Benediction Online

Sunday, June 14, 2015

The random and stubborn reign of God

Like many of you, I have a compost bin. It makes great compost over time but I don’t think it drains properly so it never gets hot enough to kill all the seeds and from time to time interesting and often unidentifiable plants start sprouting from it. I don’t usually wait to see what they are going to grow into before I pull them up but even though I don’t nurture them little avocado trees and tomato plants often spring up in unexpected places around my yard.

Jesus said, “the kingdom of God is like the mustard seed.” Mustard is a very invasive plant. Once you have it, it’s very difficult to get rid of. Even in this drought there is plenty of wild mustard. In fact, in about 200 CE the Mishnah said that it should not be grown in the Jewish garden because it was so invasive. It forms a rather straggly small bush. So in using this particular seed for his parable, Jesus is talking about a plant which is very common but rather despised, difficult to get rid of once you have it and probably not to be planted in the garden of the correct Jew.

Let’s contrast this for a minute with the tree in the passage from Ezekiel. In the midst of talking about the empires of ancient times, Ezekiel describes God taking a little twig from the top of a cedar tree and planting it on a mountain in Israel. From this twig will come a noble cedar in whose branches birds will live. The prophet is of course referring to God’s promises to make Israel a mighty nation. Jesus’ listeners would be very familiar with this passage which had come into the mythology of contemporary Israel as an image for how things would be once the Roman occupation was ended. In the day when God put everything right, Israel would be like a mighty cedar.

So Jesus has turned around the image of the mighty cedar and said, that no the kingdom of God will not be like the cedar they are expecting but more like a straggly and rather annoying bush that grows prolifically and keeps reappearing however hard you try to get rid of it. He even goes as far to say that the birds will nest in the shade of the large branches of the mustard, just as Ezekiel said that birds would live in the shade of the cedar. This reversal would have been very funny to his listeners, but it’s probably one of those jokes where you just had to be there.

So the kingdom of God is not like a national or state political power. Jesus is completely undermining the idea of the reign of God being when Israel becomes a superpower in the world, and replacing it with this new image of the rather unexpected and random appearance of something quite different.
The first of the two parables underscores the sense of randomness or accident. It is as if, he says, a man scattered seed on the ground and then goes about his life and amazingly, a harvest comes. The word Mark uses for seed here is actually spore. I don’t know what the distinction might have been in the time that the gospel was written but for us it’s a microscopic thing that comes mainly from fungi or mold and grows in damp ground. It would be difficult for us to scatter spore unless we threw out some old mushrooms. Like the compost I make. I throw old vegetables and vegetable scraps in it and eventually it turns into good compost but with some unexpected spores or seeds in it. I remember when I was a child my father got a load of mushroom compost from a local mushroom farm. He was very excited about it and spread it all around the garden. It didn’t alas grow mushrooms but it did grow stinging nettles which are as invasive as mustard and cause an unpleasant stinging rash if you happen to brush against them. That was certainly a surprise crop!

Jesus’ image is that someone threw out something which then started to grow and he completely ignored it, going through the rhythm of his own days, getting up and lying down, while the spore or the seed grow in its own way and then suddenly he noticed that it was there ready to eat and so he harvested it. It’s almost as though he is saying, “The Reign of God is something that you sow inadvertently, it grows while you are busy going about your business and, in fact, the whole harvest is simply a big surprise and a gift.” 

Here this morning, we are celebrating seeds and harvests. In the baptism of Jace and Jaxxon we are celebrating the planting of seeds. We baptize children because we believe that God welcomes all of us into the Body of , and in the understanding that their parents and godparents will be bringing them up to understand the promises that they are making on their behalf today until they are ready to make those promises for themselves. They are at the very beginning of their lives in this world and their opportunities to love, serve and worship God in the community of his people.

