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Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel: Seeds and Sprouts

The readings for Sunday, June 17, 2018: First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24 First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 15:34--16:13 Psalm: Psalm 92...

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel: Seeds and Sprouts

The readings for Sunday, June 17, 2018:

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 15:34--16:13

Psalm: Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14 (Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 20

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34

In the Gospel for Sunday, we hear the teaching that compares the kingdom of God (think this world, not Heaven) to seeds, in particular the mustard seed.  It's an agricultural metaphor that makes me wonder, as I always do, how well these metaphors work as we move away from being a culture that grows plants.  If we've never planted a seed and tended the sprouts, is the parable lost on us?

What might a modern parable teller use?  Mold?  A virus that overtakes a human or a computer system?  A bit of code that destroys a computer program?

We might object to those ideas.  We might say, "Those metaphors are so destructive--surely Jesus didn't have that in mind?"

Many scholars, however, would point out that mustard seeds left untended do grow into plants that can be terribly destructive, even as they provide shelter for birds.  It's great for birds, but not so great for anything else that a farmer wanted to grow.  The mustard seed would grow into a plant that had the potential to strangle everything else.

The Kingdom of God is a weed that strangles the plants we intended to grow to become a huge tree that shelters birds--yes, we can see how the earliest audiences of Jesus might go away confused.

Return to that idea of a seed, something tiny that can grow into something huge.  Think about the self-contained nature of the seed.  This part of the metaphor might provide comfort.

The Kingdom of God doesn't start out huge.  It begins as a tiny seed that just needs some water, some soil, and some light--nothing revolutionary, but from humble beginnings, a revolution begins.

In these post-Pentecost times, it's good to remember that we're not required to arrive on the scene full-grown.  Often in the post-Pentecost narratives and in the letters of Paul, I come away feeling inadequate, as I look at what those early believers managed to accomplish with such few resources.

And here I am, with all sorts of technological advances, only to spend so much time stumbling and beginning again.

Yet the parables remind me that even small seeds can become fields of wheat that feed a nation or giant trees that shelter wildlife.

What do we need to sprout?  What soil and spiritual manure would help us become more firmly rooted?  Summer might be a great time to try a new spiritual practice or to return to a practice that fell away in the hectic pace of Lent and Easter.  More prayer?  More journaling?  A book and/or study group?  A service project?

What water would refresh us and encourage us to sprout?  A different kind of worship service?  A retreat at a church camp or a monastery?  An online learning community?  Some work to create social justice?

How can we get the balance of enough sunshine and shade?  For all the time we plan to spend in spiritual activity, we should plan for Sabbath time too, a time to stay still and unplug/unwind.

You may feel like a dried out husk that has no hope of sprouting.  The Gospels assure us that we are little pods of potential waiting to bloom.

Wednesday, June 06, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 10, 2018:

First Reading: Genesis 3:8-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 8:4-11 [12-15] 16-20; [11:14-15]

Psalm: Psalm 130

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 138

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:13--5:1

Gospel: Mark 3:20-35

We are used to the picture of the family of Jesus that we see at Christmas time:  the brave, young Mary, ready for whatever God has in mind for her.  Kind Joseph, who plans to leave pregnant Mary, but is convinced to stay beside her.  The couple fleeing the murderous Herod. 

And then, perhaps, a few weeks later, we might see the young Jesus who stays behind to learn a bit more in the Temple in Jerusalem.  In some lectionary years, we see Mary imploring Jesus to save a wedding where the wine has run out; Jesus says he's not ready, Mary persists, and Jesus puts aside his own plans and transforms water into wine.

Or maybe we're used to the Mary that we see around Easter, particularly the weeping mother at the foot of the cross.

We're likely not familiar with the Mary that we see in today's Gospel, the Mary who hears the rumors of her son's madness and comes to try to get him to change course.

What's going on here?  Is she embarrassed?  Did she not know that being the mother of the Messiah might mean some embarrassment when the neighbors started talking?

Those of us who have ever loved someone who took a different path that the world doesn't understand may feel some sympathy for Mary.  Those of us who have watched children grow up and go their own way may feel sympathy too. 

When Gabriel appeared to Mary and gave her an outline of the plan that God had for her, she probably didn't envision the Jesus that appeared some thirty years later.  Her whole culture trained her to look for a different Messiah, perhaps a Messiah who cleansed the Jewish homeland.  She probably thought of that cleansing in military terms, the ejection of the Romans, perhaps.

