Sermon–June 17, 2018


4 Pentecost—Proper 6-B, June 17, 2018

William Bradbury

Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 92:1-4,11-14, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17, Mark 4:26-34

In 1996, eleven years after moving to Eastern North Carolina on the Pamlico River, I experienced my first big hurricane. The coast had avoided hurricanes for a number of years so mostly folks were not too worried as Hurricane Bertha headed our way. They did what they needed to do—like what folks do up here—bring in lawn furniture, get their boats out of the water, and move their cars to higher ground. We’d done all that so we joined our neighbors in a hurricane party the night of the storm. It was great fun—lots of libations and laughter, until the river started rising and water came flooding into the basement. Our host, a mechanical engineer, who grew up on the river, got his heavy duty pumps going, as we moved things up higher in the basement, which did little good since the water kept rising. Then our hostess, working in the water barefoot, stepped into a drain and dislocated her big toe, so off to the hospital we went to get it straightened out. The next day Bertha had left behind hours of work removing all those things in the basement that now needed to be thrown away.

I am put in mind of this when I heard recently a New Testament scholar say Jesus’ announcement of the coming Reign of God was like the report of the approach of a hurricane. You can prepare for it, put you can’t stop it, nor can you make yourself completely safe against it. It’s coming, like it or not, and it will do its work, like it or not. Of course while hurricanes bring destruction, the reign of God brings transformation—though for a time it may be hard to tell the difference.

It’s like the old joke University of Georgia alum Lewis Grizzard told: Did you hear about the tornado that hit Clemson University? It did a million dollars’ worth of improvements.

Jesus in today’s gospel gives us what looks to be a very different image of the reign of God: He says it’s like someone who sows seeds, then sits back and waits for the seeds to break through the hard ground, and then grow toward the sun into the fulfillment of their True Nature.

Jesus in telling this parable is like the farmer he is talking about sowing tiny mustard seeds. It looks almost like nothing at all. Here Jesus sits on the end of a boat on the Sea of Galilee, which is actually a big lake, talking to a crowd, most of whom have no standing in the world: illiterate, poor, oppressed by Rome, and the power structure in Jerusalem.

Nothing to see here!

Then—then—Jesus says the time is fulfilled and the farmer AT ONCE grabs the sickle to begin the harvest. To the uninformed the harvest looks like destruction and disaster, but to the farmer it is the glorious end of a long, patient, process, that involves both hard work and days and days of waiting—before the crisis brings the time to start cutting.

Where do imagine God’s Reign is working in your life?

Most well-educated people are trained not to see God at work in their lives. Their unconscious models of reality are materialistic and mechanistic—all gases, gauges, and gears, so that if God is anywhere God is way outside looking in to see how we’re doing running the machinery he left us with. We now know what is going on in that seed buried in the ground and the forces that bring it up into the light and nourish it into wholeness. We don’t need God to explain that or much else.

We’ve been taught that God is a relic of a superstitious past best left to very old and the very young.

But the images Jesus uses seem to point to the idea that God is on the inside of life, not running the whole show as our Puritan forebears believed, but humbly and patiently working to lure us in every moment to choose the possibilities that will create beauty, compassion, and community. 

Look at the man on the cross: God in Christ is inside the machinery of human hate, state power, and religious oppression. Getting crushed by it, buried in the ground, forgotten, dead, over and done with, God on the inside of our violence and control: Christ who is the Seed of God and Mary, doing the patient work in the dark and hard places of the world, until it’s time for the harvest.

Hurricane and Harvest are images that point toward the power of the Reign of God to break into our lives and transform us, but one thing is missing: the gaze of the young Jew who is telling the story.

If we listen to the parable without noticing the loving gaze of Jesus, we are separating the teacher from the teaching, which is like separating the kiss from our beloved who is giving it.

Iain Andrew in an amazing little book on Saint John of the Cross, the great 16th century Spanish mystic, understands this when he writes: “Christianity is an effect, the effect of a God who is constantly gazing at us, whose eyes anticipate, radiate, penetrate and elicit beauty.”

He says, “God’s gaze [at us through Christ] works four blessings in the soul: it cleanses the soul, makes her beautiful, enriches, and enlightens her.” The Impact of God: Soundings from St. John of the Cross, p 28.

If Jesus embodies the loving gaze of God, then your life and mine are so much more than matter and mechanism. Every time we look at our children we know the Mystery is larger than the sum of its parts, but when it comes to our own adult lives, we often go numb and forget that it is also true about the Mystery that is in us, and for us—that Christ’s gaze is stronger than hurricane and harvest, just as his love is stronger than sin and death.  

John of the Cross puts it this way:

“For God to set his grace in the soul is to make her worthy and capable of his love.”

He writes:

You [O God] looked with love upon me

and deep within your eyes imprinted grace;

This mercy set me free,

Held in your love’s embrace, to lift my eyes adoring to your face.”  Ibid. P. 28

Our role as followers of the Teacher is to believe God is in the gaze of Jesus Christ, creating us anew, so we can share that gaze with the world. So we worship, we do acts of mercy, we do our job at home and at work, but what is most asked of us is to say “Yes”.

Say “yes” to the water of life breaking-in, even if that water will declutter our lives;

Say “Yes” to the power of God to produce the fullness of the grain in our community;

And even to say “Yes” to the swing of the sickle to liberate us from our reductionist illusions about who we are.

Then we may learn what Saint Paul learns as he is transfixed by the Risen Jesus’s gaze on the road to Damascus: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”