This sermon was preached on June 17th at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Chattanooga.
The Kingdom of God, the love of God at work, is like a great many different things and stories. It’s like a treasure in a field, it’s like a man searching for a sheep, it’s like a fishing net, it’s like baking bread. And today it’s like a plant that grows whether we tend it or not, and it’s an little bitty teensy weensy seed that stakes over the garden. There are so many parables, and they can be confusing. We know that Jesus had to explain them to his disciples again and again. Parables are meant to confound and challenge us with their rich images.
The Bible as a whole can be confusing. It’s full of contradictions and mixed metaphors. It’s a book with a complicated and ancient context that we try, each week and each day, to fit into life as we know it. We certainly may find ourselves in these parables, but Jesus gave us so many different stories and images because we cannot reduce and simplify God to one tidy approach. The reformed pastor and theologian Karl Barth wrote that trying to pin down God’s kingdom is like trying to capture a bird in flight. The moment we point it out, we’re already behind — that bird is soaring away, on the move, and we can only trace its path.
But I have to say this morning: there is one important thing we can count on when we come to the Bible. There is a crucial guiding question for making sense of what the Bible is saying to us in our time. It’s how we go about determining what exactly is “biblical.” And that question is this: “Am I understanding and applying the Bible in a way that leads me to better love God, and love my neighbor?” Are we growing in love of God and love of neighbor?
Do we read and apply the Bible as people transformed by the love of God? This love so abundant and unexpected and giving that it does not make sense in this world? The kingdom of God is among us, certainly in our personal spirituality, but also in the ways that we live together.
So, are we reading the Bible and applying it to our lives in a way that upholds violence, or brings peace? Do we use the Bible to tear families apart, or hold them together? Do we use the Bible to exclude others or welcome them? Are we reading the Bible with love?
The apostle Paul, one of our earliest companions in wrestling with and living by the Bible, wrote that love is the fulfillment of the law, love is the fulfillment of the law. Love is the fulfillment of God’s word, so as we wrestle with the meaning of today’s parables, we keep our eyes out for love.
God, have mercy on us and give us the ears to hear your word of love:
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground…
It is like a mustard seed, sown upon the ground.”
What does planting seeds tell us about God’s transforming love?
Back in May our family went down to the beach in South Carolina, near Charleston, and while we were there, we got to visit with my aunt Lisa. She and my uncle live on a few acres near the marsh and grow a garden every year. It’s a massive plot, all this rich, dark, sandy earth, and they eat from the garden all summer and fall, and pickle and can jars so that they eat from their land all year. They’ve had a big, wild, experimental garden as long ago as I can remember, and every single year of gardening is different.
“So Lisa,” I say, “What’s in the garden this year?”
“Well, we’ve got okra and tomatoes, of course, and onions and radishes and carrots, and all the herbs and flowers. We’ve got some new corn varieties we’re going to try, and squash and zucchini, even though the zucchini wasn’t great last year. And we’re going to try garlic to keep the deer out. And you know, we’re going to do peanuts! We tried that years ago and it didn’t do a thing, but last year I did just one little half row of peanuts just for fun and they took over! We had boiled peanuts and boiled peanuts and boiled peanuts til we couldn’t eat any more. You know those peanuts just took over.”
Lisa’s been growing a garden on that same patch of earth on Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina for twenty plus years. There are a few things she can count on, like the tomatoes will work, and so will the deer, but there are parts of her garden that are always a surprise.
Those seeds and starts will sprout and grow, and she does not know how. Much to her surprise, that little old half a row of peanuts suddenly flourish and take over half the garden!
This morning, the Gospel call our attention to this mysterious promise of small things. The kingdom of God, the transforming love and grace of God, is like a tiny seed that grows without our work or attention, it is the smallest thing grown large and lush and offering welcome.
Do you know that there are a lot of little seeds being planted around here at St. Paul’s?
For the last two weeks, Hope and her amazing team of volunteers have been sowing seeds of God’s kingdom in the children of this community. I’ve been listening to art and fun camp down the hall from my office, and I’m in awe of what a few small moments, a morning of crafts or creative writing, a silly game with pool noodles or funny voices, what mustard seeds of faith and love might be sown in these kids over just a few hours.
