Pastor Annabelle P. Markey
Year B – Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Community Lutheran Church, Sterling, VA – June 17, 2018
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” The kingdom of God is like a zucchini plant in the Markeys’ garden. Annabelle had not planted anything yet this year when she saw it and Jeff hates the outdoors – how it got there, no one knows. The kingdom of God is like a conference with clergy and lay leaders from different denominations from all around the world gathering in worship, in study, for blessing, anointing, and healing. The kingdom of God is like two women in the airport, self-described heathens opening up to a weary Lutheran pastor about how the church had hurt them in the past. How we all arrived at that gate speaking about life, hobbies, ice cream, and the church, no one knows how.
Each of these things is a real glimpse of the kingdom of God I had in the past week! We may think of the kingdom of God as some lofty thing, but Jesus assures us that it’s as tiny, ordinary, but also as miraculous as a seed containing life. And what’s even more surprising, “the earth produces of itself…” It is never dependent on us. We can work in the kingdom and certainly watch for it, but God brings it about without it being dependent on us.
I first spotted the zucchini plants growing in my garden and was smart enough to figure out that they weren’t weeds I should pull out as I was prepping the bed for the spring planting. But how did they get there? They were a total surprise, especially after I had planted them in the past with zero zucchini. Now, I had been told that I basically couldn’t mess up with zucchini – that I’d have a bumper crop. So as an amateur gardener, I thought, “this is a plant for me!” But lo and behold, the blossoms appeared and no zucchini. So at the end of the season, I got rid of them. Imagine my utter shock when I saw squash-like leaves poking up in my garden bed before I’d even planted anything! They are thriving and expanding to take over part of the bed. There are lovely yellow blossoms and I hope that these hearty plants will bear fruit. The kingdom of God is surprising in the places where it appears, a gift from God, not of our own doing, and never quite what we’d imagine. It’s persistent and bears fruit.
The continuing education I was doing was on spiritual formation not only for individuals, but also within congregations. I was excited to go, but I didn’t quite know what to expect. What I found was not only a lot of wonderful content to wrestle with and chew on, but also healing. While there, I met a woman from the denomination that I had belonged to in high school – the one that was strident and manipulative in trying to “save” my family. In speaking with, eating with, and worshiping alongside of her, I realized not only in my head, but in my heart, that she was my sister in Christ. I realized how much residual gunk I had been carrying around with me – not really anger or hurt, but something clinging to me that I hadn’t quite shaken. I also saw people practicing and modeling what it means to be vulnerable in front of others – for the congregation to gather in prayer, not awkward or judging, but embracing the suffering one with love and grace. When we ended the conference, we had time for individual blessings as well as prayer and anointing for healing. I saw people weeping and smiling, disciples spending intentional time – as long as it took – praying for other disciples. As I received my prayer and sat back down, I watched and asked, “Jesus, is this what your kingdom looks like?” The answer was a resounding, “yes.” As Eli reminded me on Friday, of course the king of the kingdom – the one with the crown of thorns – would point toward the cross and the weakness. The kingdom of God looks like “weakness,” “failure,” and beautifully flawed human beings loving one another. It ushers in healing, starting small, taking root within us and growing outward in our relationships with God and others.
After a wonderful continuing education conference in Newberg, Oregon, I took a red eye flight back home, stopping in Chicago. At roughly 6:00 a.m. I arrived at my gate in O’Hare International Airport searching for a phone charger. I sat across from two women and while there, I overheard them telling someone on the phone that they thought one of the ladies had broken her arm. I made a sympathetic face and this sparked a conversation. I was surprised at how openly we all spoke and when the woman with the broken arm was speaking to me about sermon prep and the organization of the Lutheran church, I noticed she knew the word “synod.” I asked her about this and it opened up a conversation about a bad experience of inhospitality she had with the church in the past. Perhaps it’s wishful thinking, but maybe in being able to share my own stories of being hurt by the church and by simply listening, perhaps God was at work doing something new. I certainly felt blessed and a great deal more joyful after the conversation. The kingdom looks like community rather than individualism. It destroys the barriers of insiders and outsiders. It looks like space for vulnerability, compassion, and support from friends and strangers, joy and laughter even in the midst of pain.
As I said above, all of these examples come from the past week. The kingdom of God is all around us, beginning small and slowly but surely growing. It’s in all those places where hope is present in spite of all odds, where new life is coming from what you thought could only be a dead end, where you experience forgiveness for yourself or others when revenge might be the expectation instead. It’s the place where hospitality, love, and compassion are first and foremost, above rules, regulations, right, or might.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for this kingdom to be made real in and among us. That we might believe through the Holy Spirit that God’s word is true and we might follow God and work for the kingdom. And we can talk about it, but until we train in learning how to see it, we might miss out. The thing is, it takes practice to do this.
So I’d like us to do so together now. First, select a partner nearby and introduce yourself. Then answer these questions:
- Where do you experience hope, joy, and/or new life when you look at your life?
- How do you see God present even in difficult times?
The kingdom is not dependent on us. It is wild, surprising, and persistent, bringing healing and wholeness, new relationships, joy and laugher, compassion and mercy in the heart of suffering. It never looks quite like we’d envision it and it always, always, always seeks to lift up the poor, the forgotten, the weak, the broken, and the discounted. Despite its small and scruffy nature, it shelters the birds of the air and gives a place for all to call home. Thanks be to God! Amen.