The Kingdom of God is like a shrub?
Shouldn’t the Kingdom of God be a little more. . .majestic? Maybe the Kingdom of God is like a cedar tree? Or if not majestic, what about beautiful? Maybe the Kingdom of God is like a lovely rose.
No, we are stuck with the image of the mustard plant, which is, at least, a very large shrub.
What does Jesus want us to learn about the Kingdom of God in this parable?
The mustard plant might not be the most elegant of plants, but it is powerful in its own way. When a tiny seed is dropped on the ground, the roots start digging in, and stalks shoot forth and flowers bloom and the plant grows bigger and bigger and bigger. The mustard plant will crowd out other plants, elbowing its way into every nook and cranny it can find. And all of this happens whether its gardener is tending to it or not.
The Kingdom of God is like an annoying, invasive weed. The Kingdom of God is out of our control. The Kingdom of God will not be held back. The Kingdom of God sprouts up in the most unexpected places.
In the 1480s, Portugal had a new King, John the Second. This King wanted to explore newer ways of making money, and thought forming new trade routes to the spices of Asia, might do the trick. He hired the explorer, Vasco da Gama, who led a great exploration from his native Portugal, all the way around South Africa, finally landing on the Western tip of India.
Now, as we all know, with Western commerce came Western religion and values, and soon enough, priests were dispatched to India to convert the local population.
These priests, however, were quite surprised to find Christianity flourishing in the Keralan coast of India. How did these Indians become Christians if they had never encountered the Roman Catholic Church?
As you know, the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed.
Legend has it that the apostle Thomas (You know, the doubting one) traveled to India twenty years after Jesus’ death and planted the seed of the Gospel. That seed was planted and grew deep and wide roots. For hundreds of years the church in Kerala grew and grew. It maintained links to the Middle Eastern church and used the Syrian rite of worship. Their own traditions emerged—priests in cassocks and hats, long Good Friday services, Easter breakfasts. Instead of exchanging rings, a bridegroom ties a tail around his bride’s neck. The same mustard seed that led to our traditions, in the context of Kerala, led to an entirely different plant.
Now, wouldn’t you love to see the faces of these Roman Catholic priests, who came upon this flourishing church? Can you imagine the combination of excitement and confusion that a Christianity so different from theirs was alive and well in Kerala.
The Portugese Catholics, of course, could not leave well enough alone and tried to get these Christians to comply with Roman Catholic liturgies, traditions, and power structures. Some did, but others maintained their ancient traditions. The Syrian Christian Church of Kerala survived many other groups of explorers as well, including the British, who attempted to bring our lovely Anglican tradition in the 1800s. The Keralan church went through divisions, like any church does, but there are still families there that trace their heritage and their worship back to those original families that received the Gospel from St. Thomas.
In fact, I have met two families here at Trinity, Princeton, who trace their heritage back to that mustard seed of a beginning. That mustard plant stretches all the way across an ocean, across two thousand years, and still flourishes.
How about that shrub?
We live in an anxious time for the Episcopal Church. We see numbers declining, budgets decreasing and we wonder about the health of our future. But we are part of the Kingdom of God. And the Kingdom of God is really hard to destroy. The Kingdom of God is like a pesky weed that not even Round-Up can kill.
Our origin story isn’t nearly as cool as being founded by Doubting Thomas, but it is such a strange story in its own right, the terrible King Henry the VIII trying to find a way to be able to marry once again, so taking England out of the Roman Catholic Church and then Queen Elizabeth I using the resulting structure to create a church both Protestants and Catholics could love, or at least one over which they could stop warring. And then no English Bishop would allow the United States to consecrate a bishop of our own, but the ornery Scottish church did it for us anyway! Out of those strange and controversial seeds has grown a church that has become a vital source of liturgy, music, and thought for the entire Christian Church. We have grown into being the sort of weedy church where all are welcomed and the Gospel is still preached, even if we are not the establishment church we once were. The Episcopal Church is moving towards interesting, creative places while staying rooted in our powerful framework of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.
And we in the Episcopal Church are just one tiny branch of the amazing plant that is modern Christianity. The Kingdom of God is coming to fruition in all kinds of ways, with all kinds of traditions, in all parts of the world. We cannot fully understand the Kingdom of God, just as we cannot fully understand Jesus’ parables. Parts of the Christian tradition may make us extremely uncomfortable. Like the Portuguese priests, we may look at another denomination’s traditions and think to ourselves, “What are they doing?” We may look at our own denomination and ask the same question!
But the Kingdom of God is wilder than we could ever imagine and there is room for everyone in it. Earlier in the fourth chapter of the Gospel of Mark, Jesus uses another parable about seeds and he describes the birds of the air snatching the seed from the ground before the seed can take root. In that parable, the birds are an enemy, but in our parable today, the birds take shelter in the shade of the mustard plant! Even those who were once enemies of the Kingdom of God can end up enfolded in its branches.
And those of us on earth can only see a tiny glimpse of this Kingdom of God. The Kingdom is stranger and more mysterious than even our weirdest denomination. When the Kingdom of God is fulfilled, we will be so surprised at how it looks, and how we spend our time, and who else is invited. All we have are these little images Jesus gives us—mustard seeds, seeds left unattended, seeds planted in rich soil. The other Gospels give us other images. The Kingdom of God is like yeast. The Kingdom of God is like a merchant in search of a pearl. The Kingdom of God is like a net. The Kingdom of God is like a child. These parables can only hint at a world where everything in the Universe and in our hearts is aligned with God.
And there is nothing we can do to hurry up the coming of the Kingdom. We just live our lives, trying to be faithful to our baptismal promises, trusting in the love and grace of Christ, tending the bit of garden we’ve been given. The best news about the Kingdom of God is that it is the Kingdom of GOD. The reason the mustard plant blooms, and the church in Kerala flourishes, and the Episcopal Church endures, is because of God’s grace.
We expect God’s work to look like Cedar trees and rosebushes. We expect God’s work to look like thriving parishes with growing numbers and successful ministry,. We expect God’s work to look like gorgeous stained glass windows and sound like a Bach cantatas, but Jesus reminds us that God works with shrubs. Ordinary, boring shrubs. Shrubs like us.
Thanks be to God.