On July 30, 2006 I preached this sermon at a small Baptist Church in South Philadelphia. I shared with the folks there some of my ideas about how the Reign of God is made present in our midst, and how we discern where God is working. My intention was to encourage them to look for signs of hope and to be such a sign to the people of their neighborhood.
Deborah Good, a personal friend who happens to be an author, writes about a place that gives her hope.
“There is a neighborhood in North Philadelphia that continually inspires me. It’s certainly a tough neighborhood, the kind that never makes it onto the tourist brochures. This is a place where people—mostly young black men—are lost every year to drug violence and the (terribly unjust) prison system. Yet this is also a place where an African-American man named Arthur Hall and a Chinese woman named Lily Yeh had the eyes to see possibility in an abandoned and neglected lot.
“Hall invited Yeh, an outsider to the neighborhood, to build a garden there, which she did. [While she was the designer the community people were invited to help and as they did, they got involved in building the park. School children pick up the trash as part of a class once a day. Then they go through the garbage and learn about the environmental impact of various items. Most of the chairs are handmade and some are even made out of the trash that was collected.] Over the years, the garden was followed by more parks and gardens, mosaics, murals, youth and theater programs. Today it is called the Village of Arts and Humanities. I do not talk about hope as freely as some, but I have walked the streets of the Village, and when I turn the corner from Germantown Avenue onto Alder Street with its many-colored mosaics, hope feels like a blast of cool air in my face.
“In a magazine article, Lily Yeh put it this way: ‘I came to conceive of the neighborhood as a piece of living sculpture, in which people live and work, and the forms are brought to life by living community events’ (“A Luminous Place,” The Other Side, Jul./Aug. 2004).
[Deborah Good concludes] “Like Yeh, I want to be a seeker of possibilities—in my own life, in others, in broken people and places.”
Life these days is difficult with the violence and crime throughout the city, the gas prices and the heat, not to mention the wars in Lebanon and Iraq and who knows where else. All this stuff going on around us can make us feel pretty hopeless. Amidst the signs of hopelessness all around us, we need to find people like Lilly Yeh and Arthur Hall, and places like the Village of Arts and Humanities that remind us of possibilities. Moreover, as the people of God, and the community of faith we are called to be those possibilities of hope for others.
Jesus’ Idea of the Reign of God
The people of the first century in Palestine felt pretty hopeless too. Subjected the domination of a vicious Roman empire, and a rigid religious establishment, he life of the common Palestinian peasant was hard and often hopeless. Jesus came along telling stories called parables. These were stories of hope, stories about a Kingdom he said he had come to initiate.
Now let me take a moment to clarify what is meant by the Kingdom of God. First, of all the kingdom of God is not a place. Rather it refers to the influence of God on people’s lives and social events. That’s why I prefer to talk about the Reign of God rather than kingdom; its gets us away from thinking about this idea that there is a particular place. Jews and Muslims have been fighting for centuries over the city of Jerusalem because they see it as a holy place, and even some fundamentalist Christian groups have fixated on Jerusalem and the state of Israel as a sacred place. They have got it wrong, God’s kingdom is not a place, it’s an influence, it’s the Reign of God.
Second, the Kingdom or Reign of God is not something we have to wait to experience until the second coming of Jesus. There are some Christians who look at Jesus’ words about the Kingdom as something that is way off in the future. That is just plain mistaken. Jesus was talking about the impact God was having right then and there, and by extension the impact that God is having right here and right now. When Jesus is talking about the Kingdom, he is talking about God’s activity in our world right now.
Third, some would say that the Kingdom is something only God can do. In one sense that’s true, because the influence of God on our lives is God’s work. But we have to cooperate, we have to participate. God doesn’t force our hand; God offers us an opportunity. We have to participate with God in seizing that opportunity and bringing about the world that God wants to create.
Finally, the kingdom is represented by very tangible signs. At one point when John the Baptist was in prison, he sent his followers to Jesus to ask him a question: “Are you the one who is to come or should we wait for another?” It was a yes or no question, but Jesus answered it this way: Tell John what you hear and see: the blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear, the lepers are cleansed, the dead are raised and the poor have good news preached to them” (Matthew 11. 2-6). Very tangible signs of hope, justice and healing. Leonardo Boff, a Latin American theologian, says that the Reign of God is best measured by social and ethical criteria, such as benefits to the poor, needs being met, and power be gained by the powerless and so on. God’s reign can be felt and seen because it’s tangible.
The Reign of God in Parables
In the beginning of Mark 4 Jesus tells a story that is commonly called the Parable of the Sower or sometimes called the Parable of the Soils. The purpose of this story was to make the point that the news of this kingdom was only available to those who were open and willing to hear about it and change their lives in response to what they heard.
Then in Mark 4.26 he says the kingdom of God is like a person scattering seed. She scatters the seed and then wakes up one morning to see the seed sprouting and growing. Anyone who has ever planted a garden can understand the picture Jesus is painting. You put his little seed in a pot or in a plot of ground, and you wait, and then one day there it is. Gradually, at first, imperceptibly the seed grows, and then it becomes a full-grown plant. If you aren’t watching, or if you don’t know where to look, you might miss it altogether because it sneaks up on you. Just like the seed, the growth of God’s reign is at first imperceptible; you have to watch for it.
Then starting in Mark 4.30 he says the Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. Now apparently a mustard seed is a tiny, tiny little seed. Yet it grows into quite a big and bushy plant over 6 feet tall. What is Jesus’ point? God’s reign doesn’t make a big splash; it’s not a huge production. It starts small, almost imperceptibly, tiny like a mustard seed.