There are 8 perennials, plants that come back again and again, growing downstairs in St. Catherine’s shelter. There are 8 little rooms with 8 beds to provide sanctuary for women who need help getting off the street or the strength to take their first steps toward addiction recovery.
There are the financial seeds of small grants administered by the outreach committee each year, small grants that might not seem like much, but these little grants become meals at the community kitchen. They support our Latino neighbors through the work of La Paz. They break into cycles of trauma and poverty. They start small, and grow to affirm the dignity of all our community members as children of God.
Another thing about these little seeds is that they yield abundance. The little seeds of our parable become an entire harvest, feed a household or a community. When we look for God in our lives and the world, we can discern Kingdom by looking for that abundance that only comes by grace, and by looking for what is inviting and connecting and providing hospitality. The branches of that mustard seed kingdom make space for all the birds of the air. We recognize that God’s love is present and at work when our lives, our homes and families, our church, our work places all take on the quality of hospitality and welcome, making space for the ones who need it.
When I first started dating my husband, he was living in a big house with a group of friends. Each one was in some way serving the Nashville community, whether through churches or nonprofit work, and they wanted to live together in a meaningful way and open their home to their neighbors. So every single Sunday afternoon, they held a community potluck lunch. Many folks came from the little church around the corner, some from the public housing in the neighborhood, and a few students from the universities nearby. And every single week, whether they had ten people or thirty, there was enough for everybody to have something to eat.
Don’t believe the lie of scarcity. Our culture runs on the myth that there isn’t enough to go around, that the answer is more stuff, that we need to grasp tightly after our safety and our resources. But that is a false gospel. We don’t have to live in that scarcity, that fear, that grasping and controlling. We don’t have to believe the lie that our flourishing depends on excluding, punishing, withholding, or deporting any one else. The mustard seed, that itty bitty thing, shows itself to be more food and shade and shelter than we ever could have imagined.
We like to know what we’re going to get, we like things in good order, according to plan. But what is unmistakable in these parables is that we are not in control. We must be surprised by God! At those community potluck lunches? Well, everyone would have food to eat, but sometimes it would be weird. Some weeks might just have three different noodle dishes and some ice cream, or just pancakes and fried fish, or beans and rice and fruit salad. There was always enough, but we couldn’t count on the menu, and it might not be what you’d necessarily choose for your Sunday lunch.
From our phone apps to our financial plans to our vision for our children and our country, we like to have it all mapped out and for things to go according to our plan. But the kingdom of God is so often, by our standards, counter intuitive, inconvenient, and weird. The our best laid plans fail, but then the most surprising graces show up out of the blue. Gardeners know this, perhaps, better than most of us. A farmer friend of mine would say of gardening and life, “A weed is just a plant where you didn’t want it to be.” We might have liked our mustard to stay small and orderly. Or maybe we wanted a nice big apple tree in that spot. Maybe we didn’t want all the birds to come and roost — we only wanted robins, but here they are, we got them all.
Look around your life — what surprises have shown up? Haven’t they beengood?
In our planned out, scheduled, controlled lives, surprises can make us nervous. Change and difference brings fear. But 1 John reminds us that ‘There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.” God is inviting us to be surprised not by fear, but by God’s own love. God is inviting us to be surprised by the expansive abundance of God’s kingdom.
We can be mad that there are peanuts in the garden, or we can plant more rows.
We’re all here today because we want to encounter the love of God in our lives, because we want to follow Jesus in giving that radical love of God away to the world. But these parables caution that there isn’t one perfect formula for how to do that. God’s love, God’s kingdom comes from small and unexpected places. God’s love, God’s kingdom, is more abundant than we can imagine. God’s love, God’s kingdom, surprises us and thwarts our expectations. We can start to keep an eye out for seedlings, and we can keep on planting them. We go into the world with a prayerful attitude attention and a God-transformed heart. We receive the incredible harvest of God’s grace and presence around us, and keep on sowing our little seeds of love and justice, to sprout and grow, we do not know how.