We are also baptizing Jesper who is coming to baptism as an adult, as a result of the seeds that have been sown in his life. So for him this is both a new beginning – a seeding – as well as the harvest of all the experiences and the deepening understandings of Spirit that have brought him to this moment.
We are also celebrating the graduation of five people who have been working and studying together in the course Education for Ministry. This is a demanding course of study which lasts for four years, though some of those we celebrate today have been doing to for longer than that, as you take one year at a time. They have studied the Bible, spending a year on each Testament, the history of the church and theology. They have gone deeper into their faith in order to understand how their studies are more than just matters of the intellect but connect with their souls and with their lives in Christ.
So this is a harvest time for them. But within every harvest is the seed of the new beginning and so now they start once again in that ongoing cycle of the seasons, to find the new work that God has for them, the ministry to which they are called.

Calling to ministry often sounds very glamorous. It’s like that beautiful cedar tree. We want to make something of our lives, to be remembered for our great braches which gave shade to every winged creature. We want to stand tall and lovely on the top of the mountain. But Jesus says it’s not actually like that. Our calling, our ministry, is to be Christ in the everyday moments of life. We may have particular gifts which God will help us use in particular ways. But the reign of God pops up unexpectedly like a straggly and often unwanted mustard plant.

That is our calling, not to a glamorous high profile life but to spreading the love of Christ in every situation. The people you work with, the people you meet in the market, the people you hang with, your Facebook friends – these are the ones you are to love. This is your primary ministry. In a few moments we will be together renewing our baptismal vows with Jesper and with Jace and Jaxxon’s godparents.

These are not vows to be taken lightly but serious statements of our own commitment to ministry. Commitment to continue to resist the temptations of the satan – to envy and to blame; commitment to continue to build up the Body of Christ; commitment to compassionately serve Christ in all beings; and commitment to transform the world in which we live. It’s going to take us more than a few minutes to keep those vows – they’re the work of a lifetime lived in deep relationship with the God who makes both cedars and mustard plants.

But what else would we want to do? It was for this that we were made and it is in the service of God that we find ourselves fully fulfilled. So let us spread love and the reign of God as prolifically and as stubbornly as mustard.


Sunday, June 07, 2015

There's no-one to blame

While I was in Scotland I visited two churches where the sixteenth century protestant reformer John Knox preached. In both places he preached what was described as a “fiery sermon” which led to immediate rioting and looting and the destruction of the church building. I hope that should I ever find myself preaching a “fiery” sermon that you will be able to restrain yourselves from pulling the church down around us!

Knox was preaching in a time of political as well as religious revolution and his sermons opposed not only the Catholic Church but also the Queen of Scotland. Watching a program on the History channel when I was at the gym yesterday, I was struck by the similarities between Knox and Hitler. They were both amazing orators with an outstanding ability to stir crowds and inflame otherwise sensible people to acts of vandalism and hatred. Both of them were able to take advantage of the human failing which we see portrayed in today’s first reading from Genesis.

It’s a familiar story for most of us. Adam and Eve were living an idyllic existence in the Garden of Eden but they were told not to eat the fruit of one tree. God told them that eating the fruit will lead to death but the serpent suggested that actually it would make them like gods. They wanted to be like gods and it looked delicious. So they ate some of the fruit. Their relationship with God was immediately –suddenly there was something for them to hide from God and perhaps each other changed – they experienced shame, noticing that they were naked. Then they each blamed someone else. “It wasn’t me it was her; no, no it wasn’t me, it was the serpent.”

This ancient account of the entry of sin into the world has a one-two punch. First there is the desire for something more, something that someone else has – in this case, God – and then, after it has been taken, blaming someone else. Blame is a very useful device in human society because it unites us against those other people who are to blame for the situation we are in. John Knox wanted to promote a new way of seeing the gospel, one based on scripture and an understanding of salvation as the free gift of God not mediated by the church; but in order to make his message more powerful he blamed the Catholic church for its ignorance and idolatry. Hitler wanted power and was able to make himself dictator by blaming communists for the torching of the Reichstag – the German parliament building. He went on to falsely accuse communists of terrible plots against ordinary people and consolidated his power by making many arrests and outlawing any opposition – scapegoating so-called communists - all in the name of making the people safe.

