When the kingdom becomes clear

Last Sunday’s gospel was St. Mark’s version of the sower who scatters seed, a metaphor for the manner in which the Kingdom of God comes to be in this world. This was followed up by the story of the mustard seed. Both are meant to hold up the idea of the Kingdom of God and get us to think about what we hope for. In the first story, a sower scatters seed on the ground, and then goes off to sleep. The seeds fend for themselves and when the grain is ripe, the gardener harvests it. In the second story, someone sows a tiny mustard seed in the ground, and it grows into a gigantic bush, large enough to offer birds shelter in its branches. As is the case with all of Jesus’s parables, these are intended not to keep us comfortable and complacent, but to prod and provoke us into wholly different ways of perceiving and relating to what is sacred.

What’s the kingdom of God like? You should pause at this point and consider the question. How would you answer? Last week, when I field tested this question, the common response was essentially, “You’re the priest; you tell me.” Are you sure you want to know? In a minimalist reduction, the kingdom of God is like a sleeping gardener, mysterious soil, an invasive weed, and a nuisance flock of birds. Shocking? That was just to get you to consider again the story of the sower and the seeds.

If you’re any type of perfectionist or compulsive worrier — if you like control and manage all the details — then you already know what’s wrong with this first story. Good gardeners don’t toss a bunch of seeds into their gardens and then sleep away the growing season. They plan and labor and hover. They make neat rows in well-manicured beds. They keep a wary eye on the weather. They protect their gardens from birds, rabbits, deer, and all manner of ravenous animals. From early spring until harvest, they water, they fertilize, they prune, they weed, and they worry. That’s one view of the kingdom.

But the thing is this: that is not what the kingdom of God is like. God’s gardener scatters and sleeps. He doesn’t hover and worry. He doesn’t get uber controlling. He doesn’t second-guess. Like a well-loved infant in his mother’s arms, the gardener enjoys the deep rest that comes from trusting in a process much older, larger, and more reliable than any he might conjure on his own. In the Kingdom, it is not our striving, our piety, our works, or our impressive prayers that cause us to grow and thrive in God’s garden. It is God’s grace alone. No one said the growth would be easy, painless, and without cost – only that it was graced beyond measure.

The mystery of grace unfolds when considering the soil. The soil of the kingdom of God is both generous and mysterious. It works its fertile mystery underground, deep beneath the surface. The soil eventually brings forth all kinds of abundance, but the process of that bringing forth is hidden from our eyes. Which is annoying at best to our we-want-control nature. But the gardener has sown, and the soil is at work. The problem is that we live in the time between the planting and the harvest. We look outside full of hope wanting to see results and see only dark soil, only vast expanses of fragile potential and possibility – or uncertainty and not-yet. As the Catholic author Annie Dillard wrote, “Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery.” That is where we live: on the surface of the Kingdom.

That was the image that persisted with me as I sat with a family whose loved one was in the ICU. Again, hearing the same, understandable questions posed to God: “Why? To what purpose? Are you going to heal? When will this end? Where are you?”

In that moment, the family does not want to hear stories about the Kingdom of God and its mystery. They want a consistent, predictable call and response. “I pray to God for healing and God heals.” That’s the deal, end of story. In our imagined Kingdom, when life gets hard, God provides decent answers to the “why?” questions, instead of leaving us to stumble in the unknown.

Perhaps it is moments such as this when our lives seem evermore faint and the Kingdom more remote, but this is where we live. And I can say that from many a time in ICUs, when I step back I realize I see with eyes of hope. I trust in the fragile potential of the good soil. I have seen a bounty of miracles emerge as God heals – not always in the way we imagine. I see the Kingdom grow in ways that are simple mystery. The faint tracing becomes ever more clear.

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