Year B, Proper 6 June 14, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“To what can we compare the Kingdom of God?”
Now that is an excellent question.
OK, finally, we are here in plain old Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time actually began the day after Pentecost, that is when the green came out, but that next Sunday was Trinity Sunday, a principal feast of the year, and then last week was Satan Sunday which put us off a bit, which brings us to today, the Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6, Ordinary Time. What do we mean by Ordinary Time? ____ If it is not a feast season, or if it is not a fast season, it is Ordinary Time. From the Baptism of our Lord (the first Sunday after Epiphany) to Ash Wednesday, and then from the Day of Pentecost to the First Sunday in Advent, we are in ordinary time, a little over half of the year. I often wish that half of my year was ordinary… So lacking that in most of our lives, we have the church calendar, the cycle of seasons, the cycle of fasts, feasts and neither to help align us to the way things really are, to what God is calling us to be and to become. All pointing us in the direction that Jesus calls us to from across the ages, the Kingdom, or in more egalitarian language, to the Commonwealth of God.
The Commonwealth of God means seeing the world for how it actually is and then living fully into that knowledge, acting, living as if what you know to be true is in fact true. All poverty would be eradicated tomorrow if we just realized that there is plenty for everyone if we just shared. Really. That is actually true. Like if we stopped giving people across the world a lot of very good reasons to hate us as Americans, maybe they wouldn’t hate us as much. That is actually true, too. But assuming that that is what Jesus means, that the commonwealth of God is the world seen and lived in as it actually is and not how we or the powers with vested interest in it would have it be, but even assuming that that is what Jesus meant, just knowing that, believing that, just holding that in our frontal cortex, that just isn’t enough. Knowing might be half the battle, but there is a whole lot more to consider than what we know.
I studied industrial history as an undergrad. The history of industrialization, of industrialists, and of industrial unions. I learned so much about the horrors of the mills, the dangerous work and even more dangerous management. I knew much about the struggle workers faced to get safer workplaces, fair wages, and little niceties like weekends and overtime. I knew this and admired the courage, tenacity and success of Big Bill Haywood and other heroes of labor. I knew all that, how wretched Scaife and Frick and Carnegie were to the workers, I knew a lot about the Pinkerton Detective Agency, the mercenaries who broke the Homestead Strike and made the river run red. I knew all of that up here, in the cognitive attics of my mind. But, until about the time that Windy and I started spending quality time together, my opinion of labor unions, the corrective to much of that structural evil, was rather low. Lazy. Taking advantage. Working the system. Communists! (I got better, and hopefully wiser). But goodness, it is simply fantastic how we can hold disparate truths in decidedly un-ironic, unexamined parallel. My knowledges were not even in tension; I believe this AND I believe this, even when they contradict. No, most of us hold countless incompatibilities each in their own little silos of thought, broken out each in their appropriate contexts.
We here all know that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves, right? To love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, to turn the other cheek… and we also have rather strong opinions about that neighbor’s cat and what he has been doing in the tomatoes so help me if I get my hands on him… Or how convinced we quickly become that so and so is simply ruining everything by pushing their agenda on this board or in the committee, “How could I possible work with someone who believes x?” That sister of mine! That good-for-nothing brother-in-law/daughter’s boyfriend/ex-husband… Or even more confounding, how on one hand you treat yourself as child of God, bringing yourself to church, participating in a positive, life-giving community, investing in yourself and your community, all that life here, but then you feed yourself on bad food grown on factory farms and processed in factory factories, take one too many drinks again, this week, fill your mind with pulp right off the industrial entertainment assembly line. How we can hold at once that we are this, way up here all light and life, and yet we treat ourselves as if we are this, all the way down here, in darkness, ill health and death. This is one of the chief features, a result of what we call original sin. From our fractured relationship with God we gained an ability to hold conflicting truths, to know or believe one thing while doing or being something entirely opposite… and usually not even realizing it! Like that song from Hair, “What a piece of work is man…”
Jesus Christ knows this. He knows of our ability to hold completely contradictory ideas in our heads. He knows how we can believe with all of our hearts and all of our minds one thing, and then compartmentalize it (consciously or otherwise), and do or be the complete opposite. Peter denied him three times, right? Judas was trusted (he was the treasurer), he was loyal until he wasn’t. So when it comes to teaching really important things, things like understanding why He came among us, like understanding the fundamental nature of being and our purpose within that nature, Jesus doesn’t just explain it straight away. What would be the point? Even if we could understand it, the chance of us doing anything about it, of changing our basic orientation to the world based upon what we know or think up here in our brains is about the same as a snowball in one of Dante’s lower fantasy worlds.
