July 6, 2008
The Kingdom of God is Like…
Have you ever had an experience that was so incredible that it leaves you asking: I wonder if that is what the Kingdom of God is like? To explain what I mean let me bring you and entry from my diary from September thirteenth, 2005:
“Last night I started my new bowling league. It's a ladies league on Monday nights. We bowl three games a piece, and bowl on a team. The following are ways that God's beloved community, or Kingdom of God, is like my bowling league:
1. Support for everyone regardless of ability level. After every strike or spare that you get- you have to give a high five to everyone on your team- and the team in the lane next to you that you are bowling against. No really, you have to- and if you don't- they will come and stand in front of you and say "ahem" until you do. Everyone's gifts are appreciated- we celebrate with all.
2. Even if you miss a really hard shot (like you don't pick up a split or something)- you still get to "pound it" (or hit the other person's knuckles gently with yours) with everybody as if to say, "that's ok- you did your best". So, forgiveness and grace abound for mistakes.
3. There is a handicap. If you really stink at bowling, that's ok for your team too, because you get to have a handicap. A handicap is some points added on to your score because you stink so badly. This is very much like God's distribution of resources to those in need.”
Perhaps you have never left the bowling alley feeling closer to God, but my guess is that at some point you have found yourself thinking, “I wonder what the Kingdom of God is like?” It’s a tricky thing to describe the kingdom of God because the only thing we know about it for sure is that it is a mystery to us. The kingdom of God is really beyond all our human understanding. However, Jesus does not shy away from talking about God’s kingdom in the New Testament. Jesus tells us that he came to bring the kingdom, and that the kingdom of God is within our hearts. He gives us metaphors to describe the kingdom, but he never says, “ok, here is exactly what the kingdom of God is..” I think from Jesus’ teachings about the kingdom, and his warnings about who will enter it, and how we are to enter it, you can begin to piece together an idea of what the kingdom of God might be like.
The nature of the kingdom of God is tricky in itself. As I mentioned, Jesus says that he came to bring the kingdom, and that the kingdom is within us. At the same time, at the last supper we tells the disciples that he will not drink with them again until he drinks with them in the kingdom. Jesus also tells stories and parables of a great banquet that is to come- a feast in the future tense that will happen in the kingdom of God. So is the kingdom of God here and now, something that started with Jesus and is present today? Or is the kingdom something that will come in the future? The answer is all of the above, the kingdom of God is a past, present and future reality. We see glimpses of the kingdom that Jesus points us to in the New Testament, we can also see glimpses of the kingdom in our daily lives if we look hard enough, and we also know in our hearts, by faith, that the fulfillment of the kingdom, God’s kingdom as it was meant to be, is a future event that we look forward to with joy. The kingdom has come, the kingdom is now, and the kingdom is also yet to be.
Let’s focus on this morning’s scripture- this passage is often overlooked, but here we have two simple stories. Jesus responds almost as if someone asked him, “Jesus what is this kingdom of God like that you keep talking about.” And as Jesus frequently does, he answers in a parable, in a comparison. Because the truth is, the kingdom of God isn’t exactly like anything that we know about here on earth- that’s what makes it so special, that it is purely of God. But Jesus tries to give us a picture in something that we might understand.
Jesus says that the kingdom is like a mustard seed that someone sowed, and it became a tree and the birds of the air made nests in its branches. Doesn’t sound too complex does it? A seed is planted, a tree grows. The next comparison? A woman is baking bread, she uses yeast and it rises and produces bread. Sounds simple enough- so what in the world do these comparisons tell us about the kingdom of God?
First of all, they tell us that the kingdom of God is a mystery beyond all our expectations. These two stories are really about expectations. We expect that when a mustard seed is planted, it will grow into a small bush. Even if it is a healthy plant, it might grow into a large bush- but not, if you know anything about mustard, into a large tree. A tree so large, in fact, that the birds of the air come and build nests in it. That kind of abundance is a characteristic of God’s kingdom.
