Archive for January, 2015

“Shedding Light, Shedding Blood” (Sermon, January 28th)

Mark 4:1-20

4Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. 2He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: 3‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. 5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. 7Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. 8Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ 9And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

10 When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. 11And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; 12in order that
“they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”’

13 And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? 14The sower sows the word. 15These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. 16And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. 17But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. 18And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, 19but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. 20And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’


“‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
“they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.”’

Well, that sucks.

Doesn’t jive very well with what we say about Jesus, does it? We’re used to “Ask and it will be given unto you.” Who is this Jesus who lays traps for the crowd – a crowd so large that he needs to be in a boat to accommodate them all? Who is this trickster who teaches in order to obfuscate – not just to obfuscate, but to exclude?

Those of us at seminary sometimes call the writer of Mark “The Cop.” “Just the facts, ma’am.” There’s nothing superfluous in Mark. Everything there is there on purpose: it has to serve the story. This makes Mark a masterful author – even better than some authors on the bestseller list today. His is likely the oldest of the Gospels in our canon, maybe written twenty to forty years after the death of Jesus.

Christians during this time were struggling to understand how it could be that the man they called the Saviour of the World could have been subjected to such a brutal and humiliating death. Others mocked them, deriding the weakness and futility of a god that could be killed as a criminal. And it was hard to argue.

Already some were claiming that Jesus had been the Messiah all along. There is debate now and I believe there was debate then over whether or not Jesus had actually told people he was the Messiah while he was alive. Mark is unclear. Not just the crowd but the disciples are portrayed as dimwits who never figure it out. Every time the subject comes up around Jesus he appears to shush people. “He sternly ordered them to tell no-one what they had seen.”

Either way, it was hard for new followers who had not known Jesus personally to believe that the Anointed One of God had been the same as the one who suffered a gruesome execution at the hands of the state. How could this be part of God’s plan?

One of the ways that the writer of Mark appears to be trying to make sense of it all is to explore the theme of hiddenness. In this passage we just heard, Jesus says that parables are there so that those outside will not understand (and even the disciples need it explained). In following passages, we hear Jesus say, “Nothing is hidden that will not be made manifest.”

Well, that’s a relief! We might as well end there! Ah, but – why bother hiding at all if it’s only going to be made manifest later?

This is Mark’s masterstroke: One hides in order to make manifest.

That makes absolutely no sense! No – we need some help. So very quickly let’s look at the boundary of this passage. The first word you heard was “Again.” So it’s related to what came before. What’s it referring to? Today, for our purposes, let’s check the last time that boat was mentioned. The disciples brought a boat so that Jesus wouldn’t be crushed by the crowds rushing forward to be healed. What else was going on? Unclean spirits were shouting at him: “You are the Son of God!” And he tells them to shut up. “He ordered them not to make him known.” Again, the original Greek is helpful: one of the words used is related to the word “light.” One could – rather creatively – translate it, “He ordered them not to shed any light on him.”

It’s not time yet.

It is not the season for figs. My hour has not yet come.

The crucifixion is what will shed the light – because that is what God intended. For Mark, shedding light is shedding blood.

This might sound extreme, even vile. It is, a little – we are working within a paradigm that is so far removed from our time that it might as well be alien. We don’t sacrifice animals anymore, so this idea might not work for us. So how can we make it work?

How about this: Bread can only be shared if it is broken. Wine can only be drunk if it is poured out. The life of Christ is a cruciform life, a life of sacrificial self-giving. This is not a call to an unhealthy martyrdom – if there is no bread left to be broken, everyone goes hungry, and the bread is exhausted. A seed withers unless it has good soil for a home.

Draw near then, brothers and sisters, and feed on the bread of heaven, which is never exhausted, and go forth, fearing neither birds, nor sun, nor stones, nor thorns. Draw near and drink living water, and bubble up unto everlasting life.

“Come and See” (Sermon, January 18th)

I reference two readings in this piece, which seemed a little excessive to post in their entirety. They can be found here and here.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. But only the one who sees, takes off their shoes.”

