This sermon was first preached for an online service of Tualatin Presbyterian Church on Sunday, June 13, 2021.
Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.
Hmmmmmm. How can we explain the Reign of God? What is it like?
The Reign of God is like….how many of you are gardeners? Or have done landscaping? We recently moved and our backyard has some very impressive landscaping. I feel like I can brag about that because I had literally nothing to do with it. But it’s lovely. We’re talking like, a platform surrounded by bricks with a beautiful arch with green vines creeping up the arch. And then there’s also this water feature, a little stone lined creek leading into a pond where ducks sometimes come to rest. And big strong trees with a hammock strung between two of them and a clay windchime that tinkles in the breeze. And a vegetable and herb garden. And multiple bird feeders. And a fire pit. And there are all of these carefully curated perennials of all kinds..blossoming at different times, red, yellows, purples, blues, pinks. Daffodils, violets, peonies, flowers I don’t even know.
The kingdom of God is like….its not that. Ha.
At least not in this particular parable.
In this parable, Jesus explains to us that the reign of God is like a mustard seed. That’s pretty unexpected, for a few reasons. God loves to do the unexpected, God loves to turn our ideas upside down and subvert our systems. The mustard seed is another example of the unexpected. Jesus didn’t say that the reign of God is something sturdy and impressive, like an oak or sycamore or a redwood. Jesus says the reign of God is like a tiny little mustard seed. One of the smallest seeds out there. And even when it grows, its really less of a tree. It’s more of a …shrub.
And this shrub is not a shrub like the pink peonies in my yard. A mustard seed in that time and place was not something there on purpose. Mustard seeds are thought to have been native to India, not to Israel. So it’s not indigenous to that area. It’s an invasive species. A mustard seed is a weed.
Like many weeds, it seeds and sprouts quickly and early in the season. This gives it the advantage over other kinds of plants and the ability to spread very, very rapidly.
The Reign of God is like a wild weed. Before you can pull it up, three more grow in its place. When you think you have exterminated it, new growth springs up in the most unlikely places.
The Reign of God is less like a strong, respectable cedar.
It’s scrappy. It’s resilient. It’s honestly a little annoying.
It takes root and takes over.
So in that way the Reign of God is more like …one of those little white poofs…the dandelion seeds.
The dandelion pops up everywhere.
It carries our wishes as they [mime blowing] blow away in the wind.
It’s necessary for life…our pollinators – like the bees – depend on the dandelions to undergird our entire ecosystem.
It’s medicinal. Dandelion roots and leaves have long been used to support liver health, fight inflammation, regulate blood sugar.
One of my favorite facilitators and emergent strategists, adrienne maree brown reminds us that we can find wisdom everywhere in creation. That non human nature can be our teachers. And she says, “dandelions don’t know whether they are a weed or a brilliance. but each seed can create a field of dandelions. we are invited to be that prolific. and to return fertility to the soil around us.”
In this parable, the mustard seed supports the ecosystem, too. It grows big enough that the birds can find shelter there, can make their nests, can watch over their young, can find shade in the heat.
The Reign of God is like….. a little, tiny seed of an invasive species that takes over the whole yard. No matter how many times you spray it with Roundup. Like a dandelion. Or a mustard seed.
Anytime I hear an illustration about seeds I think of the popular protest sign which says, “They tried to bury us. They didn’t know we were seeds.” It is a testament to the endurance and tenacity of oppressed people in resistance to unjust forces.
Jesus’ original audience would have understood this. They were living under the terror of the reign of the Roman Empire. They were living as religious and ethnic minorities, policed violently by an occupying force where uprisings were not uncommon and were quickly snuffed out by those in power. Only a few chapters earlier we read of Jesus being baptized into a movement of resistance and social renewal by his cousin and mentor, John the Baptist. After Jesus joined this movement, he went out into the wilderness for a time and when he returned, he learned that John had been arrested by the powers that be. This further led to Jesus’ radicalization and he began to build his movement by calling disciples. Together they began to spread the Good News of God’s liberating love for all people, meeting their physical needs through healings, feedings, and casting out demons. Proclaiming that the Kingdom of God has drawn near, in direct opposition to the Kingdom of Rome in their midst. In defiance to the earthly tyrants that were currently occupying the throne.
