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Sunday, October 18, 2020 | 11:00 a.m.
To What End? Being Church in These Days:
“The Exhibition of the Kingdom
of Heaven to the World”
Part of a sermon series on the Great Ends of the Church
Shannon J. Kershner
Pastor, Fourth Presbyterian Church
Matthew 13:31–32, 34
Did you know that you can go online and order a mustard seed necklace? I’ve done the research, so I can say definitively that you can. And though the necklaces range in both ornamentation and price, they all have the same thing in the middle: a little mustard seed suspended in glass. Apparently, back in the 1960s, mustard seed necklaces were all the rage. The idea behind the necklace was that when you wore it, you would remember what Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 17: “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”
Furthermore, the very small seed around your neck could also serve as a reminder of this parable from Matthew, a parable about the kingdom of God, the reign of God, that we, as church, are called to exhibit to the world. That is our sixth and final Great End of the Church. It is the last part of our denominational mission statement. What are we here for? What is our reason for being? We, as church, are to be about the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven to the world. That call is what Jesus is talking about with his disciples here in Matthew.
In this parable that hints at God’s kingdom, God’s reign, we are given a mental picture centered on this very small mustard seed. And that picture describes how this lowly, small mustard seed ends up producing not just a plant, not just a shrub (at least not in Matthew’s version), but a tree so lush and towering that the birds of the air make nests in its branches. This very small seed, small enough to wear in a necklace, grows exponentially into something large and powerful and strong—taking over, towering over, everything else, providing shelter and safety. And so it is with the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God . . . right?
Perhaps. That interpretation certainly has merit. It could be that you, yourself, have seen how one small faithful act ends up producing results way beyond your own imagining. Perhaps you, yourself, have experienced moments when the Spirit took hold of one little kernel of an idea and went to work. That process is how many of our outreach ministries and mission partnerships began here at Fourth Church. One person, or a small group of people, felt a nudge from the Spirit to try something, and the next thing you know, we are beginning our fifty-sixth year of regularly tutoring kids through Chicago Lights and our forty-fourth year of providing mental health assistance for anyone who needs it through the Replogle Center for Counseling and Well-Being. Both of those ministries began with small mustard seeds of ideas that the power of the Holy Spirit surrounded and encouraged to grow far beyond what those original dreamers could have ever imagined.
So yes, there is certainly something to this affirmation that God can take even our smallest acts of faithfulness and hope and use them for expansive transformation. And yet perhaps this parable also shows us something else about the wily ways of God.
Did you know that back in ancient Palestine, the time in which Jesus lived and worked, the mustard plant was about as popular as the invasive weed kudzu or as desirable as the noxious ragweed? Pliny the Elder, a historian who lived in the years 23–79, wrote that whenever a mustard seed was planted in a garden, the gardener could never get rid of it, because as soon as the seed hit the ground, it would germinate at once (Pliny, “Natural History,” 19.170–171; Rackham et al., 5.528–529). Regardless if it was a wild version or one carefully cultivated, the mustard plant soon became like a malignant weed or a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties (John Dominic Crossan, The Historical Jesus: The Life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant , p. 279).
As a matter of fact, in the year 200 the Mishnah, which was the first major transcribed version of the Jewish oral Torah, decreed that precisely because of the tendency for mustard to intrude and mix with other plants, one was not allowed to plant it in a garden at all. Rather, you could only plant it in a larger field where it could be carefully segregated off by itself. That way it would be prevented from taking over and destroying everything else.
All of this historical context tells us that the mustard plant, this image chosen by Jesus to hint at the kingdom of God, was, at best, dangerous, even when domesticated in the garden, and, at worst, deadly for everything else that surrounded it when left to grow wild in the grain fields. And yet Jesus tells us that the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field . . .
So, now that we know how people actually felt about mustard plants during Jesus’ time, this parable might indeed be about more than only something small turning into something big. As a matter of fact, with this new perspective, the parable now sounds a bit, well, sneaky. Subversive, even; perhaps a tad scandalous. In my imagination, as we hear Jesus tell it, I picture this lone human being, hair put up under a hat, dressed all in black, tiptoeing out into a field of grain with only the moonlight to guide her steps.
And once she gets out into the middle of the field, she carefully places one lone mustard seed into the ground, knowing full well that what she has just unleashed will eventually turn everything upside down; knowing full well that the small little seed she has covered up with dirt will mess up that whole carefully cultivated field beyond imagining; knowing full well that her act of planting will cause the field to become completely unruly and totally out of anyone’s control. The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field . . .
What on earth was Jesus thinking when he used this particular image, this metaphor, to hint at the way God works out God’s purposes in this world, to reveal God’s reign, rule, over all? And might it be that this parable suggests that God’s way of exhibiting God’s kingdom is sneakier than we first imagined, subversive even, perhaps a bit scandalous?
Why, God’s way of exhibiting the kingdom of heaven might be as sneaky as a church who, pre-COVID, regularly asked children and youth to serve as liturgists in worship and who, in the midst of COVID, will have youth lead the entire service in the middle of November. A church who entrusts young people with leadership on Session and the Board of Deacons, who recognizes their voices, who sees them as people who are just as important and just as much a part of the congregation as any adult. A church who does not just view children or youth as the future of the church but as a part of the present church here and now, whose gifts and faith are to be recognized and valued today, not just when they grow up.
