Mark 4: 26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.” 30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.” 33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.
I was reviewing my job description recently and saw this expectation: that I would, “preach and teach on evangelism and outreach.” Hmm. That’s pretty important stuff, and yet this will be my first time to do so in my year-and-a-half here. I wonder why nobody mentioned that in my recent review. At a recent meeting of our Witness and Service Commission, some people also expressed a desire for help with sharing their faith.
I was reminded of that request, and that requirement, when I saw that this Sunday’s gospel passage in the lectionary scripture schedule was this one about the two parables of Jesus. Another reminder came with the recent Pew Trust survey of religion in America. It has generated a lot of anxiety because it shows that the percentage of Americans who identify as Christian is decreasing lately, relative to the whole population, especially among youth and the young. And so the mail and the email and the articles in print and online I get, wondering and worrying about the future of the church. I even read of one church that was trying to entice the young by hosting video games, even violent ones, in their own space, on their own equipment, on the theory that, Hey, at least we’re getting people in through the doors of the church. If that were targeted at me, frankly, I would feel insulted by that approach.
Compare all that anxious hand-wringing to a recent memorial service in a church in New York City. Actually, it was a memorial service FOR a church, the last time that a shrinking, aging congregation would meet for worship. But there were no dirges nor laments. Being a Hispanic church, it was actually quite the fiesta. Why anyone would celebrate the closure of a church so joyously…..I will say at the end of this message.
Which brings me to my first question in the outline: “What kind of growth do these parables of Jesus talk about?” Can the parable about the seed that grows by itself, and the mustard seed, give us any help or hope to right the shrinking ship of church in the Western World? The answer to that is…..No. Jesus’ parables don’t say anything about how to make churches grow. Not directly, at least. In fact, in just a few minutes from now, we will pray for God to close down all churches and make them vanish, including Zion Mennonite Church, and in the very words of Jesus: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is forever.” And then we will confess that God’s kingdom shall replace forever our nations and congregations and denominations in the concluding words of that prayer: “For yours is the kingdom, the power and the glory forever and ever, Amen.”
As much as Jesus loves the church as his holy bride, and gave himself up for her, and us, body and blood, the main and constant focus of Jesus’ ministry and teachings was the kingdom, or the Reign, of God. As the kingdom of God grows, that could lead to new churches and to church growth. But the more we live as citizens of God’s kingdom, and by kingdom values, it could also lead to churches getting shut down and Christians getting killed, expelled, imprisoned and dispersed. Sometimes a church may even have to die for God’s kingdom to grow, like that one in New York City.
To understand how God’s kingdom grows, we must understand what Jesus meant by “the kingdom of God,” or “the Reign of God.” Which brings me to my second question, “Why is the kingdom of God ‘for the birds?’” Our call to worship today is a wonderful description of God’s Reign: We confessed that It is “a kingdom that will have no end, in which God’s purposes will be fully realized…which has already begun… marked by small acts of kindness, love and generosity. It is hidden, quiet and works in ways we often do not recognize….This kingdom will reunite what has been separated and restore what has been broken.” And if you should ask, where did that description of God’s Reign come from? Well, from the same place that Jesus got it: the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament. Recall those Psalms that pray for a king to rule the earth, and all the nations in the name of God. Recall those promises of Israel’s prophets, that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord shall cover the earth as the waters cover the sea. How God would bring back all the dispersed and exiled of Israel to Zion, along with nations, the Gentiles, who would ascend the mount of the Lord, to beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruninghooks. So that the lion would lie down with the lamb, and the ox with the bear. At which point there will be no more churches, because all Creation will be one big church.
As for the birds, when Jesus said that the mustard plant becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches “that the birds can perch in its shade,” that bird part was not just an afterthought, or a throwaway line. His audience would immediately have thought of the prophet Ezekiel, in his 17th Chapter:
“‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will take a shoot from the very top of a cedar and plant it; I will break off a tender sprig from its topmost shoots and plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain heights of Israel I will plant it; it will produce branches and bear fruit and become a splendid cedar. Birds of every kind will nest in it; they will find shelter in the shade of its branches. 24 All the trees of the forest will know that I the Lord bring down the tall tree and make the low tree grow tall. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.“‘I the Lord have spoken, and I will do it.’”
