Remembering our purpose

Second Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 6B (RCL)
1 Samuel 15:34 — 16:13
Psalm 20
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

The fourth chapter of Mark’s Gospel has always bothered me. The sower who goes out to sow at the beginning seems to me to be a particularly sloppy farmer — some of the seed falls along the foot path, some in stony ground, some in the thorns and only some in good soil. Was he not watching what he was doing? Did he not prepare the soil beforehand (remove rocks, dig up thorns)? Then, Jesus explains the parable to his disciples and explains the purpose of the parables: “so that they (those outside his inner circle) may look and see, but not know; hear and listen but not understand; in order that they may not be converted and forgiven.” (quoting Isaiah 6:9). A mission whose purpose is failure.

Then we have this parable. The sower sows, and then does nothing, goes to sleep, wakes up, and the grain grows. Most farmers I know irrigate, cultivate — there is plenty to do while the grain is growing. And then the idiot sows mustard seed on the ground. No one is his right mind sows mustard seed. It’s an aggressive weed. But here at last is the hint. The mustard becomes the largest of the garden herbs, with strong branches (says the gospel writer, but I’ve not seen mustard like that) so that the birds of the heavens may make their nests in its shade. That’s a quote of Psalm 104:12, and an allusion to Ezekiel 17:23, 31:6 and Daniel 4:9, 18. In those passages, the cedar or the cypress in which the birds of the air make their nests stands for the kingdom of Egypt, of Nebuchadnezzar, and for the kingdom which God will establish on the return of the Exiles from Babylon. The trees of Egypt and Nebuchadnezzar, whose tops reach above the clouds will be cut down, but the sapling that God brings back from Babylon will grow strong.

So, the mustard bush, a scrappy aggressive weed, which no one wants, has supplanted the cedar. God’s kingdom is no longer imagined as a majestic tree, but a scrappy weed, living at the edges of the field, in the ditches and along the roadways. The kingdom flies below radar. No wonder the farmer doesn’t cultivate. We’re not aiming here at the standard definitions. This thing is going to have to catch on by itself. All we can do is live in it, and hope people get it.

God does sorta the same thing with David. The people had wanted a king, just like the other nations around them. God reluctantly gave them Saul, and set him up to be a bad king, so they would figure out what they had asked for. Then, when the time came to replace Saul, he opts for David, the youngest, out if the fields with the sheep. Or Paul, who boasts to the Corinthians of his weakness.

The kingdom of God is not judged according to the world’s standards. When we, as the church, look to succeed, whatever that may mean, we’ve departed the path. The farmer in Mark 4 displays an absolute lack of interest in results. Those are in God’s hands. Some seed produces 30-fold, some 60-fold and some 100-fold, but we’re never told how the farmer reacted. A frightening thing in this economic downturn, when it is really easy to be anxious about budgets — will we have enough; while the farmer is busy throwing seed here, there and everywhere, and then not worrying about it.

What are we to do? Especially when we think we can begin to feel the bottom of the seed bag?

Worship: the life of the Trinity

Trinity Sunday, Year B (RCL)
Isaiah 6:1-8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12-17
John 3:1-17

Early in the history of the American Episcopal Church, there was a controversy over whether to include the Athanasian Creed in the American Prayer Book. The proposed book of 1786 did not have it, and the English Church was afraid we had gone off the rails. 1789 included it. Now, it’s in small print at the back as one of the “historical documents” along with the 39 articles. The problem with the Athanasian Creed is it leaves you with the impression that the Trinity is “incomprehensible,” which, in a way it is, but that’s not very useful.

At the very least, we can say that community is at the heart of the deity. One of the first christian trinities was Father/Mother/Son. I like it. Gives the impression of human love, and not just two people mooning over each other, but a creative and expansive kind of love. If this is the love that we find at the heart of the deity, creation makes sense. The divine love seeks expression.

The readings for this Sunday are wonderful. In the John passage, we have the famous John 3:16. It does really stand out in its context like a sore thumb. The whole discourse up to this point has been about authority (you are a teacher come from God), possibility (no one could do the signs you do; how is it possible for a person, grown old to enter into the mother’s womb) and about the Kingdom (it is not possible for anyone to see the kingdom without being born of water and spirit). It’s about knowledge and testimony, and ascending into heaven. And all of a sudden, you have: “For God loved the world so, that he gave his only begotten Son.” In the words of Tina Turner, what’s love got to do with it?

This is the only instance in John’s Gospel where God ‘gives’ his Son. In all other instances, God sends his son into the world. Nicodemus thinks the discussion is about authority (by what authority do you cleanse the Temple?). In the fight between John’s community and the Synagogue, the question of Jesus’ authority would be paramount. Jesus indicates that Nicodemus has asked the wrong question. It’s not about Jesus’ authority, but about seeing the kingdom (what we know, we say; what we have seen we testify). The question becomes, how do we live seeing the kingdom.

The answer is that God loved the cosmos so, he gave his Son, that who ever trusts him has the life of the ages (now). The life of the Trinity is one of self-gifting, and of gifting the divine life to the cosmos. The godhead is a constant dance of the giving and receiving of self, and of gift to the cosmos.

When we receive the spirit, we enter into that divine life, giving and receiving self. That same spirit cries with our spirit, Abba, Father, and we take our place as joyful children within the divine household, not slaves of fear.

And it all happens at worship. When we cry, “Holy, holy, holy” with the seraphim and with all those who have gone before, and all those throughout the world who sing it with us, we enter that divine dance. We may think we are not worthy to be part of the dance, but God assures us otherwise. Our lips have been made worthy of singing that song, and we respond with a willingness to be given to the world to include the world in the divine household (here I am, send me). Worship includes the world in the divine dance of giving and receiving self.