The parable universe

Finding new metaphors for the kingdom for God. (Listen.)

What shall we say the kingdom of God is like? With what shall we compare it? Perhaps this: The kingdom of God is like a Facebook post with zero ‘likes.’ But somebody reads it and it takes root, nobody knows how. Gradually it grows, producing in them prayers and images and conversations and hope: and these seeds are shared abundantly. Some take root in other people, and so the post lives on.

Or perhaps the kingdom of God is like a woman in aged care whose sons are too busy to visit. But when she dies, the cleaners weep. They tell her daughter how beautiful she was, how gentle, how kind. They say that she knew them all by name, and she prayed for them; and that they talk about her and remember her every day.

Or: The kingdom of God is like a young man who walks away from the family fortune. While his brothers build bigger houses and plan expensive holidays, he works for the poor and tends the land; other people’s teenagers want to be like him.

Or maybe the kingdom of God is like a woman who works a long shift, and gets a hundred extra bucks in her pay. So while she’s buying the family groceries, she throws a heap of shampoo and pads and toothpaste into her trolley, and donates them to a local service for the homeless. On hearing this, the following week another shopper does likewise, then another, and another, and another.

Or, the kingdom of God is like a man who resigns from the workforce so he can get up each night, and turn a woman, and adjust the pillow between her legs. In the morning he places her on the commode, then he washes her gently and dresses her. He lifts her into the wheelchair. Then he counts out her pills, gives her breakfast and drives her to work, where he quietly enables her through the day. When she dies, he is considered unemployable; but their example lives on in others.

The kingdom of God is like a woman who wonders if she’s lost her marbles. Many things in the world just don’t make sense to her. Despite her best efforts, she feels like she’s not quite as capable as everyone else; she never feels completely at home. On and off over the years, she searches for her marbles. One day, she stumbles across a list of typical characteristics of autistic women; with a shock, she recognises herself. She realises she’s found her treasure—it’s that she’s had her marbles all along, just her marbles are a little bit different. She’s so relieved and excited, she invites her friends over and shares her treasure with them.

Why am I talking about small stories? Why am I describing people who will never be rich or famous or powerful or mainstream; who will never be a roaring success? Because once upon a time, the prophet Ezekiel told a story. In that story, God is going to take a sprig from a towering cedar, and plant it at the top of a high and lofty mountain. The sprig will grow into a mighty tree, with great branches and abundant fruit. Birds of every kind will nest in its branches: eagles, hawks, ibis. And that mighty tree on a mountaintop, towering over everything, is the future kingdom of Israel (Ezekiel 17:22-24).

Then once upon a time, Jesus told a story: to people who knew Ezekiel’s story. But in Jesus’ story, the kingdom of God is like a … mustard seed! Now, mustard is a scruffy pungent weed which thrives on roadsides, vacant lots and marginal land. It’s not impressive. It’s not important. Instead it’s insignificant, undesirable, a nuisance even. Farmers spray to get rid of it. Yet no matter how many pesticides are dumped on the earth, it still reappears, now here, now there.

And this persistent scruffy weed grows into a … shrub. The birds of the air nest in its branches; at least, very little ones do.

So Jesus is telling us that God’s kingdom, or God’s culture, is not like the dominant culture. Instead, it’s underwhelming, a bit of a joke. It’s so unimpressive that John the Baptist wrote from prison to ask, ‘Are you really the one?’ Because, let’s be honest, you’re not much chop. And even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, his disciples ask, ‘Is now the time that you will restore Israel?’ Because where’s the mighty cedar on a mountaintop? Where’s the fortress, the army, the nation-state? Where’s the power and prestige? Where’s the glory?

But life in God’s kingdom is no guarantee of health or wealth or popularity or power; it has different markers of success. And it’s not a mighty nation-state. Instead, it’s a home for those little birds who flit around the margins: people who are often sidelined, invisible; people who have made countercultural choices; people who are not mainstream. People, I suggest, a bit like us.

So what else is the kingdom like? With what shall I compare it?

Perhaps the kingdom of God is like a little child who runs into church, who watches intently, who asks lots of questions. And it’s like the crowd which gathers around, and listens to and learns from the child. Gradually, even grown-ups risk wondering aloud, and everyone grows in faith.

Or it’s like a chronically ill woman who Zooms in from her sickbed, and asks how she can pray for others. It’s like an trans man who shines brilliant light on the gospel; or a gay woman who proclaims the truth; or a single woman who offers a home to damaged and vulnerable children.

The kingdom of God? It’s like a quiet woman who is terrified of public speaking. Yet at Pentecost, she witnesses to the flow of the spirit and how it takes form in her life. As she speaks, she begins to shake and sob. In holy silence we wait until, with great courage, she continues on, faltering through the lump in her throat. Her little boy leans against her body; and the spirit falls upon us like rain.

Yes, the kingdom of God is like a small church which is largely invisible, occasionally scorned. It has no property portfolio or investment income; it has no political clout. At times it feels inadequate. But exhausted carers and autistic people and trans men and abused people and young children and quiet people and rejected women and sick people and little brown birds perch in its branches; and strangers find rest in its shade. Ω

Blessing: Go now, little bird, and make your home in God’s unruly culture: in the schools and farmyards, hospitals and offices, households and highways and byways of this world. Take the seeds you have ingested here, and distribute them wherever you go. And may God’s culture give you shelter; may the Bread of Life provide you with crumbs; and may the Holy Spirit keep you aloft until you find your true nest, deep in the heart of love. Little bird, go in peace to spread the seeds of the gospel. In the name of Christ: Amen.

Reflect: Where have you seen the kingdom of God in your neighbourhood? With what shall you compare it?

A riff on Mark 4:26-34 by Alison Sampson given to Sanctuary 13 June 2021 (Proper 6 Year B) © Sanctuary 2021. Image by Greg Hewson, one of the Sanctuary peeps. Title and concept shamelessly stolen from Anna Carter Florence, who gave a sermon of this name and ilk at PreachFest!, a conference held in Sydney and online, 1-3 June 2021.

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2 thoughts on “The parable universe

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    1. Wonderful! After this, I invited the congregation to come up with their own metaphors. They said the kingdom of God is like a birdbath which never runs dry … the crowd which makes up a soup roster … an effort which bears no visible fruit … the ‘weeds’ which first colonize marginal land and allow other plants to grow … and so on. Love it!

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