Sermon for Sunday, June 14, 2015 by the Rev. Martha Kirkpatrick, Rector. For attributions, see the PDF version.
We are exploring the Gospel of Mark this year, looking at what Mark has to show us about who Jesus is and how Jesus works in people’s lives. Some review is helpful. In Chapter 1, which, remember, has no birth narrative, Mark tells us that Jesus is initiating a new beginning, a new creation. Jesus is deeply grounded in Jewish tradition, and yet there is something new. In Chapter 1 Jesus is baptized, then tempted in the desert. Jesus then calls his first disciples, and in doing so Mark shows us that Jesus embodies the Wisdom traditions. Wisdom traditions are ancient, and transcend religions. A wisdom teacher works us from the inside. Contemporary scholars are also helping us to see Jesus as a wisdom teacher, a teacher of the transformation of consciousness. The importance of this inside work is revealed in what is for Mark Jesus’ first public act of ministry: the exorcising of a demon. We might think of a demon as something that possesses the psyche and in the face of which people feel powerless. Addiction, for example, or mental illness. Such afflictions are also isolating and people who suffer from them are often marginalized or excluded from their community.
In Chapter 2 we see Jesus moving into his ministry. There are the healing stories, which are not about cure, but about restoring people to wholeness and community. And when people are restored to community, the community also is made whole.
In Chapter 3, which we read from last week, Mark shows how Jesus challenges conventional ways of wisdom. He welcomes people shunned from the religious community, he welcomes the outcast. And for that the religious authorities think he works for satan and his family thinks he’s out of his mind. These stories invite us to consider how uncomprehending, if not hostile, others can be to our own interior life, awareness, and authority.
So now we come to Chapter 4, Jesus teachings in parables. One of the most common ways wisdom teachers teach is through story. Jesus’ primary teaching device, which we see employed twice in today’s gospel reading, is the parable. The parable is a classic device in wisdom tradition. A parable is not a fable or a moral lesson. Nor is is an allegory, with things symbolically standing in for something else. (The Chronicles of Narnia is an example of allegory.) Parables, like a Buddhist koan, parables are aimed at turning our minds upside down. My thinking on this is that Jesus wants to short-circuit the rational mind. They are not puzzles to be figured out, but entered into, not unlike an icon, or a poem. Why? Because these truths are too big for our rational mind to wrap around. They can’t be “explained” in the usual sense. They point to something rather than describing it. In Jewish tradition it was typical to place several parables on the theme near to each other “like pearls on a string.”
Today’s parables are about The Kingdom of God. In Matthew’s Gospel this is called the Kingdom of Heaven, and unfortunate phrase that tends to conjure up images of pearly gates. Christians have often — and I believe, in error — talked about the Kingdom of God, or of Heaven, as somewhere we go when we die. As reward for good behavior, something we earn. This is not scriptural. The kingdom of God is not a place, and it is not some time in the future.
Think of it as a state of awakened consciousness, a state of awareness. It is found in our own interior space. Jesus wants to open us up to the presence of God within us, and to help us understand something about how our consciousness wakes up. This is what Paul means when he talks about “putting on the mind of Christ.” It is our interior space where God dwells.
Jesus would simply tell the parable, and let it do its work. And here I stand, trying to talk about it. The irony is not lost on me . . .
Let’s take a look at these two parables and see what opens up, and I invite you to read the Kingdom of God as awakened consciousness.
The seeds of two parables
Please take out your leaflet and open it to the Gospel lesson.
” Seed.” What image arises? A small space in our inner psyche, almost imperceptible. The barest whisper. A sense of something. Someone or something whispering in our ear, we’re not quite sure it was anything. The still, small voice. The sound of sheer silence. Maybe it was only the wind. I believe this seed is planted in every one of us from the beginning. We have this sense as children. An inner spirit, if you will. But without someone to help us know it, it can be experienced as isolation and loneliness. A felt presence, but you turn to look at it and its gone.
