Monday, June 18, 2018

The Kingdom of God is a Sneaky Weed

Mark 4:26-34

So today, Ezekiel says:
22Thus says the Lord God
 I myself will take a sprig
  from the lofty top of a cedar;
  I will set it out.
 I will break off a tender one
  from the topmost of its young twigs;
 I myself will plant it
  on a high and lofty mountain.
23On the mountain height of Israel
  I will plant it,
 in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
  and become a noble cedar.
 Under it every kind of bird will live;
  in the shade of its branches will nest

  winged creatures of every kind.
Cedar of Lebanon

Jesus and his audience would have known
this imagery from the book of Ezekiel.
God would take the little twig and from it,
A great nation would grow
like the mighty cedar of Lebanon.
Which are strong and tall and impressive.
SLIDE - Here’s a picture here.

Actually throughout Ezekiel and in other books,
the writers compare the kingdoms  of Judah,
Assyria and Babylon to the great cedars of Lebanon --
strong and everlasting.

The people that Jesus was speaking to
would have known these metaphors well
and so, obviously, would have Jesus.
So when he said,
“To what should we compare the kingdom of God?”
I’m sure they expected something
tall and equally majestic, maybe bigger than a giant tree.
But then Jesus says: “The kingdom of God can be
compared to a a mustard seed”
You could almost hear the crowd going, Ugh.
A mustard seed?
What? They must have thought he was crazy.

Some theologians today want to believe that mustard
trees are tall and sturdy like the cedars of Lebanon,
And that the moral of the parable is
from the tiny seed, the big impressive tree grows.
But that’s not what people would have thought
hearing this parable in Jesus time.

Mustard plants were the invasive plant
of the middle east, the kudzu vine,
the honeysuckle, poison ivy, something you really don’t want
growing in your yard, because it is bound to take over.
It was actually so invasive that there was a Jewish law 
that you couldn’t plant it in your fields
Mustard bush growing around two palm trees.
because it could infest your neighbor’s field.
It also grows so densely that it chokes other plants out.
SLIDE - Here is a mustard bush growing around two palm trees.

So the kingdom of God is not 
like a majestic cedar,
a mighty oak, a towering sequoia.
No, it’s like mustard seed, not a bad plant,
but a plant that just creeps 
and without anyone
even realizing it, it just takes over.
It’s true. The kingdom of God is not 
like other kingdoms.
It’s power is not in its physical strength,
or military, or financial strength.
It’s power is in its ability to sneak in
to change the human heart, to choke out the forces of
evil, apathy, hate, violence, and fear
and replace it with God’s values,
of compassion, mercy, and love.

Now I have to admit, sometimes as I preach
about parables like this, and about Jesus,
how his death and resurrection
has transformed the world, sometimes I wonder.
We’ve been at this for 2000 years.
Where is  Christ’s effect on humanity?
Where has Christ’s effect on history been?
Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is here,
where is the kingdom of God?
Where is the mustard plant that is supposed to take over.
Because I think it seems like
things are getting worse, not better.

But remember, the Kingdom of God is sneaky.
It’s not just going to come like a giant tree,
like a dramatic swooping change that we would notice,
it’s a quiet invasion.

There was an article in Forbes magazine
last November, it was called
“Why the world is getting better
and why hardly anyone knows it”
Most people surveyed in any country
Sweden, the UK,  the US, overwhelmingly
said that the world was getting worse.
Like 90-95% of people.
And I think most of us would say the same thing,
the golden years are always behind us.
People are worse off, the injustice is deeper,
the violence is increasing.
It seems like the devil is surely winning this battle.

But, the article said, that our limited viewpoint
was misleading, if you pull back and look at the world
over a longer stretch of time,
on “virtually all of the key dimensions of human material well-being—
poverty, literacy, health, freedom, and education—
the world is an extraordinarily better place
than it was just a couple of centuries ago.”

A far lower percentage of people in the world
are living in extreme poverty,
more people than ever are able to read,
in 1800, almost 43% of children died before they were 5.
Now it’s down to 4.2% of children.
In 1800 less than 1% of people in the world lived in a democracy,
a place where they could vote and have a say,
now that is up to 55% of the world.

Even in terms of violence,
Another article in  the Wall Street Journal says
that Violence has been in decline for thousands of years,
and today we may be living in the most peaceable
era in the existence of our species.

It’s slow progress, but that mustard seed is growing,
slowly it’s taking over. And I believe it’s because people
are growing in their compassion and empathy for others.
The devil is losing and Jesus plan of healing the world
is taking time, there is a lot to do, but it’s happening.
Maybe it doesn’t seem like things are getting better,
because we are more sensitive to things than ever before,
even if they don’t affect us personally.
We care about victims of violence,
we care about those in poverty,
we want to see all people are educated,
we care that others are healthy and free, more than ever before.
God’s ways and vision are becoming our ways and visions.
And the younger generations seem outdoing
older generations in the caring department.

And, since we care, because we hold God’s vision
and we’re frustrated that things
aren’t good and just and fair for all people.
Maybe that’s why it seems worse than ever,
because the mustard seed in our heart wants us to see
a world that is just and safe for all people.

Like when we hear about children
of immigrants being taken from their parents.
We may never meet these people,
We may not all be on the same page on
immigration laws and rights and what should be done,
but lots of people all across the board
know that this is wrong and have spoken out.
We can feel the pain of these parents and children,
that we’ll never meet, and our hearts are breaking for them.

And even though things seem terrible,
the outcry in itself is hopeful.
Because we know how the mustard seed is.

We know that heartbreak turns into action.
People are asking now, what can I do?
How can I change this? Where can I volunteer?
Where can I send money? How can we change the policy?
How can I comfort these children, these parents? What can I do?
Christians,  Jews, and Muslims,
atheist and agonistic all moved by their compassion.

As terrible as it may seem now,
we know that once that once that compassion
gets into our hearts, that God’s will is bound to be done.

And that’s how the kingdom of God works.
It’s like a mustard plant, a weed
that invades people’s hearts, that slowly takes over
with compassion and empathy, mercy, and love

Slowly we are caring about things that God cares about,
Slowly, until there are enough of us,
and until we’re motivated to change one thing,
then another and then one day,
God’s will is done, and the kingdom of God is here.

The kingdom of God is in the refugee resettlement groups,
it’s in the volunteers who work at shelters,
it’s in food pantries, it’s in justice work,
it’s in gifts of money, it’s in letters to congress
it’s in our prayers, our voices, our tears and discomfort.

It will take a long time, it won’t all happen in our lifetime,
but that plant is taking over,
God is changing this world from the inside out
starting with the human heart.

The kingdom of God is like this:
Jesus is that one little seed,
The seed gets scattered.
And God’s will grows and grows
and grows in the heart of humanity.
Without our knowledge, without our permission,
just one morning it’s there.
We don’t know how it grows, but one day,
we will reap the harvest that God has created.

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