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Mark 4: 24-36
June 17, 2012
When we bought our first house in West Philadelphia, I didn’t know what Wisteria was. I only knew that it was growing on the porch, was beautiful, smelled great, and would flower in the spring. That’s what my neighbors told me anyway.
Two months after we moved in, I saw the beauty of the vine. As spring warmed up, the vines became green and leafy, and provided shade for our porch, perfect shade for a future warm and sunny afternoon. Then, it bloomed a spectacular purple flower that hung from the vine, and smelled better than any flower I’d ever smelled. It was intoxicating. My neighbors would walk by and find me with my nose in a wisteria flower. I was smitten by this beautiful fragrant vine.
When the last blooms had gone, I realized that there is another side to the wisteria vine that no one had told me about…It is really invasive.
I felt like I was out there every day, clipping away the vines that were trying to get into my porch structure, trying to keep the vines away from my neighbor’s porch, and trying to keep the wisteria from taking over my entire front yard.
I knew that I was fighting a losing battle when I was weeding another part of my garden, about 10 feet from the site of the wisteria, and there was a wisteria vine, sneaking through the grass like a snake, weaving its way through my azalea bushes, and trying to lay claim on the front retaining wall of my garden.
I also found bird nests in the wisteria. Three of them. Which is sweet and lovely with all the tweeting and chirping and the new life growing, until the families of birds began to poop on my porch and porch furniture, preventing me from enjoying the part of the porch that was shaded by the wisteria.
This beautiful vine has a sinister side to it. It gets into things, sneaks around, and develops a life of its own. It allowed a little ecosystem to blossom within its hardy vines. I had no control over it. Despite my efforts to control it, it did what it wanted to do.
This morning we look at two parables from the gospel of Mark. Before we jump into these agricultural parables, allow me to clarify exactly what a parable is and is not. It is kindof like a fable. Kindof. Fables are stories with animals that take on human characteristics, and they depict some sort of human truth or principle. They are life lessons made easier to hear because they are done with cute, furry animals.
Parables are human stories, using human scenarios to illustrate a truth about the reign of God. We like to think that parables illuminate the reign of God, shed light and truth on it, make it easier for us to understand and wrap our heads around. Often that is true. However, to define a parable as such is too limiting, too easy.
I’d like to think of a parable more like this (and I borrow this definition from David Lose, a professor from Luther seminary whose work I admire): Parables are stories that are meant to overturn, to deconstruct, to cause frustration and, for those who stay with them, transformation.
This is not a comfortable definition. It’s not easy—it makes the gospel more complicated, not less. It makes understanding the reign of God seem less possible. Was Jesus trying to frustrate us? Was he trying to make the message impossible to understand?
Well, yes. Kindof. A parable is meant to enlighten, but it’s also meant to complicate the picture, because the reign of God is not a simple thing. If we think know what the reign of God looks like, we have it all wrong.
Today’s parables are a great example of the complicated nature of the reign of God.
The reign of God is like this: it’s like farmer scattering seed on the ground, and the seed sprouts and grows, and the farmer doesn’t know how it happened. The earth takes care of these seeds, and they grow--first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. When the crop is ripe, the farmer goes in and harvests.
There’s a kind of obliviousness to the gardener that is unsettling. The farmer is throwing seeds out on the ground, and just hoping that something happens. There’s no weeding, no watering, no miracle gro. The farmer plants seeds, and when the plants look good he goes out and harvest the fruit of the land.
It’s a rather whimsical image—to just throw out the seeds and hope for the best—but it’s not how my grandfather taught me to garden. My garden this year involved making a raised bed, filling it with good soil, and using every square inch of the soil for plants so the neighborhood feral cats wouldn’t take it over as an litter box. It was carefully orchestrated and negotiated. I didn’t just throw plant seeds out there and hope they’d grow. I carefully selected seedlings of a variety of tomato plants, so we’d have options for canning, eating, and making sauce—all of this in 4 square feet of soil.
But the reign of God is like a farmer that throws out seed, willy nilly. The farmer doesn’t really know how the seeds gorw, but he is ready to reap whatever comes of the random seed throwing.
Maybe we are thinking that the kingdom of God may need a little help from the more organized among us—perhaps a good business plan or a lesson in farming techniques. Or, perhaps the parable is doing exactly what a parable is supposed to do. It’s inciting discomfort and frustration, it’s making us nervous about the reign of God, for which we long.
The second parable is no less assuring about the wonders of God’s reign. It’s the parable of the mustard seed. How many of you were hit over the head with the “if only we had the faith of a mustard seed” line in your youth? That’s an important part of the parable. We do need just a tiny little bit of faith for the reign of God to grow within us. But that’s only half of the truth of the parable of the mustard seed. The other part of the story is about the mustard plant itself.
