Spiritual Maturity

Reverie

Cork is a wonderful material, a natural product of the Quercus suba or cork oak tree. I remember in the house I grew up in, there was a cook floor in the Wtree-360dining and sitting rooms made from large squares of cork arranged in an alternating pattern of honey and coffee coloured tiles. Because the ultraviolet rays of the sun are so intense in New Zealand, after a while the contrasts faded and every so often the floors needed sanding to restore them to the colours of the original pattern. It was a very 1960’s look. Cork tile floors are ubiquitous with the great movement in design called Mid-century Modern, a style common around the Pacific Rim but which seems not to have made much inroad into New England; a style I note, that is once again the rage in design magazines like CB2.

You don’t see cork as much as you once did. Even its last great bastion, the wine cork, seems to be on its way out. More often than not wine bottles are now sealed with the easy to open screw-top, or something, which interestingly we still refer to as a plastic cork. It’s ironic how cork now refers to a function, i.e. sealing or stopping, rather than the material of the seal or stopper itself.

Cork was for centuries prized for its buoyancy making it an essential material in the traditional fishing industries. Even here, or maybe especially here, cork has now largely been replaced. Fishing buoys made from cork are now hard to find. Universally, buoys are now made from a material I call polystyrene, which translate for Americans as Styrofoam.

My cork reverie was evoked by the passage in Ephesians 4:14-16 that speaks of being tossed to and fro, an image for me of the action of swimming in the surf, of being helplessly carried upward and downward, forward and backward, propelled by the action of the waves. 

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love. 

This passage offers two intriguing contrasts.

1. Being anchored

The first contrast is between corks and buoys, whether the latter are made from the material cork or not. In the image of being tossed to and fro, in my mind’s eye I picture the contrast between the image of a cork bobbing up and down on the surface of the water, at the mercy of the ebb and flow of the currents, and that of the buoy rising and falling with the action of the waves but firmly anchored in one place.

Am I a cork or a buoy? Do I feel like a cork or a buoy? Are these even different questions? As I explored last week in the Illusoriness of Reality, these are different questions to the extent that feelings are not always an accurate indication of what is real. Yet, feeling states are what we have ready, conscious access to, so I guess there are times when I feel more or less cork-like. Yet, feelings are no indication of spiritual maturity.

There is an important distinction between spiritual and emotional states. Optimism, or pessimism, happy or sad, these are emotional states. They are not accurate indicators of spiritual vitality, because each is a reflection of circumstances in the external world. Things go well and we feel happy and optimistic. Things are tough and we feel sad and pessimistic.

Spiritual discernment has traditionally made a distinction between consolation and desolation. These are spiritual states that contradict, rather than reflect feeling states tied to external perception. For instance, things appear to going well for us. We seem to have all we could desire, and in the midst of our optimism we feel hollow and empty. This is the spiritual state of desolation and it alerts us to the illusory mistake of identifying spiritual vitality with material or emotional happiness. Correspondingly, consolation galvanizes us during tough times. When we face up against the large uncertainties of life, the seeming impossibilities that loom large before us, we experience a certainty of purpose and direction anchored by a palpable – felt but not seen – trust in God.

Spiritual states have an objective quality, i.e. an expression of something in us that is greater than we are, whereas emotional states are highly subjective, i.e. resulting only from inside ourselves. Yet, it seems both spiritual and emotional states involve maturing.Returning to my metaphor of the cork and buoy, the key spiritual question is: am I a cork cast adrift and vulnerable to the unpredictability of tide and wind, or am I a buoy, firmly anchored to the ocean floor with a cord strong and elastic enough to ride the turbulent current and hold-fast into the prevailing wind?

2.Growing up

In exploring this question I note the second contrast that Paul –whether it is actually the historical Paul or a later disciple imbued with his spirituality makes in the Ephesians passage between spiritual immaturity, the state associated with being a child and maturity.

We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro …. [But] we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ …

Here’s a nice theological question: does the soul grow up, i.e. does it grow and mature with the passage of life? Theologically, the soul has been seen as immutable or unchanging. This is somewhat the position held by transpersonal psychologies such as Psychosynthesis, which see the soul as a higher center of supraconsciousness, independent from, but contributing to our emotional development. The soul may be unchanging, but spiritual maturity, rather like emotional maturity is constantly forming.

Different languages

The theologian James Fowler, while not the only one to do so, has developed a schematic of spiritual maturity across psycho-spiritual formational stages, which he links with those of increasing emotional development. This is not the place to go into an analysis of his six stages of spiritual formation so visit https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_W._Fowler to explore further.

Without access to a modern psychology of psycho-spiritual formation, Paul and those speaking Paul’s message to a later generation had two core measures for individual spiritual maturity.

The first is a measure of a healthy capacity to participate in community and to strengthen the sinews that link individuals into a whole, i.e. a maturity that supports unity. The second is a measure of participation in one’s individual call. Spiritual maturity manifests differently in each of us according our discernment and acceptance of our calling, our vocation.

If the first measure of spiritual maturity is the capacity to participate in something greater than one’s self, the second measure is of a capacity to contribute our difference, something very individual to one’s self, to the building up of the greater whole. Paul often uses the metaphor of the human body to speak of this; one body, yet different organs. Ephesians takes up this metaphor and presents a process for building up the body through the promise of spiritual maturity.

Ephesians speaks of spiritual maturity, of growing up, in the language of:

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ.

Fowler’s sixth stage of formation offers us a modern language for the spiritual maturation Ephesians speaks of. Spiritual maturity, while exhibiting a number of different characteristics is the capacity to treat any person with compassion, accepting them as a part of the same universal community, according to the Christ-centered principles of love, tolerance, and inclusive justice.

One image I easily have for myself is that like a cork tossed about, I feel vulnerable, at times child-like and ill equipped in the face of shifting opinions and conflicting worldviews. In the face of this turbulence, my overriding anxiety is to please, to fit in, to be included by making myself acceptable. This is an image of being adrift in a sea of fearful feelings. It’s an image for spiritual immaturity.

An alternative image is that like a buoy I ride the turbulent surface of living in the world with courage knowing that I ride the surface tempest anchored by a cord that is strong and elastic enough to hold me fast to God’s promise for me to grow into the full stature of Christ. Here, I am not afraid to express my difference and to tolerate if not embrace other’s difference as we grow together. This is an image of spiritual maturity in action. This is Christ’s promise and God’s gift.

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. But each of us was given grace according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 

Spiritual maturity is demonstrated in our ability to discern and take up our calling, and to realize that we do not do so not in isolation, but in the company of one another. Together we use our individual gifts to built the body, helping rather than hindering one another as together we mature into the full statue of Christ.