Like the act of sowing a mustard seed in an open field, it is a little sneaky, somewhat subversive, a tad scandalous to recognize and call out the inherent leadership of children and youth and to pay genuine attention to their God-given worth, for to view young people in that way is to offer a counter-testimony to a culture that has come to see children primarily as consumers to whom it needs to market. A counter-testimony to a culture that desires to plant in young people not the seeds of the gospel but rather the destructive seeds of materialism and scarcity, all in the hope that as the kids grow up they, like their parents, will also assume they can never have enough because there isn’t enough to go around and that they are primarily defined not by the claims of their baptism but rather by what they own or buy.
The kingdom of heaven, what we as church are called to exhibit, is like a mustard seed of inviting young people to go deeper into their faith, that someone took and sowed in her field, hoping like anything that in God’s power that little seed might just mess things up and overtake the carefully cultivated fields of consumerism, apathy, or cynicism.
Or the exhibition of kingdom of heaven could also sneakily slip in through the testimony of a congregation, a community of faith, who knows that it is chock-full of people who hold different political opinions, who take home different amounts of salary, who are centered around different family structures, who claim different theological interpretations of even the same biblical passages, and who have different lived experiences of the world due to skin color or ethnicity, and yet despite all of that genuine difference, is a congregation full of people who also refuse to shut each other out because of those genuine beautiful differences. A congregation made up of people who regularly refuse to give into the extreme polarization found in our political life, in our cultural life, in our city’s life.
Furthermore, the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God, might be sneakily and subversively exhibited by a downtown Michigan Avenue congregation, a community of faith, made up of all those different kinds of folks, who still says something like, “You know what? We are still going to talk about racism and the ongoing legacy of slavery in our nation, and deep segregation in our city, and we will seriously consider our role as people of faith to respond and change. We will also refuse to avoid that work simply because it will be hard and people might get upset.” And then who commits itself to having that conversation and turning those words into actions of confession and repair, but always in a way that tries its best to honor all people, to hear all voices gathered around the table, and to hold all of us to account.
And let’s stay with that for just a bit longer—for when a complex congregation like this one, a large and messy church family like this one, with a 150-year-old legacy, still tries its hardest, even in the middle of a global pandemic, to live out the biblical image of church as the body of Christ that needs both a left hand and a right one to fully function—when we insist on doing that, we are offering a counter-testimony in a national culture that is constantly seeking to divide and compartmentalize; a national culture that is constantly claiming that if you do not agree with me, then you must be my enemy; a national culture that regularly prefers to shout over instead of listen to.
The kingdom of heaven, what we as church are called to exhibit, is like a mustard seed of a congregation committed to doing the hard work of church no matter what comes, that someone took and sowed in his field, hoping and praying that God would use that unruly and uncontrollable plant to disrupt the extreme powers of fear and polarization that are eating away at our communal soul.
One more example: it also could be that the exhibition of the kingdom of heaven might sneakily come into your own life as you honestly consider what you will financially pledge or promise to give for the work of the church in 2021. For make no mistake about it, filling out a pledge card, or making intentional decisions to give money away, are subversive, kingdom-exhibiting acts, regardless of the amount. How? In a world whose theme song might as well be “For the Love of Money” by the O’Jays or “Billionaire” by Bruno Mars, the decision to make a pledge to the church or to regularly give are concrete ways we put in perspective the power that money holds in our lives.
I know this to be true from personal experience. When my husband, Greg, and I sit down and talk about what we will give to what God is doing through Fourth Church, having that conversation forces us once again to get really clear about our priorities. It compels us to decide how we will live out our faith with all of who we are—including our monetary resources. It requires that we again discern how we will keep teaching both our teenager and our college student about the powerful spiritual discipline of generosity. The conversation that Greg and I have each year about our pledge means we once again have to choose what we are going to trust more—God’s promise of enough or the world’s threat of scarcity. And those decisions that we make, those decisions you will make, can be as sneaky and subversive in the field of greed as a mustard seed is in a field of grain.
The acts of making a pledge or choosing to regularly give your money away for God’s work through the church are sneaky, subversive, scandalous proclamations of just whose reign you long to exhibit: The reign of the almighty dollar or the reign of the One who compared the kingdom of heaven to a malignant, pungent weed with dangerous takeover properties. The reign of the sentiment that whoever dies with the most toys wins or the reign of the One who refuses to be controlled, manipulated, or weeded out from the fields of life. The reign of the power of fear and desire for domination or the reign of the One who calls us all to plant these small yet powerful mustard seeds all around us and to watch with joyful anticipation for what happens next in God’s garden of creation.
So getting back to where we started, it is true that one thing this parable might indeed be about is how God can take something even as small as a mustard seed and grow it into something beyond our imagining. But in addition to that, it is also true that this parable proclaims to us that the kingdom of heaven, the reign of God that we, as church, are called to exhibit to the world, is also being sneakily, subversively, scandalously smuggled into our lives and into our world in ways we probably will never expect or even see coming. Ways for which we shall always be grateful as the uncontrollable reign of God takes over and turns everything upside down, filling the air with its pungent smell of life and wholeness for all, leaving nothing and no one the same.
The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field . . . and that picture of uncontrollable goodness and freedom and justice and mercy and kindness is what we, as church, are called to exhibit, to demonstrate, to fully embody as a people to the world. Amen.