The Unknowable Kingdom: Lenten Meditation, 3/1/2013

Mark 4:26-29
March 1, 2013

“He also said, ‘This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain – first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.’”

“Dear Lord, give us the strength to do your work, and the faith to know that you will see it to completion.”

On one level, today's scripture is about learning to let go, learning to trust that God has created the world in such a way that His work, if started by us, will grow into something vital and nourishing. But I also think there is another part of this passage.

Lent is about Christ's journey toward the cross, but it is also about taking time to find our own relationship with God. When I was serving as a Chaplain's Assistant in the Army, I once had a soldier come to my office and ask, “What's the point of Lent? We already know how the story turns out.” I thought about that question, and it does seem to make sense. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. That's a story we tell in liturgy every week. If we know it so well, if we have it so well boiled down into that efficient triad, why do we need Lent?

The answer, I suspect, comes from the fact that we don't know. We have faith, but that isn't the same thing as knowledge. There are many different understandings of what the story of Easter means, about what the resurrection is and will be.

Last Easter, I was walking after church with a dear friend of mine. She is a devout Episcopalian, but does not believe that Jesus literally returned to bodily life. She finds greater meaning in the teaching and work of Christ. As we left our parish, we got to comparing our fairly different beliefs.

As we talked, a terrifying idea sprung into my head. What if Jesus, fully God and fully human, was like us, holding onto faith but living as all humans do without perfect, accurate knowledge of the future. What would that mean for Lent, for his walk toward Gethsemane and beyond? Could he have feared that his resurrection would be a metaphor, something about the perseverance of good in an evil world? Or could he have imagined that when he rose again he would no longer be the carpenter's son from Nazareth; no longer a dutiful son who provided wine for a wedding when his mother asked; no longer a friend who could lay his head on another shoulder or weep for a friend's death, but instead returning as some other sort of thing entirely – an unknowable, cosmic, divine entity with strange ways and mysterious motives?

If Jesus saw the cross as an ultimate end to some part of himself, what does today's parable mean for us, his followers? Is it possible that he was reminding not only the disciples, but also himself, that this thing that is coming into the world through him and his followers, this Kingdom of God, was not wholly dependent on the actions on any one individual, but would thrive through the sustenance of God's well-made world even if he didn't know exactly how?