This spring, I spent a couple weeks digging. Whenever I had a free hour, I was to be found in my back yard, digging. By the time I was through, I had dug the sod out of a new bed, about 55 feet long and 4 or 5 feet wide. We got a couple yards of black gold compost mix from Hillerman’s and dug that into the red Missouri clay that largely makes up the soil of our back yard, and then we started planting. We transplanted a sad lilac bush from the front yard, and divided a few irises, and then we went to the native plant sale over at Shaw Nature Reserve and filled the rest of the bed with native perennials. We watered them in and began to wait. This is pretty much in keeping with my tendency – each year that I live somewhere, I dig up and plant a new bed. Last year it was our vegetable garden, which then managed to produce a bunch of tomatoes but little else. This year I had a longing for flowers. So we planted coneflowers and black-eyed Susans and asters. So far, things have sort of grown in fits and starts. It hasn’t helped that there has been so little rain this year. Or that the rabbit crop seems to be outstripping any other crop, and stripping many of our little plant friends of every leaf they produce. But the main thing that we seem to have achieved with all of our planting efforts this year is not the growth of veggies or flowers. So far, we have a couple cucumbers, a pepper or two, and one little purple coneflower. But what we have seen is a huge shift in the animal life in our yard. And not just rabbits, though they are plentiful. We have seen more birds and butterflies and bees in the last month than we saw all of last year. A few native plants seem to be the invitation that the flying critters had been waiting for. A place to land, some familiar smells, and some large branches, so that the birds of the air can make a nest in their shade.
In one of the parables that Jesus tells in today’s Gospel reading, he compares the Kingdom of God with a mustard seed which grows into a great shrub, which becomes a place where the birds of the air can nest. It’s a lovely image, and we can draw all sorts of lessons from it. You’ve probably heard them before – either that you need to tend your faith, even if it is as small as a mustard seed, so that it can grow into something big that will help even the birds of the air find shelter; or the nicety that good things can come from small beginnings, so don’t be discouraged by…fill in the blank: children, don’t be discouraged by how small you are; poor people, don’t be discouraged by how little you have; Peace Lutheran, don’t be discouraged by the size of our congregation. And those are fine interpretations, and probably even helpful applications, in certain circumstances, of Jesus’ wisdom teachings. But the Kingdom of God? That’s a little more complicated. One scholar I came across said, if you think the parables are painting you a pretty image of the Kingdom, you’re probably reading them wrong.
So let’s take a look at that mustard plant. A mustard plant is useful, medicinal, even desirable in some gardens. But most varieties of the mustard plant were more along the lines of, say, kudzu or ivy or scotch broom or morning glory, depending on where you’re from. It was not a plant that you put in your garden. You didn’t have to. It was going to show up on its own. In the Pacific Northwest, no one in their right mind would plant morning glories or blackberries. You spend most of your gardening time trying to get rid of them, because they will invade and take over any space left untended, and you cannot get rid of them for love or money or Roundup. What is it around here? That invasive honeysuckle? Trumpet vine? Something else? Anyway, that’s the mustard plant that Jesus is talking about. It’s got its uses, it might even be helpful or pretty at times. But mostly, if it chooses to move into your garden, you’ve got trouble.
And the Kingdom of God is like that. huh.
I don’t think I like the sound of that. I’d rather think that the Kingdom of God is something that we plant, and cultivate, and tend, until it grows how we want, and where we want; until it yields the fruit that we want, for the people that we want. I’m afraid that we have a tendency to want to control the Kingdom of God, and dole out salvation for our chosen ones. So that when we come to the Table, when we gather around the body and the blood, we see faces that make us comfortable, that reassure us about our own righteousness – that paint a picture of God’s chosen people, in which the inhabitants of the Kingdom look and sound and act a lot like us. The Kingdom of God is like…a cultivated garden, where everything goes exactly according to the plans of those who tend it. Oh. Wait. How did it go again? The Kingdom of God, Jesus said, is like a sower sowing seed all over the place, and some fell on the path, and the birds ate it, and some fell on rocky ground and came up too quickly, and was scorched by the sun, and some fell among thorns and was choked out, and some fell on good soil and grew. The Kingdom of God is like grain that grows but the farmer doesn’t know how. The Kingdom of God is like mustard seed that grows invasively, choking out the rest of the garden and taking up all the land, so that we can’t grow anything else.
Well, let’s ask David what it’s like. Or Saul, or Moses, or Jonah, for that matter. Because they know what it’s like to be God’s chosen, they know what it’s like when God’s Kingdom, God’s in-breaking reign, places you squarely at the center. And what it is like, is trouble. No wonder Jonah ran. No wonder Moses asked to be let out of the contract. No wonder Saul went a little crazy. No wonder we try to tend it and cultivate it to be what we want, to groom what we choose instead of letting ourselves be chosen. When God chooses, God’s Kingdom, God’s mustard plant, moves into your garden, and it is not the end of your troubles. It is the beginning. And poor little David, poor handsome young David, with his beautiful eyes, he might have been better off if God had left him alone; if he could have stayed there tending the flocks, instead of being God’s anointed. Because from the moment that the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David, his life was nothing but trouble – he had giants to slay, he had battles to fight, he had a throne to win, he had a kingdom to rule, not to mention all of his own personal faults and pitfalls that led him into infidelities and betrayals and other troubles, all in the public eye, so that his sins are still remembered 3000 years later. Ask any Jew, being God’s chosen, being under the kingship of God, praying for God’s Kingdom to come, that’s asking for trouble. As Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof said, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?”
So is it a comforting image? or a troubling one? Knowing that God has chosen you, has planted you in God’s garden, not to tend the garden, not even to be tended, but to grow wild and free, so that in you the Kingdom takes hold in surprising ways. Knowing that in you, the Kingdom is breaking in, even in the midst of your brokenness and pain; that in you, God’s reign is taking hold and breaking new ground. Not because you made the journey to God, not because you made yourself worthy of God. But because God became one of us, journeyed into our world, bringing God’s Kingdom, God’s reign, and God’s righteousness, right here, right into the midst of this broken world. Because in you, God’s chosen, God decided to plant the Kingdom here. And it seems impossibly small. And it seems impossibly impotent. Because most of the time this world seems to be everything. The harshness of this world seems to encompass all: splintered relationships, wasting bodies, addictions, disease, wars, death, everything that would lead us to believe that God holds no power in this world. All of this seems to choke out this in-breaking Kingdom, and that tiny seed that has been planted looks to be doomed to fail. And we, who have seen where the seed was planted, we think we ought to be able to cultivate it, we ought to be able to do with it what we want – to dig our garden and tend our soil and prepare the beds to look the way we want. And that little seed surprises us all. It grows where it is not wanted, and it grows in ways that we wish it wouldn’t. It takes over in surprising places, and invites in surprising guests. Like the garden in my backyard, the seed of the kingdom rarely looks like we hope it will. But if we wait and watch, we will find that it moves and grows in ways that we had never guessed possible. We find people we never expected to break bread with, sitting next to us in worship, kneeling beside us at the altar. Just think, at the beginning of this chapter, in the parable of the sower, the birds of the air were pests – they were the ones who picked up the seeds that the sower had sown, and kept them from growing where they were intended. And yet here those same birds are, nesting in the shade of the Kingdom. And try as we might to force it to be what we want, to grow where we want, to shade who we want, the Kingdom of God is not ours to control. And that is indeed good news.