Perhaps these are extreme examples, but I want to suggest that this underlying dynamic of human society may be the true meaning of Satan. Satan is not a supernatural being who is locked in conflict with God but is a description of the sin matrix which constantly calls us to envy and to blame and thence to violence.

In the gospel reading, Jesus asks a riddle, “How can Satan cast out Satan?”

 If we think of Satan as a person then of course Satan can’t cast out Satan. But let us think for a moment of Hitler’s strategy; in his dedication to gaining power he colluded with the Satan which always encourages us to get as much as we can for ourselves; and then he also created a public Satan by declaring that communists were to blame. Then he turned the people against the Satan that he had created. The Satan in Hitler’s desire for power led to expelling communists from German society - casting out the Satan it was believed they embodied. Satan cast out Satan.

Many of us in this room have come from other faith traditions. It can be very tempting for us to find our unity in criticizing the traditions from which we came. We are in a much better place because we are members of St Ben’s or because we are Episcopalians. The sin matrix, aka Satan, encourages us to blame other people for everything that ails us or to feel superior and better than them. This has the effect of creating a kind of peace among us because we are united against a common enemy.

But this is not the peace or the unity that Jesus preaches. The peace and unity of the reign of God come from our connection with Spirit and with one another, even with those who seem to be our enemies. Jesus says that Satan’s house is divided and cannot stand. Once you take away the common enemy, the unity that blaming brings falls apart and the underlying envy reasserts itself. Satan’s peace is a peace which is built on violence, not on the abundant love of God. We lost touch with that love when we chose the fruit rather than the relationship with God, and God became a threatening figure in the mind of humanity.

This is the message that Jesus came to bring and which is as important today as it was then. God is walking in the cool of the evening looking for our friendship and ready to forgive our weaknesses. The Holy Spirit is available to work with us to turn our envy into love and our blame into generosity. This transformation from envy and blame to love and generosity is so deeply counter-cultural that it is the work of a lifetime and this is why we need each other in spiritual community to keep reminding, to keep remembering, that our safety comes in God, our peace comes from Jesus, our unity comes from the Holy Spirit. We are not separate from God, we are not separate from one another; we are intricately bound up in each other just as the cells of our bodies are intricately connected whether they know it or not. We are all equally beloved and so we have no need of envy, no need of blame.

Jesus is the one who ties up the strong man, the Satan. Jesus is the one who takes on himself all the blame of the world. Jesus is the ultimate scapegoat, whose death and resurrection make it possible for us to transcend the dynamic of scapegoating and choose a different way to be human.
Which just leaves the million dollar question. What is the ultimate sin – the blasphemy against the Holy Spirit? The scribes had charged that Jesus was himself possessed by a demon which meant that the Holy Spirit was not holy but unclean. This is blasphemy against the Holy Spirit – to declare that the Spirit is evil. Someone who persisted in such a belief would not be able to be forgiven because they would not be seeking forgiveness.

When we come to God we come just as we are – naked as a jaybird. We come trusting in the love of God, the power of Christ’s death and resurrection and the transformative creative ability of the Holy Spirit. We come asking for forgiveness, not because we are miserable worms but because we long to do our part to repair the relationship between humanity and God and let go of envy, blame and violence: because we long to walk again in the cool of the evening with our beloved.

I’m going to close with a wonderful Sufi poem I heard for the first time this week. It’s by the poet Hafiz.
Ever since happiness heard your name it has been running through the streets trying to find you
And several times in the last week, God himself has even come to my door
Asking me for your address!
Once I said, “God, I thought you knew everything. Why are you asking me where
Your lovers live?”
And the Beloved replied, “Indeed, Hafiz, I do know everything.
But it is fun playing dumb once in a while. And I love intimate chat
And the warmth of your heart’s fire.”
Maybe we should make this poem into a song, I think it has potential!
How far does this refrain sound, for I know it is a Truth:
Ever since happiness heard your name, it has been running through the streets
Trying to find you
And several times in the last week, God himself has come to my door,
So sweetly asking me your address, wanting the beautiful warmth of your heart’s fire.