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The Illusoriness of Reality

Like others I suspect, the reoccurring tension for me lies in my confusing what I can see with what really exists. I have two prayers that form the bedrock of my daily devotion that seem to help me with this.

The first is: Please God, show me what I have yet to be able to see. The field of my awareness takes shape from what I think I see in front of me. Yet, I know that what I see is actually the product of the interplay between an objective reality and my imagination that interprets what I see according to the available templates of my memory. I know this. Yet I live as if what I see and the way I perceive it is an accurate reflection of something objective, i.e. independent of my perception.

My second prayer comes from my adaptation of a line in the ancient Christian prayer known as the Salve Regina. This is a prayer of heartfelt intercession to Mary. It is a prayer I learned a long time ago and within my current spiritual practice it remains an artifact from the fervor of my Anglo-Catholic youth. It survives when many other aspects of this earlier spiritual phase have fallen away simply because one day I found myself unthinkingly changing the line that runs:

to you do we sigh, mouring and weeping passing through this vale of tears, to:         to you do we sigh, mouring and weeping passing through this veil of illusion. 

My adaptation reflects a shift in my spirituality away from a medieval notion of the plight of human suffering to a notion that suffering is a perception that is rooted in the tension between subjectivity and objectivity. Sometimes this tension reflects our imprisonment within the way memory confines imagination or put another way a reflection of being shackled by the familiar. However, this tension can also be a place of imaginative creativity when imagination breaks free an opens to new shifts in awareness.

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There is a scholarly controversy over whether Ephesians is actually from the hand of Paul or from that of a later disciple writing in the style of Paul. The controversy over Ephesians is a modern concern and not one that would have made any sense to Paul, himself. Ephesians strikes a different tone with its focus on the qualities of an ordered spiritual life that indicates a less turbulent and more settled time than the one Paul lived through. Nevertheless in so many places it approaches the intensity of Paul’s vision. In the portion appointed for the epistle (Ephesians 3:14-21) on the 9th Sunday after Pentecost, the author, whether Paul or not, articulates a powerful Pauline vision:

I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. 

My heartfelt response to this passage is –if only. What I mean is, if only this expectation would resonate through my whole and undivided being. I long to expand my perception beyond the limitations placed by my need to stay within the security of what I already know. I so desire to comprehend beyond the limitations of what I think I see.  I long for this Pauline expectation to become my reality. I live in the tension between such a hope and my encapsulation within a small, limited, and overly self-referenced perspective; a perspective resulting from still being firmly on this side of the veil of illusion.

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In John 6:1-21, the gospel appointed for Pentecost 9 we receive the miracles of the feeding of the 5000 and Jesus walking on the water. The feeding of the 5000 is one of those rare events recorded in all four Gospels.

John does not record many of the events that form the bedrock of the synoptic writers. Unlike Mark, Matthew and Luke, John is not writing a synopsis – general theological and chronological overview of Jesus life and ministry. John is constructing a theology of theophany i.e. God’s visible manifestation to humankind. He reconstructs the ministry of Jesus around seven signs, all of which focus attention on the nature of Jesus’ and God’s identity as intertwined. At the heart of John’s gospel lies his theology that in Jesus we see God; a God who reveals through signs or miracles.

Misapprehension, misunderstanding, rejection, are themes that run through John’s narrative of theophany because our ability to see reality is distorted by the veil of illusion constructed from our self-referenced and imaginatively encapsulated hopes and expectations. The crowds are firmly rooted on this side the of the veil of illusion, with Jesus on the other side. Interestingly, reality and illusion are often so close together, and can be likened to the opposite sides of the same coin.

The crowd is attracted to Jesus because of the signs he works, signs that make him a powerful target for the projections of their unrequited longing.  For the crowd, Jesus is Moses or Elijah come again. The prophet of old who will lead them from their current state of subjection into a new promised land. Ecstatic with expectation, they try to make Jesus a king – the Messiah who will deliver Israel from its bondage. These expectations are close to the truth but perceived from the illusory side of the coin.

On the other side of the coin, John tells the story of the feeding of the 5000 to create an echo between Jesus and Moses. In John’s version Jesus echoes God through Moses feeding the people with manna – limitless bread in the wilderness. After feeding the people John has Jesus go up onto a mountain beside the lake – a probable reference to the Golan Heights, but an echo of Moses ascending Mt Sinai to witness theophany.

It’s as if God’s self revelation is designed to actively trigger the people’s collective religious memory, creating an association between Jesus and Moses. God desires that the people see that in Jesus something radically new is coming to pass. Yet, then as well as now, humankind tends to limit itself to perceptions shaped by what it already knows. The need is for humankind to see something new. John sees in Jesus something new and he never seems to come to terms with the fact that most people around him don’t. Today, the danger is that we continue to construct God as a manifestation of our own self image – a kind of anthophany.

The feeding of the 5000 followed by the walking on the water are the fourth and fifth of John’s miracle signs. But, what is a miracle? Put most simply a miracle seems to be an event that on the face of it has no rational or logical explanation according to our expectations of how things work in the universe.

On one side we have the externalists, those who see miracles as events in time and space that are miraculous because they mysteriously and inexplicably suspend the Newtonian laws of physics. The miraculous becomes its own explanation. On the other side we have the internalists, those who believe the seemingly miraculous is a psychospiritual event – something occurring within the inner consciousness of individuals. Between these two positions is a profound theological disagreement. The externalists affirm miracles because God can do what God likes, that’s the function of being omnipotent. The internalists counter with, having set up the laws along which the universe seems to operate, God becomes confined by a self-imposed restriction to only operate as a good Newtonian.

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For me, the question do miracles happen is the wrong question. Miracles are defined not by how they happen but by their consequences. Miracles change perceptions and the course of events. I am happy to be agnostic about whether they are external or internal events because I find this distinction to be an illusion. I have only my internal perception of any objective event in external reality.

I prefer to see miracles as those experiences that show us the more than what we are conditioned by memory-shaped imagination to expect. It’s not do they, or how do they, happen? It’s how is our sense of the possible reshaped by such events so that we make the imaginative leap into expecting more than we have dared to hope for?

The hypothesis that I have been at pains to articulate here is that the expectations of God’s KINGDOM are never limited to the possible or even to the probable. The expectations of the KINGDOM come to us in the form of a discovery that we are not limited by the boundaries of only what we can imagine.

The veil of illusion is permeable! Through courageous expectation and hope-filled action we are called to comprehend the breath and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses all knowledge so that we may not only be filled with the fullness of God, but be those through whom God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than we can ask or imagine.

