I was born and lived my early childhood in San Diego, California and one of my favorite places to go was Disneyland. For you all here on the East Coast, that’s the original Disneyworld. It took about an hour to get there (although it seemed a much longer drive to me) and back then we drove along Interstate 5 until we saw the Matterhorn ride in the distance rising above the orange groves. I remember being about five years old when the Pirates of the Caribbean ride opened up. I know some of you know this ride! You get into a boat, and it’s dark, and you hear this ominous music and the ride initially takes you through an archway and whoosh! down a water slide and everybody screams and if you sit in the front, you get soaked. At five, that water slide scared the daylights out of me! I hid my face in my daddy’s shoulder and would not look until he told me there were no more water slides. I never liked to be startled like that.
There is something about water and darkness. It brings out our primordial fears. Darkness hides what is coming at us and whatever it is, it might be dangerous. Water … well … we can’t breathe under water so there is a danger, a very real danger, of death. Now add a storm into the mix and you have the chaos and fear of today’s Gospel reading. This story is one of two about crossing of the Sea of Galilee in the Gospel of Mark. In this one, Jesus is in the boat with the disciples; in the other, he comes to them walking on the water. Both stories have common elements: water, darkness and a storm.
The images of water and darkness are powerful ones and they occur right at the beginning of our scriptures in Genesis 1:2 where it says, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.” The chaos of darkness and water, the unknown and uncontrollable, makes us fearful. We fear what we do not know and what we cannot control. God alone has authority over the chaos, so when Jesus tells the storm to be still and it obeys him, this is clearly something no mere mortal could ever do. He has authority over the unknown and the uncontrollable.
But the chaos facing the disciples isn’t just about the storm or the water. This is most certainly the immediate and present danger; but Jesus has bidden them to go to the “other side” – to Gentile territory … unclean Gentile territory. The disciples are told they need to leave the relative safety of their known and predictable Jewish environment to go where those “other people” are – you know … they aren’t like us! And facing what is over there is emotionally and spiritually chaotic. What will happen? Do we have to go there? Really?? When Jesus tells them they are going across to the other side, the literal translation of the Greek is, “Let us go into the beyond.” Go into the beyond … go into the unknown, the uncontrollable, the chaotic.
In the original context of this story, Mark is telling us about the mission of the early church to the Gentiles. Integrating into his gospel that which had already been written by Paul, Mark tells us the mission of the Church was to bring the Gospel to all people, not just the Jews. As a professor of mine once said, “If you think this Messiah is only coming for the Jews, you’re thinking too small!” In other words, this good news isn’t just for us; it’s also for the people who aren’t like us: for people who don’t know our traditions, don’t understand our liturgy. It is for people who are aching for some good news of a life beyond and bigger than the small stage of mere survival upon which most of us live our lives.
A vision of the Church which expands the gospel message to include others has caused and continues to cause tension and anxiety. There are some pretty stormy arguments in the early church about who could even be a Christian. The Jewish Christians felt that Jesus was “their Messiah” so anyone who wanted to be a Christian first had to convert to Judaism. This was the, “If they want to be one of us, they have to adopt our ways first” mindset. But St. Paul challenged this view by saying the Gentiles could become Christians without adopting Jewish practices. This was the first great controversy of the Church … and it is one with which we still wrestle, albeit with different presenting issues.
The Church today is challenged to live into the authentic Gospel imperative to go into the beyond and make disciples of people who don’t look or act like us. And that means welcoming all people – embracing all people, no exceptions. The challenge for us is: Are we ready to do just that? Are we going to be daring like St. Paul, Jesus and those disciples in the boat risking everything to welcome outsiders into a transformative gospel community, accepting them right where they are and trusting the power of God to bring about conversion? Or will we be more like the early Jerusalem Christians who insisted the outsiders have to conform to what we do and how we do it?
Admittedly, St. Paul’s model provokes some anxiety in us because it will put each of us out of our comfort zone. But it is this model that spread the church through the whole world … it is the model blessed by God. It is the model that has always worked and always will. Our God is not one of placating our need for comfort and our tendency towards a “just us and our way or no way” mentality. Our comfort and our ways, in the final analysis, are largely irrelevant to God. The only thing which matters, the only thing which endures, is the saving love of Christ for all people … no exceptions.
Taking the Gospel into the beyond, to people who are different from us and conversely welcoming the stranger is the mission of the Church. This mission is not something that just happens because we are members of a congregation – it is an intentional act (it is always an intentional act!). I’ve been in plenty of congregations that do a really good job of taking care of their own members, but when it comes to taking the gospel into the beyond, they don’t do it. These churches are little more than social clubs with a cross on the top of the building because you can be a member but only if you adopt our ways, our thoughts, and our behaviors first. Eventually, these churches decay from within and they die.
