Sunday, June 17, 2012

The Unrestrained Kingdom

Mark 4:26-34
June 17, 2012/Father’s Day

            “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?”
            I’m thinking kudzu. 
You heard me correctly.  I said kudzu. 
Kudzu, according to my research and the fact that I grew up surrounded by it, is a plant that is native to Asia.  But it was introduced to the United States in the late 1800’s.  Because the climate and growing conditions in the southeast are ideal for growing kudzu, it was commercially sold and planted in the early 1900’s beginning in Florida.  In the 1920’s young men were given jobs planting kudzu by the sides of highways to control erosion.  In the 1940’s farmers were encouraged to grow fields of it for the same purpose.  It is a pretty vine, lush and green in the summertime.  The vines can even look like sculptures of trees and cabins and other objects.  That’s because, if left unchecked, kudzu creates living sculptures by literally growing over everything in its path:  such as trees and cabins and parked cars and abandoned buildings and road signs.
            Kudzu grows everywhere and it grows fast.  It can grow up to a foot a day in the summertime, growing as much as 60 feet in a year.  I wasn’t kidding when I say it can overrun all things in its path.  It can.  Even in major urban areas like Nashville and Atlanta, kudzu can grow rampant.  You don’t want to leave your car parked too long in the vicinity of kudzu, because you won’t have a car after a while, you’ll have a mobile jungle. 
            I have vivid childhood memories of driving along the highways in the southland and seeing kudzu stretching out like an ocean of green, leafy vines.  You knew when power poles hadn’t been attended to in a while because the kudzu would be steadily making its way up them.    There may have been high hopes for kudzu in its early days here in the states.  But in the 1970’s the USDA declared it a weed.  And while there are people in the South who find lots of creative ways to make kudzu a viable plant, there are many other people who wish that kudzu would never have been introduced to this country at all.  Kudzu came into the country, but the natural elements that may keep it somewhat checked in Japan did not.  So kudzu grows like wildfire, unchecked, unrestrained, overtaking everything it encounters. 
            “With what can we compare the kingdom of God?”  It is like kudzu.  If you found it somewhat shocking that I compared God’s kingdom to kudzu, you will completely understand how the people of first century Palestine felt listening to Jesus’ words about the kingdom and hearing it compared to a mustard seed. 
            The more traditional interpretation of this passage is that from tiny things – like the mustard seed which is almost infinitesimally tiny – big and wonderful things grow.  If we work at our faith, no matter how small it seems, it will grow as well.  And it is also true that even if we do small things, they can make a large impact for the good.  There is nothing wrong with either of these interpretations.  They both add to our understanding of the parable.  But I also think they can be too easy.  And they don’t take into account the shock value that comes with this passage.
            When we’re pulling out our bottles of French’s mustard to put on our hot dogs or hamburgers, or tearing into packets of mustard to drizzle on soft pretzels at baseball games, we probably don’t give too much thought to where that mustard comes from.  It’s an acceptable and much loved condiment in our day and age.  But that wasn’t so true in the first century. 
While mustard would have been used as a spice or a seasoning to some extent in Jesus’ time, it was more often considered a weed.  It would not have been planted in gardens or as a crop because, like kudzu, it would have taken over everything in its path.  If you saw mustard growing, you would more likely see it growing wild along a hillside or in a valley somewhere.  But to plant it or cultivate it in some way would have been unheard of to the people hearing these words.  The mustard seed was a pesky, invasive weed. 
            Yet that’s what Jesus compared the kingdom of God, the realm of God, to – a pesky, invasive weed. 
            It’s not as flattering or even as inspiring of a comparison as we might hope for, is it?  The kingdom of God is a weed that most gardeners wouldn’t want anywhere near their gardens.   Jesus goes onto say that while the mustard seed is one of the tiniest seeds on the earth, it can become a great and flowering shrub with branches that provide shelter for the birds of the air.  They make their nests in its branches, finding shade from the hot sun. 