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The Invitation of a Nightmare

Sermon for Pentecost 6 from Linda Griggs who is the Director for Christian Formation at St Martin’s, Providence.

Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother.”

It’s like a train wreck, isn’t it? You just can’t look away. The story of the beheading of John the Baptist is a cultural rubbernecking phenomenon: composers, writers, choreographers, and visual artists have all interpreted it with varying degrees of lurid detail. Pastry chefs have even gotten in on the act: A fellow parishioner recently told me that she attended a presentation of the Strauss opera about this story, called Salome. When she arrived at the after party she was curious as to the contents of a cake box and couldn’t resist a peek. You are correct in imagining what was in the box. Another friend told me that this story is the first Bible story that actually frightened her. And I’m sure she’s not alone. This is the stuff of nightmares. And yet.

Nightmares have their place. A Jungian analyst once told me that, scary and heart-pounding as they are, nightmares can be invitations to transformation—in other words the collective unconscious is trying to wake you up to something new that you might be ignoring. So, rather than being frightened of a nightmare, you might want to see what it is trying to tell you.

So since we began by comparing today’s Gospel to a nightmare, let’s take it one step further and accept that it may also be an invitation—or even a challenge.

First, we need to remember that in Jungian dream work everyone in the dream represents an aspect of our own Self. It’s as though we are looking in mirror with more than one panel. That means that if your dream has someone in it that is saintly and perfect, that’s you. And that other person in the dream who is a real jerk? That’s you too. We all have our shadow.

So who are the characters in our nightmare/story? John the Baptist is a charismatic preacher who has been making waves all over Galilee, calling for repentance and amendment of life for everyone. He speaks truth, calling out wrong where he sees it, even into the highest and shiniest seats of Roman power and influence. John is arguably the focal point of story, yet he has been making way for another—one whose life, death and resurrection call people to a new Way of compassion, healing and reconciliation. Of all of our characters, John is the one we’d like to identify with, isn’t he? Courageous, eloquent, cousin to the Messiah…it’s easy to want to see him when we look in the mirror. Or is it? Are we ready to take the risks that John did? Maybe, before we jump into John’s sandals, we need to see who else looks back at us from the mirror.

Herod Antipas: the youngest son of Herod the Great; he had to struggle with his brothers to gain and maintain his position as ruler over Galilee and Perea. Further, his personal life is major tabloid fodder. He travelled to Rome to visit his half-brother Philip, and he met Philip’s wife, Herodias (who was also Herod’s niece). They fell in love. Herod divorced his wife, which did not go over well, and he and Herodias got married. So we can see that he was insecure politically and sketchy in his personal relationships, —and yet intrigued by the preaching of John. John struck a chord with Herod as he railed against him for an adulterous and incestuous marriage. Herod knew that John “was a righteous and holy man…When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him. Can you just imagine Herod’s heart—wounded by political struggles, guilty about his infidelity and divorce, yet touched by God through John? Can you just imagine his heart being gently wedged open? Can you imagine him just beginning to nurture a flickering ember of repentance? Can you just imagine his personal failures just crushing that ember like a bug?

And we have Herodias. Unfaithful to her first husband. Probably insecure. And definitely angry. Imagine her fury with this popular upstart John the Baptizer who dares to speak such—truth. Truth that she will not admit to herself. Imagine her muttering to herself that John Must. Be. Stopped. Imagine her biding her time.

And the daughter. Scholars acknowledge that a transcription error in the text has named her for her mother, but tradition has named her Salome, so for simplicity’s sake that’s what we’ll call her too. Tradition has also portrayed her in a number of ways—as scheming, calculating, and even unstable. But look closely at today’s story. Salome is none of those things. She is a daughter. She is a step-daughter. She is a young woman in first-century Palestine. She is a dancer.

And when she enters the story, it begins to move. Up to this point I have imagined Herod sitting on his throne. John sitting in jail. Herodias sitting in the women’s quarters. But Salome dances. And does it so well that Herod’s guests are exceedingly pleased, and Herod decides to show off to his powerful and influential colleagues—to offer Salome some largesse to make himself look good—to give his pride a little birthday boost. So Salome completes her dance and, bidden to do so, breathlessly approaches her stepfather, who offers her anything she wants, even half of his kingdom. In response she zips to her mother, asking what shall I request. Herodias seizes the opportunity and tells her to request the head of John the Baptizer. Salome zips back to Herod: “‘I want you to give me at once the head of John the Baptizer on a platter.’” Back and forth; Salome is synonymous with movement.

But strangely, while we see what she DOES, we don’t know how she FEELS. We are left to wonder about this young woman: Is she powerless? Arguably yes. She is a daughter. She is a young woman in first century Palestine. She doesn’t have a lot of power, even as daughter of a king. Her function is to Obey. She does what Mom says. She is powerless. Or is she? She dances. She moves between King and Queen. As long as she moves, the action of the story moves. As long as she moves, John the Baptist’s death creeps inexorably closer. Without Salome’s movement, Herodias’ revenge is incomplete. Without Salome’s movement, Herod still has a chance at repentance and transformation through a continued opportunity to listen to John.

Salome moves, and the tragedy unfolds. It can’t happen without her. Powerless? Yes, and no. She is also catalyst. She is agent. She is, unwittingly perhaps, in collusion as events unfold.

I wonder if we see parts of ourselves in this nightmare/tragedy. In the queen, furious at someone who bids her confront the truth of something she has done wrong? Do we see ourselves in the king, guilty and insecure, vulnerable to God’s grace and yet more vulnerable to his pride and political expediency? Or in the daughter, whose actions are both unwitting and yet crucially catalytic, acting as an agent for tragedy—even evil?

This is chilling. But if we are going to even think of looking in the mirror and seeing John the Baptizer the truth-teller, prophet and virtuous victim in this story we are going to have to admit that there are parts of us that are less than savory.

If we want to find the invitation to transformation in this nightmare—to find the Good News in this Gospel, we need to look in the mirror a little closer. Any of these characters can call to us—open a window on our faults and, yes, sins. Herod haunts me because of the missed opportunity—the heart almost broken open, and then hardened by pride. But the one that has most drawn me for the past few weeks is Salome herself.

As I have said, Salome is the catalyst. Without her, nothing happens. Yet she is in many ways just an extension of her parents and their own baggage. She is an ironic combination of power and powerlessness.

A couple of days after I found out that I would be preaching on this passage the horrific shootings in Charleston took place, with all of the events that have unfolded since then. This passage and these events became linked in the same way that you can remember where you were when something important happened. I couldn’t help but ponder the pain in the headlines somehow mapped upon the pain in this Gospel lesson. I felt invited by the Spirit to wonder if Salome has something to show us—like a nightmare bidding us to wake up to something we are uncomfortable seeing.

