Imagination, Story, and Kingdom: (Late) Reflections on the Third Week of Pentecost

The Gospel Text for the Third Sunday of Pentecost, Mark 4:26-34 (TNIV)

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’m still playing catch up, and still a week behind on these – yet being late has turned out to be providential for me. I had followed my normal routine for the lectionary passages. I had done my readings of the passages, oriented my private reflections around them as usual for the week, looked at some Greek, read some N.T. Wright, and so forth … normal stuff for me. But when I went to write nothing flowed. However, this morning with our Crosspoint community, within ecclesia, over the communion table of our Lord’s body and blood, in conversation and community, and through the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (much thanks to the Rogers family for leading us), the fog it seems was cleared and there was clarity. (Note: it works both ways – sometimes our experience helps us sort out what we know and have studied; and sometimes what we know and have studied helps us sort out our experience. Its never one or the other, but the two existing in interrelation and interdependence.)

Parables and Priorities

Before getting to the text at hand, we need to back up a bit and talk about the use of parables by Jesus. Now, it is common when we hear a sermon on the parables for the preacher to systematize the thing by breaking it down into parts (and, most importantly, sermon points) with the seeming purpose of relating it to each of us directly and individually. Thus the common questions: does your individual heart represent the hard ground, the rocky ground, the thorns and weeds, or the good soil? But this is to almost entirely miss the point from the very beginning – to miss the context of the kingdom.

This is not to say that the parables have nothing to do with us, they certainly do – its just that we aren’t the main subject. The danger here is that if we act like we are we are liable to substitute our own kingdom for the kingdom of God. Here is a general ‘rule’ I go by when dealing with the parables: they first and foremost tell us about the nature of the kingdom of God and the identity of Jesus before they tell us anything about us. Or we could say that whatever they tell us about us, they tell us about ourselves in relation to Jesus and his kingdom. Jesus and the kingdom of God first, us second.

Parables: Revealing and Concealing

This is all a carryover from the previous scene in chapter 3 where Jesus began using parables to respond to the religious leaders. Whether one understood the parables or not, and one’s reaction to the parables indicated how much was really understood of Jesus himself and the inbreaking kingdom. In chapter 4 we find Jesus again teaching by parables, in this case, the parable of the sower (vs 3-9). This parable was a teaching on the establishment of God’s kingdom in Jesus, the great eschatological moment of renewal that had been promised. For those that had ears to understand this was a message that God was making the land fruitful again. But as this parable shows a great many don’t get what Jesus is saying, his disciples included! They question Jesus and he responds with an explanation (vs 13-20) which, ironically, apparently wasn’t understood much better. The parables both revealed and concealed. And my suggestion here is that Jesus himself is the hermeneutical key to understanding the parables.

If we refuse to center our identities around Jesus and his kingdom, the parables become stumbling blocks. We may grow tired of having to wrestle with truths we feel should just be explained ‘clearly’ (see the disciples in verse 10). Or we may feel threatened in our position or status. Or we might conclude that we aren’t getting what is due us, that Jesus isn’t bringing in the kingdom the way we want him too. People responded in all these ways and more to Jesus and his parables, indicating whether or not they were part of Jesus’ ‘true family’ (3:35). The kingdom of God is a ‘mystery’, not a puzzle to be solved. We don’t deduce the kingdom by adding up clues. The word ‘mystery’ here is the word for God revealing something previously hidden and that otherwise we would not have access too. While our heads may certainly be involved – it is equally as much (or more) a matter of our hands and hearts as well.

Developing a Kingdom Imagination

While this may sound strange coming from someone with formal theological training (of the systematic type even) I firmly believe that we cannot ‘systematize’ ourselves into the kingdom! Jesus did not bring in the kingdom along with a systematic theology. Instead, he drew from the familiar and organic images the people knew and he told stories, lots of stories. The kingdom of God contains a surplus that can never be contained in an instruction manual. Attempts to make Scripture either an instruction manual or systematic theology demonstrate a lack of understanding of what the kingdom is and the manner in which God forms a kingdom people. We are by necessity storied into the kingdom and storied into a kingdom people by the conversion of our imaginations.