The mustard seed is not a crop that people intentionally planted. It grew up—like a weed. It was an unwanted, undesirable plant. It has some medicinal qualities, but mostly it grows wild. It is uncontrollable plant, and once it takes root it can take over a whole planting area. Farmers do not want to see this stuff anywhere.
But on the plus side, it provided shade for birds, right? That’s a good thing. But, in Mark 4:1-9, in the parable of the sower, we hear about what the birds to do the good seed: the birds come and eat it up. I don’t think the fact that the mustard bush sheltered birds is a good thing. This weedy bush is sheltering the creatures that a few stories earlier have eaten the good seed.
So this is what the reign of God is like? A small seed growing into an invasive plant that ends up sheltering the creatures that eat the good seeds?
John Dominic Crossan says this about the mustard seed story:
The point…is not just that the mustard plant starts as a proverbially small seed and grows into a shrub of three or four feet, or even higher, it is that it 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. And that, said Jesus, was what the Kingdom was like: not like the mighty cedar of Lebanon and not quite like a common weed, [more] like a pungent shrub with dangerous takeover properties. Something you would want in only small and carefully controlled doses -- if you could control it (The Historical Jesus, pp. 278-279).
The kingdom of God is like an invasive weed. Some good properties, but mostly a real pain in the rear. The kingdom of heaven is like a wisteria vine, intoxicating at first, but then you find out that dirty birds live in it and poop on your porch.
The kingdom of God is sometimes pretty great—it’s freeing, and beautiful, and full of promise. But then you discover that it is out of your control, it is not what you hoped it would be, and it brings in the undesirables.
If you think the reign of God looks like a careful organized worship service, or perfect four part harmony, I think you are in for a surprise. If you think the reign of God looks like a well-manicured English garden or a perfect piece of art, think again. This is not what God’s reign looks like. These things that we aim for—beauty in perfection—are not where the reign of God is to be found. And that—for most of us—is very disconcerting.
God’s presence, God’s power, God’s reign, is not what we think it is, or what we want it to be. God’s reign is elusive. It is disorganized, like the farmer who just throws out seeds without watering it or nurturing it. It is small like a mustard seed. It is unwanted, like a mustard bush. It is invasive. It is out of control. It’s not safe, at least not if we’re even a little bit satisfied with the way things are. The reign of God comes to overturn, to take over, and transform the empires of this world.
We say we long for the day that God’s justice will roll down, that God will make things right. But, when we say this, we can forget that God’s justice will have an impact on us too. God’s reign will break up our structures and systems, and will demand something of us.
The reign of God, begins as small as a mustard seed, and it’s invasive plant grows unto an unwanted, unwelcome presence in our landscape. And yet, with faith and hope we pray for such a disruption. We pray that the invasive qualities of God’s reign will transform us. We hope and long for the day when we let go of our own need to control and prune, and can allow God’s invasive work to grow—with all its fragrance, beauty and destruction.
June 3, 2012
Isaiah 6:1-8; Romans 8:12-17
At the beginning of my seminary career, my classmates and I travelled to visit the Rhada Krishna Temple in Mt. Airy. Just a short mile from here is a Hindu temple—you’ve passed it on Allen’s Lane I’m sure. But I never knew it was there until about five years ago.
Visiting the Hindu temple was a strange experience—strange in that it was new, and therefore a little awkward and confusing. In the Hindu religious tradition, each temple has a few idols, representations of god. The way these gods were explained to us Christian folks at the temple was like this: These idols represent personalities of God. They are given a face and a name so that we can understand that aspect of God a little better.
As part of the worship practice at the temple, the gods are bathed, clothed and fed each day. They are given garlands of fresh flowers around their necks every day. And the Hindu worshippers sing songs of devotion and praise to the gods, and worship these idols laying prostrate on the floor.
This was an uncomfortable, difficult experience for many of my young, fresh faced seminary colleagues, especially those who had no interfaith experience. But, I found it to be absolutely beautiful. These Hindu devotees were in love with God. And not just the idea of God but they were in love with the specific qualities of God. They called out to God, praising her for her specific traits, and celebrating those particular gifts she brings and shares with us.
This week is Trinity Sunday on the church calendar. We celebrate God—the three in one. It’s intentional that this happens one week after Pentecost. Because after Pentecost we understand better these three separate names of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Or, to be more expansive about it—Abba God, Only Begotten, Holy Spirit. We’ve seen the work of God in the Torah, in bringing together the people of Israel. We’ve seen the work of Jesus in the gospels, living out the teachings of God and following the path to which God has called all of us. And last week—in Acts 2—we began to see a new aspect of God, or at least a name for this way that God works and behaves—this Holy Spirit, blowing through the people of God and inspiring them to the unthinkable.
Today, we are thinking about these aspects of the trinity—the Abba God, only begotten, and Holy Spirit. Admittedly, this topic could get a little boring, a little cerebral. But before you drift off to your happy place, or get lost in doodling on your bulletins, or pull out your smart phones to scan facebook or your email, I want to invite you to think and imagine with me how the trinity informs us of the personalities of God.
