The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.

Mark 4:26-34
Jesus said, “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 earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

Today, our journey into Mark’s gospel continues. Last week, we started this long season of green by hearing how Jesus’ family thought he was crazy. But we also heard that in the middle of all the human chaos, and the divided messy nature of human relationships, Jesus stays the course of bringing new life to us and to the world. 

Today, we return to more familiar parables: Parables of the Kingdom. And while this teaching may be familiar for us, it wasn’t for those to whom Jesus was teaching and preaching. When Jesus tells parables of the Kingdom, lessons that often begin, “The Kingdom of God is like…” we hear them with 2000 years of Christian tradition that has made us ready to hear them. But to the people of 1st century Israel, their understanding of the Kingdom of God was very different from ours. Before unpacking what Jesus said, it is important to know what the people would have expected. 

The Kingdom of God for the people of ancient Israel had a very specific form. As we are reminded each Advent, the Israelites were waiting for the Messiah, the Saviour King who would free them from foreign oppressors like the Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, and Romans. And this Messiah King would establish an earthly Kingdom with divine approval – a powerful kingdom with powerful armies – maybe even powerful enough to do some oppressing itself. A wealthy kingdom with abundance – maybe with enough abundance that other nations would come begging to it. This Kingdom would keep Israel from ever again being ruled over by foreigners. This Kingdom would find favour with God, and would therefore be a holy and righteous Kingdom. This Kingdom would be centered in Jerusalem, with the temple, God’s dwelling place, as its symbol of power. The Kingdom of God was long hoped for but also had to live up to very specific criteria. 

Into this expectant time Jesus showed up. And he started telling parables about the Kingdom of God being like unknown seeds scattered in a field, with the sower having no clue how they would grow. Jesus told parables of how the Kingdom of God was like the humble mustard seed, the 

smallest of seeds that would grow into the most unruly of garden weeds. 

These parables would not have described a Kingdom like that which the crowds would have expected. This was not the Kingdom of God they were looking for. 

Even though we have heard all the Kingdom parables, we too can have a pretty narrow definition of what the Kingdom of God should look like. We too often want a Kingdom of power, security and predictability. We expect that God will fit into our narrow vision of what the Kingdom should look like. 

These days, just like those first century followers of Jesus, we too are in a moment of expectation. The world is waiting for things to get back to normal, for our pandemic misery to end, for all our pent-up desires for our favourite outings and gatherings to finally happen. 

But we are also reeling. Reeling from the discovery at Kamloops Residential school two weeks ago. Reeling from the next tragedy and reminder that we are a broken and divided house in Canada.  Reeling from the terror attack on a Muslim family in London, Ontario. Reeling from day after day of multiple COVID deaths in our province, including the death of a teenager this week. 

And this experience of tragedy pushes us to ask for, to demand, to expect something of our leaders, of those in charge. To demand and expect a response from God. 

Our hopes for the future, our hopes for the present can look a lot like the hopes and expectations of the crowds listening to Jesus today, wanting some very specific things because of our world in need, because of the cries for justice from the oppressed, grieving, and marginalized. 

Yet, today, we know that this parable of Jesus’ is about defying expectations, about doing the unexpected. God is asking us, in the middle of the chaos, to step back and consider just what the Kingdom of God might look like. 

So let me ask a question. And it is for the gardeners among us, in particular. 

Does anyone know of a seed that looks like the plant it produces?

I can’t think of any. 

You might never guess what plant a seed turns into until you plant it. In fact, many seeds also look very similar to each other and it can be hard to tell them apart without labels. Planting seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And churches, like all human beings, don’t like facing the unknown. 

In the best of times, churches often prefer to know that the things they do, the ministries, outreaches, projects or programs that they start will be predictable, identifiable, manageable.

As human beings in this moment, most of us are longing to regain some predictability into our lives (every day might feel the same as the last, but our weeks and months feel impossible to plan for). We want to go back to a world that is predictable and safe. We long for a world that isn’t blindsiding us every week with another tragedy or another big news story or another thing to get all worked up about.

But the Kingdom of God is simply not that way. 

God is up to something that is not safe or predictable or manageable. Scattering seeds is not predictable, or safe. Scattering seeds is not easily managed. Scattering seeds is a bit of a guessing game. And sometimes God ends up planting mustard seeds in the middle of the field – mustard seeds that grow into wild, weed-like over-powering bushes. 

This is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like: A sower who scatters seeds, but who isn’t sure just what will grow or how it turns from seed into a living plant. 

And yet again, this is what Jesus says the Kingdom of God is like: A small unassuming mustard seed, planted in a garden and threatening to take over. 

