Straining against fences while seeking Kingdom
Week of Sunday June 14 - Pentecost 3
Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
You can listen to this post here.
My father taught me to fence when we replaced a portion of the bottom boundary. Two enormous strainer posts defined the new fence; one sat against Heaslip's boundary and the other is still serving as a bottom gate to the farm after fifty years. He strung a single high tension wire between them— 500 yards or more, and I walked with Grandpop's old surveyor's chain, and directly under the wire, marked off a post every 22 yards. Then he loosened the top wire and we began to auger in the post-holes.
Kingdom is different.
The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.
There is something mysterious about Kingdom of Heaven. The sower sows— this could be us measuring, planning and planting in the world, or sowing something to the heart of ourselves. But there is energy apart from the sowing, and beyond our planning. We have done the groundwork, but as we sleep and rise, night and day, something grows in the depths. The earth produces of itself. Deep in us, and deep in society, something beyond the control of our conscious choices and decisions is being done. A harvest grows.
The Kingdom of Heaven stands over against the Empire of Rome and all the Empires which have followed it. Empire today claims that all there is… is us, and what we ran see and touch. Empire seeks to rule and to take over from God by ruling out the existence of God! God is dead. God is superstition. What exists is the physical. Salvation lies in consumption.
The system uses the old stories of goodness, love, and family to sell Empire. Walking past the hairdresser's today— the chain is called Just Cuts— I saw a new product range: Justice for All, screamed the posters. In this new Empire, even the sacred serves the dollar.
On a bad day such excesses of Empire make it seem as though the Kingdom of Heaven has been forced underground. No, says Jesus. It is growing within us as the sown seed should. The boundaries are diffuse, and the processes mysterious, but there will be a harvest, full grain in the head.
He also said, ‘With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.’
The small speck of seed grows to a greatness which offers a home under which to live. It is "sown upon the ground!" What hope is there for this tiny beginning which is not even planted deep in good soil, but seems almost to have been discarded— wasted? What good will our tiny life do if we waste it like this? We are insignificant and powerless. How dare we pretend— no, how ridiculous to dream— that risking ourselves against Empire will bear fruit! What will it gain the world if we are crucified for our idealism?
Yet this straggly weed of a plant, this unlikely, illegitimate kingdom, will offer shade to all the birds of the air; indiscriminate, and the greatest of all shrubs. Have you stood among the thorny acacias at dusk and heard the clamour of the countless birds who have come for night shelter?
33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
For all of my life I have yearned and thirsted for a reality I could believe in, and for a life which was worth having. What I mean is that the meanings of life presented to me by the world in which I was born never added up. They never made sense. Cars, more money, better gadgets— so what?
I remember a Four Corners story which followed up Australian war brides who'd gone home to the US with GIs. Was the American dream worth it, compared to ordinary old 0z? I was maybe 12 when the woman showed the reporter her cupboard drawers with the ball bearing runners, so much better than our old rub more candle wax on the wood variety. Even as she showed us how nicely the kitchen drawers glided shut, her own disbelief and sadness was visible. She had lost more than Australia. I've never been able to forget it.
As I was growing, church and other groups promised a greater depth to life. They were real, they had the truth, they said. At least the religious story went below the surface. It understood that finding life in a thing was ridiculous.
But the old, old story we sang about in the hymns, was unreal. It should have helped. It critiqued society well. It saw through the materialism, the selfishness, and the self-serving power structures. It understood something of the power of love. It aimed for holiness, and sometimes it succeeded, a little. I have a list of names who loved me and nurtured me. I had a fortunate childhood. But the evangelists in my college bullied kids to tears even as they told the truth about the naked kitchen cupboards of Empire.
And the God they preached, the God my instinct said should be "there," the God l half sensed, was not there. And the more strident and positive his preachers the less he was there, and the more I seemed to be left with the merest useless mustard seed of hope. It was more longing than hope, and if I had been able to hear the story of the seeds I would have despaired that anything could grow of them.
What I had to learn was that God was dead. Hear me carefully! Grandma's God spoke powerfully and sustained her to the day she died, and no doubt beyond. But the language of God, the container of symbols in which she held her experience, was a world away from me. It was foreign. It could never really hold the mystery that is God, even for her! But the world of that language was far gone even when I was a child.
We— those like me— were the same people, still sinners, still needful of salvation, but the language of God was dead. It sounded like real words, but there was no translation. Some folk still speak it. Friends still speak the old language and their God lives in it. But even as a child I was like the older me talking to a Pitjantjatjara friend. I learned that we lived and loved and breathed in the world of the one same God, and yet our lives were worlds apart, and there could be no understanding.
"Speak English!" Gordon Ingkatji once growled in frustration at my hesitant Pitjantjatjara. Be yourself. Speak your own language. There is no tightening up the fence wires to re-establish the boundaries of the old farm. There is no neat dividing of life into new paddocks of my own planning. There can only be trust of that which grows deep down, out of sight, not understood, yet promising a harvest. There is only a trusting of the uncontrollable weedy growths in the corners of our paddocks, mustard bushes which occasionally, outside of our rhyme and season, burst into a mass of growth and provide shade and a harvest.
Another ending: (I wrote this post sitting up late and, in the morning, forgot the note I left by my lounge chair)
If I have learned anything, it is to trust God to be in the tiny mustard seeds of life— in our intimations of something deeper; to find that something has taken root and gone down into the deep earth of us and grown; to be patient enough and trust enough to find that following the guide of The Faith, listening to the new voice and not forcing it to fit the straight-jacket of Grandma's God, we will find a seed-head growing, and one day a harvest. A kingdom grown within us where Grandma and I can look across a chasm of years and understanding and say, "Yes! God!"
I think we will sing this hymn next Sunday:
My Lord colours outside the lines
Turns wounds to blessings,
water into wine
And takes me into places where I’ve never been before
And opens doors to worlds outside the lines
We’ll never walk on water
if we’re not prepared to drown
Body and soul need a soaking
from time to time
And we’ll never move the gravestones
if we’re not prepared to die
And realize there are
worlds outside the lines.... Gordon Light
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!