June 14, 2015 – The Kingdom in the Dirt
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Two months ago, the eager-beaver gardeners at our house decided we should document our 2015 garden by taking photographs to show its progress. It was such a long winter this year, and we were so excited that you could actually see dirt and grass out the windows instead of ice and snow, and as soon as we could, we ran out with our seed packets and planted lettuce and peas and spinach and onions and anything else we could get away with planting while there was still chance of killing frosts at night. And we took lots of pictures. That was in April.
This week, we’ve been picking quarts of strawberries from that garden, and fresh herbs, and almost more lettuce and spinach than we can eat, which is a very nice problem to have. The peas have reached the top of their fence, and things are green and growing all over the place. It’s like that song in Oklahoma, “June is busting out all over”! But when I looked through those first photographs yesterday, it was amazing to see how dead it all looked just 8 weeks ago. With the exception of a couple dozen garlic plants that were planted last fall, the only green things in the garden then were a few early weeds. Everything else was either bare dirt or piles of leaves and newspapers and manure. The life of the garden was there in seeds and roots, and in waiting-to-be set out plants and in packets of seeds that weren’t ready to be planted yer. The life of the garden was there, it existed, it was present, but it wasn’t there yet, not really, not in its full glory and promise. And it still isn’t all the way there, of course; there is still so much more growing and blossoming and fruiting that is going to happen, God willing, before the end of our short but beautiful North Country growing season, when we have to freeze or can or store away whatever we want to keep and tuck the garden in for another winter’s sleep. But even back in April, even standing in the midst of that untidy, dead-looking patch of bare ground, when we looked at it, we saw a garden; we saw life. We knew it was there, even though it was still invisible to anyone who might just walk by and look at it.
Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if a man went out and scattered some seeds on the earth and then went about his daily business, sleeping and waking. And all the time, even though he has no idea how it’s happening, those seeds put out roots and send green shoots up toward the sun, and before you know it, it’s harvest time.” And Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, which is the tiniest little thing, but when it grows it overshadows everything else in the garden, and makes a home for all the birds of the air to roost in.” When Jesus talks about “the kingdom of God” or “the kingdom of heaven” – and it comes up 63 times in the gospels – he is talking about the reign of God: that which is under his rule and power, and ordered according to his good will. But the reason Jesus describes it in so many different parables – like a seed, like yeast, like a hidden treasure, is because it’s hard to spot. It’s not a grand cathedral in the center of a city, and it’s not a political party championing someone’s version of godliness, and it’s not a program to fix what’s wrong with our society, and it’s not a code of behavior written on stone tablets. The kingdom of God is a living, growing thing, and the thing is that most of the time it’s very hard for people to see because it is “now” but it is also “not yet”.
When the angel Gabriel came to Mary in Nazareth, and the Holy Spirit overshadowed her and ignited the spark of life that would grow up to be God in the flesh – that was the moment the seed of the kingdom was planted in the dust of our humanity and began to grow. And right off the bat, it wasn’t at all what people had expected, not a kingdom of swords and spears, not a kingdom of politics and domination. It was a kingdom that looked for all the world like weakness and powerlessness and humility. It was just as unrecognizable and unpromising as a garden in April in Norwood, when no seeds have yet begun to grow.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus about the kingdom of God, they were expecting the arrival of a Messiah who would come sweeping in like a hero on a white charger and destroy the power of the Roman invaders and restore everything back to what they envisioned as the “golden age” of Israel when David was king, and the great Temple at Jerusalem was the center of life in Israel, and everyone obeyed the Law of Moses and everything was perfect. It was a little bit like many Christians nowadays who seem to think the greatest good the church could promote is for the whole world to be restored to the days of 1950’s America, when Dad went to work and Mom stayed at home and everybody went to church on Sunday and schools taught the three R’s and kids were clean and tidy and obedient. But of course, all of those ideas are human creations, figments of our imagination, because there is no “golden age” in the kingdom of this world. The kingdom of God is not about recreating our past any more than it is about our human ideals for the future – the UN, or globalization, or the American government, no matter how much good these worldly powers might do, these are not where the hope for God’s kingdom lies. Jesus told those Pharisees, “The kingdom of God isn’t like that, not something people can point to, saying, “Here it is!” is or “There it is!” Because the kingdom of God isn’t “out there”, it’s right in your midst, within you.
