Recognizing God's Way: Trust, Mystery, Weeds, and Welcome


A sermon on Mark 4: 26-34

This month my book club is reading an interesting book called The History of the World in Six Glasses. It offers a unique perspective on the evolution of human history through the beverages that have played a pivotal role at different periods of human cultural development.

One of those beverages is coffee, and the book includes a first-hand account of the extraordinary lengths to which one French entrepreneur went in order to establish a coffee plantation on the Island of Martinique in order to break the Arab and Dutch hold on coffee production.

According to his own account, Gabriel Mathieu De Clieu:

engaged in a complicated scheme to obtain an unauthorized cutting from the only coffee tree in Paris – which resided in the King’s personal greenhouse;

he constructed a specialized glass case to house the plant on the dangerous sea voyage, and then during that voyage he brought the plant up on deck every day to ensure it had adequate sun;

he preserved the cutting through a run-in with pirates, and a storm at sea;

and, finally, he gave it a share of his own severely rationed drinking water when the journey took longer than expected.

In his account of the adventure De Clieu waxes poetic about “the precious plant, which had become still more dear to me for the dangers it had run and the cares it had cost me.[1]

There’s a parable in that story somewhere, about the self-sacrifice and single-minded devotion of faithful disciples… but it’s not either of the parables we read today in Mark’s gospel. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more contrasting story that still has anything to do with plants.

As opposed to the infinite care the De Clieu showered on his precious plant, the man in Jesus’s first parable completely ignores the scattered seeds until they are ready for harvest.

And compared to the delicate fragility of the coffee tree cutting, mustard seeds will branch out like an invasive weed.

Apparently, the Kingdom of God doesn’t need much of anything from us in order to flourish! Which is why these short parables seem like strange analogies to use for a kingdom in which Jesus is calling his disciples to participate, right? If we don’t really matter in the growth of the kingdom; if our care and devotion are not essential to the process of cultivating the kingdom, then what’s the point?

The coffee plant story works much better with the way we are used to thinking about the importance of our own actions. We are so used to looking for the “5 essential steps to church growth,” that it’s second nature for us to assume the point of any gospel message is to tell us WHAT TO DO. And so, it’s easy to miss what Jesus SAID he is actually teaching us… he’s teaching us what the kingdom of God is like.

As it turns out, the most fundamental thing about belonging to God’s kingdom is NOT what we do to foster it… it’s recognizing the nature of the kingdom into which we are called, to which we belong. Because THAT will shape US – not the other way around.

--- At this point I want to pause for a second to acknowledge how “churchy” the language of “kingdom of God” is. It’s not language we use anywhere else in our lives, so it might not feel very relatable or relevant to the concerns you might have brought to worship with you today.

So let me frame it this way: “the kingdom of God” means God’s good will for creation being done here on earth. It’s what we pray for in the Lord’s prayer when we say “your will be done.” It’s the recognition that things in our lives, and in our world are NOT the way they should be, and God has promised to do something about it. “The kingdom of God” is shorthand for that promise. ---

So, what is the nature of that promise… what is the nature of God’s kingdom?

One of my favorite biblical commentators, Debie Thomas, summarizes the teaching of these parables in this way: "the kingdom of God is like a sleeping gardener, mysterious soil, an invasive weed, and a nuisance flock of birds." [2]

Not much of an advertisement! But, then again, Jesus isn’t trying to sell us something; he isn’t trying to entice us into the kingdom – he’s describing the kingdom. He’s telling us the truth about how God works.

And the first truth about how God works is that God doesn’t depend on us.

Our hard work, and dedication, and brilliant ideas are not the secret ingredient to God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven. And, when we’re honest with ourselves, we know that’s really good news, but it can also be hard to take. Because it takes us down a peg or too. None of us like to hear that we’re dispensable.

And for those of us who like to be in control, or who validate our self-worth by working hard … or perhaps by lording our authority over others by claiming that God has ordained it … these parables tell us that’s not how God works. God doesn’t call us to claim all of the responsibility, and God certainly doesn’t call us to claim unassailable authority in shaping a kingdom that reflects God’s will.

God calls us to TRUST, with the abandon of a sleeping gardener, that God is active, and to joyfully participate in God’s harvest knowing who it really belongs to.

That element of trust gets us to the second truth Jesus is telling us about how God works – the truth that we don’t really understand how God works.

God frequently works in the dark and under the surface. We don’t get to see what is happening, or how God is working, or even what exactly God is growing.

And when we are desperate for signs of life… when we know that our life, or our nation, or at least our church, depends on God bringing forth a harvest of healing, or safety, or growth, it can be really hard to put our hope in what we cannot see.

Mystery can be a hard thing to embrace – which is why Jesus tells us to expect it. Because our instinct will always be to try to analyze and evaluate, to seek an explanation of the how, so that we can take control and shape things the way we want them to grow.

But that’s not how God works. The kingdom of God is not a machine, and God doesn’t hand us an owner’s manual and tell us to take it from here. We need to understand that we don’t understand so that we stop trying to take over and shape God’s kingdom into what we think it should look like.

Because, none of us probably think it should look like an invasive weed.

But that’s exactly what a mustard plant is. A modern equivalent might be to say that the kingdom of God is like dandelions, or out-of-control bamboo. Mustard plants have many uses in medicine, and as a spice – but no one ever planted mustard seeds in the ancient world!

Because mustard plants don’t stay put where you plant them. They sprout up everywhere and crowd out other plants by taking over and growing bigger, and more assertive than you want them to. They won't stay put in a corner, and leave space for all the other things you want in your garden

And they couldn't be converted into a cash crop in the ancient world either. You can’t use mustard plants for your own purposes. The mustard plant – like God’s kingdom - grows on its own terms – and serves its own ends.

Which include providing shelter.

Debie Thomas describes the fourth comparison of the kingdom of God in these parables to a “nuisance flock of birds.” She makes the point that the prospect of nesting birds in the shade of the mustard plant might not be as idyllic as we first suppose. “Who wants birds taking up residence in their gardens? Birds eat seeds and fruit. They can wreak havoc in a cornfield. Birds are why farmers put up scare crows.”[3]

If our expectation is that the kingdom of God is for our own benefit, and ours alone – or at least ours to restrict, our needs to meet first – Jesus isn’t having any of it. God isn’t putting the world right just for us – just for us in the church; or just for us in America; or just for us in any category that excludes others in need.

The fact that the kingdom of God offers shelter to the nuisance birds might mean there is a cost for us. It might mean the nuisance birds – those we think of as other, as somehow undeserving – take some of the resources that we like to think of as ours, or make their nests too close to ours and disturb us with their songs and voices that aren’t like ours.

But while we may not like it, that’s the kingdom. That’s the promise God has made to the world God so loves.

Earlier I said that “the most fundamental thing about belonging to God’s kingdom is NOT what we do to foster it… it’s recognizing the nature of the kingdom into which we are called… because THAT will shape US – not the other way around.

The power of these parables is their ability to shape us into people of God’s kingdom, to let go of our attempts to control what God is doing, and instead to recognize God’s action when we see it.

Because when we can recognize it, we can know that God’s kingdom, God’s way of doing things, God’s way of fixing this broken world is where we belong.

Thanks be to God.

[1] Quoted in A History of the World in 6 Glasses, by Tom Standage.

[2]“Meanwhile, the Kingdom” accessed June 11, 2018: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1809.

[3] “Meanwhile, the Kingdom” accessed June 11, 2018: https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1809.

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