The last couple of weeks may have seemed bleak and more than a little violent. We may feel like the word of the Lord is rare in these days, and visions are not widespread. The Hebrew in the Samuel passage today is a lot more evocative than our English translation. The first clause is actually a little closer to, “The word of the Lord was ‘dear’.” That word like in English carries a meaning of both ‘precious’ and ‘expensive’. The second clause of that sentence more literally reads: “And there was not open vision.” That word “open” is actually a less awkward way to translate broken through. Visions have not been able to break through – break through what? Cynicism? Apathy? A vast rage, perhaps, the kind that stokes the fires of violence? A needlessly hostile mockery which grows like a weed into a merciless silencing and repression?

Last week John told us the voice of God is always there, speaking throughout time and in all generations, choosing messengers not to our convenience or according to our narratives and principles, but choosing ones that will nudge us into growth and humility.

Not safe ones. Not great ones. Not regal ones.

Dangerous ones. Poor ones. Little ones.

Other ones.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. But only the one who sees, takes off their shoes.”

That is the truth – the Word, if you like – that God shouted into the abyss. The echo still rings out, rings out in the bursting open of seeds, the rich new growth encouraged by wildfire, the death of stars, the obsolescence and renewal of billions of cells in your own body. Because life and death are intertwined, because earth and heaven have married and become one flesh, because God has met us where we were in the everyday desperation of one tiny life, all things have been utterly transformed – every common bush, every ordinary blood cell, every daily bread, every inconsequential life, made new and carrying a spark – crammed with heaven, afire with God.

That is the truth.

Have you seen it?

I promise you have.

If you’re thinking, “No, I didn’t,” well – Samuel didn’t know who was calling him. Nathanael was skeptical of the source.

Both were called, and both answered.

You were called.

Did you know that?

Maybe, like Samuel, you were alone when you heard that call. Maybe you knew someone was calling you but you didn’t know who it was.

Maybe, like Nathanael, a friend brought you a message, and you couldn’t believe it.

It doesn’t matter. What matters is how you respond.

Your uniquely personal response is key – both Samuel and Nathanael show us that. However, it is not the way to respond. It is only one way.

Samuel needed the almost ritualistic words of invitation: “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening,” and he got them from his mentor.

Nathanael needed Philip’s invitation: the beautiful and, to me, somewhat haunting, “Come and see.” The Gospel of John is replete with deceptively simple coded and loaded language. “Come and see” is a very special phrase – Jesus used it a few verses earlier to invite Simon and Andrew to stay with him. It pops up again at other moments in the Gospel as well. When you hear it, you should hear this echo or overtone hiding in it: “everlasting life.”

Samuel and Nathanael were called with the help of others, and both responded in their own way – personally, communally. It has to be both. Our Three-in-One God is too dynamic, too powerful, too expansively, foolishly loving to confine such a gift to one person, one conversation. Think of the amazing strength of this God who managed to share such a monumental gift with the whole world through one life. But that’s all the world has ever needed. One seed, one star, one human life donned like a robe only to be taken off and given to us.

Some gifts are so big that we can’t even see them.

So how do we share such a gift? Let’s look again at the invitation. What was the content of Samuel and Nathanael’s invitation? What about our invitation? What do we tell the ones who are being called and haven’t yet discerned?

Let’s look again.

Samuel hears: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make both ears of anyone who hears of it tingle.”

Nathanael hears: “You will see greater things than these – the heavens opening, and angels ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

See, I am about to do something. You will see greater things than these.

So what have you seen?

Have you seen God do something great in the place where you live? It’s not always about tearing open the heavens, or parting the sea, or wrestling with angels. Sometimes it’s about the view of the mountains from your window, or the smell of cedar trees, or the birth of a child, or shared laughter with an old friend. Sometimes it’s even about the boring mindless work that we do every day, the work we do for the people we love, the work we do because someone has to, and that’s our ministry.

Have you seen greater things than that? Have you seen reconciliation where all seemed lost? Have you seen life emerging from what seemed like death? Have you seen the helpers? Mr. Rogers the children’s television personality said that when he saw bad things on the news, his mother always told him to “look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

If you have seen help freely offered to someone in need; if you have seen the solidarity that grows between two totally different people who become friends and advocates; if you have seen a life poured out in order that others may live; if you have seen children and elders standing together before the altar with their hands held out for bread and wine; if you have seen the sun rise after the longest, worst day of your life, you have seen angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man. You have seen heaven married to earth. You have seen the Word made flesh.

I have seen him. I am seeing him. Here. Now. He is looking back at me.

“Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. But only the one who sees, takes off their shoes.”

Come and see.