Does Salome somehow symbolize a dynamic in our society with regard to our painful and conflicted relationship with race? Are we, like Salome, an extension of the baggage of previous generations, seemingly powerless to respond to calls for difficult conversation, conversion and action for justice? Or are we actually powerful catalysts for perpetuation of the status quo?

If you haven’t seen the documentary, Traces of the Trade, I highly recommend it, but the first time I saw it, I was heartbroken by what I learned. It tells the hard truths of the wealthy DeWolf family’s close ties to the Triangle slave trade. They and their descendants were also prominent and influential in the Episcopal Church, including the founding and building of our own church. The Right Rev. James DeWolf Perry was 7th Bishop of Rhode Island and 18th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. The rich history of our denomination is interwoven with pain and a need for reconciliation. We need to consider the fact that our inability to see difficult truths may actually be an agent in perpetuating institutional racism today.

So as you can see, Salome haunts me. I wonder what we can do. I wonder where the Good News is in all of this. Have we, like Herod, missed our opportunity for grace? Are our hearts irretrievably hardened?

And then I remember. This story didn’t end with Salome’s final movements as she reached to take the platter from the soldier’s hands and turned to give it to her mother. There was one more action.

When the disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.” Where have we heard words like this before?

Friends, HERE is the Good News of this nightmare. This entire story points to resurrection and healing. Out of the nightmare of the tomb emerges the quiet echo of words of Jesus’ resurrection—a foreshadowing of Easter joy. It is a joy that prevails in spite of human frailty.

And today we see similar signs of resurrection hope in the face of tragedy. We see it in the wonderful photo of Bree Newsome who climbed a flagpole on the Statehouse grounds in Columbia, South Carolina and took down the Confederate battle flag. And the white woman, a descendent of Jefferson Davis, whose impassioned speech in the S.C. House terminated all last-minute efforts at delay and resulted in the permanent removal of the flag this past Friday afternoon. Now there are two women who are catalysts. We see it in St. Louis, Missouri– Christ Church Cathedral’s response to a spate of black church burnings with the interfaith Rebuild the Churches Fund. There is an agent of resurrection. We see it in our own diocese with the effort to establish a museum on the slave trade and center for reconciliation at the Cathedral of St. John. There is our own diocese, in collusion with Hope. And we see it in the wider church; the same church whose 17th Presiding Bishop was a descendent of slave traders, electing an African American as its 27th Presiding Bishop. Resurrection indeed.

But resurrection is not synonymous with rest. The nightmare is an invitation, but once we understand its call—its challenge, we need to pay attention. We cannot let our newfound understanding rob this story of its power to disturb us.

“When [Herod] heard him, he was greatly perplexed; and yet he liked to listen to him.”Amen.

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The Chasm of the Unrequited

There is a deep chasm that lies between being sent and being received. Like the Grand Canyon, there is a huge contrast between the surface, which presents an unbridgeable span, and the base or floor, which is narrow and winding, across which a bridge can be made.images-5

The visual metaphor of the Grand Canyon offers an image for an emotional and spiritual chasm within us. We find in the readings for Pentecost VI the echoes of that experience, an experience of the particular vulnerability we name as the unrequited

The unrequited spans the experience between being sent and being received. For some of us, most of the time, and for all of us, some of the time, the fear of feeling unrequited prevents us from taking the risks we need to take in order to plumb the depth of the chasm. For further down, near the fecund floor there is a span that is narrow enough to bridge our fear of emotional vulnerability lying between being sent and being received.

Even God it seems has the experience of the unrequited. Time and again throughout the long history of a relationship with humanity, which for God appears to be a slow torture, the possibility of bridging the experience we name as unrequited is always held out as a possibility, a risk worth taking or in the memorable words of the divine Miss M: It’s the heart afraid of breaking, That never learns to dance.


God invites and yearns for our response. In addressing Ezekiel, God declares:

Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them. 

Ezekiel, like all the prophets before and after is the one taken from among us, who embodies God’s risking – spanning the chasm of the unrequited in the relationship God invites us into and from which we pull back.

In his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, a city that ranked among the big apples of the Graeco-Roman world, Paul wears upon his sleeve his unrequited experience. He plumbs the depths of this chasm to discover a space narrow enough to bridge the span. In the paradoxical relationship between weakness and strength, which at the surface of the chasm appear in their polarity to be so far apart, Paul discovers nearer the chasm floor, that they are more like the two sides of the same coin – strength is weakness and weakness is strength. This is quite a risk to take in a culture where it’s only strength, particularly the strength of authority and leadership that is respected. The human dilemma, then and now, is that we long for strong leadership when it’s leadership strong enough to show vulnerability we really are in need of. The nature of this vulnerability is to let others see that we too can be hurt and still continue onwards.

It is Mark, who through the plain-speaking of his gospel offers us a glimpse of Jesus struggling with his experience of the unrequited. In the face of his neighbors insult to him: is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary …. and they took offense at him – Jesus is dumbfounded by – at a loss to explain their hostility. In Matthew the townsfolk exclaim: is this not Joseph’s son who’s mother is Mary? Matthew excises the reference to illegitimacy that Mark seems to feel is important to keep in. Yet, even in Matthew his neighbors take offense at him. Luke omits any reference to Jesus’ lineage, legitimate or otherwise, but has the townsfolk move beyond taking offense to attempting his murder.

Jesus’ response to what must have been a deeply painful experience of the unrequited, is to send his disciples out into the world. He sends them out, in effect saying: go out and risk being vulnerable – take only a staff, no bread, no money, only sandals and one tunic, and go and stay where you are received and where not, take your leave shaking the dust from your feet. As he himself is doing, Jesus instructs his disciples to go out and risk being vulnerable, armed only with the message of healing for a world that is broken.

Last night, I watched Bishop Michael Curry’s charge for the Episcopal Church to go out into the world with the message of the gospel as a healing for a world that is broken. Bishop Curry was elected in these last days as the next Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. I then watched President Obama’s message of grace, amazing grace in a broken world, delivered at the funeral eulogy for the Rev. State Senator Clementa Pinckney.

Viewing these two men, back to back on Youtube, each the first African American to hold their respective offices, brought home for me the reality that it is through our experience of vulnerability in the face of perceived weakness that makes us fearful of the chasm of the unrequited. Like, Ezekiel, Paul, and Jesus, I heard bishop and president find the courage to risk plumbing the depth of the chasm, to risk the experience of the unrequited, there to discover God’s bridging of the chasm, not at its wide surface but nearer the floor, which remember is often a long way down from our preference to loiter at the surface, fearfully fixed upon our own self-protection.

