Lutheran Church of the Cross, Arlington Heights
17 June 2018 + Lectionary 11B (Pentecost 4)
When I was growing up, I remember this giant turquoise planter in my grandma’s backyard, nestled right in the corner of the fence. Every year, it would blossom into the most gorgeous morning glories. They never just grew like normal flowers, though, but would actually take over the fence, to the point where it was nearly impossible to see the chain-link underneath.
One year, when grandma had had enough — because, let’s be honest, morning glories are beautiful but they’re a pain to weed out of a chain-link fence at the end of the season — she dumped out the planter and scrubbed it clean. Morning glories no more! Or so she thought… until they came back the very next year, taking over her fence all over again.
The kingdom of God is like a planter full of morning glories that takes over the garden. Even when you try to get rid of it, it’s still there.
Jesus, too, uses a lot of strange metaphors to talk about the kingdom of God in the gospels. The kingdom of God is like someone who sows seed… is like yeast… is like a treasure… is like a merchant searching for fine pearls… is like a net thrown into the sea…
Parables, Jesus calls them, a word that literally means to throw alongside — stories that are thrown alongside our own lives, our own reality, to make some spiritual principle Jesus is trying to convey seem easier to grasp… except it almost always needs explaining and might even make the original point more difficult to understand.
The kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Along with the parable of the seed that grows by itself, these are Mark’s only two parables about the kingdom of God. Maybe Mark just wasn’t as creative as the other gospel writers, or maybe he missed a few days of Jesus’s teaching… or maybe, this is all he needed to say about the kingdom of God.
Mustard plants were, basically, like weeds where Jesus lived. They were hardy, they could grow nearly anywhere with minimal human effort to keep them alive, and they were big and difficult to get rid of.
The kingdom of God is like an invasive species. Now, invasive species, as we know, are not typically, if ever, considered a good thing. Whether animals or plants or even their eggs or seeds, invasive species, by definition, are non-native species that actually cause harm to their environment. They grow and reproduce quickly and spread aggressively. I’m no botanist, but it sounds a lot like a mustard plant to me.
And the thing about an invasive species is that it’s almost always perceived as hostile and a threat to its environment.
This past week, I have to say I was a bit surprised and perplexed to hear that separating immigrant families from each other at the border is, at least according to some, “biblical.” It’s “biblical,” they say, to enforce and to obey the laws of the government — laws that would and are ripping away children, most under the age of 13, from their parents and treating them all as criminals.
I don’t know what Bible they’ve been reading, but the one I know tells very a different story: You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt… (Ex 22.21). The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself… (Lev 19.34). Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien…of justice… (Deut 27.19). Do no wrong or violence to the alien… (Jer 22.3).
Clearly, Jesus stands in a long religious tradition of justice and equity for the alien, the foreigner, and all who are perceived as “non-native,” outsiders who are seen as hostile and threatening. This tradition of justice is the message of the kingdom of God.
When Jesus announces that the kingdom of God has come near, it is itself threatening because it seeks to subvert and dismantle the kingdom of Caesar, the kingdom of the empire, the kingdom that normalizes injustice, fear, and criminalizing people because of where they come from or who they are. Like an invasive species, the kingdom of God threatens the very viability and survival of the kingdom of the empire.
Not all invasive species are bad. In the natural world, researchers have found that certain invasive species actually benefit their ecosystems: butterflies in California that feed on non-native plants, non-native trees that have helped restore pasturelands in Puerto Rico, even the infamous non-native zebra mussel that helps filter toxins from lakes.
And what happens when the environment the so-called invasive species is in is itself hostile and the real threat? Well, that sort of flips the tables, doesn’t it, and subverts what we mean by invasive and threatening.
In the context of the hostile kingdom of the empire, the kingdom of God is one invasive species to be welcomed.
In a hostile kingdom that separates families, that oppresses the other, that respects “law and order” more than human life and dignity, the kingdom of God invades. It comes perceivably out of nowhere, when and where we least expect it, and it spreads like wildfire, without regard for borders or boundaries. The kingdom of God is an invasive species that threatens to choke out the status quo of injustice and fear.
The status quo might seem insurmountable, but it is surely under threat because the kingdom of God has come near. The kingdom of God happens whenever God’s justice and God’s love are made known in places that are innately hostile toward it. And like the seed that sprouts and grows on its own, the kingdom of God happens and is happening — no matter what.
Jesus says that the kingdom of God is here — not that it’s coming someday or that it will be here soon. The kingdom of God is here, is now, is in our midst, threatening and dismantling the status quo, even at this very moment.