Many of you know that I will be burying my dad next weekend. He passed away almost 6 months ago and it still feels fresh. Most of you have also lost your parents. So, you know, first hand, how grieving the loss of a parent is an emotional and spiritual process.
Since the time of my dad’s death, I tend to focus on the positive things: how good and patient he was when he taught me how to drive, play cribbage and shoot a gun. I remember that when he taught me to drive, he instructed me to look out at the horizon, thus I would be more likely to drive the car forward in a straight line along the road. I still hear this advice in my mind, not only for driving but for life in general.
I choose to belief that Dad knew me well enough to know that I would turn that simple piece of advice into a metaphor for my life.
It has only been 6 months. I am not really thinking about the problematic memories like: the white supremacy, the domestic violence and the NRA stuff. For now, I ponder the warm exchange of smiles we once shared when he dropped me off at the airport after a visit; and how we both loved oyster stew on Christmas Eve. It is not that I am ignoring the bad stuff. I can honestly stand here and say that I have forgiven him and I am not afraid to deal with the messy loose ends after he is buried and my heart has a chance to settle.
Regarding my mom, who has been gone now for nearly five years, I have had time to come full circle. She loved the parable of the mustard seed. When I was 16 years old, she gave me a charm bracelet with a single starter-charm; a mustard seed encased in glass.
Mom loved the concept of transformation. Her many schemes and ideas about restoring things and making them better filled her with enthusiasm. She dreamed of someday buying a run-down motel and making it wonderful again with paint, wallpaper and elbow grease. I like this aspect of my mom’s personality; and yet, I also embrace the flaws in my relationship with her. We did not connect well. Even as adults, we got on each other’s nerves early into our visits. I recognize that many of my personal challenges relate directly to my relationship with my mom. I don’t have to pretend it was a comfortable relationship. It wasn’t. And I am confident that through my willingness to be honest about my relationship with my mom, God is able to use my struggles to help me gain wisdom; insight for the benefit of others and my own transformation as a Christian.
How are we really to make sense of our earthly relationships, our choices, resentments; our accomplishments and mistakes? In 2 Corinthians, Paul’s letter directs us to be confident in our Christian journey. He suggests that we should be confident even though we don’t really know what we are doing. It seems to be part of the process that we mess up relationships and struggle to forgive ourselves and others.
How do we wrap our brains around the idea that we are incapable of seeing the horizon as God can? And we certainly can’t begin to perceive each other as God sees each of us. But we can walk forward in faith; we can listen, pay attention and answer God’s call; and we can live our earthly lives as we believe is pleasing to God. And we should because, as Paul says, “For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ.”
Paul and Mark share a basic theme today: Being a Christian bears some responsibility. We are Kingdom Builders. We are the ones who are called to be honest, acknowledge the truth, and reconcile our differences; forgive and transform the world.
So that means being honest about the past. Our nation is currently struggling with how to accurately acknowledge the challenges in our shared national history. Misinformation, spread by social media has stoked fear, doubt and lies into the minds of well-meaning Christians.
Does God want us to pretend that slaves did not build the White House, that the “Founding Fathers” were not wealthy, white men in their twenties who, albeit wrote a marvelous constitution, also owned and traded men, women and children as slaves? Should we pretend our history was a utopian paradise ordained by God. In some Christian circles it is unpatriotic to view history with a critical eye for systemic injustices. In their version of history, white people are not privileged, Black people “need to stop playing the race card; and Gays are fine if they just “keep it out of my face”.
As a Christian, can I really pretend the Oklahoma Massacre did not happen or maybe proclaim that it was not as bad as the liberal media say? As a Christian, can I ignore the atrocities of the church against minorities and women, and sexual abuse of children? Should I ignore the genocide of Native Americans and the internment of Japanese Americans? Do I close my eyes and declare it unpatriotic to acknowledge a problematic past that led us to our current problems such as racial violence, gun violence, homelessness, hate crimes and even climate change?
God calls us to be Kingdom Builders. We are called to be God’s laborers, in the Holy field. We sow the seeds and tend the crops. We make the day-to-day decisions about the process of growing. And then when everything is ready for harvest, God takes over. So it is that we are called to transform the world through honesty and faith with an open heart and mind to the power and grace of God. God is the transcending force through which reconciliation, atonement and forgiveness is the labor.
Apparently, Nicodemus didn’t quite understand the first parable about the laborers in the field, so Jesus tries again. This time Jesus likens the Kingdom of God to that of a mustard tree, spouted from a tiny mustard seed. Why did Jesus say the Kingdom of God is like a big, ugly weed with invasive root systems that can take over a garden?
There is something insidious and obnoxious about the tiny seed that becomes a massive mustard tree. It seems like it would be irresponsible, if not dangerous for the farmer to simply ignore it.
Robert E Shore-Goss wrote in God is Green: An Eco-Spirituality of Incarnate Compassion, p.65), “A mustard tree would never have been planted in a Middle Eastern Garden; in fact, it was prohibited, and would have been considered foolish.” He adds that, “the roots would have spread underneath the soil, secretly dominating the garden.” And why would a gardener what to attract birds into the garden in the first place? Birds are a nuisance to farmers when they feed on the crops.
Jesus seems to struggle to provide the perfect metaphor to teach Nicodemus about the Kingdom. But there is one straightforward message: God’s Kingdom attracts birds to the garden; those that seem unwelcome, will flourish and attract other “unwelcome guests” to the Kingdom. And that is God’s plan. The power of God is such that a tiny seed can be made into a great tree that provides for all the “others”.
This parable “speaks of a miraculous Kingdom, which remains lowly; a mystery whose realization will come as a surprise; a reality whose weakness is its power.”
For us, Kingdom Building is working with God to create a Kingdom. It is to acknowledge our own trespasses, and the trespasses of those who came before us. These many transgressions provide plenty to sow and to learn; and will, in time, generate growth. Reconciliation, peace and justice are, in part, outcomes of being honest and true about the past.
Emerson Powery, wrote, in: True to Our Native Land, p. 130 “Analogously, one would never imagine a liberation struggle that began with a few escaped slaves would lead to insurrections that led to the abolitionist movement that led to the Civil War that led to the Reconstruction that led to the Harlem Renaissance that led to the Civil Rights era. God’s liberating reign has certainly become large enough ‘that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade’ (v. 32).”
This is the Good News. These parables invite us to let go enough to trust that God will show up for the harvest. We are not called to passively withdraw from the injustices of the world or pretend they don’t exist, while waiting for God to show up and fix everything. At the same time, we are called to understand that the Kingdom of God is not contingent upon our actions alone. The spirit of God is moving through us and others, and through creation, in ways that we can never fully comprehend.
My Personal forgiveness work in ongoing.
Our Christian work for social justice and new life in Christ is also ongoing.
And we don’t know when or under what circumstances God will begin the harvest. Maybe it already started.
In the end, this is God’s creation that is being realized not ours, nor our church’s, nor our nation’s. We are simply called to do our part, to be the hands that build God's Kingdom.