Growing the Kingdom

Texts:  Psalm 93; Mark 4: 30-32

In the song, “God bless the grass,” by that great folk songwriter Malvina Reynolds moves from the grass coming through the cracks into the second verse, which begins with “God bless the truth that fights towards the sun; they roll the lies over it and think that it is done.  It moves through the ground and reaches for the air, and after a while it is growing everywhere.”  Although written originally in response to Mark Lane’s comments on what he considered to be the official cover-up on the Kennedy assassination, has become a song embraced by many who care for the environment.

Pete Seeger recorded it on his Rainbow Race album, turning it into a song about the importance of saving the environment.  That 1971 album was made in an age when we believed in endless, almost magical possibilities.   Even for those of us who don’t believe in magic, there is something magical about the spring.  All sorts of little things grow, including crab grass, of course. 

Much like the mustard seed, the environmental movement took root and encompassed issues that many of us did not even connect to the environment in 1970 – the year of the first earth day.  That movement started small, like a mustard seed, by Senator Gaylord Nelson as he led a teach-in.  Then it grew, threatened by interests that care more about making money than protecting future generations.  And even though, the bush has been cut back from time to time, it still grows.

There are times, I have to admit, that I feel like we are at ground zero again, but events such as the march for science last week and the People’s Climate March yesterday give me hope.  Estimates are that more than 200,000 were in Washington and there were even more at additional events throughout the country, literally from sea to shining sea.

One sign said, “I support coal miners not coal companies,” and that is so true. The forces that are trying to destroy the mustard plant pushing through the earth are same forces that would abrogate historic treaties between the government of the United States and the First Nation Native Americans.  As every gardener knows, just planting a seed is not enough.  It takes water and nurture and care to get a plant to thrive.  

This parable of the mustard seed is different than the one where the farmer scatters seed about, some falling on rocky soil, some falling on good earth, and other seed surviving the birds that would eat it.

The mustard plant is a particularly hardy plant – once established, like its cousin the horseradish, it is almost impossible to eradicate.  But unlike the root of the horseradish, the mustard plant offers a marvelous variety of uses.  Not only can the seed be ground and the leaves eaten, mustard oil is a marvelous antiseptic.

This parable is one of the few that exists in all three of the Synoptic Gospels.  There are a few textual differences between the versions in this morning’s reading from Mark and the versions found in Matthew 13 and in Luke 13, albeit in Luke’s version, Jesus does not call the seed the smallest but speaks of the seed being planted by a gardener, which is just one other small indication that Luke’s Gospel was directed at an urban population. 

The plant growing into a bush offers birds a safe haven; in the same way, the community of faith offers us a similar haven.  It’s really easy to think of a faith community as a secure and safe place.  Although it may be such, it is just as important to recognize that in the process of growing the kingdom, people have differences of opinion regarding the best way to be part of this growing process.

If you look at birds at a bird feeder or even in just a tree, you’d see them squabble almost the way people squabble.   They squawk and furiously peck at each other causing feathers to fly but then calm down to make amends.  In the same way, we squawk and squabble but then calm down to get the job done.  Learning how to deal with differences of opinion is part of the process of growing the kingdom.  

Jesus certainly faced some of the same kind of squawking and squabbling among his disciples.  More than once did their opinion of themselves get in the way of growing the kingdom of God that Jesus offers us.   

There is the kingdom of God we grow in our hearts which, like the mustard seed, can take root and become difficult to pull out.  That kingdom is nurtured not only by prayer and meditation but by the support of the community of faith.  That kingdom is both a kingdom of peace and of ferment.  For our faith grows not by a slow steady stream of nice feelings but by the ferment created in us by events in the world around us.  As it should.

There is also the kingdom of God we grow in the world.  The seeds may be small, as Bill McKibben’s call to direct action for the earth.  When Jim Wallis established the magazine Sojourners, many thought his ideas a pipe dream, but he has become a formidable force for progressive Christianity rooted in Scripture.  

Often the Kingdom takes a long time to grow, but with our efforts we are able to transform the dreams of creating a just and equitable society into reality.  This is not to say that the forces seeking to overcome the kingdom are not strong, for indeed they are.  We are seeing the strength of such forces at the present time. 

Those forces, too, may have taken a long time to develop into the kind of mindset we are now seeing in actions by the government.  And those forces have shown their roots in the double curse of racism and narrow-minded morality.  For instance, the Attorney General is in the process of attempting to eliminate oversight of police actions primarily in minority communities. However, in 1994 Congress enacted a statute aimed at law enforcement misconduct. 

The statute empowers the Attorney General to bring civil actions against law enforcement when there is a “reasonable” belief that police misconduct has occurred.  Although that son of Alabama may not think that police misconduct ever occurs, especially when it comes to minority communities, organizations such as the ACLU are researching whether mandamus actions forcing the government to act can be brought.  

The various marches for women, science, and the environment may seem like the trees that have grown from seeds, but they are only the plants struggling to survive.  It is vitally important not see these events as culminations but as stepping stones towards furthering the kingdom.   They, too, are seeds, which spread over the ground will grow even more plants as we settle down for the hard work ahead.

Those of us who are old enough to remember the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963 will also remember that it took even longer to get a civil rights act.  That act in 1964 was limited and had to be supplemented by the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  And still more than fifty years later, people are still being intimidated now under new legislation ostensibly aimed at so-called widespread voter fraud that does not even exist. 

The parable may give the impression that the seeds once planted sprout into plants once and for all, but what is important to realize that although we may have a large sturdy bush that without water and care, it, too, can die.  Any plant needs nurture and care to keep growing, to yield the fruit or the seeds with which to make the ingredients we need for sustenance.   Growing the kingdom, like growing a plant, even a mustard plant, takes continuing effort.  

The community of faith gives us support in our efforts.  As we grow the kingdom within, we also grow the kingdom outside.  So let us take nourishment from our life as a community to continue the work of Jesus in the world. 

Let us pray:  We come to you, O God, to ask that you continue to give us both the grace and the will to continue your work in the world.  In the name of him who came to share your vision for us all, even Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.