And how about the woman and her yeast? The woman took her yeast and mixed it in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened. Abundance once again is the point of this story. If this was just a typical woman in an average household, then she just made enough bread to feed as many as 150 people. Within God’s kingdom there is abundance, more than enough to go around. Perhaps this means that within the kingdom all are fed, and all have a place of shelter to go to. These stories also tell us that the nature of the kingdom is surprising. You do not expect a tiny mustard seed to grow into a large tree, and you do not expect a little bit of yeast to feed 150 people- but in God’s kingdom- the surprising becomes the ordinary.
Whatever I know about the kingdom of God, comes from what I read in the teaching of Jesus, and also what I sense in my own heart as a result of my personal relationship with God. I’m not an expert on the kingdom- but I feel like I know it when I catch of glimpse of it in our modern world. I want to tell you about a glimpse I had a few weeks ago. As you have no doubt heard me say, and probably read in the newsletter, I spent a week at Muscular Dystrophy camp with my husband. This was David’s 25th year to go to camp, and my first time to go as a counselor. About midway through the week, I realized that if I were called on to describe the kingdom of God, my parable might go something like this:
The kingdom of God is like Muscular Dystrophy camp. Kids from all over middle Tennessee come to this camp to experience a week of pure joy. They come from places where they are the exception, the minority, where they stand out because they are in a wheelchair. They come to camp and suddenly they are the norm, every camper there has a neuro-muscular disease just like they do. Suddenly the “no’s” they experience in the world no longer exist. You want to ride on a boat? Wheel your chair right on to one of the pontoon boats. You want to ride a horse? Three or four loving volunteers will lift you on to the horse’s back and make sure you are safe as you ride. You want to swim? The pool is ready for you- you can even be wheeled down into it by a ramp. No one will stare at you because you are different.
The highlight of my twelve-year old camper’s week was when (and I directly quote her here when I say) “the hottest” boy at camp asked her to be his date for the dance on Friday night. Camp is a place to come and be boy crazy- just like every other pre-teen girl in America! As far as my own experience goes, camp is the place where people help you when you have no idea how you are going to take care of your camper all week. Camp is the place where a friend is always there to say, “you’re doing a great job.” Camp is the place where my heart could smile, even as my eyes shed a tear for the dad who came back to counsel this year, even though his son Jamie died a few months ago at age 21 from the same disease that many of the campers have. Yes, I have to believe the kingdom of God is like MDA camp.
The kingdom, like camp is a place where there is room for every kind of person. Where God’s abundance flows like the steak dinner we had on Wednesday night. Where each one is made to feel as loved as my camper felt when the cutest boy at camp was her date to the dance. Love abounded at camp- God’s love abounds in the kingdom. The only thing I can see that would be different for these kids in God’s future kingdom is that they will no longer need a special camp, or a wheelchair. God will take away the weight and pain associated with being a sick child in this earthly life. In God’s kingdom these kids will run, and never need a breathing treatment, or a surgery to survive. But I can tell you without a doubt, I have seen a glimpse of the kingdom of God. And that glimpse was called MDA camp.
I am hoping and praying that each of you have had an experience, maybe not one just like mine, but one that made you say, “now I know a little bit more what the kingdom of God looks like.” What would that experience be for you? Where have you seen ridiculous abundance, and kindness, and equality, and generosity?
Here’s an important question: Can the church be a glimpse of the kingdom of God? What would it take for us to act as if we were already living in the kingdom? Whose voice would we need to hear that we don’t yet listen to? Who would we need to sit down at a table and eat with that we don’t already? How would we need to treat even the people we don’t get along with for someone to walk in the doors here and say, “wow, I just got a glimpse of the kingdom!” It is my prayer for us this morning that we figure out the answers to these questions, and then get to work with God’s help, to bring the kingdom of God close to this place. Amen and amen.