“[The kingdom of God] is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” Mark 4:31-32
I follow a writer named James Breakwell on Twitter.[i] He’s got a sharp sense of humor, but what I love the most are his reports from his family, where he and his wife are raising four daughters, ages 7 and under. He regularly shares snippets of conversations with his kids – like this one in which he asks the five-year-old:
Me: What did you do at school today?
5-year-old: Learned about dragons.
Me: Your class learned about dragons?
5: I learned about dragons. I don’t know what everybody else was doing.
Or this one with his four-year-old:
Me: How did you get so dirty?
4-year-old: We played a game.
Me: What game?
4: Play in the dirt.
Or this one with his six-year-old:
Me: Can you help me?
6-year-old: I’m busy.
Me: You just said you were bored.
6: I’m busy being bored.
In addition to making his readers laugh, James Breakwell also reminds us about one of the basic challenges of parenting. You can teach your children. You can love your children. You can guide your children. You can set an example for your children. Those things are important. But when it all shakes out, there’s a whole lot you can’t control about what your kids will say or do.
Most days we’d prefer a world in which we had more control. We could say, “God, this is exactly how I would like things to be. Heal this sick person. Put our family back together. Stop the horrible things going on in the world.” We could say it, and it would happen. Things would make sense. They would be clear and orderly and line up with what we want.
But that is not the world we live in. Today we hear Jesus tell these two little parables – small illustrations meant to challenge our expectations. In this case he paints some word pictures to tell us about the kingdom of God. As Christians we know that this life gives us only a glimpse of the full reign of God that is to come. So what exactly are we praying for when we pray each week, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”?
If we take Jesus seriously, we are praying for something crazy. Keep in mind that the people to whom he’s speaking would have had more experience with agriculture than most of us do, and what Jesus is saying would sound crazy to them too. First there’s the picture of someone who scatters seed on the ground and then does absolutely nothing. This person does not analyze the soil or pull weeds or water the seeds or worry about the amount of sunlight. He just scatters the seeds and gets a good night’s sleep – night after night after night. He has no idea how the seed grows. The earth produces of itself, we hear. The Greek word is automate– from which we get the word “automatic.”
So if we’re looking to dictate the way God’s kingdom grows and expands, we can forget it. Because God’s kingdom grows in mysterious ways, with powers beyond our comprehension or control. That’s the baffling power of God’s grace. It can bring about growth and change in spite of us.
If that weren’t unsettling enough, Jesus then gives his listeners another ridiculous image – the mustard seed.[ii] His listeners would have been amused at the thought that anyone would actually plant mustard seeds. Mustard was more like a weed – common, sturdy, able to grow almost anywhere and certain to spread where you least wanted it. Good luck trying to keep it out of your nicely planned, neatly laid-out garden. If you were silly enough to plant mustard seeds, you’d soon find yourself with a bunch of bushy weeds taking over everywhere, with no regard for any barriers you’d tried to set up between different kinds of plants in different sections of the garden. You might as well plant kudzu or dandelions.
When Jesus says the mustard seed grows into “the greatest of all shrubs,” there’s a good chance someone in the crowd laughed out loud. The greatest of all shrubs? Really? But what makes it the greatest, according to Jesus? It’s those branches. If you Google “mustard bush,” you’ll see a wide variety of pictures, but all of the plants have long, hospitable branches. Just what you’d enjoy if you were a bird looking to build a home. And that’s the image that Jesus leaves us with – The small, insignificant mustard seed grows into something so welcoming that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.
Which brings us to another dilemma. Do we really want to attract a bunch of birds to the garden? Don’t they eat fruits and seeds? Won’t they just create chaos in the cornfields?
So the kingdom of God is like this scruffy, stubborn plant with no regard for the boundaries that we try to establish and with the ultimate purpose of providing shelter to a bunch of birds we’re not sure we want there in the first place. Well, that’s not a picture that makes us comfortable.
