June 23 | The Kin(g)dom of God: Appalachia Build Trip Reflection

Texts: Matthew 13:31-35, 44-48; Luke 17:20-21
Speaker: Mark Rupp

The Kin-dom of God is like…a wise Gardener who had many children. While these children were very young, the Gardener went away, leaving three stewards in charge. 

One of these stewards was very smart and had spent a lot of time learning from the wise Gardener, so this steward taught the children all the things the Gardener had said about how to care for the Garden. Some of the children became like this steward, and over time they even began studying the things the first steward had written about the Gardener. And they declared this to be the most important work of tending the Garden. 

The second steward was very passionate and creative, spending lots of time marveling at the wisdom of the Gardener and the wonder of the Garden. This steward wrote marvelous songs to sing in the Garden and created rituals to help the children remember the Gardener. Some of the children became like this steward, and over time they wrote even more songs and created new beautiful ways to remember and honor the Gardener. And they declared this to be the most important work of tending the Garden. 

The third steward was very strong of body and skillful with the work of the hands, and used this strength to build structures to support the growth of the Garden in the ways the Gardener had done. Some of the children became like this steward, adding their strength to the work of building up the Garden, and over time they added new structures to support its growth and walls to protect its fruit. And they declared this to be the most important work of tending the Garden. 

As time went by, the Gardener remained gone and the three original stewards passed on their wisdom to the children and the children’s children after them. The Garden continued to grow and teem with life, but as the generations of children also continued to grow, they knew the Garden could not contain them. They began to live beyond the Garden walls, but the new generations of stewards assured them they could still do the important work of the Garden as long as they set aside time to return. So they did, and some of them continued to study the words and actions of the Gardener, some of them continued to sing songs of the Garden, and some of them continued to till its soil and build new structures to expand the Garden. 

But as they spent more time outside the Garden they also began to study new topics, to sing new songs, and to put their hands to good work that seemed to have little to do with the Garden. When they presented the work of their hands, the songs of their hearts, and the revelations of their minds to the new generation of stewards, the stewards turned away those works that were not for the Garden or about the Gardener. As more time went on, the people saw less and less connection between the good work of the Garden and all the other good and important work they spent their time doing. 

So the Garden began to suffer and the stewards began to worry. Some of the stewards declared that the people simply needed to be reminded of the importance of Garden work, so they set about convincing the people to give more time and energy to the Garden. Other stewards declared that the Garden needed higher walls to keep the Garden’s fruit from going to those who no longer worked for its sweetness, so they set about strengthening the boundaries of the Garden. But some of the stewards began to declare that the Gardener was also known by other names such as the Creator, the Redeemer, the Sustainer, the Artist, the Architect, the Sage, and many others, so these stewards set about helping the people see that greatest work of the Garden is the creation of life in harmony and all work that seeks that harmony is Garden work.  

In some places the Garden continued to shrink until its plots stood empty. In other places, the Garden grew stronger but its fruit was available to fewer and fewer people. And in other places the Garden hardly looked like a Garden at all, though those who tended those plots could swear they still smelled honey in the air. 

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…


It felt appropriate to start off a sermon about the Kin-dom of God with a parable, but I quickly found that writing an original parable is not an easy task. Which metaphors work best? How do you remain precise while also getting your point across? How do you get a point across while also leaving enough of it open ended for people to wonder and wander their way through it over and over again?

In the end, I don’t think mine quite has the same amount of wisdom as any of the ones attributed to Jesus in the gospels. Or at least, I know I didn’t manage to keep it as pithy and succinct as Jesus.  

But it felt like an exercise worth undertaking because when Jesus speaks about the Kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven, more often than not, he does so in parables. The passage from Matthew read earlier even says “without a parable he told them nothing.” And on more than one occasion, the gospel writers make a point to have Jesus explaining why he does just that. In the passages I chose for today, we hear him quoting Psalm 78 to explain that through parables he will “proclaim what has been hidden since the foundation.” Apparently the hidden foundations of the world are revealed in puzzling parables rather than unambiguous blueprints.

Mustard seeds, yeast, buried treasure, pearls of great value, and fishing nets. The Kingdom of God is like all of these. And as with any metaphor, there is just as much wisdom in puzzling out how something is like something else as there is in puzzling out how they are not alike. And if you’ve been around CMC long enough, you probably know that we typically play with the metaphor of the Kingdom, removing the “g” to make it “Kin-dom.” We pick up this new language from certain mujerista and Latinx theologies as a way of recognizing the patriarchal and hierarchical roots of the “Kingdom” metaphor, but also as a way of acknowledging that so much about the way Jesus talks about the “Kingdom” reflects a new way of thinking about power and relationships, much more in line with the idea of a community of kindred than a community built around top-down roles like kings or queens. 