Seed on the ground. This is right in the midst of earthly life. The seed is sown “squarely in the midst of every human and even every earthly condition.” This is worldly, not otherworldly.
Sleep and rise, night and day. Do you recognize this pattern? “In the beginning, when God made the heavens and the earth . . . God said let there be light. And there was light . . . And it was evening, and it was morning, the first day . . .” Imagine that your day, if you will, actually begins not when your feet hit the floor, but when you go to bed! When you rest. By the time you get up, a lot has happened that had nothing to do with your doing it. First-century Palestinians would have spent the hours of light in heavy toil, sowing, reaping, caring for sheep, making things, and unlike us, unable to do much of anything once the sun went down. This calls attention to the preparatory time, when God is at work. It reminds us that we are actually not in charge. This is emphasized by what comes next . . .
“the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself . . .”
This is a natural process, it is meant to happen, it is designed to grow, and it will happen if we tend it the way a farmer tends a seed, doing what we can to make the conditions favorable. We tend it with prayer and contemplation. By meditating on scripture. By opening ourselves to God’s revelation. We can’t make it happen, we can’t acquire it. We don’t earn it. Remember the rich man, “what must I do to enter the kingdom of heaven”? I’ve done x, y and z. What’s next on the check list? We can open ourselves to it, and trust it.
“first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.” This is a gradual process. We don’t know how it happens, it happens while we are at rest.
And then it is harvested. What does this mean? The fruits of the awakened consciousness are compassion and connection to all life. When we feel that, we have to do what we can for each other. We operate then not out of the separate self, gathering what it can for itself, but instead are drawn into working for the kingdom.
The second parable is the mustard seed. A word about mustard, because you may not know about mustard what Jesus’ original hearers certainly would have known. Mustard was an invasive weed, undesirable, all over the place, and certainly not deliberately cultivated. Think kudzu. Some commenters have suggested the irony if not outright humor at calling it “the greatest of all shrubs.” We’re not talking cedars of Lebanon here. These were lowly, not majestic, under the best of circumstances. The 1st century audience would have heard an echo of Ezekiel 17: 22-24, which is the alternate OT reading for today. There the psalmist is talking about the lofty cedar: “under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind.” This is a metaphor for King David’s reign, and for the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. Here, it is common, ordinary mustard. I suggest that here again we have Jesus reminding authorities not to ignore the people they might consider undesirable, or unworthy, or too insignificant to bother with.
This is the “unstoppable dynamism of God’s seed.”
This seed of the presence of God is planted in us. It is there to grow, that is its natural inclination. We don’t grow it, it is God’s grace that nourishes it. What we can do is open our awareness, and we can help each other see it. We know when this awareness is growing in us because it feels like being held in love, it feels like love and compassion in our hearts toward others and it feels like total connection. We can’t explain this. We can tell stories. [I told me own story here.] The Bible’s driving energy is the story of humans’ encounter with God. Something happens to these people that was so utterly huge, so transformational, so profound that it was beyond their received language. Hence imagery and metaphor.
In Mark Chapter 5, we’ll here stories of what happened to people when they are touched on the inside. Where that seed is awakened. We will be looking at these in a couple of weeks.
Our job as a Christian community is to recognize and witness the God presence in others: every person who walks through that door. Everyone we meet on the street. Church can be — is supposed to be — fertile soil for that seed. This is not about doctrine or belief or what I think about God, but my experience of the God in me and in you.
Everyone has this seed. For many, many people, and for all of us from time to time, it just feels like a hole. A God-shaped hole. It feels like hunger, loneliness, and isolation. It feels like something is lacking. So we fill it with other stuff, and our culture is full of cheap substitutes. This is why we need each other. The institution of the church is supposed to be a living out of this felt presence of God on the inside. A place where we also bring our doubts, our questions, a place where we find companions to whom we can tell our story and our experience. A place where all are welcomed, where we practice radical inclusion.
This is a place beyond words, to which words can only point. This is why we worship through ancient timeless words. This is why we have music, which touches us in ways that words can’t. And sometimes all we can say is Holy. Holy. Holy!