Sunday, June 13, 2021

Sermon: “God’s Co-Op”, Genesis 2:4-9a, 15, 18-22/Mark 4:26-32 (June 13, 2021)


God’s kingdom has been compared to a lot of things. According to Jesus, the Kingdom of God is like a treasure hidden in a field, a pearl of great price, yeast, a fishing net, a landowner hiring day laborers, a wedding banquet, servants entrusted with talents, and so on and so on. All revealing something important about God’s kingdom, and yet all (to our modern ears, anyway) rather enigmatic. (What actually *is* a talent, anyway?) If even the disciples struggled to extract meaning from these parables in their context, what hope do we have today?

For this reason, some metaphors for God’s kingdom are more helpful than others. Although few of us are in the fishing business these days, we don’t generally employ servants, and we use a different monetary system today, there’s still one category of biblical metaphor for which most of us still have some frame of reference: gardening. We might not all have a particular talent for horticulture, but we do all have a basic understanding about how seeds grow. Many of us have even participated in the planting of a seed at one time or another (with varying degrees of success). So it’s scripture’s gardening metaphors for God’s kingdom that, in my opinion, best stand the test of time for us.

Besides, they’re more aligned to God’s own understanding of God’s realm than the language that we usually hear used to describe it. See, we’ve come to understand the world under God’s reign as “God’s kingdom” because that’s the language that we inherited from a people living in the time of monarchies and empires. But while God certainly is sovereign and all-powerful, a kingdom isn’t the image that Godself has in mind. When God first established a place for the human and the divine to dwell together at the beginning of Genesis, God modeled it not after a kingdom, but a garden. The gardening metaphor for God’s “kingdom” is actually the very first that scripture offers to us.

Usually, when we read the creation stories, we focus either on the magnificent things that God has done (creating the sun, moon, stars, oceans, creatures, and, of course, human beings) or the terrible things that humanity has done (disobeying God, hiding from the consequences, and blaming one another). But maybe we should be reading these stories less as cautionary tales and more as glimpses of God’s intention for our relationship with the divine. For today’s reading, I cut out the parts of Genesis 2 that foreshadow the story’s infamous conclusion to keep us from getting too far ahead of ourselves. Without the references to the trees of life and the knowledge of good and evil, our minds are freed to focus not on the inevitable sins of humankind, but instead on humanity’s existence alongside the divine as God intended it from the very beginning.

God creates humanity out of topsoil, intending humankind to be intimately connected to the earth. God plants the garden of Eden, but tasks humanity to take care of it, intending the creator and the created to be co-workers. God forms animals and birds and asks humanity to name them, intending to give us a sense of responsibility for our fellow creatures. God forms the second human from the first, intending for us to be “perfect helpers” to one another. God could have created a world where everything bows to the divine will, where everything exists as sycophants of the Almighty. God could have created a literal kingdom, with Godself as the sole focus. But instead, God chose to create an interconnected world. A world that depends not just on the benevolence of the divine, but on the participation and stewardship of the human and on our relationships with one another.

Lest we think the opportunity for this beautiful existence died with the exile from Eden, Jesus assures us that this isn’t the case. “This is what God’s kingdom is like,” he says. “It’s as though someone scatters seed on the ground…the earth produces crops all by itself…[and] Whenever the crop is ready, the farmer goes out to cut the grain because it’s harvesttime.” As was the case in Eden, the “kingdom of God” is still, and forever will be, a joint effort between humanity, the earth, and the divine.

This garden language seems more than sufficient to convey the idea of what we know as “God’s Kingdom”, but unfortunately, this metaphor still has some drawbacks. Even though we understand the technicalities of how it works, some of us can’t relate so well to the joy of horticulture. For some of us, the idea of God and humankind working together to nurture and harvest plants is a lovely image, but the reality of our own gardening misadventures makes this metaphor elicit horror rather than the intended visions of Edenic bliss. So it might be helpful to those of us without a green thumb to extend the garden metaphor a bit further and imagine where the crops from God’s garden might ultimately end up: in a food co-op.

