“With what can we compare the kingdom of God…?” Mark 4:26-34
Tomorrow we begin one of the most wonderful weeks of the year at St. John’s – Vacation Bible School and Afternoon Adventures! We’ve been preparing for months – picking a theme, designing and constructing sets, planning crafts, games, music, stories, snacks and science projects, and gathering a staff of 50 adults and teen volunteers. We expect over 100 children in the morning for VBS with 25 staying for Afternoon Adventures. All of this takes place to answer the question Jesus asks in today’s Gospel: “With what, can we compare the kingdom of God?” That’s always the Vacation Bible School question and indeed, the question of the Christian life. What does the reign of God look like, feel like? How do we experience the Holy One? What words dare we use? None are fully adequate. All fall short. Even Jesus resorts to poetry, using stories, and one-liners, pointing to this or that saying this is what it’s like and that too.
With what, can we compare the kingdom of God, what parable will we use? The word parable comes from two Greek words, para, “beside”, think parallel lines, and ballein “to throw”, think to throw a ball. So a parable is throwing one thing, such as a vision of God’s kingdom, besides another such as, the world as it is, and then standing back to see what happens. Parables comes in all sizes, a single sentence or a long story. Eugene Peterson calls them “narrative time bombs” because they undermine our assumptions and give us a vision of something different. Parables create readiness, nudging us towards new insights, where we can experience glorious “ah-ha” moments.
The first parable in the Bible is from the very first chapter of the very first book, Genesis – the creation of the world. It’s the VBS story for tomorrow when two sets of listeners – young children and our youth and adult guides will hear it. The children will be shown the seven posters our Welcoming Team made for the Easter Vigil each one featuring a day of the creation. After the first day, we will jump up and down once and shout and “God said it was good,” the second, twice with two shouts and so on through the sixth day, six times and six shouts and then with our non-anxious God we will rest on the seventh, lay on the floor and fake snore…. Meanwhile the older guides will be invited to throw this story along side of evolution and the big bang theory to see what happens when the world and everything in it is proclaimed to be not just good, but very good, including each one of them. The false narrative that is so dominate in our culture in which we need to be afraid and anxious, worried that we don’t measure up and will never be good enough is shattered by the life-giving narrative of God’s abundance and declaration that we are very good.
Now, let’s look at the first parable in our Gospel today, the one about the seed being toss on the ground by the man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. Meanwhile the seeds sprout and grow until ready for harvest and throw it alongside Bible School, what happens? We scatter the seed. We can’t make faith grow and when we try to our efforts can manipulative and often back-fire. Yet we can tend to the soil.
A couple of years ago, my husband John and I attended a class on vegetable gardening and the first thing we learned was the importance of good soil. It needs the right Ph balance and a good combination of nutrients provided by compost, dry leaves and aged manure. The garden also requires well-drained, flat, sunny area. All we had was hard red clay cover by an inch of topsoil in our yard. Our instructor recommended raise beds which have worked beautifully, nonetheless every year we still need to tend to the soil.
What’s odd about soil and people for that matter, is that the most growth comes from garbage, the compost of coffee grounds, potatoes peels, and rotting lettuce of our lives. Failures and frustrations are transformed by God into good soil. As my AA friends put it, it’s when we let go and let God that change begins. When we surrender the seeds of faith take root and grow for we open our hearts to God who creates hope out of despair, faith out of fear, life out of death. It’s sheer promise that surprises us over and over again.
During VBS, we tend to the soil of our children, watering with lively songs, playing in the sunshine, filling imaginations with stories, enhancing wonder through science, and creating beautiful crafts. With laughter and love, seeds of faith are planted and by grace grow into an abundant harvest. When seeds are planted in good soil, before long children start asking difficult questions. They throw God’s love and mercy alongside of the terrible things that happen in our world and their very lives become living parable. Now the kingdom of God looks like students working to end gun violence, a fire-fighter risking his own life to save another, a teacher in an inner-city school or a volunteer tutoring an immigrant.
Then Jesus tells a second parable — about tiny mustard seeds –how the kingdom of God is like these seeds being planted and growing into great shrubs, so big that birds make their nests in their branches. Two things are peculiar in this parable – the first is Jesus’ claim that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. There are smaller seeds such as basil which is hardly bigger than a period at the end of a sentence. The second peculiar thing is that someone would actually plant mustard seed because in Palestine it is an invasive species, an out of control weed that can hardly be contained. It would be as if Jesus said the kingdom of God is like the thistles that keep popping up in our church gardens. No matter how often those thistles are pulled, they come back with a vengeance. They are persistent and determined as is God’s kingdom, which will not be contained, but keeps pops up unexpectedly.
I experienced God’s persistence as we prepared for VBS this past week. Last Monday I woke up about 2 am anxious that we did not have enough staff for the almost 100 kids who had signed up. I know some of you would probably tell me, “Pastor you always say, God gives us what we need to do ministry” but in the middle of the night I wasn’t trusting that. Mid-morning the phone calls started. “Do we need more help?” a mom asked. “Can I bring a friend?” one of our youth inquired. Emails came in, parents stopped by to sign up their teenager and by Friday afternoon, there were more than enough. Small seeds planted growing into a great, big VBS bush with room for everyone.
So how about you? With what can you compare the kingdom of God? That question was asked at Bible Study on Wednesday. One person replied, “The Kingdom of heaven is like a blanket keeping me warm and safe.” Another, “The Kingdom is like a walk on the beach, innumerable grains of sand and endless waves.” “It’s a never-ending story.” “It’s like a hot, sweaty, cranky child whom you love anyway. And still another, “It’s like your dog who is always so excited when you come home even if you’ve only been away for 15 minutes.” For me, on this Father’s Day and maybe for you, “The Kingdom is like my dad whose love is constant no matter what.” You’re invited to take a couple of moments and write your own parable. It can be as short as a single sentence or longer. If you want to share it, write it on the back your yellow card, email it to the office, or hand it to me as you leave worship and we will post them on Facebook and put them in our summer newsletter. With what can we compare the kingdom of God? Amen.
1 David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2018/06/pentecost-4-b-quiet-dynamic-confidence/