Jesus said, "What is the Kingdom of God like?"
I imagine that when Jesus sent his disciples out ahead of him to tell people that the Kingdom of God was "at hand" - that is, about to arrive - there must have been people who asked, "What will it look like when it comes?" or "Will it be something big, something sudden, or simply overwhelming?" It is a question that we ourselves wonder about when we look around us and all we see is a very human Christian community, or when we work hard to help our families or transform our world and ask ourselves if we are making any difference. It is all too little. Is the Kingdom of God here among us at all? Is there any hope of change and growth?
When I was a young child, my grandfather who grew up in Sicily, had a huge garden. I took great delight in watching him collect seeds from his harvest each year, dry them, and prepare them for planting the following year. Seeing the seeds all lined up on trays for drying - tomato, pepper, green beans, zucchini, squash, cucumber - gave me a great sense of how the garden worked. But, it was mustard seed that really impressed me. My grandfather, who never went to a day of formal schooling, knew the gospels well. He would show me the mustard seed, putting some of these tiny seeds in his hand. Then he would blow them away with a dramatic puff, to impress upon me how small and light they were. The full grown mustard seed stalks were in his basement drying, so I had a vivid memory of how big a plant they produced. My grandfather would tell me that "Things were not always what they appeared to be." God, he would explain, was always with us, always working in ways we couldn't see, we couldn't understand. He said that his father grew vegetables and herbs and his great grandfather, and probably many generations before him, all planted seeds in the ground. He told me that over all these years, if there was rain and sun, and careful weeding, there would always be a harvest that produced more than they needed.
At the time, I'm sure I didn't have an inkling of an idea about how challenging life would be or how our faith and trust in God can be battered by the apparent absence of God or the lack of real growth of anything around us. I couldn't have imagined that I'd ever ask, "Can these small efforts ever really make a difference, let alone produce an abundant harvest?"
And, I remember watching my mother make dough. I was fascinated with how she would make sure the water was very warm - not too hot or too cool - as she put the yeast in the water, with just a bit of sugar. My sister and I would get very close to the bowl and just watch to see it happen. The small grains of yeast would slowly swell and rise to the surface and just explode. And as the foaming yeast would bubble up, the sight and the smell were so exciting.
Then, when the yeast was ready, she would pour it into the flour and begin to knead it. As she kneaded and kneaded the dough, adding a bit more flour every so often, we would marvel at how elastic and smooth the dough became. Finally, when it was just right, she would bless the dough, placing a small cross on top, before she covered the bowl with a towel and put it in a warm place to rise. We asked, "Mom, why do you bless the dough?" We knew the answer by heart, but we loved to hear her tell us that, though she did this work of preparing and kneading the dough, it was God's work that made it rise. We always wanted to peek under the towel and see how the dough was doing. It seemed that there was no change for what seemed to be "forever." But, then, as it always did, the dough had grown a little bit. And, before we knew it, the towel was pushed up by the large swollen dough.
I know I didn't understand at the time the profound mystery she was sharing with us. I am beginning to learn a bit of humility and patience before my efforts to do good - to be helpful to others, transform the world - or with what seems to me to be the very slow arrival of the reign of God in the church. It is God who is working, laboring behind the scenes in so many ways. His kingdom will come. His will surely will be done.
Slow, imperceptible, natural, reliable, inevitable, awesome. That's what the Kingdom of God is like.
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