The other night I went to see Cirque du Soleil. What a production: lights, and music and pulleys, costumes and amazing performers…an incredible production. Great for a circus, but not for how God makes an impact on our world. God doesn’t put on a production, God plants a mustard seed.
Now Jesus makes an assumption when he tells this story of the mustard seed. He assumes that we will join in the work. He assumes that just like a seed needs watering and cultivating and pruning and tending, that once we know that God works in small ways to make his influence known, we will join in. Because I said earlier, the kingdom is not something we sit on the sidelines to watch; we need to join in.
Conspiracy of the Insignificant
Tom Sine, a Christian futurist, wrote a book called the Mustard Seed Conspiracy. He writes “That has always been God’s strategy –changing the world through the conspiracy of the insignificant…God’s policy [is] to work though the embarrassingly insignificant to change his world and create his future” (p. 11-12). Sine goes on in his book to tell story after story of ordinary folks changing their lives in order to join in the work of God in the world – helping the poor, protecting the environment, stopping the violence, speaking truth to power, bringing hope and justice to the oppressed. The sign of this “mustard seed conspiracy” is the presence of hope that changes lives.
As the 3rd century Christian leader, Origen, wrote: The poor are said to be the rag, tag and bobtail of humanity. But Jesus does not leave them that way. Out of material you would have thrown away as useless, he fashions people of strength, giving them back their self-respect, enabling them to stand on their feet, and look God in the eye. They were cowed, cringing, broken things. But the Son has set them free!”
Basically, what this means for us is that we have to search for signs of the kingdom, search for signs of God’s reign in the world. Like Deborah Goode looking for visible signs of hope and justice like the Village of Arts and Humanities, we need to look for other signs of hope and justice indicating the activity of God’s kingdom. Once we find those signs, we need to join in, to become part of this mustard seed movement, this conspiracy of the insignificant.
Searching for the Reign of God
Several years ago I met a young man recently out of college who was going to work in the mission field in Southeast Asia. I asked him what attracted him to Southeast Asia and he responded with an answer I have never forgotten. He said, “Instead of waiting for God to move where I am, I want to go where God is already moving and be a part of God’s work there.” What struck about this statement was the realization that just because I may be a faithful, conscientious Christian, that does not mean that God is working along side of me. In our American can-do ethic, we think that if we just do all the right things, God will bless us. But that’s not the case. God is the one in control and our task is to find where God is working and join in there.
Sometimes where God is working catches us off guard –
– Like in a former burned out, drug infested neighborhood of North Philadelphia with Lily Yeh and Arthur Hall.
– Or the gutters of Calcutta, India with Mother Teresa;
– Or in a small village in northern Palestine where a priest named Elias Chacour brings Jews, Christian and Muslims together to talk of peace;
– Or among a group of students from Eastern University who founded a community in Kensington called the Simple Way that is reaching out to their neighbors in clear and tangible ways;
– Or maybe right here in a tiny Baptist Church in South Philadelphia.
Where is God’s impact being felt? Where are people being helped and healed and given hope? Where is justice being found for the poor, the dispossessed, and the victims of oppression? Sometimes you have to look long and far and wide. Sometimes it’s hard to find such evidence. It’s like looking for a needle in a haystack or trying to find a mustard seed…but that’s where God’s reign is breaking in and where God’s influence being felt.
The Story of Ann
I am a college professor who mostly teaches adults who have decided to come back to get their college degree after dropping our of a college years before. One such person was a woman named Ann. Ann grew up here in Philly, and then went into the Army, and attained the rank of Sergeant. At the height of her career she was a commander of troops in South Korea.
Ann got out of the Army, went to work for a law firm as an accountant, and showed up as a student in one of my classes. She was tough as nails, but she had always struggled as a student. So two weeks into her first class, she was ready to quit. I ran into her in the library and she said, “I was just going to call you. I’m quitting. I can’t do this school stuff. I’m not smart enough.” Well, I was able to convince to stick out the one class and then make her decision. She got through the class with a C, and I encouraged her to continue on, which she did.
Several months later, I had her for another class. She did so well in my class, she earned an A. When she got her grade, she hugged me and said thanked me. I reminded her that I don’t give grades. She earned it, and she could be proud of her accomplishment.
A few months later I had her for the last class in her program, and she told me she was thinking about going on with her education. Through her job she had gotten involved in a program tutoring elementary school kids and she thought she might want to be a teacher. She also mentioned that she had started going back to church, that her faith in God had been renewed. That’s when I knew that this change in Ann was more than just about academics; God had been working on her.
A few more months passed by and Ann called me up and asked if I would write her a recommendation because she was applying to get in a Masters of Education program. I gladly did, and now Ann is on her way to getting her teaching certificate. Very soon she is going to be an elementary school teacher. She will be great at it because she knows what it’s like to be a frightened underachieving student. When she called me, I said “None of this would have happened, if years ago you had quit.” She thanked me for convincing her to stick with it. I was thankful too.
Way back there, God planted a seed, and I had a hand in watering and cultivating that seed, and now it has grown to something magnificent and beautiful.
Where is God planting seeds of hope and justice? Where is God working so we can join in? We need to search those out, lend a hand and do our part. We need to be part of this conspiracy of the insignificant. When we do that we will never feel overwhelmed. We will live in hope and be bringers of hope to others.