Monday, June 15, 2009

We Are the Harvest

The Bible portions for this 2nd Sunday after Pentecost are I Samuel 15:34-16:13; II Corinthians 5:6-17, and Mark 4:26-34.

I love the parables of Jesus, and how he uses them to teach. They tickle our imagination. They claim to be about very earthy things, but they are mystical stories that claim our attention by leaving us wondering. Lean and spare, they use less to say more. They provide sustainable teaching by leaving it up to the hearer to find the point and grasp the meaning.

So let me boldly advertise a summer series I’ll be leading: “Parables: Stories for Life in God’s World” on seven summer Sundays at 9:00 a.m. in the upper room, starting on June 28th. You’ll find a box ad in our announcements today with details.

What kind of course will this be? Thanks to the subject matter, it will be a good fit for you if you’d like to work on your biblical literacy, a good primer in the teachings of Jesus. And thanks to the subject matter, it will be a good fit for you if you’re already well-grounded in the Bible and wish to revisit texts that invite new insight each time you meet them.

Today, it’s two little parables about sowing seed.

Each spring, I think I’m a gardener. I look around the gardens Diana and I have been tending for 17 years now. I reacquaint myself with what’s there. I notice what did and didn’t make it through the winter. I cringe to see the bullies back again, the invasives I’ve surrendered my greenest principles over, only to learn that even Round-up won’t round-up these suckers.

I stand chastened before the oldest section of the garden that I’ve most let go to rack and ruin, and wonder if I should just seed it in and be done with it.

And I perk up with ideas about what I might put there, and there, and—in just the twinkling of an eye—plans emerge.

The dining room table becomes a staging area with seed packets lined up, old favorites like Mexican sunflower, bachelors’ button, state fair zinnias; and newcomers I haven’t tried yet, like Canterbury bells, which surely an Anglican gardener ought to grow.

And so I start my weekly trips to Agway, laying-in manure and humus, and topsoil. I evict the weeds in those few open spaces among the perennials (which always have a mind of their own), and I beef-up my clay-stiff soil with all that good stuff from Agway, and it’s time to sow.

Such a hopeful activity, sowing seed. You let yourself imagine what that open space will look like, when what’s on the cover of the seed packet appears there. And you’re dimly aware of what denial it takes to do that imagining, how you’re holding at bay the recollection of all that can go wrong: all those species with an appetite for seeds, all those conditions that work against seeds (too dry, too wet).

And, next morning, you look out and remember one more species to think about: the cat, the several cats in the ‘hood that can’t believe their luck to find such toilet facilities prepared for them. And, sure enough, you should have transplanted that catnip before seeding around it, because you’ve forgotten how cats roll in catnip, and there go the Canterbury bells.

Now, preaching is meant to be an experience of good news. I notice that St. Mark, in his presentation of Jesus’s parables, does not include here all the woeful things that can befall seeds. That’s because he has done that previously, in the first 25 verses of chapter four in his Gospel. But since our portion today stresses the good that we see in the sowing of seed, I’ll do likewise.

I’ll tell you what surprised me, as I set about freeing those open spaces from weeds. Some of those weeds weren’t weeds. One was a sunflower already a foot tall, self-seeded from last year. And all around the perimeter of one large space (where last year I had sown two types of cosmos), behold, were at least fifteen self-seeded cosmos plants. The more I looked, the more I saw: tucked-in along the edges of open spaces (spaces I tried to control last year with my planting), edging those spaces wherever they could find room, were lupine, rudbekia, flowering tobacco, red tassel-flower—and it’s these guys, the hardy self-seeders, who know the ropes of my garden much better than I do.

They’re the ones I can say Jesus’s words over, “And the seed sprouts and grows, I do not know how.”

And for me, those are key words in his little parable. Jesus celebrates growth as God’s work, evidence of God’s powerful presence within the created order. Hear an echo of incarnation, that to tell the mystery of the kingdom of God, Jesus speaks of what happens in the earth. And speaks of it reverently, as if awestruck by miracle.

“The earth produces of itself,” is meant to get us thinking, “Oh, and so is the Church called to produce of itself, made able and fertile by the indwelling Christ and his Spirit.” And, sure enough, the parable offers its other key: to speak of the kingdom of God is to recognize our mission. We are ripe grain, we are God’s harvest.

We who start in the vulnerability of seed implanting egg grow by wondrous means, by physical birth and human nurture, then by spiritual birth and divine nurture, formed into a likeness of Christ that God will use to feed and save his world. This is the harvest St. Paul writes about to the Corinthians: “And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

A second parable rides on the wind of the first one. This is the parable of the mustard seed. It’s barely a parable, for there’s no story line except by echo of the first: that somehow this tiniest of seeds has been sown, whether by human intention or by being a hardy self-seeder.