As people of faith, as workers and tenders of God’s garden, we declare that the Kingdom of God is near to us. That it is here. But sometimes we imagine that it is only here. That the Kingdom is contained only within the Church. And then God has other ideas, seizing opportunities to throw us out of our comfort zones, to call us to find new and unexpected ways of being. God demands that we give up our narrow vision of the world, and instead embrace the wide-open, possibility-filled vision that God has for us. 

We forget that the Kingdom of God is not contained within our imagination and expectations. The Kingdom of God appears and grows in unexpected places from surprising seeds. 

The Kingdom is not in us. We are in the Kingdom.

To people who have a very narrow view of what the Kingdom of God looks like, to the Israelites of the 1st Century, and to Christians of the 21st century who often have equally narrow views, Jesus reminds us that the Kingdom of God is so much more than what we know.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is spread with seed that is scattered all over.

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom is sprouting in un-expected places.  

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is growing into life that we would never have predicted from the seed. 

Jesus tells of how the Kingdom of God is teeming with life where we would have only imagined barrenness. 

The Kingdom of God is meeting us on our screens, in our social media pages, in the outpouring of righteous outrage and compassionate support for survivors of residential schools and Indigenous communities, for the family and community of victims of the London terror attack, and for Muslims across the country. 

And in the scattered seeds of the Kingdom, God is reminding us that there is more work for us to do in order to achieve reconciliation – the work of justice, education, and change is upon us. God is reminding us that there is a new and unknown way of being the Church and a community of faith ahead for us, even if we don’t know what that will look like. 

New plants growing from the most surprising of places.

So as we struggle in this moment to find a world that meets our expectations, that conforms to a controllable, manageable state… we are reminded that God is busy with other plans. 

God is scattering seeds of the Kingdom all over. God is growing plants that we would never have guessed from the seeds. And God’s Kingdom is showing up, taking over, filling the fields with life. 

God Will Heal the People and the Land – With Us or Despite us

Content Warning: Residential Schools, Racism, Colonialism, Death of Children

GOSPEL: Mark 3:20-35
Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”

On Monday afternoon, after taking a family drive to make a socially distanced delivery, our household made its way to The Forks. As we drove through the city, the kids asked nervous and fearful questions about the news story that brought us there, trying to make sense of it all. After finding a parking spot and exiting the car, I couldn’t help but notice the symbolism that our family represented. Our children, reminders of the victims of the abuse and tragedy uncovered in Kamloops, Courtenay and I, members of the clergy class who took a central role in perpetrating it. 

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Today, we are turning the page on the first half of the church year, and entering into the more subdued season of green. For most of the next 26 or so weeks, we will remain in green Ordinary Time, hearing the stories, teachings, ministry, healing, exorcisms and exploits of Jesus, as told by the Gospel of Mark. 

Yet, this turn towards Ordinary Time begins in a strange spot. Jesus has been healing the sick, teaching the crowds and appointing his disciples. Then upon his return home, he finds several different groups of people upset with him. His family is searching for him, thinking that he has gone out of his mind. The scribes accuse him of teaching heresy. Crowds are clamouring to hear what he has to say. 

In the middle of it all, Jesus offers a parable-like example of Satan’s house divided against itself, about the strong man’s house being robbed, and about families in conflict and division. 

It is all rather messy and complicated: Jesus’ family, the scribes, his teachings and the crowds.

As usual, Mark is expecting much from his readers. He expects us to see the bigger and deeper picture: what it means for the divine Son of God, the Messiah to enter into the humanity’s messy state.

And this scene from Mark’s gospel is an example of a very human response to the divine Messiah. People got upset, people were confused, people demanded signs and miracles, people just didn’t know what to make of Jesus. 

At a time when our world is full of tragedy and suffering, full ICUs, struggling businesses, lonely seniors, haggard remote learning families and so on… This story comes to us at a particularly poignant moment in Canada. It has been difficult to overshadow the pandemic with news stories this past year. But there have been moments. Last year it was the killing of George Floyd. This year it is the tragic news coming out of Kamloops… the discovery of the remains of 215 children who attended the Kamloops Residential School. 

While the news came out Thursday night, it quickly snowballed into a furor of outrage, grief, sorrow and lament through days that followed. We have not changed. We are still the messy, confused, upset human beings that we hear about in Mark today. 

Just as Jesus points out that a house divided cannot stand, we are reminded that we are a divided and broken house. It was the revelation that opened the eyes of too many to Canada’s colonial history. It was something we should have known, a story that has been told over and over again to settler Canadians:

Six years on from the report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission…

After countless stories of systemic racism against indigenous peoples in our country… 

After news stories about the way the RCMP and other police forces target indigenous peoples…

After reports of indigenous over-representation in our prison system….

