The reign of God is like a shrub: A sermon for Proper 6, Year B

June 17, 2012

Perception is reality. What you see is what you get. We’re used to it by now. There was a news story this week that another reality TV show is staged. We expect it from politicians and celebrities, from Hollywood. In the reading from II Corinthians Paul writes, “we walk by faith, not by sight.” But we see, I’ve got to see it to believe it. There’s even something of the contradiction in today’s reading from I Samuel. Conrad Bauman pointed it out to me this morning. When Jesse’s first son is presented to Samuel, Yahweh tells Samuel, “humans look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Then when David comes before Samuel, we are told, “He was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome.”

Jesus preached the good news, “The time is fulfilled, the Kingdom of God has come near.” That much is clear. Mark writes that in his very first chapter as a summary of what Jesus was about. What’s not clear at all is what this kingdom, as the NRSV translates is about. In fact, that translation is more than a little misleading. When we think of a kingdom, we tend to think of a country, like England perhaps. Or more likely, our thoughts would be filled with images from the genre of fantasy literature or film, medieval-looking rulers dressed in armor, with swords and horses and all of that.

Of course, kingdoms like that are not what Jesus was talking about. A better translation for the Greek word could be rule or reign. Here the emphasis would be not so much a place or territory, as a quality—how God reigns, rather than where God reigns.

 

The reign of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds, but when it grows up becomes the largest of the shrubs. That’s right, the reign of God is like a bush. Now, I’m sure if you’ve ever heard a sermon on this parable, you’ve heard some sort of comparison made between the mustard seed and faith; if you only have a little faith, it can grow and mature into something great.

But here Jesus does not compare mustard seed to faith. He compares mustard seed to the reign of God. Indeed, we need to keep one central thing in mind when we read the parables. They are intended to disorient us, to challenge our ordinary perception, to make us think and see the world in a new way. That’s often quite hard to do because of their familiarity. We’ve heard them so often we think we know what they mean, we think they can only mean one thing. And often, the gospels themselves insert an interpretation that forces a meaning upon us.

Let’s listen to this parable again, in all of its brevity. The reign of God is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds. But when it grows up, it becomes the biggest of the shrubs, and puts forth large branches, and birds make their nests in its shade.

Now, just a couple of things before we go on. First, mustard. It’s not something that people would ordinarily have planted in the ancient world. Sure they used it as a spice and as a medicinal, but mustard was then, as it is now, something of a weed. It’s rarely planted because when it is, it can take over a garden or a field in a relatively short time. It’s what we would call an invasive species, and what gardener would plant it, knowing that in a few years she would be fighting it.

The second observation I have is that it doesn’t become a big tree. It grows into a shrub, really, literally, a large plant. So, it’s not giant by any means. It’s not stately or beautiful. It’s a shrub.

So I ask again, how is the reign of God like a mustard seed? To provide another perspective from which to interpret the parable, let’s think about what ancient people might have imagined the relationship between a seed and the plant that developed from it might be. Clearly they knew that seeds produced plants and trees. They require water, soil, and nutrients to thrive. But they didn’t understand or even know the science of botany. To give just one example of ancient reflection, many people imagined that somehow the seed contained within it somehow, the full-grown plant. We needn’t concern ourselves with the details, suffice it to say that for some ancients, looked at one way, the seed was the seed, another way, it was the full-grown plant.

So the reign of God is like this mustard seed. It’s really somewhat dangerous. Yes, it’s small and it grows into a bush and provides shelter to birds. But it might get out of control, take over a field or a garden and suddenly, whatever its beneficial properties, you’re fighting it.

This for us may be the crux of it. Jesus said many things about the reign of God, but above all, he taught in parables. The reign of God is like a mustard seed, or a widow who has lost a coin, or a man who discovered a treasure in a field. He also said things like, the reign of God is near, it is even within you. But most importantly, the reign of God is just a little bit dangerous. It comes to turn our world upside-down. It comes to upend and overturn our expectations and to challenge the kingdoms of this world.

Jesus came preaching the reign of God, not a place, a kingdom, or even something like heaven. The reign of God is a new reality perceived in the midst of the old. It is a new way of being, ushered in by Jesus’ proclamation, expressed in his actions. As he taught, he also healed the sick, restored sinners to God, and brought together groups who had been alienated from one another. He ate with tax collectors and sinners and in his table fellowship offered a vision of a new community in which all might come together.

None of that is particularly obvious. He might have been a miracle worker. Others might have seen him as a fraud. He might have been a rabble-rouser. You probably didn’t want to invite him to dinner; who knows what random guests he might have brought along. But each of those things, his actions as well as his words, pointed to the new reality of God’s reign.

We don’t need to look far to see the reality that we face as a world. I hardly need to recite the litany of troubles facing us locally and globally. Perhaps at the heart of it, however, is this. We know we are beset by many problems, economic, environmental, social. But it seems that as a culture we are unable to come together to address them. Our bitter divisions have only deepened over the last years, and the solutions that have been offered seem only to widen the gaps that exist in our society and world.

Into this world, Jesus comes preaching the good news of the reign of God. And what is the good news? Perhaps only this. To have hope that in spite of the reality we see, that in the midst of it God is working a new thing. The reality is obvious; we are bombarded with it daily. But at the same time, there are signs of God’s inbreaking into that reality, to make it new.

Our mission as the people of God, is not only to proclaim the good news, but to see the good news in the world around us. Where do we see signs of God’s inbreaking into this world? Where do we see signs of God’s reign? It might be in our food pantry as volunteers share food with those who need it? It might be at First Monday, where we provide not only a welcome meal, but fellowship, music, and fun. It might be something as overlooked as our courtyard garden, where a passerby can pause to enjoy the beauty and shade on a summer’s day. All of those things we might take for granted. We might see them as our duty, or as perfectly ordinary. But to those who experience them from the other side, they are rays of hope and joy.

So this week, as you confront the despairing reality of the world in which we love, I urge you to look for signs of God’s breaking in to the world. Look for signs of God’s reign. Look for the new creation.

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