The President reminded us on the eve of the celebration of the Forth of July, that we are plagued by our ignorance of history, and more significantly, that we are ignorant of one another’s histories. The President quoted the hymn Amazing Grace, the song of repentance of a former slave ship captain, no longer fleeing from his own history images-6

John Newton through his conversion and life-long repentance thereby embraced the call to live as one who is sent, regardless of the risk of not being received. For Barack Obama, in John Newton’s words there is clearly a personal poignancy combined with something Bishop Curry must also know well, the poignancy of being found by God despite rejection based on race.

Bishop Curry cited Julia Ward Howe’s words in what has come to be known as the Battle Hymn of the Republic. He took poetic license with her lyrics in order to amplify the meaning of his charge to the Church to go forth in the faith: that as Jesus died to make men holy, let us live to make all free, while God is marching on.

Whether it’s 1776, 1865, 1965, or 2015, the lesson of being sent and not received, which at each point is so painfully learned, seems to have to be relearned over and over again. Freud noted that what we can no longer remember we are destined to repeat.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years,
Bright shining as the sun,
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise                                                                 than when we’d first begun.

One history   Another history 

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If I had a Hammer …..(Pete Seeger)

Part I

spiralSpiral Dynamics  is a tool for the analysis of the stages of societal evolution. The key concept is that human societies evolve through stages of development ranging from primitive subsistence to spiritually progressive systems. This, in itself, is not so remarkable an idea, but Spiral Dynamics offers us a very clear picture of what societal developmental stages, or memes, look like.

Each meme has an associated color and set of characteristics. Don Beck, it’s principal inventor draws on Ken Wilber’s theory of holographic – integral development. The key concept here is that development occurs in stages with each successive stage and expansion and inclusion of the previous stage. The characteristics of the previous stage or meme remain present in latent, form within the new expansion. By contrast, a hierarchical concept of development relies on each successive stage replacing and leaving behind previous stages.

In contemporary society, we are still largely wedded to hierarchical notions of development. This affects both our views of society as well as how we envisage our own personal social and emotional development at the individual level. This helps explain why we are so surprised to find elements of social and personal development, long since relegated to the past reemerging to ambush us.

Racism is a good example. Since the Civil Rights Movement, we have come to believe that American Society has made huge strides in eradicating the scourge of racism. Consequently, we are deeply shocked to discover that it is alive and still violently, kicking hard.

The Spiral Dynamic analysis helps to show how the characteristics of earlier memes of societal evolution continue to be retained within successive stages that appear to have moved beyond the limits of the previous stages. In fact, the transition to the next stage occurs when the social momentum breaks free of its hitherto constraints. This is not driven by the conscious choice of society members, but by the necessity of meeting new and different challenges.

In 21st America, the legacy of a slave-owning society continues within our national DNA even though we are no longer a slave-owning society. The very notion of owning another human being is incomprehensible and repugnant to us because our society has evolved beyond the key characteristics and values of a society, which at an earlier meme of development was dependent upon slavery as its primary economic mode of production. Yet, the patterns of discrimination and oppression that characterize the distinctions between owned and owner classes remain, latent within our collective unconsious. They continue underground, out of sight as it were, becoming located in subgroups within the larger society that still cling to the values and world views that originate in a slave-owning society.

Discrimination and attitudes based on race are complex. Some of it is an expression of an ethnic fear of those who are different. However, in contemporary America, we are finding that the most intractable racial tensions continue to complicate relations between a majority and the descendants of the formerly, enslaved section of the population. Slavery has gone, yet the systemic hostility remains. Only now, it is enacted through public policing and the criminal justice system. We are awakening to this sorry truth once again, that, that which we thought we had left behind- a hierarchical view of development – continues to remain uncomfortably present even though it remains in tension with the larger direction of our society’s development.

In the face of new challenges, as societies are pressured into more evolved social structures designed to better meet those challenges, the previous meme values continue to exercise a destabilizing effect through sub-groups who for whatever reason remain in tension with the necessity for new directions.

Part II

I remarked last week that we seem riveted by the unfolding stories that come to us in the lectionary readings from the 1st and 2nd books of Samuel. The book – one book later divided into two – of the prophet Samuel belongs to a genre of literature in the Old Testament known as the historical books, which comprise a major category in the Old Testament, 12 books in all. In Samuel 1 and 2 we see Israelite society hovering around, and finally achieving the transition from a confederation of tribes to that of a nation – from purple/red to blue memes in Spiral Dynamic terms.

Samuel himself, represents the passing of religious authority from priest to prophet giving Samuel an authority not seen since the days of Moses. Yet, politically, Samuel is the last of the Judges, those who since Joshua have loosely presided over the tribal confederation. The people confront Samuel with the demand that he gives them a king like the other nations. The demands of expansion and meeting new challenges require a new and more centrally organized form of government to enable the Israelite tribes to be more effective in war, against neighbors already organized as nations, led by kings.

Saul is the first king, but things don’t go well under Saul and in punishment for his disobedience in not slaughtering the whole of the Amalekite people, as God seems to have required, God withdraws his mandate from Saul. God instructs Samuel to anoint the shepherd boy David in place of Saul. Saul does not abdicate immediately and some years pass with Saul, insecurely holding onto power while David is the secretly anointed one to replace him. During these years of tension, when Saul tries a number of times to kill David, Saul’s son and heir, Jonathan, gives undying fealty to David, recognizing him as the anointed king in waiting.

David goes on the succeed Saul and becomes the king who unifies the Israelites into a formidable kingdom that becomes a major center of power along the corridor that buffers the great empires of Egypt from Assyria.

In the reading for fifth Sunday of Pentecost, David learns of Saul and Jonathan’s deaths. Jonathan is killed in battle against the Philistines and Saul is mortally wounded. The messenger who brings the news to David claims to be the one – incidentally an Amalekite – who at Saul’s pleading has dispatched Saul to prevent him being captured alive by the Philistines. David’s response to the news of the deaths of Saul and Jonathan is to compose one of the great love eulogies of all time in the form of a psalm of praise and devotion. David’s psalm is an ode to the love between men. Although he seems to equally praise and mourn both Saul his adversary, and Jonathan his friend, it’s Jonathan for whom he mourns.