I couldn’t help but think about these images as I reflected on this week’s awful news about children being separated from their parents along the southern border. As the person who is responsible for guiding how we engage with scripture, it’s important for me to talk about not just what’s happening to these families, but also the misuse of scripture this week by the Attorney General. I’m not talking about this with political motivations. I’m doing it because as people of faith, we need to understand how dangerous it is in any situation to pull one verse out of its context and use it to support an entire policy.
Let’s admit up front that our immigration system is broken. It has been broken for decades. But broken systems cannot be an excuse for inhumane treatment of children and families.
The Attorney General this week quoted the first verse of Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”
First, it’s always crucial to look at a verse in the context of where it appears in scripture. Keep in mind that Paul, the presumed author of the book of Romans, defied the Roman Empire merely by being a Christian, and he was ultimately put to death for it. So he wasn’t advocating blind, unthinking allegiance to a government. He was suggesting that God can be present in and work through all things, including human institutions.
But if we read all of Romans 13, we hear that Paul is ultimately describing how God’s law of love transcends all laws. Paul writes in that same chapter:
Owe no one anything, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery; You shall not murder; You shall not steal; You shall not covet’; and any other commandment, are summed up in this word, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore, love is the fulfilling of the law. (Romans 13:8-10)
We have to be especially cautious with verses that have a history of being misused. Romans 13:1 was often used to justify slavery in this country, including the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required citizens to return runaway slaves to their owners.[iii] More recently it has been used to support apartheid in South Africa.
Ultimately as people of faith what we must ask ourselves is this: What are the broader narratives of God’s story as told to us in scripture? In this collection of different books and stories by different writers in different time periods, what common themes can we find?
Here are some of those themes:
Again and again, God calls us to welcome the stranger and the immigrant (often referred to as the foreigner or the resident alien in our midst).
Again and again, God calls us to give shelter to those who are in danger. Think, for example, of the story of the Good Samaritan.
Jesus calls the children to come to him and tells us to do the same. (Matthew 19)
Jesus calls us to care for those most in need – and reminds us that doing so is the same as caring for him. And likewise, to ignore those in need is to ignore him. (Matthew 25)
I don’t have all the answers. I barely understand the questions. But I keep thinking about that mustard bush – the uncontrollable, stubborn, boundary-defying mustard bush that gives shelter to all of those birds. The kingdom of God is like that, Jesus says. That gives us somewhere to start. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ
[ii]I draw extensively from Matt Skinner’s commentary on Working Preacher (https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3676) and Debie Thomas’ commentary for Journey with Jesus (https://www.journeywithjesus.net/lectionary-essays/current-essay?id=1809)
“Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:7-8
There are a lot of bad analogies for the Trinity. Whenever people take a stab at explaining how God could be three persons – Father, Son, Spirit – and yet still be one God, it seldom goes well. Here’s a sampling of the attempts: God is like water that exists in three states – solid, liquid, gas. Or like an egg – the shell, the egg white, and the yoke. Three parts, one egg. Or a three-leaf clover. Or a tree – roots, trunk, branches. You get the idea.[i]
This morning I’m not going to get tangled up in knots trying to explain the Holy Trinity. That’s probably more work than one sermon can do anyway. But I’d like to zoom in on one part of the Trinity: the Holy Spirit. Many of us are more comfortable thinking about God as Creator – or perhaps God as Parent. We can maybe wrap our minds around God becoming human in the person of Jesus. But the Holy Spirit? We’re not sure about that one.
The biblical images for the Holy Spirit usually come in three varieties: fire, a dove, or wind (sometimes breath or other kinds of air). At our New Jersey Synod Assembly a couple of weeks ago, we were all set to use several of those images. My friends on the worship planning committee hauled altar candles and a paschal candle to the site. (The paschal candle is that big candle beside the font that we light during baptisms and on other special Sundays.) And on the night of our dinner, someone had filled big balloons in the shape of white doves and tied them to many of the chairs around the room so they were floating in the air over us.