Going into the beyond entails great risk. When we venture beyond our known, comfortable world like Paul and those disciples, we run the risk of encountering others who might just bring about change in us. Radical hospitality to those who differ from us means we risk changing our own attitudes, prejudices, and biases. We might just come out of the encounter with a new perspective or a challenge to drop an old one that no longer fits. This is risky business, but as I said last week … if you want safety, if you want to avoid risk, then you’d better get out of the Jesus business because Jesus isn’t safe. While that may be unsettling, we are reminded in today’s Gospel story that the risen Christ is always present with us when we risk it all for his sake.
So what kind of Church will we dare to be? Will we grudgingly accept people who are different as long as they become just like us? Or are we willing to drop our preconditions and go into the beyond trusting Christ is present no matter what the risk? As we ponder these questions, I offer a prayer written by Methodist Bishop Ted Loder:
Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little,
When we arrive safely because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess,
We have lost our thirst for the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity,
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture on wider seas, where storms will show your mastery;
Where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars.
We ask you to push back the horizon of our hopes,
And to push us in the future in strength, courage, hope, love.
This we ask in the name of our Captain, who is Jesus Christ. Amen.
The good news about parables is that they are short, pithy, memorable stories which teach us about the Kingdom of God. The bad news about parables is … they are short, pithy, memorable stories which teach us about the Kingdom of God. The parables of Jesus are so familiar and beloved that we can fall into a malaise and a comfort with them. So it is with our images in these two parables from Mark.
Conventional wisdom could lead me to preach this from the perspective of trust – as in the Sower trusting that the seed would sprout and grow regardless of his involvement and so does God’s kingdom – and that would be well and fine. Conventional wisdom might view the second parable of the mustard seed from the perspective of “from small things, big things come” and liken that to the life of faith. Again … that would be all well and fine … and terribly safe. But if there’s one thing I’ve come to know in my faith journey, it’s this: Jesus isn’t safe. As my friend Cam Overs said to me in a conversation this week, “If you want to play it safe, get out of the Jesus business because it’s never safe!” People who play it safe don’t get crucified. So keeping that in mind, let’s take another more subversive look at the words of Jesus. Let’s not settle for the tame and gentle Jesus today – rather let’s allow him to be the subversive, unpredictable and transformative Son of God, shall we?
In our journey together as priest and people, I found myself drawn towards the second parable in this reading: that of the mustard seed. Mustard is an annual plant which comes up in late April and early May and is visible in fields because of its bright yellow flowers. We have mustard in Maryland … but nothing like we have it in California. I’m a native Californian and growing up I learned about how we got so darned much mustard in our state. It seems Father Junipero Serra, the Franciscan priest who founded the missions in California, sowed mustard seeds as he made his way up the coast … and farmers have lamented his actions ever since! The semi-arid landscape of California is very similar to that of Palestine – and mustard grows like wildfire. It spreads everywhere and you cannot get rid of it nor can you contain it. If you clear out a plot of land and leave it empty … the following year you will have a plot of mustard. It’s that pernicious … it’s a noxious weed. This likening the Kingdom of God to mustard would be like saying to us that the Kingdom of God is like bull thistles (and we all know how much fun they are!).
So when Jesus speaks of sowing mustard seed, his Jewish audience must have cringed! “Mustard?? Are you kidding me??! That stuff is out of control, it goes everywhere!! Nobody plants that stuff!” Really? Well, evidently God plants something like it when the Kingdom is sown. The kingdom isn’t something which can be contained, its pernicious, it will grow wild. When Jesus speaks of the birds of the air making nests in its shade, the farmers among us would be suspicious of that too … after all birds are not always welcome and often do much damage to legitimate crops. So we hear the kingdom is growing and spreading like a noxious weed and as it does it invites all kinds of unpredictable and even unwanted elements. Is this really good news? Maybe … maybe not.
When we proclaim this the Gospel of the Lord, we need to remember the good news, might not be good news for everyone. In fact, it might be very bad news. In first century Palestine, Jesus was positing a new Reign of God, one which stood in direct opposition to the Reign of Caesar and the Roman Empire who enforced peace at the tip of a sword. Admittedly, this imagery of dueling authorities does not always translate well to us in the 21st century in America. After all, we elect our leaders and live under different circumstances than the subjects of the Roman Empire. We don’t have a Caesar … or … do we?
