Will Work for Kingdom

By: Candace Chellew-Hodge

Preached June 14, 2009 at Garden of Grace United Church of Christ, Columbia, SC

Mark 4:26-34
2 Corinthians 5:6-10
  Hear this sermon at the Garden of Grace UCC Web site.

Today's song is "Hammer and a Nail" by the Indigo Girls from their third album Nomads, Indians and Saints, released in 1990.

Clearing webs from the hovel
A blistered hand on the handle of a shovel
I've been digging too deep, I always do
I see my face on the surface
I look a lot like Narcissus
A dark abyss of an emptiness
Standing on the edge of a drowning blue
I look behind my ears for the green
And even my sweat smells clean
Glare off the white hurts my eyes
I gotta get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail
Learn how to use my hands
Not just my head, I think myself in a jail
Now I know a refuge never grows
From a chin in a hand, and a thoughtful pose
Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose

I start this morning with probably the world's oldest joke - but who knows, it may still be new to someone here. A man is stranded on top of his house during a flood. A man comes by in a boat and yells, "Get in. I'll take you to dry land."

"No," replies the man. "God will save me."

As the water levels begin to rise another boat passes. The would-be rescuer yells, "Get in. The water's rising too fast. You must leave now."

"No," replies the man. "God will save me."

The rain continues and the water is lapping at his feet as he sits atop his roof. A helicopter appears above and begins to lower a basket to rescue him. He waves off the rescuers, yelling, "No! God will save me!"

At last the waters cover his house, drowning him. When he arrives in heaven, he meets with God and complains, "God, I trusted you to save me and you didn't."

To which God replies, "I sent two boats and a helicopter. What more do you want?"

Too often, we expect God to save us, or do things for us, when we're not willing to put forth any effort. It's like praying to win the lottery without ever buying a ticket. We expect God to work miracles, but we don't feel the need to be part of the miracle-making process.

In today's reading, Jesus, speaking in parables, urges his disciples to be part of God's kingdom-making process. He tells them that the kingdom is, "as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how" (4:26-27).

Some commentators translate the "someone" in this passage as God. That it is God who not only grows the seed that becomes the kingdom, but plants and harvests it as well. The harvest is often seen as God's final judgment upon the world. This kind of thinking has led to a popular "forsaking this world for the next" type of theology that makes us passive onlookers in God's world waiting for God to do it all without our help.

However, it is more powerful to view ourselves as the "someone" doing the planting and the harvesting. Earlier in Mark, Jesus encourages us to let our lights shine forth, and not hide our glory under a bushel. Jesus calls us to be active participants in God's kingdom and not passive bystanders, waiting for God to fulfill all our needs.

We may do the planting and the harvesting, but it is God who does the growing. In this, we learn patience. We want to see the kingdom of God revealed in the world right now. We want the world to be ordered according to God's will, where the poor and outcast are welcomed, where wars are ended and God's peace reigns. But, we are not there yet, and some days it seems we will never get there. Out of frustration we may find ourselves yelling at the seed, "Grow already!"

As preacher and theologian Fred Craddock tells us: "It will come up in its own good time; with sun and water it will come up. You do not have to beg it, you do not have to blackmail it, and you do not have to threaten it. [] Just plant the seed. It is God's seed, and the seed carries its future in its bosom. [] Trust the seed "

To trust that seed, however, requires not just our planting efforts, but our faith. We must believe, without a doubt, that the seed will grow, even when we see no evidence of growth or feel trapped in a prolonged drought. We have to remember that nothing emerges fully grown. We have to tend the earth if we want a rose.

There must always be a beginning, and we, as God's followers, work in partnership with God. We must plant the seeds, tend the garden and conduct the harvest when the seeds ripen. No effort, no matter how small, is wasted. Jesus tells us that even if our faith is as small as a mustard seed, we are valuable workers in the kingdom-making process.

I had a lot of good intentions
Sit around for fifty years and then collect a pension
Started seeing the road to hell and just where it starts
But my life is more than a vision
The sweetest part is acting after making a decision
Started seeing the whole as a sum of its parts
I look behind my ears for the green
And even my sweat smells clean
Glare off the white hurts my eyes
I gotta get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail
Learn how to use my hands
Not just my head, I think myself in a jail
Now I know a refuge never grows
From a chin in a hand, and a thoughtful pose
Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose

It's puzzling that Jesus would use the mustard plant as a metaphor for the kingdom of God. Why compare the kingdom to a mustard plant? It was considered more of a weed than anything else. Thinking of a mustard plant doesn't evoke images of overwhelming power and grandeur. Why not compare the kingdom to something sturdier like an oak or a cedar?