When we switch to Kin-dom language, we lose a bit of the subversive power in talking about the Kingdom of God in contrast to the very real Kingdom’s that held power during Jesus’ time. But then again, perhaps talking about the idea of a Kin-dom is even more subversive today in a society where we are much more likely to struggle with isolation, loneliness, and individualism than we are to struggle against literal kings and emperors.

And the Kin-dom has been on my mind because the Appalachia Build staff utilized the Kingdom of God as a theme for their daily reflections while we were there a few weeks ago with our High School group. Formerly known as SWAP, Appalachia Build is a ministry of Mennonite Central Committee that coordinates home repairs in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. Volunteers help families make their homes safe, warm and dry, while building relationships and learning about Appalachia. While we were there, we spent our time building a deck with a ramp for a household that included a young man with muscular dystrophy who utilized a wheelchair. 

It was good work in a lot of different ways, and the experiences of that week taught or reinforced for me three different ideas about the Kin-dom of God I want to share with you all this morning.  

The first idea is probably not a new one, but one that I think needs reinforcement time and time again. And that is: The Kin-dom of God calls to us from beyond the walls of the Church. This may seem obvious to most of us, but sometimes we treat the work we do outside these walls as tangential to the “real work” of the Church. Sometimes the way we structure Church life can feel as though the work of the head and the heart is the most important Kin-dom work. What’s more, it’s not just that the Kin-dom of God calls us to go beyond the walls of the Church, it’s already there, calling to us to join in the ways God is already moving in people’s lives, including our own. 

During one of the daily reflections, one of the staff members shared a piece of wisdom that had been handed to her. She told us that the difference between a tourist and a pilgrim is that a tourist passes through a place while a pilgrim allows the place to pass through them. In this she was inviting us to see ourselves not as tourists, not just as someone sweeping through to do some charity work before leaving unchanged, but to see ourselves as pilgrims, allowing the people and the places we encountered to move through us and to risk being changed in the process. 

The work of the Kin-dom is always risky in that we may be changed and transformed the more we tend to it and the more it calls us toward unfamiliar places. 

This call beyond the walls of the Church can help remind us that all work we do can be sacred work, that the rocky West Virginia soil that we have to dig through to make post holes can be just as holy as the soft-purple carpet inside our worship space. The four young men that went on this trip have lots of gifts to share with our congregation and the world, but they are probably the least likely to volunteer to be up front on a Sunday morning in any capacity. But they, too, have sacred gifts to share within the Kin-dom. My hope for them–and for us all–is that we can see that swinging hammers and pounding through rocks are just as sacred as songleading or preaching.  Any work that seeks the Kin-dom is good and holy work where we can encounter the presence of God. 

The second idea that was reinforced for me through this experience with Appalachia Build was that the Kin-dom of God is all about relationships. Again, probably nothing new, but a necessary reminder. 

A big part of the reason we continue to partner with Appalachia Build–and MCC more widely–is that they do a great job of basing their work in relationships of mutuality. On the first evening of our orientation, the staff ran our group through an activity where we were challenged to rank the following priorities for our week: Productivity, Perfection, Safety, and Relationships. Either our kids are really smart, or they had already tipped their hand enough that we were easily able to put them in the correct order of importance: Safety, Relationships, Productivity, Perfection. 

Yes, safety was first, and I’m sure all the parents of the kids in the group are relieved to hear this, though how well this was followed is up for debate since our group made the local news when a reporter drove by and saw the boys on top of the town of Kimball’s historic train caboose…They were fine. 

But a close second to Safety was Relationships, and this wasn’t just given lip service because it sounds nice for a Mennonite agency to do so. They truly encouraged us to prioritize building relationships, especially with the homeowners, even if it meant that the project we were working on didn’t get finished. Knowing our group of boys, I kind of thought this might be the bigger challenge for them, perhaps even greater than breaking through rocks while digging post holes.  

But I was pleasantly surprised. The project assigned to us by the Appalachia Build staff really was the ideal project because it not only fit our skill level well, but it was also a chance for our young people to share their gifts with a peer and have the opportunity to get to know him. On our first day on the job, the young man’s mother greeted us and shared that she wasn’t sure if her son would come out to say hi because he sometimes has a hard time getting up and around. 

Around midday, however, he had wheeled out onto the in-progress-but-hopefully-stable deck to check out our work. It turned out we had put all the screws in the right places, and our work held up to the weight of his chair. And by the end of the day, the young man was spending long stretches of time out on the shady part of the deck watching us work and even razzing us about all the things we were doing wrong. 

You can always tell you’re building a relationship with a teenager when they feel comfortable enough to tease you. 

