Sunday, July 27, 2008

Pentecost 11 - Year A

“That CAN’T be what it looks like, can it?”

Harold, running the Vacation Bible School Science Station was shocked by how small a mustard tree really was. How many of us here in southern Alberta have actually seen a mustard tree up close? So he Googled the words “mustard tree” and a picture popped up on his screen.”

“That’s it!? That’s how big it is!? What a let down!” he said.

No wonder. After all, the way Jesus tells the story makes it sound as if this tiny germ grows up into a thriving Redwood.

Instead, a mustard tree is really only a bush. Maybe an oversized bush. But still, a bush. Not a tree. Certainly not a Redwood.

So, when Jesus compared the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed that grows into a mustard bush, a few giggles probably came from the cheap seats.

How would YOU describe the kingdom of heaven? It’s hard to do. Even Jesus couldn’t come up with just the right words.

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like yeast.”

“The kingdom of heaven is like a fine pearl. Or a net, or treasure, or…”

I don’t know about you, but after Jesus’ list of comparisons, I’m no clearer about what the kingdom of heaven is like than when he started. There’s no common thread binding each image, no universal chain linking each story. It’s like the right words are just beyond his reach.

However, let’s be clear on what Jesus is NOT saying. Jesus is NOT saying that the kingdom of heaven is the place we go when we die. At least not in these parables. If he were then these stories would make even less sense than they do. The word “kingdom” is actually a pretty bad translation of the Greek word “basileia” which means “realm” or “reign.”

Well, sort of. “Basileia” is actually a really hard word to translate into English. It really means something like “the fullness of God’s presence and promises made real here today.” It’s not a place but a condition. Not a location but an experience. It means God’s future of justice, forgiveness, peace, and resurrection, reaching back and touching us here today. But in describing what Jesus was talking about the translators use the word “kingdom.”

And that’s where we run into the problems. What pops into your head when you hear the word “kingdom?”

Do you see thrones, crowns, and gold? Do you see monarchs decked out in purple robes attended to by fawning sycophants?

Do you see armies going off to battle to protect king, queen, and country? Flags waving, crowds cheering? Patriotism at its best? Nationalistic jingoism at its worst?

Do you see condiments, hamburger buns, and fishing rods?

No? Apparently Jesus does. And I’m sure the crowd was mystified as to what he was talking about.

Even though many of us know these stories, I wonder how much we digest them for our own Christian lives.

Christians hear Jesus say that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed growing into a mustard bush, but then we build Redwoods - colossal cathedrals that take centuries to construct.

Christians hear that the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, but we spend thousands of dollars each year on advertising to be less hidden.

Christians hear that the kingdom of heaven is like yeast, but we use the latest business techniques to build our organization to bake ourselves into loaves of bread.

I think Christians’ greatest temptation is to confuse God’s mustard seed kingdom, God’s yeasty realm, with the world’s kingdom of power and wealth. We may not say it as such, but often our actions betray our words.

I know it’s the church’s greatest temptation because it’s my greatest temptation.

So, what would it look like if we really believed in God’s mustard seed kingdom? God’s yeasty realm?


“What do you do?” he asked.

“What do you mean?” I said, still bleary-eyed from the trip.

“For a living, what do you do?”

You have to realize that when you’re a pastor and someone asks you this question, you’re tempted to lie. My intern supervisor used to answer by saying “I’m in insurance.” I know other clergy who say, “I’m in sales.” Most pastors have an answer that deflects the conversation.

(For the record I almost always tell the truth. It’s not that I’m more virtuous than other clergy, I’m just not that great a liar and I’m afraid I’ll forget my cover story)

It’s not that we’re ashamed of what we do. We just know what’ll happen as soon as people find out we spend most of our time in a church. The reason why most clergy don’t like telling people what they do for a living, especially when on a plane or on vacation, is because the tenor of the conversation changes as soon people find out we have the word “reverend” in front of our names.

People often get quiet and nervous, afraid that we’ll whip out a bible and start preaching. Or they want to share their problems, or they ask hard questions about God and suffering (questions which we’re supposed to have answers for at the tip of our tongues), or they tell awful stories about how badly they’d been treated by church people and we end up apologizing for things we’ve never said and for things we’d never dream of doing.

I was tired. I had just arrived in Mexico and just wanted to rest. But the inevitable question that’s the centrepiece of western small talk reared its ugly snout.

“What do you do for a living?”

I wasn’t thinking. It wasn’t intentional. I wasn’t really sure what I saying but the words just spilled out,

“I help people grow into the fullness of who God wants them to be.”


“Wow. That’s a good answer,” I told myself, mentally patting myself on the back.

My conversation partner quickly glanced around the room searching for the nearest exit, his eyes seizing on the “G” word; a word banished from polite conversation. He looked at his worried wife. Then asked, “So, have you heard who won the Blue Jays’ game this afternoon?”

But that slippery phrase stuck with me. “I help people grow into the fullness of who God wants them to be.”

And as I reflected on that I thought that maybe the word “I” should be changed to “we.” WE help people grow into the fullness of who God wants them to be. WE do this TOGETHER. As a family. As God’s people. That’s our job.
Back in May when we found out that our offer to buy the Assumption building was rejected, I sensed a palpable relief in the congregation. It wasn’t that you folks weren’t supportive of buying a new building. After all, you voted for it. If the offer was accepted I have every confidence that you would have honoured your pledges, and then some, in order to make the next stage of our ministry happen, if in indeed, this was God’s will for our church.

But I wonder if, in the backs of our minds, these parables were swishing around. God’s mustard seed kingdom, God’s yeasty realm, is about growing without anyone noticing. It doesn’t draw attention to itself. We are NOT the tree; we are the seed. We are NOT the loaf of bread; we are the yeast that makes it rise. And maybe we were worried that a move two blocks over would have made us the tree, when that’s not who God wants us to be.

I think there’s something wonderfully biblical about being tucked away in the middle of nowhere yet still breaking attendance records at Vacation Bible School.

It could be God’s mustard seed kingdom is as work when people in the community know who our members are but can’t pick our building out on a map.

I sense God’s yeasty realm rising among us when people stumble upon us accidentally then find home in our church family. We are the hidden treasure that Jesus found, paying the costly price for us.

It’s not our job to grow the tree, bake the bread, or be found. It’s God’s.

We are the seed and the yeast growing into the fullness of who God wants us and the world to be. We are the seed and the yeast through which God nourishes the world.

May this be so among us. Amen.


Post a Comment

<< Home