After it is revealed that indigenous communities have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19…

After indigenous treaty land rights are routinely ignored by governments for the sake of resource extraction…

After our governments and churches consistently apologize, lament, wring their hands, yet drag their feet when it comes to real action towards implementing reconciliation…

After decades of not providing clean drinking water to too many indigenous communities… 

After many mental health crises on First Nations causing too many young people to die of suicide…  

After all of that, it still took the remains of 215 children to wake us Settlers up, at least for now, to the fact that Canada is a divided and broken house, just like the one that Jesus describes. We are a nation that has yet to truly discern who our siblings and family are.

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When our family arrived at the Oodena Celebration Circle at The Forks, there were about a dozen people scattered around the amphitheater. In the centre was the impromptu memorial. Shoes and stuffed animals, flowers and photos. As we stood at the top of the steps, a boy just Oscar’s age, an indigenous boy, came up and said to Oscar, “Can we be friends?” Oscar looked up at me, and I nodded. The two ran off to explore the edges of the installation. A little indigenous girl Maeve’s age came up to her wanting to see the baby doll that Maeve had brought with her. Together with Courtenay, the two girls made their way down the steps to the centre of the circle to get a closer look at the memorial. They walked around the shoes and stuffed animals, as Courtenay carefully told them the story of why these things were left in this place. 

I found a ledge to sit on and watch while they examined the items left at the circle. The pastor in me wanted to gather people and lead them in prayer. Or least to pray myself. Yet, many wise teachers remind us in moments like these it is good to slow down and listen. So, I let my prayer be listening. 

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In the middle of the disciples, crowds, the angry scribes and his upset family, Jesus’ responses seem odd at first. He rebuffs the religious authorities, telling them that their houses are divided, and unable to stand. Later he brushes off his family, claiming that his family is those who do the will of God. 

And yet, there is something more to what Jesus is doing. As the community around him splits off into factions all looking out for their own, Jesus keeps attending to his business. 

He has been healing, teaching, calling disciples, and soon he will be teaching the crowds in parables that will ring with familiarity to our ears. 

In the middle of this chaotic moment, Jesus holds steadfast to the work of God in the world. Jesus has come for a purpose, to bring the Kingdom of God near to God’s people. Even as the mess of humanity desperately tries to derail his mission, desperately tries to get some more miracles and healings out of him. Jesus sets himself to the task at hand – announcing God’s kingdom come near. 

It isn’t flashy or bold or dramatic, but determined and unmovable. Jesus invites those around him into the mission. Jesus invites those who would hear him into his Kingdom building… but if they will not participate, he will go about his business anyway. If those around him want to join in, Jesus calls them to follow.

Jesus reminds the scribes that he is there to do God’s work. 

Jesus reminds his family that all those who do the will of God are his family. 

Jesus reminds the crowds, that he is there on behalf of the God of all, reconciling creation with Creator.

All too often God knows that we need this reminder. That the work and ministry that we are called to, that Christ through the Body of Christ is doing is the work of the Kingdom. 

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When Courtenay, Maeve and her friend finally left the memorial in the middle of the circle, another family arrived. The two parents, with their three young kids, walked down to the memorial. As they walked, the mother called to her oldest son, about 5, to stand beside her. Her calm soft voice echoed across the amphitheater, she reminded her son of why they came, 

“Remember, these things are for the little ones that I told you about. We are going to offer them tobacco and pray that they go to the good place.” 

She took a pinch of sacred tobacco herbs and placed them in her son’s hands. He gingerly sprinkled them over the memorial, and began to pray. “Dear God, take care of all the little ones. Amen” And then the mother did the same with some more tobacco, praying silently to herself. 

There I was, a member of the Christian clergy, the same clergy that took children away to residential schools, and in this ancient meeting place, where the people of this land have lived from before Jesus was crucified, before the temple in Jerusalem was built, before the pyramids of Egypt were built… and I was bearing witness to the people and to the land, beginning the work of healing. Here were indigenous children and families, just like the ones that the church and government sought to educate, doing the very thing they tried to wipe out. 

It was a moment of grief and sadness, yet also a moment of hope. It was a sign of the Spirit’s work, a sign that, even when humanity drags our feet in the work of reconciliation, God is doing the work of bringing new life into the world. 

In the middle of our human mess, of our various factions being upset and confused and angry… 

Jesus is doing the work of God – with us or despite us.

And God is bringing hope and healing to the land. 

And God is bringing new life into the world. 

And Jesus is bringing God and God’s Kingdom near. 

Amen.