And there is no better place to start than the text we have been given from Romans. In this portion of the book of Romans, the Apostle Paul talked about who God is to us, God’s relationship with us. And for this purpose, Paul used language that early Christians could understand—that of slavery.
Slavery in the Roman Empire was as you might expect. Slaves did not have an identity, a personality, a name. Their name was—essentially—their job. In the book of Philemon, the slaves name referenced there was Onesimus, which in greek means, “useful.” A slave’s value came from how useful they were to their owners.
A slave’s usefulness went beyond the labor to which they were assigned. Their usefulness also came in fulfilling the sexual desires of their owners at any time.
Slavery was a common situation for many of the early Christians. So this motif was used by Paul to speak into their situations. Paul would often contrast slavery and freedom, speaking of the freedom Christians have in Christ, despite their chains in life.
But here in our text from Romans 8, Paul was not talking about freedom. Paul was talking about something more. He was contrasting slavery and adoption. Adoption is more than mere freedom. As a slave in the Roman empire, you could be freed, and slaves longed for that free person status. But, as a free person, you were still poor. You still had to work so hard to provide for your family and to earn a living. And there was always potential that you would become a slave again—if you owed a debt that could not be paid with your wages alone, you might be required again to pay that debt with a life of servitude.
But adoption is better than freedom—it’s freedom plus. It means you have a name, you have a status. You enjoy the reputation and resources of your wealthy parent. You receive the bounty of your parent, and you don’t have to wait for their death to enjoy your inheritance. It is there for you—right here and now—to enjoy.
“God’s spirit joins with our Spirit to declare that we are God’s children. And if we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ. Sharing in Christ’s suffering and sharing in Christ’s glory.”
What I appreciate about this text here on this auspicious, cerebral Trinity Sunday is that we learn something here about the personality of God. And we see how the trinity works together.
We see the parent aspect of the trinity—God acting with selfless benevolence towards us, those God calls children. It’s more than just a charitable caring. We put food in the baskets each week out of a sense of charitable caring. But a parent—without thought—shares their resources with their children. Parents wring their hands about the state of the school system because we care about our kids. We want the best for them. We say no to jobs because we want more time at home with them. We spend hours on the baseball field—and not always because we love baseball, but because we love our kids. We attend recitals, enduring squeaky violin concertos. We smile genuinely and clap enthusiastically at off key musicals. We try—as best we can in this economy—to squirrel away a little bit for our kid’s college education.
This love that we have for our children, this love that we see good parents have for their children—this is just the tip of the iceburg for Abba God. Abba God, loving God, caring God, worrying God, our selfless parent who shares with us all that God possesses.
Meanwhile the Spirit is doing her work, nudging, blowing, bringing us together in a rush of violent wind. At last night’s Philadelphia Anabaptist Pentecost service, I witnessed the work of the Holy Spirit first hand. Congregations stood and shared their songs of praise, in their own language and context. The rest of us joined in enthusiastically, praising God together. As we got to know each other better, I received enormous hugs from the African American women from Second Mennonite, enthusiastic greetings from our new Indonesian friends, and words of blessing from our Vietnamese brothers and sisters. A service like this was confirmation of the common spirit that works with all of us, despite our frustrations with each other outside of worship. Holy Spirit, the reconciler, the negotiator. Holy Spirit, the one who brings together people across races and cultures and makes us one.
And Jesus. The one who is like us. Our co-heir. Our brother. Jesus is one of us, and yet part of this holy trinity. Jesus our non-hierarchical example.
I spent too much time in theological education with people that worried about being heretical about the trinity and other doctrines of the church. Really, I couldn't care less about all of that. What’s important to me is not that we get our doctrinal statements perfect. What is more important than all that is our view of God and the trinity become more expansive, not more restricted by carefully worded statements of “faith.”
As humans, we can never know all there is to know about God, about how these three parts of the trinity make one unified monotheistic God. But we can, in the trinity, have a better sense of the expansive personality of God. We can see the nurturing of God, the humanity of God, the collaborative Spirit of God. And those aspects give breadth and depth to our ongoing relationship with the Holy One.
There are literally hundreds of Hindu idols, representations of the various aspects of the personality of God. And these representations help Hindus to better understand the nature of God, who God is, and how God works in the world.
I wish we had a better sense of that in our own tradition. It’s the downside of early Church history being steeped in and opposed to Greek culture and philosophy, I guess. But, we can get glimpse of the personality of God as we explore the trinity.
Abba God—our great parent, who shares generously with us. Holy Spirit, who stirs us and moves us. Jesus, our perfect example of that to which we are called. Thanks be to God for the trinity, which reveals to us God’s nature and personality. AMEN.
What can I do?