God seems to have a knack for starting small and impacting on a gigantic scale. With one elderly couple, Sarah and Abraham, God builds a community of faith that spreads out through the lands which are now Israel and Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Syria and more. Starting with one man, Jesus, God expands the community of faith to the rest of the world. So the image of a tiny mustard seed transformed into a tree/shrub that could get as big as 20 feet tall and 20 feet wide, home to birds and more, is a good one. The image of a few tiny grains of yeast impacting an entire bowl of dough, spreading, growing into something very delicious is a good one. Size doesn’t matter. Fame or riches doesn’t matter. God has a knack for starting small.
God starts even with you. Jesus’ words, “the kingdom of God is within you”, have at least two meanings, and very likely Jesus meant to get across both ideas. Because he is in the midst of the people, the kingdom is there in their presence—some translations say, “among you”. In your midst, right here with you, in front of you. In other words, if you want to point to the kingdom of God, point at me! And the words also mean inside of you as an individual, in your heart, in your very being. The kingdom of God is within. You. If you have to find a physical place where you can point to the kingdom of God, look in the mirror. You are the location of God’s kingdom. You are the worker in God’s kingdom. You are the sharer of God’s kingdom. Jesus loved to tell story after story about what the kingdom of God is like, using word pictures, parables, to describe a kingdom without walls, streets, houses, fields; a kingdom like no other.
A fellow pastor in our Presbytery, Elizabeth Lovell, wrote a parable about the kingdom of God at Harundale Presbyterian in Glen Burnie. She sees the transformation of an unused rectangular plot of land at the edge of the church parking lot into a garden as the kingdom of God at work…. The Spirit creates ideas, excitement, involvement, commitment on the part of church members of all ages. Together they planned and worked, and I am assuming, now are reaping the fruits of their labor and sharing the vegetables with their community. Indeed, the kingdom of God is like an empty plot of land waiting for life.
Jesus starts out his public ministry with a bold proclamation in the gospel of Mark: “Now is the time! Here comes God’s kingdom! Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!” What did he mean? People had long been looking for God’s kingdom, and here it was. Here, in the form of a guy fresh in from the wilderness? A guy who looked an awful lot like Uncle Samuel or Cousin Omar? Clearly it was not overly obvious to his listeners. So Jesus defines the arrival of the kingdom as good news. To enter this kingdom, he says elsewhere that we must be like a child. This kingdom of God requires a change of heart, repentance, many translations say. This kingdom has different expectations for behavior than any other kingdom.
One problem we have with this kingdom of God stuff is that it is too nebulous for us. When we can’t define something clearly, we get stuck in the haze and mumble the words in church, thy kingdom come. Perhaps we are not really sure what we are asking for. Send your kingdom, God—change the world and set things right! Let me see your kingdom God, right now! Use me, God, to serve in your kingdom right here! Bring your kingdom, God, ushering in the end of this world and the beginning of life eternal! Could we actually be asking all of those things just in the one request? Thy kingdom come…. It is a little fuzzy.
So, we can be excused for wondering how the kingdom of God is here and we should still be asking for it to come in the future. Seems contradictory, doesn’t it? When the waiter is bringing your plate of spaghetti, you don’t ask for it because it has already arrived. First of all, remember who you are talking to—last week James Parks described the essential piece of our understanding our relationship to God—we are the children loved by the parent, and we all share as brothers and sisters that same relationship with God. We are talking to God here. God’s kingdom is the place where God is in charge, where God makes the rules, where God offers protection and comfort, where God provides sustenance for life. God’s kingdom does not have to be a physical place that you can point to. It can be a state of being. You can live and work in God’s kingdom and pray for God’s kingdom to come all at the same time.
I think you know when you are in the kingdom, but perhaps you don’t name it as such. It is when the Spirit of God is palpable, when relationships are growing, when life is overflowing. God’s kingdom is not all peaches and cream. And at the same time, you are in the kingdom when pain is all around and hands or voices or prayers reach out for you. If you come tonight to gather with young and old and in between around tables, around the Word of God, you put yourself in the place where you can interact with church members and friends you don’t always get to interact with. When was the last time you and Alex Bondima worked on an art project together? When was the last time you and Elaine McDowell grilled together? When have you been able to pray with Maggie Hernan? If you come tonight, you will see the kingdom of God at work. You will enter and find hope.
I know that some of you saw the kingdom of God on Harlem Avenue earlier this summer. When four of us started to hang out on the corner in August 2013, we started small. Small in numbers, small in time, but with an impact bigger than we realized. We met people and began to build relationships with neighbors. Together with One Heart One Way Ministries, we provided a summer field trip last summer for children in the neighborhood. We pulled in several other churches and dreamed and planned and got excited over the Bible Camp on the street. The yeast was spreading. I counted at least 20 MORE HRPC folks who came to participate, to volunteer, to observe for the first time. I counted at least 20 children and adults from the Falam Baptist Church who I am sure had never spent any time on that street. I watched the older adult neighbors enjoying the evening out on their steps, watching the goings on of the kids and adults at Bible Camp, getting a plate of food, singing along or tapping their feet to the music. As we collaborated, I watched the beginnings of the removal of the invisible barriers which naturally exist among neighborhoods and even among Christian ministries and churches working side by side, but each with their own “turf”. I watched a whole neighborhood get excited about donating coins to Heifer International, and by the end of our week, with the help of a matching gift, we raised enough to buy a sheep, a flock of chickens, and fish for families in need somewhere else. Who knows how far the yeast will expand? How wide the branches of the tree will spread? God started with four people, and introduced the kingdom of God in a bleak place, touching at least 150 lives in some way.
It is not our kingdom. Presbyterians certainly don’t have a lock on it. Neither do North American Christians. So often when we go to other parts of the world we discover God’s kingdom alive and well before we set foot on land! It is not our kingdom. It is God’s kingdom. And it starts small. It can even start with you. Indeed, God’s kingdom is the place where God is in charge, where God makes the rules. Is it in your heart? Is it in your calendar and your budget? Is it in your relationships? In this congregation? In this neighborhood? It is the kingdom right here, right now and it is the kingdom to come. We pray for it, yes, but we must live in it at the same time. We must look for it on a daily basis. Thy kingdom come, now and forever. Amen.