Written for St. Andrew Lutheran Church, Franklin, TN + 3rd Sunday in Pentecost
In the last few years a number of study groups have asked elementary-school kids about where their food comes from. Some made easy mistakes: they thought tomatoes grew underground and potatoes grew on trees. Others couldn’t imagine their food’s life before the grocery store: One dad pulled a long, dirty, pointy carrot out of the ground and showed his son, who said “What is that? That’s a carrot? I thought carrots were those little orange things that come in plastic bags.” When these kids guess where their food comes from, their answers would probably send all you gardeners into shock: Pasta is made out of meat. Fish fingers come from chickens. Cheese is made from plants.
I want you to pretend for a minute that you are one of those kids who thinks cheese is made from plants. If I handed you a tiny yellow ball about the size of the tip of a pen, what would you think it was? My guess is that you’d think it was nothing, really. A little speck of whatever-it-is that always ends up on the floor and then gets swept up into the dust pan. A piece of sand or something that fell out of a beanbag. You’d probably think that I was just being silly telling you to hold on to something like that, drop it on the ground, and run off to play Angry Birds or whatever.
Jesus said the Kingdom of God is like that tiny little yellow ball. It’s like something so small we’d think nothing of it; nothing can come of it. It’s like there’s nothing there. But then, we’d be wrong. That tiny yellow ball needs only the earth and rain to turn into a huge shrub with branches big enough for bird nests. The Kingdom of God is like that: something so insignificant it doesn’t seem worthy of our attention, but it holds so much, hidden away from sight. It grows beyond our expectations into something so meaningful.
This is one of the overarching themes of the Bible. When God chooses the couple that will be parents to God’s chosen peoples, as numerous as the stars, God chooses a man so old, he could call the oldest members of our congregation “young whipper-snappers,” and a woman who could probably barely remember menopause. When God chooses a nation through whom God will work out the plan for the world, it is not a powerful empire, but a race who had spent generations and generations as slaves.
God chooses the insignificant one in today’s Old Testament reading, too. God sends the prophet Samuel to Jesse and his sons, so that God can show him the next king of Israel. We expect it to be the first-born son, because they always get everything. Plus, this son is tall and strong; he just looks like a king. But no. God ends up picking the least-expected one. Jesse was so sure that his youngest son would never be chosen as king, that he didn’t even invite David to the ceremony. “You’ll have to stay behind and guard the sheep, son. Samuel won’t choose you anyway.” David’s kind of like Cinderella, left behind while everyone else goes to the ball and tries to catch the Prince’s eye. But inside of little David, whom even his father passed by, God sees a great king. God explains to Samuel, “The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
That’s what the Kingdom of God is like.
I’ve been asked to imagine the Kingdom of God with two different groups this week. The first time was during VBS, when Susan asked a group of fourth- and fifth-graders and me to imagine a perfect place. We’d been talking more about the afterlife part of God’s kingdom that morning, and the kids had fun imagining all those stereotypical images of Heaven. They wondered what it would be like to jump around on big, puffy clouds, and if you could jump hard enough that you’d go right through.
The second time was during a worship service. There, the preacher (Rev. Scott Jamieson) told us exactly what to picture: “Can you imagine a world where there is no war? Where everyone has enough food to eat, and a house, a safe house, to live in? Can you imagine a world with no hatred or violence or insults or fear? Can you imagine it? Not somewhere else, not up in heaven somewhere, but here, in this world – can you imagine it?” We nodded. Some of us shouted “Yes!” or “Amen!” like our shouts could pull that vision closer to reality.
I nodded, too, but a part of me hesitated. I could imagine it, I guess, but it’s harder for me to believe in – to actually believe that image could become real, here. Does it feel impossible to some of you, too? We’ve seen so many attempts at that utopia turn to hell on earth. My optimism about humans has been broken so many times.
I wonder if that’s why Christianity gives up on the world so often. “This isn’t my home – I’m just passing through,” we say. Or, we focus all our hopes on when Jesus comes back: “Things down here sure aren’t going to get any better, not until the messiah comes FOR REAL.” We’re waiting for the Kingdom of God.
After all, we expected more from the messiah. Wasn’t he supposed to overthrow all the unjust rulers and lift up the lowly? Wasn’t he supposed to establish peace and equality? Wasn’t something BIG and MIRACULOUS supposed to happen? I mean, Jesus said the Kingdom of God had come, but it looks like nothing happened. It looks like nothing’s there.
But maybe when I see things this way, I’m seeing wrong.
Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed…” something so small, we’d think there’s nothing to it. But then, we’d be wrong.
Can we look at the world through the eyes of God? Through the eyes of the God who always sees greatness in the most insignificant things: a nation of slaves, a little shepherd boy, a baby born in a barn to an unwed mother. Can we say along with the apostle Paul, “We walk by faith, not by sight”?
Jesus said, “The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed: 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.”
When we walk by faith, not by sight, we are those birds. We see that the tiny mustard seed has become a shrub with sturdy branches, and we build our homes there. We see that the Kingdom of God grew from Jesus of Nazareth – yes, the one who was crucified – and we build our lives on that.
It’s a crazy thing to believe, from a mortal perspective. But “the Lord does not see as mortals see.” So from a faith perspective, from a biblical perspective, maybe it’s not so crazy to believe that the Holy Spirit moves through our world, sees the greatness in things we’d call insignificant, and then builds the kingdom there.
I think about the Room in the Inn ministry. A few struggling men come to St. Andrew for one night and sleep on the floor and get a couple of meals. It’s not going to make any headlines, but I know that the volunteers would say God is working there.
I think about the Navigators breakfast, where a group of men (with plenty of their own work to do) get together and ask, “Have you heard about anyone in need of anything? Lawn mowing? Home repairs?”
Sometimes, God works in big things: in healings and resurrections and other miracles. But God always works in little things. The littlest things we do in the name of God are like mustard seeds that God grows into a kingdom.