So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; everything has become new!
I studied for my undergraduate degree at a private liberal arts college in Western Massachusetts. There, the academic standards were always high, and it seemed that everyone not only played their chosen sport, or two, or three, to excellence, bringing back award after award, and making academic achievements all the while, but also simultaneously lined up internships and connections that gave them lucrative jobs to graduate into. And everyone looked good doing it, whether in classes or at the gym or partying on the weekend.
I didn’t know what to expect when I first went to college, being the first in my family to attend, and my college was everything I thought to expect – everything that I had internalized from its promotional materials and from the people I had met on campus visits: incredibly challenging but full of successful people. And it seemed like it was easy to meet those challenges – for everyone but me. Or, really, everyone but me and a few acquaintances who didn’t come back after their first semester or two. Or the friend who had a mental health crisis midway through their degree and were quietly sent home. Aside from those outliers, and they were outliers, nobody struggled to meet the high standards of achievement.
This made me wonder what was wrong with me. Why was my GPA edging lower? Why was I having a hard time juggling the demands of the coursework, my health, finding summer jobs, and building friendships? No one else seemed to. The problem must be me. Something must be wrong with me. It’s got to be my fault – no one else has these problems. I’ve got to keep them hidden. No one can know I’m struggling.
It wasn’t until my final year at college, that, guided by loving friends, I began to find community that spoke about their experiences. At a weekly event called Storytime, a member of the community would spend an hour telling their story, and week after week I learned anew that I wasn’t alone in struggling to meet the demands of the culture at my school.
Furthermore, in discussions afterward, I learned a new way to describe this culture, a particular idiom that my fellow students used to describe the campus ethos – “effortless perfection.” It was a perfect phrase, describing the standards I had internalized in the world I saw around me. I had to be perfect, it had to be easy, and if it wasn’t, nobody could know my failure! And I wasn’t alone in this – not alone in internalizing this toxic culture, not alone in the feelings of failure, and not alone in the need to hide my failure. All around me were people struggling with the same feelings of failure, the same feelings alone-ness, the same anxious drive to live up to impossible standards.
The phrase was perfect too because changed the way I thought – it flipped my understanding on its head. I could grasp that world from a new angle, and it made more sense. I had been suffering from a failure of imagination, from an inability to imagine that my world at college could be different than what I was formed to experience by the campus culture. I couldn’t discern the boundaries that the culture had formed on my imagination, and thought that limited scope was all that there was, all that was possible.
Based on the imagination I had learned initially, the only explanation for the dissonance I experienced was that something was wrong with me. In the community of Storytime, my imagination was widened, nurturing in me a greater capacity to apprehend my world. With this new understanding, I could find community. Taking in the world anew, I learned I wasn’t alone. Saints, that was resurrection.
Today in our Gospel reading Jesus tells two parables, both about the holy mystery of growth – the way that wonderful things can emerge from the most inauspicious starts. The metaphors themselves are agricultural, things people connected to the land would be intimately familiar with, whether two thousand years ago or today. The passage closes with the assertion that “With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.” I wonder why. What is it about the parables – both the form in general as well as these in particular – that made them so useful and meaningful in Jesus’s ministry.
Jesus says that both parables are about the Kingdom of God. Both of them compare the inbreaking reign of God in the world, against all the powers and principalities that seek to rival the sovereignty and majesty of God, to plants.
In the first the growth of a bumper crop springs mysteriously from the happy accident of seed scattered on the ground and left untended. From these small beginnings emerges a mighty harvest.
In the second, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a mustard seed, calling it the smallest seed that somehow produces the greatest of shrubs, with branches that shelter many birds. From such an inauspicious start comes a great establishment.
But both parables are somewhat, well, silly. Anyone listening who knew the first thing about farming would laugh at the idea of a mighty harvest springing from a mere scattering of seeds. That’s not all that needs to happen for success! The farmer abandoned their crop after sowing – sleeping and ignoring it rather than tending to its growth – and would never reap a great harvest. And the mustard seed, while rather small, doesn’t produce anything like a mighty shrub, much less something with large branches that can shelter birds! That’s absolutely ridiculous! What is Jesus going on about! Leave it to a carpenter to think they know something about farming.
And yet, I think the very ridiculousness of these similes is why Jesus deploys them in parables. That is the point of Jesus teaching in parables – to tickle our imagination, allow it to stretch and grow beyond the boundaries that have hardened our ability to imagine more. Who would think about the clueless farmer reaping an unexpected harvest? Who could imagine the mustard seed growing into a tree filled with life? And who would imagine the kingdom of God being anything like that? Who would imagine the God of all power and glory residing in the margins of empire, teaching the way of eternal life – the way of love and peace – to oppressed peasants? Who would imagine a group of scattered faithless disciples following a scandal-ridden crucified teacher and calling him Lord and God? The very ridiculous beggars the imagination.