And I think one of the big things that means is that being good Christians, and “seeking first the kingdom” is not a matter of trying to make the world around us fit our concept of goodness or godliness. We American Christians make that mistake all the time. We try to throw our weight or our money around and to form political coalitions that push what we think “God’s agenda” is – whether that is pro-life or anti-gay, anti-welfare state or pro-immigration. And God’s church divides itself along these lines, conservative vs. liberal, and the body of Christ is crippled and the name of Jesus Christ is dishonored.
Jesus reminds us that the kingdom of God starts in our midst; it’s not something we are supposed to build out there, it’s in our midst right now, beginning to put down roots and growing in its own mysterious way. God’s kingdom is a kingdom of small beginnings, its seeds planted and growing in the hearts of his people. It is a subversive kingdom, growing and extending its reach into enemy territory. If you remember the story of Zacchaeus, which was one of the readings in the Daily Office this week, you notice that Jesus and his disciples didn’t organize an attack on financial corruption in Galilee – he did something much more powerful. He stopped underneath a tree and looked up at a little man perched ridiculously in its branches and invited himself to dinner. It was one small seed planted for the kingdom, and it blossomed into joy and salvation for Zacchaeus, but more than that, even. It overflowed into blessing for the poor, because Zacchaeus gave half his wealth to the poor. It overflowed into healing and reconciliation, because Zacchaeus restored fourfold all that he had taken unjustly. No one in the crowds filling the streets that day saw that seed waiting to burst into life, except Jesus himself, who is the Son of the Gardener. Seeking the kingdom is about tending the seeds of the kingdom and bringing them to life, with all the tools we have to hand: love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, kindness, grace.
It’s very hard sometimes not to get frustrated with the ways of God’s kingdom, when we compare it with the speed and power and immensity of the kingdom of this world. If I forgive my brother, if I bring soup to my sick neighbor, if I visit someone in the nursing home, it just feels sometimes like way less than a drop in the bucket in the face of all the evil and suffering in this world. Like the Jews hoping for a all-conquering Messiah, sometimes we’d really like some bigger guns to get this kingdom off the ground. That’s why Jesus had to keep reminding us what the strange, other-worldly nature of his kingdom was – like the smallest of all seeds, like a bit of yeast mixed into a big batch of bread, like one pearl among all the treasures of the world. It’s hard to see it. It’s certainly not impressive in the eyes of this world.
But – the kingdom of God is a kingdom that grows. The seed underneath the bare earth grows up into the mature harvest. The tiny mustard seed grows into a tree that overshadows the whole garden. The yeast rises the whole lump of dough. The kingdom of God is in our midst, now, and it is growing, we know not how. We have all seen the kingdom of God at work in our own lives in small ways: small touches of grace or kindness or compassion that brought light into a dark day, or brought hope into a hopeless situation we felt trapped in, or brought comfort that allowed some much-needed healing to begin. From small beginnings great blessings grow. The kingdom of God started very small – one tiny baby in a little backwater village in a small country surrounded by enemies. It wasn’t a very promising beginning, and pretty unimpressive by any standards the world has to offer. But it grows, we know not how, and the promise is that the blessings of this kingdom of small beginnings will one day reach every nation and every tribe, every human being on this earth. Not by a massive evangelism program or a powerful global institution or a political coup, but from within us, children of the kingdom: person to person, in humility, one touch of grace or compassion or forgiveness or healing at a time, the way our Lord walked before us.