Third Sunday after Pentecost preached at St. Mark’s in Palo Alto, CA on June 17, 2012
Proper VI, Year B: Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4: 26-34
There might eventually be an audio recording posted here on St Mark’s website.
In Greek, the words are Basileia tou Theou – Kingdom of God. The same word root as basilica – the grand Roman public building where the governing elite held court. The buildings that became precursors to our cathedrals – structures built to glorify God. The sense of imperial, important. A pomp and circumstance filled w ceremonial procession and majesty. A greatness, eminence, nobility, kingdom. A power that demonstrates a sense of splendor or magnificence. An institution of grandeur and glory. An empire. Not humble. Not ordinary. Not everyday. And most certainly not common.
In an agrarian society, like the one Jesus was a part of, if one were going to offer a metaphorical equivalent to the Kingdom of God, the cedar tree might be a likely culprit. The noble cedar, standing tall and strong on the top of the mountain, high and lofty. Withstanding tremendous winds and weather. Close to God. Announcing to all God’s creatures that one might find shelter here, protection from the everchanging, everpresent dangers of the world. This cedar from Ezekiel today.
The same cedar used to build Solomon’s Temple – solidifying, reifying God’s presence here on earth. The cedar imported from Lebanon by the Egyptians to build the great masts of their ships and coffins for their dead. There is an enduring quality to the cedar, like that of the institution. It’s a powerful tree used by humans for powerful work. A desireable source of strength and grandeur. A noble tree. A kingly tree… for the kingdom of God.
But Jesus says…
Let me tell you what the Kingdom of God is like. It’s like a seed that grows on its own, without attention, or care. A seed that becomes a common, invasive, shrub that you can’t seem to get rid of. A wild seed.
Mustard plants are far from grand and noble. They are pests, scourges. A blight on the carefully cultivated land. An uncontrollable, unbidden, vexing problem of a plant. They need no human influence to develop. Mustard is like a weed, it just grows – usually, precisely where you don’t want it to.
Jesus says… let me tell you what the Kingdom of God is like, because it’s not what you think it is.
Jesus says… let me tell you what salvation is like, because it’s never what you want it to be.
Like a slight of hand artist, the Jesus in Mark’s Gospel is constantly pointing us in one direction, while doing some sort of magic trick while we’re not looking. A ventriloquist who throws his voice in the echoing walls of some grand chamber so that you don’t know exactly where he is. Jesus the trickster, turning phrases about and flipping our expectations over – like a tortoise on its back that it has no legs of any consequence.
The phrase the “Kingdom of God” was well-established amongst Jews. And it was a very loaded phrase, particularly at the time of Jesus’ ministry. There was a sense of pending apocalypse, that the time of earthly rule was coming to an end. God’s reign was imminent and the Messiah’s presence on earth would signal the coming of the Kingdom. Perhaps not surprisingly, there were prophetic messiah figures popping up all over the place – preaching about the coming overthrow, the looming annihilation of earthly kingship and the coming of the Basileia tou Theou.
And you can almost hear Jesus saying, “Bring it on.”
You might begin to appreciate why the powers-that-be felt a little threatened by him.
So, what is the Kingdom of God that Jesus was talking about? What is this wanton mustard seed that grows so shamelessly without care?
Well, when we read this parable through the socio-economic lens of liberation theology – which is a very popular way for Episcopalians to read it – we come away with a particular notion of salvation. Or at least, a notion of what salvation is not.
It’s not the pretty, shiny object awaiting you in the store window or on the website page. It’s not the macbook pro, or the Disneyland vacation, or the kitchen aid mixer, or the BMW 740Li. And, for the most part, we get that. (Although, I have to admit that I’m jealous of anyone w a kitchen aid mixer. But being a PC person I can certainly do without the latest Apple product.)
As Christians, we know that our salvation doesn’t lie in material gain. As Episcopalians, even though we have a big tent and we say it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as we all come to Table together, we don’t subscribe to the prosperity gospel that says we will be rich if we just follow Christ the right way. We generally get that the person who dies w the most toys in the end, is not really the winner. Salvation is not about possessions and bank accounts.