Saints, I tell, you, Jesus is calling out to our imaginations – and exposing the limitations of the imaginations of the world around us. God’s imagination is greater than anything we can imagine ourselves – and God’s imagination, the limits of what God can apprehend – are far greater than even the most powerful of the world. No matter how many missiles one has, how many suits or lawyers or gold plated toilets, God’s imagination is a greater power. No matter how many laws or enforcement agents one can deploy, God’s imagination, fueled by abiding love, is more potent. And these parables are ways of disrupting the world’s imagination and shape our imaginations in God’s image – counter-imaginations that train us, teaching us how to follow where God, where Jesus, where the spirit of Love, leads us.
This gospel passage, alongside the rest of the parables, teaches us how to read scripture – as a guide to transformation, conditioning us to imagine disruption of oppressive power structures and to make way for the inbreaking kindom. It teaches us to discern within and alongside our communities God’s transformative imagination: the Bible is an expression of god’s abundant love, showing new ways to be community together, not a restrictive text that separates kindred from the love of God.
And saints, this is good news. God’s kin-dom, God’s transformed world, is nothing like the Kingdom of Caesar.
The Kingdom of Caesar is a stage managed, glittering affair – like a casino show or a military parade or a gathering of big-shots – full of puffed-up potentialities, saluting each other while assured of their own superiority.
In the kingdom of Caesar, if people grovel to you, you are the best.
In the kingdom of Caesar, if you don’t have this wealth – whether the wealth of banknotes and stock holdings, or the wealth of treasures and property, or the wealth of inherited privilege and belonging, if you don’t have this wealth you don’t matter.
In the kingdom of Caesar, your life, your freedom, your very body is forfeit to the powers of empire that dismantles families and shoots down people in their own back yards for the crime of ‘not belonging,’ for the crimes of stealing joy and health and life that they aren’t supposed to have under empire.
In the Kingdom of Caesar, the more you have the more you are. That’s obvious, isn’t it? Turn to the tv, radio, media, and you experience that imperial imagination made flesh, training our imaginations to be more like the Caesar, like Herod, teaching us that spectacle is reality, and that charlatans and white supremacists are strongmen and saviors.
Saints, this gospel is a challenge to that imagination, that calls human flesh and community illegal, that calls unjust laws moral, that calls inequality and poverty personal responsibility and the way things ought to be. The ridiculousness of the parable cries out to the lies of the powerful. The parable stretches the boundaries of the imagination and says, this wonderful grace is possible, is real.
In the Kingdom of Caesar, the economy of power is all that is possible, all that is right, all that is just; nothing else is real.
Saints, the Kin-dom of God is nothing like that.
The kin-dom of God is place of abundance.
The kin-dom of God is Jesus last week teaching us that family is more than blood but the ties we build and are enfolded by in our lives.
The kin-dom of God is people coming together across difference, across pain, to build a better world.
The kin-dom of God is the smallest things becoming great and abundant and supporting to those around them.
The kin-dom of God is the cries of the poor, the oppressed, the broken, being heard, and changing the world!
The kin-dom of God is the power of empire to take life being powerless in the face of God.
The kin-dom of God is the value of life for those whose lives are daily devalued.
The kin-dom of God is true justice, the righting of wrongs, and the restoration of beloved community.
Resurrection. New life. This, in Christ, is a new creation.
And the Gospel, the good news, is that the Kin-dom of God is possible. It is imaginable. It is here, among us, calling us to prepare for that day when it bursts over the arrival and fulfills all things.
The Gospel imagination calls out the lies in our midst- the lies that, repeated over and over have somehow become our markers of what the world is. The Gospel imagination teaches a truth that is strong than those lies. And the Gospel imagination allows for a transformation – a redemption – a making all things new – that magnifies our souls with abiding love, that overturns the tables of injustice, that anoints all people, and especially the ones Caesar calls least, bad hombres, illegal, shithole countries —— and declares them good, beloved, chosen for good.
With the gospel imagination, we don’t have to repeat the past – we can transform our future.
We don’t have to turn away our siblings – we can transform our understanding of the world to better welcome our kindred into community and communion.
We aren’t condemned to a republic of terror, tyranny and despair – rather, the kin-dom of God is a commonwealth of faith, hope, and love. Fed by the Eucharistic table, we can carry the hope of the Good News through these doors and into our communities. We can discern the places God’s abundant love is already at work, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. And we can do this knowing we are not alone, in our communion with one another, and in our communion with God. Together, in Christ’s parables and with the Gospel imagination, we can take up our part in God’s transforming Kin-dom.