It is clear from the numerous attempts of commentators over the centuries to deny any homosexual inference in the love that David openly declares for Jonathan, that to be Shakespearean about it: me thinks they protest too much! The anxiety has been how to interpret this love poem as merely fraternal and not also, connubial.images-2David makes it clear that his and Jonathan’s love is connubial, not in the technical sense of being married, but in the natural sense of the feelings between them -they clearly are an emotionally bonded couple and there is something of carnal passion being given voice to here, alongside that of covenanted friendship.

Contemporary liberal commentators no longer deny outrightly at least, the possibility of a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan. But most continue to take refuge in the suggestion that to say so is an inappropriate reading of contemporary relationality into David’s eulogy to the love of his friend. In contrast, Bruce Gerig is indicative of a growing body of commentators who no longer seek to deny the homosexual nature of the love between David and Jonathan.

I take the view that the love between David and Jonathan is homosexual in nature. However, in asserting so I am not reading a modern construction of gayness back in time. That would be an inappropriate anachronism.  David and Jonathan were not gay in the sense that I am gay.

Gayness is a contemporary construction of homosexuality that understands this to be a normal and natural position on the continuum of sexual object choice. The love between David and Jonathan is the sexually charged love common in intensely patriarchal-warrior cultures, evidenced in such cultures as diverse as those of Classical Greece and Samurai Japan. Deep blue water separates traditional tribal- warrior cultures, with a discrete tolerance for men having sex with men as an aspect of essential male bonding, and our contemporary construction of gayness. Each belongs to a particular stage or meme of societal evolution and should not become confused.

Part III

This week the Supreme Court of the United States recognized something of the distinction I am drawing. I doubt the decision extending same gendered marriage across the Union was informed by a reading of Spiral Dynamics. However, their decision is an implicit endorsement of the notion that societies evolve in an attempt to meet new challenges posed by changing ideas.

In essence, this noninterventionist court has in the course of a couple of days delivered two interventionist decisions as a recognition that the spirit of the law is as important as its letter, and that the face value of words of legislation cannot be used to confound the manifest intention of the legislators. In the separate rulings of on the Affordable Care Act and same gendered marriage, the court has upheld the presumption of equality for all before the law. In the case of the AFCA, the presumption can be inferred not in the letter of the law, but in the clear intention of the legislation as manifest in the Act as a whole. Their ruling on same gendered marriage enunciates a different approach. We know that the Founders did not have black men, or women, or homosexual persons in mind when they enshrined that:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.

We know that they could not have conceived of a same gendered marriage or of a natural homosexual state. Yet, the spirit of the statement is clear and cannot be limited by the meme – the stage of societal and cultural evolution of 18th century America.

The integrity of both the Bible and the US Constitution lies in their capacity to remain true within the ever-changing context of a society evolving in the face of new challenges and changing circumstances. Like the Bible, the Constitution (at least until it is replaced by another) exists to guide the nation through the ever changing tides of time. It cannot guide the nation to meet new challenges if its interpretation is enshrined within the understandings of a previous age.

Like Israel in the time of Samuel and David, America faces new and unheralded challenges posed by a revolution in social attitudes in the arena of sexual identity. The privilege of states rights in the area of defining marriage cannot remain an obstacle, to the equal treatment of all across the Union.

Our history reveals that God speaks most clearly to us through the separation of church and state. The gospel of inclusion, freedom from discrimination, and equality of all before the law, often so seldom heard in the church is now ringing loud and clear throughout the land.

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Love and Hate

Societies in transition

For the last few Sundays I have been struck by the look of rapt attention on people’s faces as they listen to the saga of transition and change taking place in ancient Israel reported in the first book of Samuel. Encapsulated in the stories of the call of Samuel and the anointing of Saul and then David as the first Kings over Israel, we see a major societal shift taking place. Joshua and the succession of Judges who followed him had perpetuated the social and religious structure established by Moses and Aaron. In 1st Samuel, we see these giving way. Underneath the content of the storyline, we perceive a shift in religious authority from the hereditary priesthood represented by Eli and his corrupt sons to the divinely called prophet Samuel. Politically, the rule of the Judges is also giving way to the demands of the people to have a king who will like the kings of the surrounding nations lead them into war. It’s like Game of Thrones has come to church. The stories in first Samuel have hope, intrigue, treachery, jealousy, lust, and murder. They also evoke in us something nostalgic. God is all-powerful, and so are his anointed ones, both prophet, and king.

From story to reality

It’s great to have a bird’s eye view of someone else’s societal transitions. It’s quite another to live through our own. We are currently living through the chaos resulting from the disintegration of the pillars of our past. We face with equal measures of hope and fear, a future frighteningly slow in emerging while the security of the past slips away with increasing velocity.

It’s one thing to awaken to the news of yet another suicide bombing killing and maiming worshipers in a Shia Mosque in Syria or Iraq. It’s another thing to hear of yet another Christian Church bombed in Egypt or Pakistan. We hear daily of the plight of Christians, Yazidi’s and Shia Muslims in ISIL held territory. Now, once again we awake to news of yet another mass shooting in America, this time not at a political meeting in a supermarket car park, not in a school nor a cinema. The killings this week took place in a church, and a black church to be specific. It’s not religion, but race, that forms the focus for this expression of hatred.

Painful reality doubling down

It’s tempting to join the avalanche of political, social, and religious speculation on this tragedy. As usual the label of mental illness is being ascribed to Dylaan Roof, the gun-wielding perpetrator of this crime. Why? Is this not our collusion in another form of major social stigmatizing? When we apply psychiatric labels to explain the inexplicable, when we rush to see Roof as mentally ill, what does this say to our husbands and wives, our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters, and our neighbors who daily struggle with mental illness? Persons whose experience goes someway to being explained by a psychiatric diagnosis of mental illness do not engage in premeditated mass shootings. Struggling with a bi-polar affective disorder, schizophrenia, or others form of psychosis does not induce someone to go out and with premeditation commit multiple slayings.

The source of the impulses for such blatant disregard for the lives of others lies in the disturbances not of the mind but the heart. We might see Roof as psychopathic, but the term is a misnomer. In this instance what chills us about Roof’s behavior has nothing to do with the psyche and everything to do with the heart. Through his action we see in Roof’s heart the absence of a capacity for love – love in the form of a capacity for empathy. The disturbances that distort moral character and induce people to perpetrate psychopathic acts are rooted in a disruption in normal personality – character development.

My guess is that Dylaan Roof struggles with the failure of ego formation that underpins healthy character formation. His monstrous action communicates an insecure man who craves the form of recognition that comes with mass notoriety. The revulsion of most and the admiration of a few are all the same to him. The only explanation of his actions is that he is a man whose character distortion renders him vulnerable to the extreme impulses of hatred because, in the absence of love, hate substitutes a sense of meaning and purpose.

