A group affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan came to my town of Charlottesville, Virginia, on July 8.
They came to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in one of our city parks.
I’m part of the Charlottesville Clergy Collective, a group of faith leaders who have been meeting to discuss racial issues in our community. With the announcement by the Klan rally, the faith leaders decided to organize a response.
Since then, I’ve been pondering about how God is at work in a world filled with discord, strife and violence.
Jesus’ parable of the mustard seed in Mark 4:30-32 came to mind. This parable comes amid Jesus explaining what the kingdom of God is like – it’s like a tiny seed that grows into a large bush that gives shelter to birds.
It’s a familiar parable. Many have interpreted it along these lines: God can make small things into big things.
However, according to Pliny the Elder, the mustard plant is such a fast-growing plant that “once sown, it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once.”
In other words, the mustard plant is a weed like kudzu.
According to biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan, “The point is … that [the mustard seed plant] tends to take over where it is not wanted, that it tends to get out of control, and that it tends to attract birds within cultivated areas where they are not particularly desired.”
Mustard seed plants are dangerous in gardens. They’re deadly in grain fields.
So, does this mean that the kingdom of God is like a weed that attracts birds where you don’t want them? Is it any wonder that Jesus’ disciples also had a hard time understanding Jesus and his parables?
I once heard about a man who bought a house with an overgrown garden. The weeds had long since taken over the garden; it was a mess.
Slowly, the man began to clear the weeds, till the soil and plant the seeds. He continued weeding the garden and kept the birds, the deer and the bugs away. Finally, he made it into a showcase garden.
One day, the minister came to visit. When he saw the beautiful flowers and plants, he observed, “Well, friend, you and God have done a marvelous job on this garden.”
To which the homeowner shook his head and replied, “You should have seen it when God had it by himself.”
This is an amusing joke. But what if the kingdom of God is more like the overgrown garden than the worked-over, man-made showcase garden?
What if the kingdom of God is like an overgrown garden where wheat and weeds coexist and grow in ways that human beings cannot control? What a different way to think about the kingdom of God.
I must confess that this way of thinking is beautiful, scary and challenging.
It’s beautiful because, to me, it is a vision of John 3:16: “For God so loved the world” – a love that radiates out from our Jerusalems and our Judeas, to our Samarias and all the way out to the ends of the earth.
It’s scary because it confronts me to consider those who are very different from me, and even those who are antagonistic toward me, as included in the all-embracing love of God.
It’s challenging because it is messy. I like my religion neat and orderly. I’m used to planning and controlling. It’s hard to let go of my desired outcomes and let God’s mysterious rule reign supreme.
So, on the day of the Klan rally, more than 400 people from various faith communities gathered at a church next to the park to pray, to march and to participate in other events, such as a community concert.
As the communications coordinator for the Clergy Collective, my plan for that day was to blend in with the crowd and take pictures to post on social media.
The next thing I knew, my arm was linked with five other faith leaders. Unwittingly, I found myself leading 300 members in a march from the church into the park.
Instead of blending in with the crowd, I was thrust onto the front line. Instead of me taking pictures, people took pictures of me. So much for my well-laid plans.
But when we arrived at the park, we entered one of the loudest, most chaotic assemblages of humanity I’ve ever experienced.
Altogether, more than 1,000 people gathered, comprised of our group as well as anarchists, socialists, families, musicians, Black Lives Matter activists, other racial justice groups and even hellfire-and-brimstone preachers.
People marched, sang, shouted, chanted, banged drums, blew horns. Some shouted obscenities at the Klan and the police.
Pretty soon, we were mixed in with all these people. What a mess!
In biblical language, it was weeds and wheat all entangled together. That’s another image Jesus used to describe the kingdom of God.
As I now reflect back on that day, I can’t help but wonder: Could this also be what Jesus had in mind when he described the kingdom of God?
I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: In the aftermath of July 8, I do know God planted these mustard seeds.
Seeds of connection: I feel closer to all the faith leaders who participated in our public response.
Seeds of clarity: I do know that we are not called to fight against flesh and blood, against individuals in the Klan. God calls us to fight against principalities and powers. God calls us to fight systems of injustice and oppression in which we are all complicit.
Seeds of love: Many of the faith leaders reminded us that we are also called to love even the Klan members, while hating any racist attitudes that are still in ourselves.
Weeds and wheat were not only in the park. Weeds and wheat grew in each of us. As I look back, God planted mustard seeds in me and others that day.
I pray these seeds will grow in my life in ways that I can’t understand or control.
As they grow, I pray that a new creation will be born in me, through me and even in spite of me.
May they grow into sprawling mustard trees whose branches spread out to embody the wideness of God’s mercy.
Maybe that’s what the kingdom of God is like.
Michael Cheuk is a Baptist Center for Ethics board member. He and his family live in Charlottesville, Virginia. He is a leadership coach and church consultant at michaelkcheuk.com. You can follow him on Twitter @MichaelKCheuk.