Birds roosting and resting in giant cedars was a common ancient symbol for Middle Eastern kingdoms and empires, to say that theirs is a secure kingdom, a peaceful one, free of harm or fear. Otherwise, the birds would fly away in flocks at the first sign of threat. Jesus’ parable continues Ezekiel’s parable, but brings it down from the realm of royal cedars, to the common farmer’s garden. Either way, the point remains: God is making a worldwide kingdom grow out of something so tiny, and by God’s own sovereign power. The kingdom of God then is “for the birds,” because it is a peaceful kingdom, or a kingdom of peace.
Peaceful however does not mean “easy” nor “comforting.” It may sound to us like Jesus is spinning some non-controversial, inoffensive agricultural images. But these parables would have alarmed and offended the Romans and their collaborators, because Jesus is talking about a secure, peaceful kingdom, alright. But it’s not Caesar’s kingdom. The kingdom of God will grow right under their Roman noses to replace his kingdom, and there is nothing they can do about it. Jesus’ parables also challenged the Romans’ arch enemies: the Jewish zealots and rebels. They too were praying for God’s kingdom. But they expected it to come with a mighty, cataclysmic battle that would purify the land with rivers of pagan blood. Yet Jesus’ parables insist that God’s kingdom is a kingdom of peace, that God makes it grow, and there is nothing the rebels and the revolutionaries can do to provoke it nor produce it, least of all by force of arms.
These parables also challenge our modern conceits, the half-formed assumptions lurking in the backs of our minds, the false hopes that we will produce or protect the kingdom of God with just the right weaponry or the right strategy to defeat ISIS or the infidels, or with the perfect partisan politics of the left or the right, or the next big technological fix that will reverse global warming or cure diseases without infringing on our lifestyles.
So yes, I’m sobered and educated by the recent Pew Trust survey about church affiliation, but I’m not panicking, because God’s main agenda in Creation is not church growth but kingdom growth, and church growth usually follows kingdom growth, rather than vice versa. Besides, making churches grow is not within our power, nor our responsibility. But kingdom growth is guaranteed, by God’s promises and by God’s power, in God’s timing, and by God’s means. As our vision statement puts it, we “plant the seeds of God’s reign.” But God gives the growth.
Still, we should know a few principles and practices that help us cooperate with and participate in God’s kingdom-building work. Which brings us to the third question in the outline: What are some principles and practices of growth in God’s kingdom? I’m going to mention four. We need only look at the ministry of Jesus to see them in action; we also named them in our church’s vision statement.
The first one is discipleship, in particular, our growth in Christ and Christ-like-ness. We might also call it “spiritual growth,” both personal growth and growth together. That principle, or practice, is in our vision statement which starts with, “Zion Mennonite Church covenants to grow together….” So as to bear, “the lasting fruit of discipleship.” That kind of growth, our growth in Christ, we do have power over, and responsibility for. Attend to that growth, spend time in the word of God, with God in prayer, and something of God will rub off on us, enough perhaps to be enticing and attractive to some people, enough to be offensive and repellant to others, but that is their responsibility, not ours.
This is where the kingdom of God ministry and message began for Jesus: in his intimate life with his Father, in all those times we find him drawing away from the crowds, even away from his disciples, to commune with his Abba Father in prayer and meditation. His kingdom message and ministry was rooted in all those times we find him worshiping, “as was his habit,” the gospel writers say, in the synagogues, and observing the feasts and festivals of Hebrew spiritual life. The kingdom of God broke into the world through Jesus’ deep familiarity with the Scriptures, so that, whenever he spoke, the laws, the prayers and the prophecies flowed freely, wisely and wonderfully from his mouth, fitting to each need, and every occasion. This aspect of Jesus was so remarkable and contagious that his disciples said to him, “Teach us to pray,” meaning, “like you do, so we can know the same intimacy with God.” We are here today because it worked; they too came down with spiritually contagious cases of Jesus. Even if the world reacts to such undeniable personal kingdom growth in us by burning down churches and scattering members, such as is happening now in Northern Nigeria, the kingdom is still growing, not in spite of such suffering, but even through it, as people become more like Christ. So the first principle or practice of kingdom growth is our own growth in discipleship, becoming like Jesus. The kingdom grows as we grow in Christ.
