rational, logical PowerPoint presentation on the effects of the kingdom of God based on demographics, interests, and spiritual giftedness. He could have charted its progress, and backed it up with statistics of the difference in the world since the kingdom of God has broken into history. Part of me wishes he had. But it would have killed the point he was trying to make.
The problem is the kingdom of God cannot be encapsulated in an intellectual exercise of cognitive reasoning. That’s the point, I think. It’s not something we understand, not something we grasp, not something we make happen. But like a parable, like a joke, like an experience; it grabs us in our life and changes us by the experience of it. Or it doesn’t. At least not now. Maybe later.
Isn’t that the point of these parables? They reveal the experience of the kingdom of God touching our lives in a way we can experience and live.
The first one: the kingdom of God grows up around us without our knowing how. We could stop and analyze the growth properties of various grains and extrapolate a positive correlation between certain Middle Eastern agricultural vegetation and Christian faith. Yeah, if you wanted to kill the parable and reduce the kingdom of God to a horticultural Science Fair project.
Or the second one: a small mustard seed growing into a huge shrub where birds nest. A mustard seed is NOT the smallest seed and the grown shrub is NOT the greatest one. You can go that way if you want to slaughter the point and lose the experience that Christ is labeling for us.
We don’t have many mustard bushes here, so that makes it even more tempting to analyze this parable to death. But consider this—mustard plants were considered pesky, potentially rampant weeds. And the birds coming to make nests in the branches meant that they’d be eating the seeds the farmer was trying to plant. The people of that culture looked at mustard bushes kind of like we look at crabgrass in our lawns. You don’t want it, and if you don’t do something about it, it will take over your lawn and bring other pests with it.
So try this: the kingdom of God is like crabgrass in your lawn. If you’re not careful, it will take over your lawn.
Don’t you find yourself trying to explain that away? The kingdom of God can’t be like crabgrass! Can you feel that kind of grinding your life gears? Most adults would hear that and their knee-jerk reaction would be, “No way!” But his point is more that the kingdom of God is different than we think, and comes in ways we don’t expect.
Some get it. Some don’t. Some get it now and then don’t later and then do again. Some get it, then get it again, and then again. But these kingdom of God parables aren’t about convincing people with rational arguments, but helping them live in it. Kingdom of God has come in Christ. As it intersects with our lives we have a chance to experience it. Sometimes with “aha!” and sometimes with a “huh?” But hang in there. In Jesus, the kingdom of God has come—here in this world, present in your life. It doesn’t always make sense, and cannot always be explained.
But when the kingdom touches you—and you experience the freedom of real forgiveness, the humility of unconditional love, the awe of authentic grace; when the shame, embarrassment and guilt that are part of your life experience begin to fall away, you know the reality of it because you’ve experienced it. You can try all you want to explain it, but it won’t make any difference. The reality of it comes as it touches us in our real lives.
That’s what the church exists for. Not to argue anyone into the kingdom of God with intellect and reasoning, but to reveal its presence in their lives now—to help them experience forgiveness, love, and grace. To point out that these things have touched them because of the presence of Christ.
Listen again as Paul summarizes this in part of our second reading, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” That’s the experience in Christ that can’t be rationalized away. Be open. It’s not an academic exercise. It’s just Jesus.