Particularly as we know Him through the lens of St. Mark’s gospel, Jesus Christ is first and foremost a Rabbi, a teacher. St. Mark’s gospel is exceedingly rare for its time, because it was a story told not from an elite, privileged perspective written for an elite, privileged audience, but rather was this gospel written from the perceptive of peasants, landless craftsmen (like Jesus), poor fishermen and small-plot subsistence farmers and tenant growers, and was written to exactly the same audience. Throughout Mark’s telling of Jesus’ story the center is His teaching, how He taught regular, everyday, average-for-the-time people. And Jesus was a master teacher.
So what was his primary mode of teaching? (Well, besides that of teaching by His own blessed example). The parable. Sometimes I wish He just said it straight, just explained it (ahh, over-education). Like just before today’s selection from Mark, Jesus taught the parable of the sower. You remember that one, the sower goes to the field to sow and some seed fell on rocky ground, some in the thorns, some on good soil, right? Well directly following it is a straightforward, reasonable allegorical explanation: the seed is the Word and some take it in, but have no roots so it fades, others succumb to the ways of the world (the thorns) and so on. It is all explained. It is all understandable. Don’t you wish all of the parables had such convenient explanations? Well, someone did, because that allegory and several others were most likely, according to a branch of study called redaction criticism, added later by scribes and scholars who wanted to make sure that we knew the “true” meaning of the parables. But what is more important? What penetrates more deeply, an explanation of an allegory or the universal truth that any story worth teaching carries implicitly within itself? (Hint, Jesus chooses the latter).
The genius, the brilliance, the wonder of Jesus’ divine pedagogy of parables is imagination. Not His, though surely His imagination was infinite. No, Jesus understood that our imagination, the imaginations of those whom He taught, that was where His seed would take root. Our imagination. What a gift! The entire world and beyond, way, way beyond is right there, right here. And Rabbi Jesus was right there calling all who listen, engaging their imagination, stimulating it, that right there, right then all might perceive and even experience the presence and reality of God in a whole new way. We don’t need it laid out for us, we don’t need explanations so much, but when we have feelings, when we have a direct experience, whatever lesson is carried by that encounter will lodge deeply and convincingly in our minds, but more importantly in our hearts.
The commonwealth of God is as if someone scatters seeds, then waits, and by some mystery beyond us it grows, fabulous, stalk, head, then the head fills in! Then, when the grain is ready, he goes in with his sickle because the harvest has come. “Man, my world is full of this stuff but I never saw it like this before,” that is what a farm hand in 1st century Palestine might have said upon hearing this parable. What have we been taught? Things might mean a lot more then you thought. Ain’t the world grand? What a gift from God all of this is! We’ve got hand in it all, a sickle, too. All of that and more, much more because of the space left in the lesson for our imaginations to take hold. Feel the breeze walking though the golden grasses. Remember childhood wonder of seed sprouting, or zuchinni quadrupling in size over night. There’s God in them there memories afire with imagination
The commonwealth of God is like a mustard seed, and from it sprouts the greatest of all shrubs that provides shelter to the birds of the air. Look at Mike’s art on the cover… fabulous. From the tiniest of things, from the most minute speck, from the dimmest glimmer of hope life upon life, wonder upon wonder can arise… Whereyou’re your imagination fill in the cracks? Quite a story to the unlikely twelve that would become the Church.
It is our imaginations that Jesus is searching for, for it is our imagination that breaks down barriers within ourselves, which allows our rational minds to loosen their grips if even only a little, and shines a bit of light on our internal inconsistencies. And in loosening those grips within ourselves, the grip that our culture, that the powers that be have upon us will also be loosened, and maybe, maybe our souls, then our minds and finally our bodies might be free to experience the light and love of God as Jesus intends. Jesus Christ seeks those who seek something more then what the world has to offer on the surface. Jesus Christ seeks those who want to, who can, who do imagine a world lived in line with the will of God. Jesus seeks those who hunger for the bread of life and fruit of the vine, the very bread and wine, the body and blood that our imaginations will open us to in a moment. Just imagine… AMEN.