Or is this the story-line? That “it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

If you attended Nan Alberti’s requiem eucharist last month, this is the Gospel you heard. Her family chose to remember Nan as this great sheltering tree calling into its shade all the birds of the air.

This tiniest of parables holds high the tiniest of seeds and suggests that God’s kingdom comes like that. Doesn’t this little parable teach us what God had to teach Samuel? That “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart”?

Do you remember in Luke, the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith? He answers, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”

Or, if you prefer Matthew’s version, “You will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you.”

We’re told that “With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to people, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak in public except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.”

I’m not at all sure that speaks well of the disciples, that they needed the parables explained to them. Parables are not rational statements meant for exact analysis. They are earthly stories with heavenly meanings. They are about what God wants of us, what God is doing in us and for us and through us—and not just us, but the whole of creation.

But there I go, explaining the parables… when what I mean to do is wonder whether we disciples aren’t meant to let seeds sprout in the imagination and let the gift of sustainable teaching be received by finding the point and grasping the meaning, ourselves.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Flesh and Spirit

The Gospel for Trinity Sunday is John 3:1-17

A week ago today, we rejoiced to be in the gracious grip of the missionary Spirit of God. Our Bishop preached with apostolic zeal. You can see that we put our best clothes on and wore red. Six remarkable teenagers were confirmed, and our very own Madeline was received into this branch of Christ’s Church.

Today, we’re ready to celebrate how the Spirit moves the Class of 2009 at Williams, and their families, and their faculty to draw whole the circle of four years of demanding work and exhilarating accomplishments and precious relationships. These four years have seen the hallowing of endless hard work—pages read, papers written, exams survived, practice endured—hallowed by the gaining and giving of insight, perspective, respect, empathy, awe, intimacy, community, compassion… Each senior we know and love can add to this list of gifts and achievements of the spirit gained here in this fertile valley.

So it may be with some degree of argument that we hear John’s Gospel today, “What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” We may not find that true to our experience. There is endless crossover between those two columns and all they contain. And doesn’t a religion of incarnation teach us to expect that crossover?

For sure, but here Jesus is rattling the firmament of a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a man so Establishment that he comes to our Lord’s campfire only under the cover of night. And there we see him painted chiarascuro, his darkness heavy against the sharp light that meets him. His darkness is made of fear. His robes of authority hang heavy on him, but he will not let them slip from his broad shoulders that carry the burden of leadership, not even when Jesus invites him to be born again, to slip naked out of those robes and be baptized as Jesus once was, that day at the muddy Jordan when he and many hundreds of ordinary people went waist-deep to let the Spirit of the prophets write God’s law upon their hearts.

Jesus takes off his gloves and fights for Nicodemus’s soul. “You see things black and white,” he seems to say, “You rule and judge the community by laws that let you say, ‘This is pure, and that is impure. This one is righteous, and that one unrighteous.’ But I say to you that what draws you to me in those signs you admire so much, is how I touch the earthly and free it for the heavenly. You can’t do that. Not until you lay down your rule of law and authority and, naked of all claim to power, let God have you, flesh and spirit. Then you will serve the Spirit. You think you do now, but you’re serving the flesh.”

Here is a good Gospel for Trinity Sunday, when the Church lets its jaw drop in amazement that the completeness of God should require us. Should delight in freeing our flesh so we may rise, born again in Spirit and truth. Should break open our darkness of slavery and fear and draw us into light, make us children of light. That the fullness of God should be pleased to dwell in the rebirthing of human beings, one by one.

And that these are the shoulds that matter. Not the shoulds that we, like Nicodemus, carry on our shoulders. Not the shoulds that make us debtors to the flesh, requiring us to keep doing what others have done in the past, keeping us slaves to standards and habits and burdens that do not fit the children of God now.

But that God should give us a spirit of adoption. Like those Roman Christians, we are stunned to hear that by baptism into Jesus Christ, we are made his apostles to the world, “that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ…”

“For God so loved the world as to give his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

That We All May Be One

The Gospel for the 7th Sunday of Easter is John 17:6-19.

“Memorial Day is a United States federal holiday observed on the last Monday of May. Formerly known as Decoration Day, it commemorates U. S. men and women who died while in the military service. First enacted to honor Union soldiers of the American Civil War (it is celebrated near the day of reunification after the Civil War), it was expanded after World War I to include American casualties of any war or military action.”

Yes, this sermon is brought to you today by Wikipedia. That’s where I found this passage from General Orders No. 11, issued by the Grand Army of the Republic, the G.A.R., “a fraternal organization composed of veterans of the Union Army who had served in the American Civil War. The G.A.R. was among the first organized interest groups in American politics.”

Hear the Orders: “The 30th day of May, 1868, is designated for the purpose of strewing with flowers, or otherwise decorating the graves of comrades who died in defense of their country during the late rebellion, and whose bodies now lie in almost every city, village and hamlet churchyard in the land. In this observance no form or ceremony is prescribed, but Posts and comrades will, in their own way arrange such fitting services and testimonials of respect as circumstances may permit.