It may seem strange to equate God’s kingdom with a commercial endeavor, but a co-op is very different from the imperial model of economics during Jesus’ time or the capitalist model most prevalent in ours. The priority of a co-op isn’t economic control or financial gain; the goal is mutual benefit to everyone involved. And because everyone involved is personally invested, everyone works together to make it a success: studies have shown that co-ops are generally more effective[1] and enduring[2] than other business models.

If you’re still dubious about the claim that God’s kingdom is like a co-op, consider these principles[3] that most cooperatives hold in common:

● Voluntary and open membership: we know that God yearns for a relationship with us, but participation in God’s kingdom is ultimately our choice.

● Economic participation by members: once we accept our membership in God’s family, the real work begins. We have a responsibility to help make God’s kingdom successful; as the garden metaphor puts it, we sow and nurture the seeds while God provides the growth—everyone has a role.

● Autonomy and independence: God guides us, but doesn’t tell us what to do. We have the freedom to engage in ministry according to our strengths and passions.

● Education, training, and information: this is where the Church comes in. The Church isn’t the co-op itself, but we gather here each week to listen, learn, share, and prepare ourselves for the actual work that takes place outside of these walls.

● Cooperation among cooperatives: this one doesn’t have a direct parallel, since God’s co-op is the only one of its kind, but we ARE called to work together with others seeking God’s kingdom in different ways—other denominations, our Jewish and Muslim siblings, our Buddhist and Hindu kindred, even atheists and agnostics pursuing the peace, justice, and mercy that we believe has God as its source.

● Concern for community: I mean…obviously. This is the whole point, right? God’s co-op is ALL about caring for God’s creation, for the earth and animals and one another. If we don’t have a concern for the larger community, I’d argue that we’re really not taking part in God’s kingdom at all.

The only cooperative principle that God’s co-op doesn’t adhere to is “democratic member control”—because God is sovereign, and we choose to obey God’s commands. But God’s co-op comes as close to a democratic system as any organization under an omnipotent deity can: God listens to us, God reaches out to us, and God responds to us. According to scripture, God sometimes even changes God’s mind based on our input. We may not have an “equal vote”, but our voices are certainly appreciated and heard.

If God’s kingdom is like a co-op, then, that makes us all stakeholders. We ALL have something to gain, but we also all have a responsibility to participate. Just as the first human was placed in Eden to farm and take care of the land, just as the farmer in Jesus’ parable scatters the seed and harvests the crop, so too do we have our own work to do. We must work to make the co-op inclusive and welcoming. We must work to make it fruitful for EVERYONE, not just ourselves. We must work to spread the word. We must work to make sure that the hope and promise of God’s kingdom doesn’t become lost in the demands of the empire.

It sounds like a lot of work. And it is. But it’s not the tedious, soul-crushing work of a minimum-wage job or the “daily grind” that you can’t seem to escape (or for that matter, of a garden that you can’t keep alive no matter how hard you try). It’s the life-giving work of a cause that you really believe in, of a purpose worth waking up for, of an undertaking that offers joy and fulfillment. This is the sort of work that the Kingdom of God—God’s co-op—requires from us. We can handle that.

And what could be better than being in business with God? No matter what we bring to the table, no matter how meager our contributions may seem, God is sure to do amazing things with them. We may be contributing tiny, insignificant mustard seeds, but God grows these seeds into plants large enough to provide shelter for birds. We may feel like minor partners in the co-op, but our work is still vital to the success of the whole, and with God’s help, it will make a bigger difference than we could ever possibly imagine.

So go all-in, whatever that means for you. Commit your whole self to this co-op. God has designed it from the very beginning to need YOU, your unique contributions, your special offerings. Bring them to the table and see what happens when we all participate. Your cooperation is a vital part of the plan, and it always has been. Don’t wait around for the day that God’s kingdom magically appears. Start working at the co-op now and watch the world change around you as humanity works alongside the divine—just as God has always intended. Amen.





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