I love the way Godly Play presents parables—old and valuable, in a golden box, sometimes difficult to open, but keep trying and someday the parable will open to you. Godly Play lessons are a way of teaching the Bible that invites participants to consider themselves inside the story of God.
These are written for children, but I think all of us could benefit from putting ourselves inside the parable, wondering about the characters, even what the birds are thinking. Parables are stories of real life, recognizable scenes from the real world—and it’s not for nothing, Jesus is telling us. God works right here in the real world.
And the kingdom of God—or we might say the kin-dom of God, as a family—the kin-dom of God is both a space in the real world and a place that isn’t fully present yet. There will be a time when only God will reign, the fullness of the kin-dom of God, and that time isn’t here just yet, but we can see God’s reign among us now.
When Jesus preaches, he often uses parables to describe the kin-dom of God. Jesus uses metaphors like salt, light, yeast, like a woman who has found a precious lost coin, like a man who sells everything he has just to buy a pearl, like a father welcoming home a son who has wandered, or like someone who has planted a seed.
Today we hear two stories that appear to be about seeds and how they grow. We are probably familiar with seeds, even if we are not farmers, and I don’t think many of us are farmers. We know seeds need to grow in healthy, moist soil if they are going to sprout and grow a plant. We know every plant that exists comes from some type of seed, and they’re all different.
Even if we are not agricultural geniuses, we come across seeds in our food. We know mustard seeds and poppy seeds and celery seeds are tiny. Orange seeds and apple seeds are a little bit bigger. Sunflower seeds and pumpkin seeds are a little bigger and nice to crunch between your teeth after they’re dried and roasted and salted. And there are those seeds we call a “pit,” the kind found in the centers of plums, peaches, mangoes, and avocadoes—they are big but they are seeds, too. Any of these seeds, under the right conditions, can grow a plant and can even produce fruit. Sometimes seeds even grow in the most unlikely conditions. Maybe you’ve seen plants growing out of cracks in the sidewalk, or sprouting out of organic material like a fallen log as it decomposes, or popping up through a layer of snow. But what do these stories about seeds tell us about the kingdom of God? Parables are not easy to unravel, and thousands of years of human history and experience and agricultural advancement have not made it any easier to interpret these parables. In the story about the person scattering seed, Bible scholars don’t agree what the story is about. If someone scatters seed, then sleeps and rises without knowing how the seed grows, and the earth produces the full-grown grain, and then the person who sowed that seed is able to harvest it…what is Jesus saying about the kin-dom of God? Three options could be true. If the kin-dom of God is like the seed, then the kin-dom of God is in you. Or perhaps the kin-dom of God is like the growth itself. Or perhaps the kin-dom of God is like the harvest. But then we get another parable immediately following, and it is about a mustard seed, which is one of those plants that grows and spreads quickly. A farmer would want to control the seeds of the mustard plant because it can easily invade a growing space. You might love mustard, but maybe you don’t love it enough for it to take over and kill everything else. So what does the mustard plant tell us about the kin-dom of God? Is it about a tiny seed that grows into something huge? Could be. But knowing these realities of mustard plants, it almost doesn’t sound like Jesus is trying to paint the kin-dom of God in a very positive light—the kin-dom of God is like a plant that can be great for food and has medicinal properties, but it’s also kinda trashy and you don’t want it to spread too far and who even cares if the birds have a place to build their nests? That’s not what we planted the mustard for! Some of these parables appear in other gospels, and they’re mostly the same but sound a little bit different. I think it’s interesting that Mark has decided to put these parables side-by-side, because that made me notice something interesting: the kin-dom of God is like both of these things, like both of these ways of planting and growing. The kin-dom of God is in the here-and-now, in the world we live in, and just like we can’t explain exactly what happens underneath the earth when a seed sprouts and grows, even in unlikely circumstances, we can’t explain the growth of the kin-dom of God. But we know when the plants are ready to be harvested, and we recognize when the kin-dom of God is bearing fruit. And this makes me think of the obvious stuff we do for the kin-dom of God, the things we do on purpose. We know that Jesus calls us to feed the hungry, so we do that in orderly, organized, purposeful ways. This congregation organizes food drives for area food pantries, like Isaiah 58 and St. Anthony’s, and every month we have a “Big Ask” to highlight a particular need. We answer the call of Jesus to feed the hungry and to care for people who are poor, and in this, we see evidence of the kin-dom of God. It’s everyday stuff and it’s real. We also know that Jesus loves children and calls us to care for children and for the vulnerable. This is why we set up education for kids, including a brief Vacation Bible School this summer. We keep in touch with homebound members, which over the past year has included any and all of us as we’ve navigated life during a pandemic. But as some of us are safely returning to life outside our homes, let us notice those whose strength limits their movements, and let us remember the body of Christ. This is real, and it’s the kin-dom of God. These are examples of things we have done on purpose, like someone planting seeds in a field on purpose. Maybe we can’t explain all of the details of how and why these things work, but we hear a call from God, we know the passions that motivate us to action, and so we do act. And these actions glorify God and tell the world about the God we know. And the kin-dom of God is present and continues to grow and bear fruit—that fruit is in people who are fed, in children who are loved the way we know God loves them. This is valuable, and this is the kin-dom of God. But what about that mustard plant? That plant that has some good properties but is kinda out of control? Kinda grows like a weed? Has some redeeming qualities, but they’re not really qualities that we value—like providing a home for birds. Not many ministries devoted to building homes for birds, like Habitat for Humanity, except for birds. We just expect them to take care of themselves or whatever. I think the kin-dom of God is like this, too, in the things we don’t do on purpose but might come about completely by accident, or possibly those things that happen to the glory of God in spite of our attempts to organize and put boundaries around it. The mustard plant reminds us that the kin-dom of God is not always orderly and sensible! And it’s harder to notice that it is truly God at work in these examples of mustard-plant-type growth, because we don’t always see the value or notice the connection to God. I see this type of growth when I see kids climbing in the tree outside my office. Here’s a place with shade, next to the Little Free Library—that’s put there on purpose—but kids can tell they’ll be safe and welcome in the space. Or when we open our building to recovery groups that pay little or nothing in building rental fees but they have a safe space to meet and care for one another. Or when a homeless person finds shelter around the outside of the building, and this occasionally happens.
Have we as a congregation, in our love for hospitality, inadvertently made a safe space to welcome those whom the world doesn’t quite yet welcome? Not because we expect anything in return, but because we value these children who are made in the image of God? Is this the kind of growth the mustard plant enjoys: that which is valued by God, even if we don’t totally understand, even if we can’t quantify that value? God understands all of these things, even when we don’t. I believe we can participate in the kin-dom of God without any awareness of it, maybe even in spite of ourselves. But wherever growth is going on, wherever walls are coming down, wherever true and honest dialogue is happening instead of hurling insults and threats, wherever the vulnerable are valued and cared for whether it is on purpose or quite by accident—this is where we will see the kin-dom of God. And we continue praying for that which we do not yet see, the kin-dom yet to be revealed, the kin-dom yet to be realized in its fullness. We pray this every time we speak together or si