The second kingdom growth principle or practice is leadership development, the discovery and development of our spiritual gifts, and our formation for our ministries, for we are all called to some ministry. If God’s biggest concern were simply growth in church numbers, then Jesus was setting himself up for failure when he focused so intently, and so long—three years, mind you–on training only twelve disciples. And of those twelve, he seems to have focused most on just three of them: Peter, James and John. And they all failed their first training tests big time.
But today’s two parables tell us that what matters is not the number of disciples Jesus trained, but the potential he saw, and the power he developed, in them. While the world obsesses about numbers, effectiveness and efficiency, more important to the kingdom of God is the intensity and the integrity of the love, the life and the witness that we invest in others, even if in just one person. To assess the growth of God’s kingdom, don’t just count the number of people in our pews on a Sunday morning. Count the number of people in our homes, around our dinner tables and our coffee tables throughout the week, in keeping with our vision statement’s value of “hospitality.” Count the impact and the integrity of our influence on people’s lives. For each person we serve or share the gospel with is deemed worthy in God’s eyes of the gift of his Son, as though he or she were the only person in the universe.
Two big leadership development and kingdom growth things are happening this weekend, as we have welcomed Halle with us this summer, and many of us gathered and contributed something toward Karli Mast and her time with Youth With A Mission. We don’t know where God is leading these young women. But who knows what kingdom growth could come from our love and support of them, and our openness to their gifts and contributions, later on?
One of the ministries for which Jesus trained his disciples is a third practice or principle of God’s kingdom growth: A loving and open engagement with the world. Open, that is, to people, and open about Jesus and the gospel, an orientation toward the world that is faithful to Jesus and friendly to all. Other words we might use for this might be “mission,” “evangelism,” or the words, “witness,” “hospitality,” “service.” At the very least such practices tell people that, even if they are not interested in Jesus, Jesus is very interested in them. Therefore, so are we. And not just as numbers to fill the pews, but as persons of inestimable worth in God’s eyes, and of great potential in God’s Reign.
The importance of this open, friendly and faithful engagement with the world struck me when Becky and I first told some family members thirty-plus years ago that we were joining a Mennonite church, and someone asked, “Do they even let people join? I thought you had to be born a Mennonite.” Those same family members we later took to a World Relief Sale for the Mennonite Central Committee. They haven’t joined a Mennonite church, but again, that’s not in my power, nor my responsibility. But they so enjoyed it that they still attend an occasional relief sale and enjoy the company of the people they meet there. Those people are very open about their faith. The phrase, “In the name of Christ,” is all over every MCC logo. But no one is pressuring them to believe. Still, at his first relief sale, a family member asked me, “What am I experiencing here?” He then answered his own question, “I think it’s community.” I didn’t tell him, but I thought to myself, “I think you’re experiencing Jesus; I think you’re getting a foretaste of the kingdom of God.”
Maybe I should have been more forthright and said that. Because the witness of the Kingdom is, at its best, our witness to the king. That’s the third kingdom growth practice: our faithful and friendly witness to Jesus, in word, work and worship.
