What would it look like for God’s kingdom to become a reality among us? What would that look like?
We pray for it to come every week--thy kingdom come, thy will be done. But how will we know when it does come? Or is it here already?
Jesus spoke a lot about the kingdom of heaven. On some accounts, he spoke more about the kingdom of heaven than he did about the church. It must, therefore, be important, but what does it look like?
The gospel reading for today is a series of metaphors that Jesus used to help us understand the kingdom of God.
At first glance, the imagery in these metaphors is underwhelming. In the Old Testament, imagery about the kingdom of God likens it to the oaks of righteousness and the mighty cedars of Lebanon. This is majestic and formidable imagery: we know how impressive our oak trees can be, with their branches outstretched like huge arms, as if the streets in this city were lined with an oak-tree army of giants standing guard; and the cedars of Lebanon could grow to 129 feet tall and were among the most prized sources of lumber in the ancient near east. The palaces of kings were lined with cedars from Lebanon.
This imagery of the kingdom of God, as found in the Old Testament, is impressive; it is mighty.
But not so in this Gospel. Here, in the New Testament, in the words of Jesus, the kingdom of God is like a mighty ... shrub, a bush ... a great garden plant. The mightiest plant in our garden is a tomato plant that has grown to be about six feet tall, with the help of a trellis. Compare this to the mighty cedars of Lebanon and the kingdom of which Jesus speaks doesn't seem that impressive.
But in this day and age, the imagery Jesus uses seems more aligned with our reality. If you stroll down Park Avenue on a muggy Sunday afternoon, or if you drive down the parks early on a Saturday ... if you enjoy the paper with a cup of coffee around the breakfast table, or if you watch the evening news while preparing dinner ... in any of these situations you will see and hear a lot--through the conversations of the people on Park Ave, the billboards on I-4, the words in the paper and the reports on the news--you will see and hear a lot, but little of it will seem to suggest that kingdom of God has come near.
Instead of peace there is war. Instead of justice there is corruption. Instead of generosity there is greed.
John Calvin said that in the kingdom of God, "nothing is done apart from God's good pleasure." There is no other will than God's, no other forces, no one else at work but God. The kingdom of God is not a reference to a heavenly city gleaming in gold. It is a reference for justice and righteousness to flow like ever flowing streams of cool refreshing water. It is for God's will to unfold unencumbered by the world's darkness, and unfettered by the powers and principalities at work in the world. It is a place where the lion will lie down with the lamb and the lamb doesn't need to keep one eye open while sleeping for fear that the lion will get hungry in the night. It is a place where a child can play with a cobra and not fear that the cobra will strike and inject his venom. It is a place where no person, not even one, will need to worry about where they will find shelter for the night or find food to put in their child's school lunch box. It is a time when no child will sleep in their parent's car because their parent's job does not pay them enough to afford an apartment.
That is the kingdom of God, and we don't see it much when walking around town, driving on I-4, reading the newspaper, or watching the evening news.
But the kingdom of God, Jesus said, is like a small bit of yeast, a pinch of it really, that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.
The kingdom of God, as described by Jesus, is to be found in the most unexpected places and in very unassuming ways. So much so that it is easy to overlook. It doesn't soar from the pinnacles of power. It isn't emblazoned on the shiny side of a sky scraper in Manhattan. It doesn't appear on the cover of Time Magazine. It doesn't reside in the halls of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world.
I dare say that the kingdom of God isn't even necessarily to be found in the church. An honest appraisal of the modern church will find that too often we embody those very traits found in the religious establishment that Jesus so criticized.
The kingdom of God, Jesus said, takes root and multiplies among the least and the last, the outcast, and the weak. The emergence of the kingdom of God depends, in part, on people like you and me--people who are not in the glitz and glam of the limelight--people who embrace grace, embody servanthood in service of others, and witness to God through the mundane ordinariness of our lives. But doing so in such a way that is a counter voice to the voices of power, greed, self-interest, violence, and hatred that shout at us from all sides.
The kingdom of God moves forward through the small efforts, the seemingly insignificant decisions that we all make every day. It rarely moves forward in leaps and bounds. It moves in small steps, one life at a time, one relationship, one voice, one choice at a time.
Jesus taught that the kingdom of God is coming, slowly, but undoubtedly. It is coming until all of us, all of the world, all of it is leavened like dough, offering a life of forgiveness, love, new life, hope, joy, and peace.
Frederick Beuchner has said that, “If we only had eyes to see and ears to hear and wits to understand, we would know that the Kingdom of God … is as close as breathing and is crying out to be born both within ourselves and within the world; we would know that the Kingdom of God is what all of us hunger for above all other things even when we don’t know its name or realize that it’s what we’re starving to death for. The Kingdom of God is where our best dreams come from.… We glimpse [the kingdom] at those moments when we find ourselves being better than we are and wiser than we know. We catch sight of [the kingdom] when at some moment of crisis a strength seems to come to us that is greater than our own strength. The Kingdom of God is where we belong. It is home, and whether we realize it or not, I think we are all of us homesick for it.”
I am reminded of a piece by Bishop Ken Untener. He wrote:
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work. Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No program accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives includes everything.
This is what we are about.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that. This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
The kingdom of God is like a mighty oak, a magnificent cedar, a small bush, a tiny mustard seed.