When we reflect on it, however, the mustard seed is a perfect metaphor. The plant that grows is scorned as a weed, just as the kingdom of God is scorned by the powerful in the world. An oak or cedar is admired for its strength and beauty, but a mustard seed is seen as a nuisance, something to be cut down and thrown in the fire. But, just like the kingdom, a weed is persistent. We can seek to subvert the kingdom of God by glorifying the things of this world. We can seek to ignore the kingdom of God, deny its power and its immediate but not-yet presence among us, but the growth continues. A weed grows constantly, invading the world, covering over those things of the world that seem so attractive and tempting, just like the kingdom.

Bible commentator William Barclay warns us to not underestimate the power of a weed because a weed "can push its green head through an asphalt path. Nothing can stop growth. It is so with the Kingdom nothing in the end can stop the purposes of God."

This is where we put our faith even if our faith is small in that seed that grows wild in the world. This weed of the kingdom makes its presence known especially in those times that we'd rather ignore God's call in our world.

Now, anyone who knows me for about five minutes knows that it would be dangerous for me to take the Indigo Girls' advice literally. I should never be left alone with a nail - let alone a hammer and a nail. Getting out of bed and getting a hammer and a nail would spell certain disaster not just in my house - but perhaps the whole world. I'm better off leaving such work to people like my partner Wanda who know what to do with a hammer and nail.

Likewise, plants tremble at my presence. They know my mere existence will mean the end of theirs. Growing plants is just as disastrous as me trying to build bookshelves or repair, well, anything. My strength lies in a chin in a hand an thoughtful pose.

The good news is, we need both in the world - the thinkers and the doers. At the risk of disagreeing with the Indigo Girls - I think refuges can grow from the chin in a hand and a thoughtful pose - that's how we get the plans to build and grow our refuge. It is through our stillness that we understand God's will. But, they're right, we can't stay in that thoughtful pose. At some point, we have to get up and get to work and there's plenty of work for both the thinker and the doer.

So, don't worry if you're like me - a danger to all living things, be they human, animal, or plant, when we try to help by picking up a hammer or tending a garden. We still have a role in kingdom work - and a valuable role at that. Everyone of us - thinker and doer alike - can find ways to bring God's realm into our world here and now. As the Indigo Girls sing in this song, "If we have a care in the world - we have a gift to bring." We each hold a gift, a present for this present moment.

Just as those desperate for work will hang a sign around their neck that reads, "Will work for food," we must also be desperate to be workers in the kingdom-making process. No matter what our strengths, thinking or doing, we must care enough to daily take up our sign that reads, "Will work for kingdom," and be about the daily, hourly, even moment by moment, process of planting the seeds of God's kingdom in the world. Even if we're the world's worst gardeners - we understand that if we plant trusting in God to do the growing - God's rose will finally appear. We, and the whole world, will then benefit from a kingdom harvest.

My life is part of the global life;
I'd found myself becoming more immobile
When I think a little girl in the world can't do anything
A distant nation my community, Street person my responsibility
If I have a care in the world, I have a gift to bring
I look behind my ears for the green and even my sweat smells clean
Glare off the white hurts my eyes
I gotta get out of bed and get a hammer and a nail
Learn how to use my hands
Not just my head, I think myself in a jail
Now I know a refuge never grows
From a chin in a hand, and a thoughtful pose
Gotta tend the earth if you want a rose



Candace Chellew-Hodge is a recovering Southern Baptist and founder/editor of Whosoever: An Online Magazine for GLBT Christians. Her first book, Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians, published by Jossey-Bass is now available at http://www.bulletproofbook.com. She currently serves as the pastor of Jubilee! Circle, a progressive, inclusive community in Columbia, South Carolina. She is also a spiritual director and is currently taking on new directees. She blogs regularly at Religion Dispatches. She can be reached by email at editor-at-whosoever.org or by using the suggestion box.

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