The fourth kingdom growth practice that our vision statement names is reconciliation. Not agreement necessarily, not smoothing everything over to make it nicey-nice. I’m talking this morning about a particular aspect of reconciliation, a common commitment to work together through our hurts and history and differences toward deeper truths and relationships. I’m talking especially right now about the kind of reconciliation you see in partnership, where people stop worrying about their differences, stop trying to protect their turf, stop comparing themselves to each other to prove who’s right and who’s wrong, and surrender themselves to causes greater than themselves and their own little kingdoms. You see something of that again at the MCC Relief Sales, where Amish and Old Order Mennonites, plus contemporary, urban, emergent church, neo-monastic, progressive type Mennonites, and non-Mennonites too, work together to raise money for humanitarian service “in the name of Christ,” as the MCC logo says. Each of these different groups probably represents some painful split in the past. But instead of forcing false resolutions to their differences and disagreements, instead of avoiding each other entirely, they keep in touch for some of the things they can do together.
This kind of reconciliation is also happening among different denominations. It’s different from the top-down ecumenical movement of forty or fifty years ago, when bishops and pastors and seminary professors of mainline churches got together and presented theological papers to each other over sumptuous banquets. Today we’re seeing more cooperation and connection among churches of different denominations among neighbors and members, to do together what they could not do alone. Increasingly, it’s also a matter of survival.
For example, some twenty-five years ago, Laotian immigrants started moving into small towns in the Midwest, for entry level jobs in the meat-packing and vegetable canning plants. They also liked the rural life, having space to garden, and cheaper housing. So, in the town of Mountain Lake, Minnesota, the Mennonite, Lutheran, Assembly of God, Dutch Reformed, and the Christian Missionary Alliance churches worked together to support a Laotian Christian pastor to plant a Lao-speaking church. This joint effort made more people ready and willing to welcome these Lao immigrants than if one church alone had taken on that project. Just growing our own kinds of churches, and so building our own comfortable little kingdoms for people just like ourselves, does not strike me as the kind of motive that God will honor with lasting kingdom growth. I also think that the unity of these churches around this mission made for a more compelling representation of Christ, and a more faithful representation of God’s kingdom.
As I talk about such reconciliation and partnership, I know that I am preaching to the choir. A quick checklist of Zion’s ministry partnerships would include Habitat for Humanity, Bridging Cultures, The Canby Center, Canby Pregnancy Center, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Vida Feliz, Jubilee Food Pantry, English as a Second Language classes, among others. While I sense that people are highly, highly invested in such ministries, there is not a clutching, controlling sense of ownership. And so God’s kingdom is growing, not only through the effects that these ministries have in the lives of those who receive their services, not only in the way they reflect Jesus, but also in the growth that the people who participate in these partnerships experience. From Zion Mennonite have gone the members and the resources to start at least four other churches that I know of, as well as people and partners in ministry all around the world. A beneficiary of our investment in Bolivia came back here to preach last spring, Ernesto Barboza. And he is Baptist.
Which explains the joyous fiesta in New York City at the closure of a dying, dwindling congregation. It was attended by members of the twenty-seven other churches it had planted throughout its life. Also there were the grateful recipients of the ministries it had, or to which it had contributed. Some dealt with drug and alcohol issues, some with immigration, some with poverty and unemployment, some in overseas mission. And now a new church, reaching a different population, would start meeting in its facilities. This closing congregation had so generously given its time, treasure, people and prayers for God’s honor, and for God’s kingdom, and not its own, that its last service of worship was not considered a tragedy, but a triumph.
The good news this morning is that we can stop sweating and wringing our hands about church statistics, or even church survival. The Pew Trust survey suggests to me that, Yes, some people have some hurts and disagreements with Christianity and the church that we should know about. There could be some valuable things to learn. But there are also more people on the margins of church culture who are now realizing that there’s no benefit to identifying as a Christian anymore, not if they’re putting nothing into it and getting nothing out of it. So, more people are saying, “No,” to even nominal identification with any church.
Free now from the world’s popularity contest, we can get on with cultivating the four kingdom growth practices I have mentioned: of spiritual growth; leadership development; a missional engagement with the world that is faithful to Jesus and friendly to people; and reconciliation/partnership with other Christians. Those things are within our power and responsibility to do. By them the kingdom of God grows until the day when all the earth is one church, because the power and the honor of the kingdom are not ours, but God’s.