She likely wasn't thinking of a spiritual revolution.

After all, there were plenty of people running around Palestine leading spiritual revolutions, all sorts of people, some legitimate, some deranged, who were happy to tell first century people how to cleanse themselves and purify their religions and make God happy.  I've read one scholar who posits that the family of Jesus was upset because he could be using his powers to make money and instead he was giving away his miracles for free.  In these early chapters of Mark, Jesus does a lot of healing which attracts much attention.

Or perhaps Mary was upset because she saw her son was on a collision course with any number of authorities.  Maybe she wanted him to fly under the radar more.

We might argue that she has no right to feel that way, because, after all, Jesus came precisely to be on that collision course--that's what he had to do to create the salvation that he came to bring.

Even if Mary understood God's plan thoroughly, she still might want to protect her child.  That's what good parents want, to save their children from harm and destruction.  She still might protest the fact that the salvation of the world required the precious life of her beloved child.

For those of us struggling to chart our own course, we might take comfort from today's Gospel.  If even the family of Jesus didn't fully embrace his path, we, too, can expect a bit of resistance.

For those of us struggling to live an integrated life, where our weekday selves don't contradict our Christian values, we can take courage from today's Gospel.  It's not an easy task, this living an authentic life.

Of course, the Gospels don't promise us a happy ending.  Even if we live honestly, we may find ourselves on a collision course with the larger world, with the forces of empire, with the culture that shoots other messages at us and infuses our surroundings with poisonous values.  Even authentic people can end up martyred.

In fact, authentic people are more likely to end up martyred.  But throughout the Gospels, Jesus promises that the life we achieve through our integrity will be worth the price.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 3, 2018:

First reading and Psalm:

1 Samuel 3:1-10, (11-20)

Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18

Alternate first reading and Psalm:

Deuteronomy 5:12-15

Psalm 81:1-10

Second reading:

2 Corinthians 4:5-12


Mark 2:23-3:6

This week's Gospel asks us to think about why we adopt the religious rules and rituals that we do.  We see the Pharisees, those old adversaries of Jesus, feeling and acting offended when Jesus ignores the laws of the Sabbath.  We see Jesus in what seems to be a confrontational mode.

We might ask why Jesus had to take this approach.  The man with the withered hand could have waited for healing for one more day.  The disciples plucking grain to eat on the Sabbath seem to be doing it mindlessly.  They could have found some other food.

We could ask similar questions of the Pharisees.  Why do these rules have to be so rigid?  It's important to remember that although we think of Pharisees as hypocrites largely because of their interactions with Jesus, this could not be further from the truth. They were very sincere and committed to what they believed, far more committed than most of their contemporaries.

And it's vitally important to remember that their motivations for keeping strict standards were very good. In The Secret Message of Jesus, Brian D. McLaren notes that the Pharisees hoped that their own purity would prompt God to send the Messiah to liberate them, specifically to liberate them from Roman oppression. Therefore it's understandable that they would try to recruit others to this cause, and that they would grow frustrated with people who couldn't meet their own requirements--the actions of those people polluted the whole population, thus resulting in more alienation from God.

Before we get too snooty about those Pharisees, before we feel too superior to them, it's important to look at our own time. Anyone who has done any kind of church work probably recognizes the Pharisees in Mark's Gospel.  Whether we're fighting over big issues or small, it's always been astounding to me to see the energy that some devote to a fight.  And I'm sure there are people who would say the same thing about me.

Of course, it's not just in our churches.  I've also described many of our workplaces, and the larger world of international relations.  Some of us may recognize our family life.  Some may recognize ourselves.

Let me stress it is important to recognize our own inner Pharisee. No one is blameless here.  Let's return to the one of the questions the text asks us to consider:  what are these religious rules and customs for?

We live in a time period where it may seem that the very moorings of our society have come undone.  Like Pharisees, we, too, may fall in love with the idea that laws can save us and either restore past glory or propel us to the deliverance that has been promised.

Christ calls us to a different vision as he reminds us again and again that too rigid a love of the law is idolatry itself.  Christ calls us to create a world of open borders and solid bridges, not one of walls and impenetrable defenses.  Christ calls us out of our graves of fear and sorrow.