By day two, Eliza had the young man helping put in some of the screws for the balusters along the railing. During lunch on that second day while we were eating in the front yard, there was a moment I realized I was missing some of the boys. I expected to find them goofing off somewhere, but when I came around the back of the house I found them sitting on the deck with the young man chatting and playing with the family’s pets. We let the lunch break go a little longer that day. 

We worked hard during that week, and we ended up pretty much completing the deck project by the end of the second day. But while the deck was good and important work, perhaps the more important work we did was building relationships, both with the family and among ourselves. The Kin-dom of God is all about relationships. They are both the ends we seek, and the way we get there. In the same way that peace and justice must be both the means and the end; if we are not building relationships of peace and justice along the way, we will have lost sight of the Kin-dom.  

The final lesson that I walked away with after a week with Appalachia Build is that the Kin-dom of God is never quite complete. Yes, we had pretty much done all we could do for the deck project we were assigned even though they were expecting it to take all week. I think this may have been a result of our boys working so hard because they thought that if they got all the tasks done there wouldn’t be any more tasks to do. Silly boys. As with any project there is always more that could be done. It was a little too wet for us to complete the sanding, and the wood needed to set before it could be stained. And the gravel will probably settle and need some fill added…

Even though my hard working group finished by the third day, surprise, surprise, they were able to find more work for us to do. They gave us a couple options. One of them involved using the deck-building skills we had gained over the past few days, so I chose that one. And those silly boys continued to work hard on that last day even though they likely realized there would always be more tasks to be done. Well, to be fair, that was the day they spent a long break on top of the caboose, and they may have also used another break to construct an artistic sculpture by screwing together the triangular scrap pieces of wood leftover after cutting out the stairs. It was…something. Kin-dom work doesn’t have to be all toil and hard labor. 

And just like the work of MCC’s Appalachia Build program will probably never be finished–at least not in our lifetime since they have a back-log of repair requests going back more than two years–the work of making sure our churches and mission programs are aligned with Kin-dom values will also never be done. Throughout the week, the staff members kept dropping hints to our group about considering whether they might like to work for Appalachia Build. The program often utilizes college age young adults as worksite assistants, and I think they could see how hard-working our group was. On our final night together, when they mentioned this job opportunity again, I felt compelled to ask if MCC’s hiring practices were still discriminatory toward LGBTQ+ folks. I remember hearing about this a long time ago and wasn’t sure if anything had changed. The site directors who had been working with MCC for 8+ years seemed confused by the question, but the young man working as a site assistant for the first time that summer confirmed that new employees were asked to sign something affirming the Confession of Faith, including the parts about heterosexual marriage as the accepted norm. MCC and Appalachia Build do lots of good work. And I am welcome to volunteer my time and energy with them, but as far as I can tell, I and other queer folks like me are not able to work there in a paid capacity, at least not without putting ourselves at risk. 

What’s more, just this past week, an open letter from current and former MCC employees has begun circulating that brings to light harmful practices within the organization. This is recent enough that I haven’t yet heard of a response from MCC, though it was certainly on people’s minds this last weekend at the Central District Conference gathering.  

The work of the Kin-dom is never done. Whether its through our beloved congregation, our wider conference or denomination, or a well-intentioned service program, or any other type of community where these complex beings called humans come together, we are going to get it wrong at times. And we need to be ready to call one another toward greater justice and deeper peace and accept those calls when they are directed toward us. Maybe a final lesson is that Kin-dom work is messy, complex work. 

And if you want another take on this constantly evolving Kin-dom work, I encourage you to read or listen to Katelyn Amstutz’s sermon from last week titled, “Queering Our Horizons.” I found it to be both challenging and hopeful.  

In the passage from Luke read earlier, the people come to Jesus wanting signs, clearly delineated indications that the Kingdom of God is here. But he tells them, stop waiting on signs and wonders, hoping that some spectacular “other” will bring about the kin-dom, stop assuming that the prophets and the preachers are the only ones who are doing kin-dom work. Instead he tells them, the Kin-dom is among you, or the translation I like, “within” you. 

The power and goodness of the Kin-dom are within us all, stored up as our potential for showing love in every moment. The Kin-dom is within because we all have the capacity to choose to build relationships of peace and justice with each other and the world around us.  The Kin-dom is within because it rests on the power of God working through the work of our heads, our hearts, and our hands to keep bringing new life out of places of death and destruction.

I started with my attempt at a parable about the Kin-dom that turned out to be far too long, so I’ll end with one that is much shorter. I’ll let you decide if that means its any better.

The Kin-dom of God is like a person who sets out to build a deck. They didn’t know where the materials would come from and they weren’t sure they had the skills. But they knew the deck needed to be built, so they set out to do it anyway. Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…