“We are organized, Comrades, as our regulations tell us, for the purpose among other things, 'of preserving and strengthening those kind and fraternal feelings which have bound together the soldiers sailors and Marines, who united to suppress the late rebellion.’ What can aid more to assure this result than by cherishing tenderly the memory of our heroic dead? We should guard their graves with sacred vigilance. All that the consecrated wealth and taste of the nation can add to their adornment and security, is but a fitting tribute to the memory of her slain defenders. Let pleasant paths invite the coming and going of reverent visitors and fond mourners. Let no neglect, no ravages of time, testify to the present or to the coming generations that we have forgotten as a people the cost of a free and undivided republic.

“Let us, then, at the time appointed, gather around their sacred remains, and garland the passionless mounds above them with choicest flowers of springtime; let us raise above them the dear old flag they saved; let us in this solemn presence renew our pledge to aid and assist those whom they have left among us a sacred charge upon the Nation's gratitude—the soldier's and sailor's widow and orphan.”

While 20th and 21st centuries have conditioned us to think of war as international, remember that all of this language from the founding of Memorial Day speaks of our own American internal regional war between the states, a war fought largely over competing economic interests.

Back to Wikipedia: “According to Professor David Blight of the Yale University History Department, the first memorial day was observed in 1865 by liberated slaves at the historic Washington Race Course (today the location of Hampton Park) in Charleston. The site was a former Confederate prison camp as well as a mass grave for Union soldiers who died in captivity.”

(It was in South Carolina that the very first regiments of armed fugitive slaves were sent into battle. In essence, it was at that moment that the slaves were freed.)

“The freed slaves disinterred the dead Union soldiers from the mass grave to be inhumed properly reposed with individual graves, built a fence around the graveyard with an entry arch, declaring it a Union graveyard. A daring action for freed slaves to take in the South just shortly after the Union's victory. On May 30, 1868, the freed slaves returned to the graveyard with flowers they had picked from the countryside and decorated the individual gravesites, thereby creating the first Decoration Day. Thousands of freed blacks and Union soldiers paraded from the area, followed by much patriotic singing and a picnic.

“The official birthplace of Memorial Day is Waterloo, New York. The village was credited with being the place of origin because it observed the day on May 5, 1866, and each year thereafter.”

But I suggest we keep the birthplace of Memorial Day that Union graveyard carved by freed slaves out of a Confederate prison camp. I find that a powerful reminder of the foundation of our unity. I find in this founding story the mutual regard that developed, however imperfectly, between Northern soldiers who may have been almost as racist in their attitude as their Confederate enemies, but whose hearts were opened to discover a unity of purpose as armed slaves fought on the same field as their white allies, and fought famously and bravely on the riskiest fronts. Together, they paid the cost of a free and undivided republic.

It would take time—far too much time—for a reunited nation to determine that black ex-slaves were as human in their being as white people, that they deserved to be considered people. Even in the north, this would take years and decades. In the south, decades close to a century. In our nation as a whole, it would be said of World War II, ending 80 years after that first Memorial Day, that soldiers and sailors came home with new attitudes to race by having served in integrated companies and crews.

“Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” So Jesus prayed for his disciples, and so for us.

“In your name” appears to mean “in that same identity and character of God revealed in Jesus Christ.” Jesus’s revelation of God shaped the identity and the mission of the faith community of those first disciples, and in this prayer we hear the plea that God keep secure the community’s grounding in that same character of God.

No other than God who delights not in the might of an army, or in the miter of a prelate, but in the widow’s mite, the full self-offering that commits the whole of life into the hands of God.

No other than God who lifts up the lowly and is glorified by an unexpectedly pregnant Mary who trusts and gives birth to his Word, glorified by a woman of the street who anoints this Messiah, glorified by Magdalene, the first to witness his resurrection.

No other than God who empowers his people with courage to be peacemakers, courage to lay down their lives for their friends, courage to be so universal in their friendships as to treat every person as equally human and hence equally holy, without regard to how they are named, how their skin is colored or what their social status, sex, or ethnic claims may be, or how they believe and practice the life that is in God.

No other than God whose costly love for the poor and the rich frees them both for social responsibility by sanctifying them in truth, the truth that demands change of heart.

“Holy Father, secure them in your name, in your character, in your identity, in your nature that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.” As Jesus prayed for his disciples, now he advocates for us in all our dimensions of human community: in our interior world of conflicting selves within the self, in our social world of marriages and families and friendships, in the political world of our nation within a struggling community of nations, and in our one world with its delicate threatened tissue of life that demands a finer stewardship.

His prayer, in which all our prayers are swept up, is that we may be one as he and his Father are one, and that we may be sanctified in truth that will make us free.