This is what following the church calendar is about – through doing so we narrate ourselves into the life and story of Christ. This is what our weekly liturgy is about – storying ourselves into the kingdom by the shaping of our imaginations. One of the ways that we do this is through taking Communion as a community each week. Through the Eucharist we narrate the gospel, the story of Christ becomes our own defining narrative, and we are formed into a cruciform, kingdom shaped people (as I have said before, I don’t know how churches get by without taking Communion weekly).

In addition, there are at least three other ways that come to mind for me with which we could shape ourselves as a kingdom people. The first is the regular corporate recitation of the Apostles or Nicene Creed, not merely as an ‘indoctrination’ into a supposedly dry, stale Trinitarian dogma, but as a way to convert our imaginations to the activity and story of Father, Son, and Spirit in the world in which we are brought to participation. The second, is the regular practice of corporate lament for those places in our lives, community, and the world where the kingdom is not manifest. I am convinced we cannot call ourselves a kingdom shaped people unless we lament and grieve well … together.

Now I expect some possible pushback on the first one, even from those that may have (re)discovered an appreciation for the church calendar and liturgy. Some may even think I’m nuts for bringing it up. And I expect that the practice of lamenting and grieving together will be too intimate for many (for us it was something we were thrust into and couldn’t avoid). The third thing I have in mind though is the corporate reading/recitation of the Lord’s Prayer (Matt 6:9-13). Now, this prayer could just as appropriately be called the ‘Disciples Prayer’ but the designation that really captures my own imagination is the Lord’s Prayer as the ‘Cry of the Kingdom.’ Everything we need for the formation of a kingdom shaped people is in the ‘Cry of the Kingdom.’ I was blessed by our saying of the prayer this week and I believe we would be served well to say this prayer communally on a weekly basis. (I have other ideas but we’ll leave it at these three for now.)

You might say that the formation of a kingdom and Jesus shaped people takes (communal) practice – the sharing of the Table, the reading of the biblical story, shared lament, and the recitation of the prayer (and even the Creed) – by this we narrate the Story in multiple ways. And we do these things weekly, we do them and then we do them again. We do this because, as my grandfather told me, in repetition there is learning. But developing a kingdom imagination is not just about the head. We find also that in repetition there is living – a kingdom imagination involves the hands as well, the formation of kingdom practices. Finally, we find that in repetition there is loving/longing – and imagination of the heart as well, the desiring of the kingdom. At the intersection of the formation of our head, hands, and heart is a kingdom shaped imagination.

Go Small, Go Slow, and Go Home

It seems clear to me that the majority of Evangelicalism as a conglomeration is captured by a malformed ‘go big or go home’ imagination (browsing the shelves at any Christian retail store will confirm this). I expressed my frustration with this way of thinking, doing, and loving in my last post.  So, what shall we say as we try to imagine the kingdom through the lenses of the parable of the growing seed and the parable of the mustard seed (as well as the parable of the sower)? The first thing that jumps out is that all these parables involve the planting of something small, a seed. Second, we find that the images used here are all from the normal, everyday, local experience of the listeners. Third, we find that the image of a seed is both organic and slow.

Allow me to suggest that rather than the ‘go big or go home’ imagination, we are better served for the kingdom of God with a ‘go small, go slow, and go home’ imagination. Go small because the little things of the kingdom are what subverts the injustice of world systems. Go slow because the kingdom is more like a fruitful harvest that grows over time rather than have it your way fast food. Go home (or local) because the locally incarnated kingdom of God redeems the comings and goings of our mundane, ordinary, and everyday localities. There seem to be many who have a disdain for mundane, but if the kingdom is not manifest locally in the mundane it is not manifest at all. This is what the presence of a Jesus shaped people with a kingdom imagination (ie, ecclesia) is all about.

May we be such a people.

May our imaginations be captured by our liberating King Jesus this week!

Prayer for the Third Sunday of Pentecost

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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