How does this come about? In early infant development, we all negotiate the tension created by feeling both love and hate. Hate for the infant comes in the form of frustration of omnipotent needs. Hunger for an infant produces not only a sense of love for the breast that will feed it, but also a desire to devour the breast whose absence frustrates the need to be fed. The delay between feeling hungry and being fed becomes filled with rage.

The important developmental milestone is reached when the infant has developed enough mental capacity to connect its loving and hating impulses. This is the stage at which guilt emerges. Guilt is the healthiest of psycho-developmental milestones because it represents the capacity of the infant to realize that its raging desire to devour the breast endangers the very breast it needs to preserve through love.

When we realize that our hatred damages the very thing we love, we move into a capacity for relationship base on an experience of the triumph of loving over hating.

The Second Amendment bestows the right to keep and bear arms. Currently, the Supreme Court majority holds to a doctrine that words mean what on the face of them they say. But words always occur in context, and context shapes meaning. This raises the thorny question as to the mind of the framers of the Second Amendment?

The context for the framers of the Second Amendment was that of having recently fought a bloody war in defense of their rights as Englishmen against the encroachment of royal power. The Second Amendment draws inspiration from the British Bill of Rights of 1689, which had a mere 100 years before enshrined the ancient Common Law right for Englishman to bear arms. The framers of the Second Amendment, steeped in the Common Law would have probably shared the view of the great English jurist Sir William Blackstone who described the right to bear arms as auxiliary, supporting the natural right to self-defense, resistance to oppression, and a civic duty to act in concert for the defense of the state.

The right to bear arms while having a self-defense element, especially on the frontier, had as its main aim the equipping and maintenance of citizen militias to resist government oppression whether domestic or foreign. The right to bear arms with its emphasis on protection of the common good by equipping the citizenry to act in concert – co-operative action- in defense of their liberties is not the same thing as a right of an individual, in a society distorted by the notion of competing individualisms, to own a gun as a precaution against a prevailing and largely imaginary fear of one’s neighbor.

What has the action of Dylaan Roof to do with the Second Amendment? On the face of it, very little. The Second Amendment does not give him the right to do what he did, nor does it defend his actions. The absence of a general right to bear arms would probably have not deterred this extremist from obtaining a weapon. In a culture where the truth of something is determined by tracing a sequence of cause and effect, the general right to bear arms did not cause the deaths in Emmanuel AME Church. Truth however is more than the end result of a traceable sequence of cause and effect. It’s not the possession of guns that is at issue, it’s our attitude to the possession of guns and what this says about the kind of society we seem to be rapidly regressing to.

America in transition

America is no longer a society that approaches the future with a sense of hope and the assumption that things are only going to get better and better. For many the future is a place of fear and anxiety. We have every reason to assume that the future is a place that is likely to be worse than the past when viewed from the perspective of how people feel. Our society is changing and whether merely a perception or not, many feel that it is not changing for the better, either domestically or internationally.

We are in the midst of a huge societal transition not seen since the industrial revolution at the turn of the 18 and 19th Centuries. It’s not only the structures supporting the fabric of civil society that seem to be in transition. We are in the midst of a communications revolution that is bringing about a profound change in the way people communicate and think about common space. A world where communication required one to one contact has been replaced by a world of the virtual. The world of virtual relationality is having a profound effect on psychological, social, and moral development of the young. We live in a world where greater capacity for interconnection leads more and more to our individual isolation from one another. Human being have a need for intimacy. The experience of intimacy or its lack shapes us in particular directions. The consequences of this we are only beginning to become afraid of.

As we move forward to greater virtual connectivity and interdependency, ancient fear based enmities erupt from the collective unconscious where we thought they had been permanently banished. In a supranational world, the fears of difference that characterized our tribal histories, nationalism, racism, and age old ethic and identity phobias, become vehicles for constellating fear into hate. Everyday, everywhere the news from both nation and world affirm this sorry fact.

Ours is a society going through the agonized uncertainties of transition. Race, gender, and sexual identity are the three elements around which hatred constellates. These constellations, for those with severe disturbances of character, become vehicles for identification with something greater than their limited sense of self. Our contemporary litany is God deliver us not from war, pestilence, or famine, but from those whose disordered characters endanger others. What we would traditionally refer to as the presence of evil finds space in the hearts of those who have no experience of love being stronger than hate. An inability to experience the power of love to preserve the very same objects they also hate renders such people a danger to others.

Is love really stronger than hate?

Suffering is inevitable. Complete avoidance of suffering or calamity is not possible. St Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians is pouring out his heart in the Epistle for Pentecost 4.

but as servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities,5beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger; 6by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love,7truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; 8in honor and dishonor, in ill repute and good repute. We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; 9as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed; 10as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything. 

If we measure the quality of life by the absence of suffering then we have missed the point. Often it’s through suffering that the vitality of living shines. Whatever happens we must not lose heart, becoming embalmed in a cocoon of fear. We have a choice. We can live in fear or live in hope. As I face my own fears for the future, as I struggle to process the pain of inexplicable tragedy, I am reminded the choice is mine – to live from fear or to live in hope. Put this way, I am reminded by my fears that I have no other choice than to live from hope. The consequences of not doing so are too terrible to contemplate.

We saw this approach to living in action on Friday when through telelink to the arraignment of Dylaan Roof, the relatives of the slain wanted him to know that they forgave him. At first sight, this strikes many of us as a little contrived. How can they feel this way, we ask? Maybe, this is not how they feel after all they are human. However, it seems to be what they believe, for after being human they are Christian.

They expect Dylaan Roof to be held accountable for full gravity of his action. Their forgiveness is not for him, it’s for themselves. The loved ones of the slain, are putting down their marker as they shoot their arrows of hope towards the future. In them, love is stronger than hate.

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St Martin’s, Sunday Pentecost 3, Preacher – Linda Griggs

The St Martin’s sermon link site takes you to this blog address. Therefore, from time to time to time I will post sermon contributions from other preachers at St Martin’s. This last Sunday, Linda Griggs, St Martin’s Director of Christian Formation delivered the sermon below.

My mother once told me that if you want to keep a baby occupied and quiet, just give her a long piece of scotch tape. It will keep her busy for hours as she puzzles with it, getting it wrapped around her fingers, peeling and sticking it from one hand to another.

I have no memory of my mother actually doing this, Thank God. But I never fail to think of this image of concentration and puzzling when I begin to ponder the parables of Jesus. There are days when I think that Parable Wrestling should be classified as an Olympic sport.