As Jesus told these parables, this socio-political reality was the backdrop. Oppressive governments. Violence by the state. A marginalized, suffering people under the thumb of an occupying force.
We should remember as people living currently on occupied land of the Tualatin tribe in your case or in my case, as a person living on the traditional unceded homelands of the Council of the Three Fires: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi Nations, the idea of occupying forces is not something relegated to long ago and far away. It’s a continuing reality here and now.
And as people who witnessed once again this past year the ways that the Empire attempts to snuff out uprisings for justice with tear gas and rubber bullets and federal agents snatching up people in unmarked vehicles, our own socio-political reality is not that far removed.
So we could also say the Reign of God is like a person killed by police on camera for all to see. Whose tragic, unnecessary death ignited a worldwide movement.
With this parable, Jesus is reminding the disciples of a few things about the Reign of God.
It is unexpected.
It is tenacious.
It is resistance.
And it is also reminding us that even though the kingdom of God is really, really big…like healing the sick and casting out demons? It is also very small. Like the resilience of people stuck on the underside of our systemic power dynamics. Like the quiet, every day faithfulness of ordinary people.
The Reign of God is big. And it is small.
As I have mentioned before and many of you know, in addition to being a clergy person I am also a community organizer. So I spend a lot of time learning about transformation and social change and I wanted to introduce something to you known as Emergent Strategy. Emergent Strategy is a way of being, a theory about changing the world and making a big difference in a major way through relatively simple interactions. And there’s different lessons we can pull from Emergent Strategy. One of the touchstones Emergent Strategy lifts up is the concept of “fractals.” For those of you who are math people you might know that a fractal is a never ending pattern that repeats. And it repeats at different levels and sizes over and over. We can see and notice fractals in creation too. One example is that of the fern leaf. You know how a big fern leaf is made up of little tiny leaves that look like tiny ferns themselves? The smaller sections reflect the full leaf. And the full leaf is made up of many small mini fern leaves. adrienne maree brown explains that fractals can teach us that, “How we are at the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The patterns of the universe repeat at scale. There is a structural echo that suggests …that what we practice at a small scale can reverberate to the largest scale.”
How we are at the tiny seed is how we are at the worldwide global Church.
How we are in our everyday life is how we will be in big revolutionary moments.
The mustard seed reminds us of this:
How we are in the small scale is how we are at the large scale. The Reign of God is the big moments where Jesus heals and casts out demons. It is the movement that changes the world. But it is also the small, ordinary faith of everyday people too. It is the big, eternal, Creator God. But it is also the tiny Brown baby born to a teenage mother in Bethlehem.
The Reign of God is unexpected, it is tenacious, it is resistance, it is big AND it is small.
The Reign of God resides in the micro-interactions we have with one another. It is the holiness in the space between us where the Spirit creeps through. The mustard seed reminds us that yes, systemic change is important, resistance to oppression is vital, AND the tiny building block of big revolutions is relationships. It is a network, a community, made up of the ways that we care for each other.
We can practice love and liberation with those closest to us. We can live out liberation and resistance with our families, our partners, our neighbors in our home, our church, our office, our block. These tiny interactions build up, they take roots, they grow like weeds and take over until our movement is big enough to provide for the basic needs of all of us, with branches big enough to make a home in.
Beloveds, this week, I want to invite us all to use this lens of the mustard seed to notice the small, simple, every day ways that you can choose to live out the Reign of God here and now. Pay attention to the unexpected, the tenacious moments of resistance, the big and the small.
And as you are practicing living out liberation up close with those next to you, I challenge you also to zoom out your lens and imagine the roots taking hold beneath you. For the Reign of God is here and now – among us, inside us, and coming soon in all of its fullness to take over and turn everything upside down.
Thanks be to God.
With gratitude to adrienne maree brown and Emergent Strategy.