We tend to have a sense of social justice and understand that the powers-that-be create a great deal of systemic sin – manifest in our time in things such as foreclosures on predatory housing loans, dependence on oil, global warming, growing poverty, exploding health care bills, and the list goes on and on.
We watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” at Christmas time with our friends and shake our collective fists at Mr. Potter, the immoral banker, while we offer thanks for what we have and give of our treasure to those who have less than we do. We know that God’s grace is for everyone and God’s Love is utterly unbounded.
So, we get what Jesus is talking about in this parable. Right? The Basileia tou Theou is not about pomp and circumstance. Majesty doesn’t mean what you think it means. God’s glory is manifest in every human being and God’s kingdom belongs to all God’s creatures, not just those who have the means to purchase it.
But I’d like to move this parable away from a cultural critique, away from the social justice gospel that I obviously whole-heartedly agree with. And ask you to allow me the audacity to make it personal.
What is the Kingdom of God for you? For you, personally, what is salvation? What does salvation look like? What does it feel like? How do you know it? How would you know it?
And more importantly, how are you trying to go about getting it?
(And I’m not talking about purchasing things, because then we’re back to the cultural issue of living in a consumerist society – the belief that when we purchase the right “thing” we will be complete or better or wiser or sexier.)
But rather, how are you trying to go about finding a sense of salvation? What are the things you do every day that you believe are going to save you? What are your temples of cedar? What is your basileia?
What do you do, that makes you think you’re going to be ok?
Do you say yes to people even though you don’t want to? Refuse to let your emotions show?
Follow the rules and guidelines? Take control of every situation?
Be the life of the party? Needing things to be perfect?
Always strive to be the best? Learn everything you can?
Take care of everyone else besides yourself?
Refuse to be like anyone else? Avoid people whenever possible?
Always be on guard?
We have somehow come to believe that these behaviors of ours will work. But in today’s gospel, Jesus tells us we’re barking up the wrong tree. Each one of us has a way of being in the world that we think will keep us safe, keep us connected, keep us whole… in the face of all that we believe threatens us. These are our personal basileias. These are the kingdoms that we have built. The scaffolding upon which we have structured our life.
And what is wrong with that? We have to figure out a way to survive, don’t we? Well, here’s the problem and it’s the same problem we have with any other institution we humans create – we believe it gives us control.
Somewhere deep down inside, we believe something happened that separated us from God’s Love. And we are desperately trying to fix the problem in the only way we know how. But these kingdoms are illusions and we are most certainly not their rulers. On the contrary, they hold sway and power over us. They are the very things that pull us away from God.
We build our basileias over our lifetime, constructing them carefully. Cultivating and refining the dance of being in this world. Convinced that we know exactly what it is that will save us from pain, from fear, from being swallowed whole by the terror that lies in wait.
And Jesus says…
“Is this what you think salvation looks like? Well, it’s really pretty much the opposite of that. It’s the scrubby mustard plant. Not the tall, noble cedar tree. It’s the seed that grows without your cultivation. It’s most often the very thing you do not want.”
Because our freedom, lies not in anything we can construct, not in the coffins of cedar that we think will protect us from the everchanging, everpresent dangers of the world. Our freedom lies in God alone.
Earlier in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus announces the Kingdom of God. He says…
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news. [Mark 1:15]
Repent. In Greek, this word is metanoia – literally, a change of mind. The Kingdom of God requires a change of mind, a shift in perception, a transformation. The Kingdom of God calls us out of our worlds… out of our paradigms, out of our kingdoms, our misguided attempts and says: No. Not there. That’s not it. It never was.
The Kingdom of God breaks into our lives, when we least expect it, and into our hearts where we don’t want it and try to keep it out. The mustard plant grows unbidden, unwelcome in our well-cultivated landscape of imperial pseudo-salvation. But the Reign of God is our salvation precisely because it rips apart our precious constructions, tears down our walls, and swiftly removes any illusion that we are or ever have been in control. Or that we are or ever have been separate from the unbounded Love of God.
And I don’t know about you, but to me, that sounds a little like an apocalypse. Like the death of a kingdom that once held power over us.
And the scripture says…
All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it. [Ezekiel 17:42]
And you can almost hear Jesus – the author of our salvation – saying, “Bring it on.”