            So what about those birds?  Biblical scholar and commentator, Matthew Skinner, said that ideally we should read the parable of the sower along with the parable of the mustard seed.  The parable of the sower can be found in the earlier part of chapter four.  In the parable of the sower, the seed that is scattered goes three possible ways.  Some of it falls on good soil, takes root and grows.  Some of it falls on rocky ground where it could not take deep root.  It grows but when the sun comes up, it is scorched.  And some of it falls on the path and is eaten by birds.  In that parable the birds are unwelcome.  They take away the seed and keep it from growing and bearing fruit.
            Yet in the parable of the mustard seed, when the seed becomes a shrub, birds find a home in it.  Those who were previously unwelcome find their place in the shrub the mustard seed becomes – and in the kingdom. 
            With what can we compare the kingdom of God? 
            I think regardless of any comparisons we can make, any analogies we construct, any allegories we can find, the kingdom of God is nothing like we expect. 
            The kingdom of God may seem small, tiny, infinitesimal and insignificant.  But it is not to be counted out, because from such a seemingly tiny thing grows something large and beyond our ability to measure.
            The kingdom of God may not be what we expect and it may not even be what we think we’ll like.  The kingdom of God can be subversive and invasive.  The mustard seed was an invasive weed.  According to Jesus, so is the kingdom. 
            The kingdom of God will provide shelter and a home to people we may not like.  We cannot predict who will be welcome and who won’t.  Because the birds that seemed to destroy the divine seed that was being planted now find places to nest within the kingdom. 
            The kingdom of God is not like anything we can imagine or expect or fully comprehend.  It is unpredictable and it will not be restrained or checked.  It will grow where it grows.  It will show itself in unexpected places and in unpredictable ways. 
            That sounds a little scary, but then again, when is the working of God not a little scary?  The working of God, the coming of God, the realm of God always involves change and change is scary.  It’s frightening.  But change is also transforming.  I think if we take anything away from this passage is that when the kingdom comes transformation happens.  A tiny seed becomes a large sheltering shrub.  What was invasive is transformed into something magnificent.  What was unwelcome finds a home. 
            I think Jesus wanted the disciples and anyone who listened to realize that the kingdom of God would not be conformed to narrow ideas of what people thought it should be.  The kingdom of God is unrestrained.  It takes root in unlikely and unexpected places. 
            I heard an interesting challenge issued this week.  It’s one I’d like for us as a congregation to take on.  The challenge is to spend the rest of the summer collecting pictures of examples of the kingdom. 
            “Hmmm,” you’re saying to yourselves.  “If the kingdom is so unexpected and hard to predict, how will we be able to take pictures of it?” 
That’s the challenge.  We are on task to look, really look, for the ways that the kingdom of God is happening in our midst all the time.  Maybe we see an unexpected act of kindness.  That’s the kingdom.  Perhaps we see a moment of peace in a situation where normally there’s chaos and brutality.  That’s the kingdom. 
            This isn’t necessarily going to be easy and I don’t believe there’s a right or wrong way to approach this task.  What I’m asking and challenging all of us to do, is to be alert to the presence of God’s kingdom in the world – in small ways and large – and take a picture of it and bring that picture to church.  With the prevalence of cameras on our phones, the technology part should be fairly simple.  You see something that looks like a glimpse of the kingdom, take a picture, e-mail it to me or to the church e-mail.  We’ll collect those pictures throughout the rest of the summer and then in the fall, they will be presented to the congregation. 
            With what can we compare the kingdom of God?  Let’s go out and find our answers to that question.  Let us see the unrestrained kingdom alive in our midst.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”
What was once a cabin is now a kudzu sculpture!

1 comment:

  1. And you know what? Both sheep and goats are being used to eat kudzu! The state of VA is actually RENTING goats and sheep to use to fight the kudzu overgrowth. And moreover, the animals really like it! So animals in the Bible that are separated one from another, some are in and some are out, are all being nourished by an invasive, but nutritious, weed. :)