“Parable” is a term that has come to specifically connote many of the teachings of Jesus; comparing difficult concepts to everyday images so that they (ideally) would be easier to comprehend. Yet while the images of God, or the Kingdom, are given more concrete form as Jesus speaks of shepherds and sheep, or farmers sowing seed, or houses built on sand or bedrock, they are not always a whole lot clearer for being made more tangible. If they were, there probably wouldn’t have been endless commentaries from countless points of view written about them over the centuries.

It was in a New Testament class that I first heard the word, “parabolic” used in the context of Biblical scholarship. Prior to that I’d only known of it from geometry class, describing a kind of curve.

When Professor Collins said that, it was as though she had just given me a big piece of sticky tape: I couldn’t stop wondering, how could Jesus’ teachings and the study of geometry be related?

But it does make sense when you think about what parables do. First, think about a parabolic mirror, microphone, or antenna. They’re specifically shaped for the purpose of focusing radio, light, or sound waves. In the same way Jesus was trying to focus his hearers on concepts that were difficult to grasp. Second, if you look at a parabola and the way it curves, you start out in one place, and following the curve you will never return to the same place. Jesus’ teachings were intended to take us to a different place—getting us to see things from a different perspective. Parables are an invitation to a journey of change.

Our Gospel today invites us into a world that is in some ways familiar to us; a world of tension, mystery and promise.

The author of Mark probably wrote just after the middle of the first century, between 60 and 70 AD, during the reign of the Emperor Nero. It was a time of fear and persecution for early Christians. The followers of The Way, as they were called, risked their lives to practice their faith—even using the clandestine symbol of the fish to identify each other nonverbally: The image could be easily drawn with a stick on the ground and then quickly erased with a shuffle of feet if someone suspicious came along. This secrecy, this fear of the authorities, shows how Christianity was countercultural in this period—all the way into the fourth century.

The author of Mark reflected these tensions in his work. For example, he uses the word, “immediately”—or the alternative translation, “at once” all the time—no one saunters or moseys in this Gospel—everybody moves with alacrity—boom, boom, Boom! This sense of urgency reflects a pervasive tension throughout the entire narrative. Tension in Mark’s world; tension in Mark’s gospel.

We see this tension specifically in today’s passage when we look at its context within the fourth chapter narrative as a whole. These parables about seeds and farming and soil and dirt that we hear today are actually sandwiched between descriptions of Jesus on the water.

In the beginning of the chapter Jesus is so pressed by the crowds at the Sea of Galilee that he is forced to get into a boat and teach from there. So we see this sharp juxtaposition of Jesus forced into a boat, where it sits bobbing gently offshore, fish swimming below, seagulls crying above, as he tells stories about farming and sowing and harvesting. And then at the end of the chapter, on the other side of this scriptural ‘sandwich’, Jesus decides to take that boat to the other side of the Sea, a journey that results in a violent storm that Jesus calms after being roused from a sound sleep by his terrified disciples, who he then rebukes for having too little faith.

Sea versus land. Calm versus storm. Faith versus fear. Tension, tension, tension.

And mystery. Even using the most concrete imagery, many parables end up being murky and mind-stretching. There is a pervading sense of hidden or secret knowledge in Mark’s Gospel, knowledge available to only a few insiders. Jesus explained the meaning of his parables in private to the disciples, leaving everyone else to wrestle with the images by themselves, “as they were able to hear it.”

The first parable we heard today describes the eternal mystery–of life itself: “the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain…” The farmer need do nothing until the harvest, and then he “at once”—immediately—springs into action with the sickle.

How do we compare this to the Kingdom? Is this a portrayal of the boundless and effortless grace of God, which comes to us, sprouting, growing and yielding without any effort on our own part? Is the Kingdom a place of rest and trust, which is in contrast with our usual need to give God instructions about matters that belong in God’s hands?

Or should we look deeper still? Taken by itself this image of grace is gratifying and comforting. But what of the harvest? Is God the farmer who wields a sickle of judgment? Perhaps. Or are we the farmers, called to a harvest of fruits of compassion, reconciliation and justice that we have been called to sow?

Is this vision of the Kingdom meant for the distant future, or right now, or both, now and not yet? There is more than one mystery here, and there are many, many possible answers. And how we see them and wrestle with them is woven in with our own tensions and perspectives as individuals and as a community.

And with these mysteries come promise; the promise of the mustard seed. “The smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown 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.” This simple contrast of small and large offers the comfort of knowing that our smallest efforts, our smallest selves, even, can grow prodigiously into something wondrous. Even the most miniscule effort that we expend is a dense package of Kingdom Potential. That’s the promise.

But wait, there’s more! The tiny seeds of the Kingdom are here right now—waiting to grow—in God’s own time—into—what? What Mark describesis not a grand and statuesque oak or beech tree, but a shrub. A great weedy shrub.

A bush. When I read this image I can’t help but think of the huge azaleas in my backyard near the birdfeeder, fairly vibrating with life and energy from all the sparrows, jays, titmice, cardinals, finches, chipmunks and squirrels flitting and scampering around in there. A shrub. A raucous, joyous, song-filled inclusive sanctuary: That’s the Kingdom of God. That’s the promise.

So given all of this, what does our parabolic journey look like, then? We need to begin at a point where we acknowledge our context of tension. We have our own tensions of competing priorities and values, compounded with the added tensionsof whatever burdens or brokenness that we carry.

And then there are the cultural/political tensions of life in our society and world. We find that going to Church is increasingly countercultural. Many things compete for our Sunday time. It often seems to be a luxury to attend to our spiritual well-being/formation with the same level of discipline that we apply to our physical, intellectual or financial well-being. It is vitally important to understand that all of these things are connected! Our spiritual well-being can be a point of parabolic focus for all of the other well-beings in our lives. Our acknowledging of this tension—this need—(this yearning? ) for focus—becomes the beginning point of the journey.

From there we can engage the mystery. Who are we? Whose are we? What is our calling? What is our relationship to God and Creation? How do we live out our Baptismal Covenant to worship, repent, proclaim the Good News and respect the dignity of every human being? How do we live a Christ-like life and model it for the next generations? What should we pray for? Why do we pray?

These questions are just an tiny example of the bountiful harvest of mystery waiting for us, and we need to be ready with the sickle of our questions, doubts and uncertainties. The answers are important, but not necessarily the main objective. The best answers are the ones that lead to more questions. Live them. Engage the mystery.

And that engagement—that mystery—is the seed of promise; that dense package of Kingdom Potential that God invites us to tend and nurture in ourselves, in our children and in our communities.

God gives the growth.

“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,  and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

Amen.

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