But we ran into some problems. For starters, the hotel wouldn’t allow any open flames. So we couldn’t actually light the candles, and having all those candles up there without flames just seemed too depressing, so we tucked the candles away in a corner. And then, throughout the dinner and the next morning, I watched as, one by one, the white Spirit balloons met a sad fate. A few lost their helium and started to drift drunkenly toward the ground. One was pulled down to a lower level and tied securely to the back of a chair so it couldn’t float any more. Still another balloon was stuffed under a table.
I have no idea why people felt so hostile toward the balloons, but the whole thing felt pretty close to how we usually respond to the Spirit. We don’t want that Spirit roaming wildly around the place. We want to tether it, control it, nail it down. We can’t stand the thought of a Spirit that is moving, a Spirit that is on fire. That kind of Spirit is too dangerous. That kind of Spirit might spread from one place to another without our permission.
Whatever brings Nicodemus to Jesus in the middle of the night, he ends up having some questions about the Spirit. Jesus tells Nicodemus that we must be born from above. Another way to translate that phrase is to be “born again.” Nicodemus is understandably confused and presses the point. You can’t return to your mother’s body and be born again, can you? What Jesus says doesn’t clarify the matter very much: “No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit.” Jesus goes on to say that “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Jesus seems to understand how much we’d like to control the Holy Spirit. He knows we like life to be predictable. He knows we don’t like to take risks, certainly not the risks that come with speaking and living our faith. But Jesus doesn’t really give us an option. “So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” That’s us, born again in baptism. Born of water and Spirit. So it is, Jesus says. So it is. That we are born again to a new life – that part is certain. But where it leads? We do not know. The wind blows where it chooses. We have no idea where and when it might shake us up.
On Thursday night I sat in one of the top rows in the balcony of a church in Washington, DC that was filled to overflowing. We were listening to an impressive line-up of preachers, including Bishop Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, whom you may have heard recently give the wedding homily for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Hanging from the ceiling of the church right in front of me were long red ribbons. I assumed they were left there from the congregation’s celebration of the Pentecost last Sunday.
Bishop Curry was laying it out for us. “Love your neighbor,” he said. “That’s why we’re here.” He went on, getting louder and louder and challenging us with the truth that loving our neighbor is not just a sentimental feeling. He said: “Love the neighbor you like and the neighbor you don’t like. Love the neighbor you agree with and the neighbor you don’t agree with. Love your Democrat neighbor, your Republican neighbor, your black neighbor, your white neighbor, your Anglo neighbor, your Latino, your LGBTQ neighbor. Love your neighbor. That’s why we’re here.”
As Bishop Curry became increasingly impassioned, I watched the air move through those red ribbons. They started swaying more and more. Something is happening, I thought. The Spirit is moving.
And then this happened. A bird appeared out of nowhere and perched on a beam near the ceiling of the church. It startled me at first. I watched it flit around for a while and realized that it, too, embodied the Holy Spirit. We couldn’t control where that bird came from or where it was headed. But there it was, moving freely and surprising all of us.
Think for a moment about what unsettles you right now. It might be something in your own life – an unresolved relationship, a new professional opportunity, a concern for a friend. What might the Spirit be moving you to do in that situation? It might feel risky, but so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
What unsettles you about our world right now? What most fires you up when you think about it? More school shootings? People who are hungry in a world with plenty of food? Immigrant children separated from their families? An opioid drug crisis ensnaring people in addiction? What might the Spirit be moving you to do? It might feel daunting, but so it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.
We might very well ask the question that Nicodemus does: “How can these things be?” When we live a life of faith that question is going to come up a lot. How can these things be?
But as people of faith, we don’t just ask “How can these things be?” We ask, “How can we respond?” How can we follow God’s ways of justice and mercy? The Spirit blows in and around us not just to unsettle us but to inspire us. Inspire us to help in the ways that we can. To change systems that keep people hungry and poor and afraid. To pray with our hands and our feet.
May we live and love as the Spirit moves us to do – even when it surprises us. Amen.
S.D.G. – The Rev. Dr. Christa M. Compton, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, Chatham, NJ