Updated: Jul 31, 2021
Today’s psalm reminds us that it is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord! So – many of us are here together in person at Grace Episcopal Church Martinez. Thank you, God! God has preserved the lives of the members of this community during 15 months of social upheaval and global pandemic. Thank you, God! We have had consistent opportunities to worship together despite the many roadblocks placed in front of us. Thank you, God! We are, like the psalmist, grateful, glad, and even a little giddy. We have remained faithful, and our faith has been rewarded. We have come through the time of darkness into the light; through mourning into joy; and through the valley of the shadow of death into the promised land! Alleluia!
And yet, like so many things in our lives as Christians, it is not so simple – because contained within the happiness of seeing one another again and of being in this familiar and comforting place, there is the knowledge that some people are missing -and that some things are not the same. We have been fortunate that the number of individuals at Grace who were afflicted by the COVID-19 virus was small – and for that I thank God every day. Nonetheless, the isolation and confusion, anger and estrangement that this past year brought with it have not left us unscarred. We have all dealt with this troubled time in our own ways -and for more than a few of us that has meant separation. Here at Grace, some of us have attended worship more often and taken greater roles in it, while others have chosen not to participate in online worship. Some have felt that the church has been present to them in need, while others have felt abandoned. We have tried, but there is no denying that it has been hard.
Now we are back – except that we are not sure what “back” means. We are changed. We are like our ancient Israelite descendants who returned from exile a different people – broken but still buoyant; anxious but energetic; fearful but filled with hope. We should not be surprised. Our God is a God of revelations, reversals, and the overturning of expectations. Our God is the industrial laundry machine of creation – taking our filthy, worn, and outdated protective personality layers and drenching, washing, wringing, spinning, and tumbling them dry until we are spiritually exhausted, emotionally naked, and ready to be newly clothed – to become Christ’s new creation.
That beautiful phrase comes from the passage that we just heard from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Paul is convinced and seeks to assure his friends, that when they put their faith in Jesus, all will be well. When he tells them that “we walk by faith and not by sight,” it’s like a good locker room talk: “Sure, it might be a tough life. Okay, yeah, we have to appear before the judgment seat and receive recompense, but Christ has died, and human judgment is out! Now get going and convince the world! Go Team!” This same confident spirit seems to be present in media clips of many mega churches where we can watch auditoriums filled with well-coiffed preachers complemented by thousand-dollar light shows, polished rock musicians, and supporters praising God’s power and glory and brooking no doubt that they are on the right side: Team Jesus, winners of the Kingdom of God championship!
The question is, what does it mean to be on “Team Jesus” and to seek the kingdom of God? Today’s gospel story, often referred to as, “The parable of the mustard seed,” is Jesus’s response to at least half of that question: “What is the kingdom of God like”? The Greek phrase, “basileia tou theou,” is usually translated as “the kingdom of God” in order to demonstrate the greatness and sovereignty of the place where God lives. It is found 14 times in the gospel of Mark. That’s because the people who first heard Mark’s stories wanted to know what kind of world Jesus was promising them. For them, the very word “kingdom” was associated with one thing and one thing only: the empire of Rome. For Jesus’s disciples to use that specific phrase in referring to God’s domain meant that they were saying that following Jesus made you part of something bigger than the greatest power of the world.
Most of us have heard the parable of the mustard seed before. It is often presented as a reminder of God’s power, similar to the words we heard from Ezekiel. In it, the Lord God tells us that he can take a tiny sprig and grow it into a noble cedar large enough to support the life of the world – that she can bring the high tree low and the low tree high; he can make the green tree dry and the dry tree flourish. This is the same God, Jesus says, who can take the smallest of all seeds and without any help from us cause it to grow into the greatest of all shrubs.
Certainly, this was good news for those who heard the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Mark. They were descendants of enslaved, exiled, and overthrown people who lived under foreign rule. They were not seeking a dominion that looked like the one they lived in. They would have been suspicious of a savior who associated himself with an empire which had mocked their culture, enslaved their people, belittled their intelligence, and impaired their relationship with the Lord their God. They were not like us, who have many reasons to embrace the status quo. They loved that Jesus recognized and reflected their brokenness and need, and they opened their hearts to a new way of living, although they knew it would be hard. They were the smallest of seeds – but for them, having the world turn upside down was a welcome change.
That is what it means to be on Team Jesus. Jesus did not come for those who already lived in the green and fruitful garden, with the most succulent foods, the softest beds, and the most powerful weapons. Jesus did not come to preserve the most powerful empire in the world. He did not come for the cedar tree. Jesus came to plant the mustard seed. He came to destroy the ways of empire – the screaming, flashing, waving, crashing, chanting of “take, rule, have” – and replace them with the faithful prayers and helping hands of love given without expectation of return, and of a community that lives not in a building but in the hearts of its people. It turns out that “The kingdom of God” is not a good translation of the Greek. Scholars now say a much better translation is “Kin– dom.” Family.
I have mentioned that I recently attended an evangelism conference, and I was very taken by something one of the speakers said. She talked about when you are in the early stages of a relationship, and you just can’t seem to stop yourself from mentioning the name of your beloved. You just keep dropping it into conversation in seemingly random ways. “Oh. You have a high electricity bill? So sorry! Did I mention that my husband Gary works for Alameda Power”? She calls it “mentionitis.” What would it be like, she said, if we all had “mentionitis” for Jesus? Or for being part of Christian community? What if we were so in love with this church and its people that we all got a case of “mentionitis” about it?
When some people talk about the kingdom of God, they act like it’s some reward we can get in the future if we vote for the right candidates or hang out with the right people – but Jesus never talked about the kin-dom of God in the future tense. Jesus always said, “The kin-dom of God IS.” And I say “The kin-dom of God is us. It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord. Thank you, Lord.