In praying with this scripture this week, I’ve come to a belief we do have a Caesar of sorts – a power which controls our minds and wills and draws them away from God. In our 21st century American culture, the Caesar we bow down to is anxious fear. That may sound strange but bear with me. In 1996, Rabbi Edwin Friedman’s last book was published posthumously. It was entitled “A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix.” In it, he described how our culture has been steeped in anxious fear largely as a result of the barrage of violent and frightening images we receive on a daily basis through the media. Back when I was a kid, we turned on the television at six o’clock to hear that venerable Episcopalian Walter Cronkite report the news. If we were night owls, we might watch the eleven o’clock news before catching Johnny Carson (for you younger folks, he was on the Tonight Show before Jay Leno). But that’s not how it is today. CNN made sure we could get news 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. And now it isn’t just CNN, it’s Deutche Welle, BBC World News Service, Al Jazeera and others who can tell me what’s happening – and much of it is bad news! Images of war, terrorism, and violence come at us constantly … oh and don’t even get me started on what comes over my smart phone and the internet. We are a frightened people in a world which we perceive to be very, very scary. And one of the things we know about the hard wiring of our brains, is that if we identify with victims of violence and feel they are like us, we take in the anxiety of what happened to them because we think it can, and will, happen to us. And we are terrified.
Now, let’s make this into a perfect storm, shall we? Combine this chronic, anxious fear with a capitalistic, consumerist economic system and you have a system which is out of control. I’ll confess to you that my first degree is in marketing. And one thing you learn in marketing is that fear sells product. If I can make you feel fearful, or at least insecure, about something, I can get you to buy a product or service by positing it as the solution to your anxiety. I can press all kinds of buttons in each and every one of you – and don’t think those ads on TV don’t do it! I can make you feel anxious about your body, your hairline, your age, dying, your performance in the bedroom, your income level, your job … just about anything. Then I’ll tell you how this car, this house, this suit of clothes, these shoes, this drug … will cure your problem (even if you really don’t have a problem). Now we’ve set up a system where frightened people are working crazy hours to make more money because we need those things which we think will relieve our pain and suffering. And we are scared … and we are utterly exhausted. This, my friends, is our Reign of Caesar – it is the Reign of Fear.
Jesus tells us there is an alternative – the Reign of God. It is like a noxious weed and spreads uncontrollably. And the Reign of God is when we hear that still small voice tell us: “You are my beloved child and in you I take great delight. Don’t give in to your fears. Hold on to me. I claimed you in baptism and I will not let you go … EVER!” You see when we trust that voice, the voice of Christ himself, who loves us and gave himself completely for us and who will never let us go, we begin to have hope. And hope is a dangerous thing … because it casts out fear. Hope casts out fear. As our hope increases, our fears and anxieties lessen.
Christian hope is not the same as optimism. Optimism is the expectation that things will get better. Optimism and its related success are preached by the likes of Joel Osteen, Norman Vincent Peale and Robert Schuller, and it is a distorted gospel. Hope is radically different! Hope is the trust that no matter what the outcome, no matter how bad things get God’s promises and Word will prevail. Hope lies outside of our immediate circumstances. I witnessed many of my hospice patients who had great hope in God’s promises even as their optimism for recovery was long gone.
The promise of the mustard seed is that no matter what, the Kingdom is spreading and we are promised abundant life, now and forever. This does not exempt us from “hardship, nakedness, peril or sword” as St. Paul wrote. But it does mean we can endure suffering with patience and perseverance and this is what makes hope dangerous: dangerous because by God’s grace we are able to persevere beyond the immediate circumstances and move into an unknown future because we trust God is already there. You see hope is like that mustard seed too – it cannot be contained and it can spread like wildfire. We saw the results of hope in the Arab Spring last year. Some of us remember watching hope tear down the Berlin Wall. Hope is the final message of Revelation in the imagery of the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven and the final result being this earth being completely resurrected and transformed.
This is what Jesus offers us today: the dangerous hope that God’s kingdom is here and in the process of becoming fully realized. And while we certainly cannot control or even summon it we can actively anticipate it by looking for and even aiding and abetting its unexpected growth. How subversive is that?? And so … I am giving you an assignment. Yes, I know it’s a little unorthodox to assign homework but I’m into the whole subversion thing today. The assignment I give you is this: spend some time taking pictures of where you find hope. Take pictures of where you see signs of God’s hope sneaking in and spreading around. Take pictures of where the dangerous hope of Christ is transforming lives. Then print them out and bring them to Grace this summer … or email them to me for posting on the web site too. As we do this, may we see more, hope more, and trust more firmly in the presence of the Kingdom right here and right now.
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” These are the words of poet, priest and Anglican divine John Donne in his Meditation XVII. While the meditation itself is on death, it is also conversely about life. We are not islands entire unto ourselves. All of us are part of a larger main: part of larger systems of work, school, church, and community. But our initial and formational experience of being a member of something larger than self happens within our family of origin.
Every one of us has a family from whence we come. Now families are very diverse in their constructs and in how they function. Families range from the ideal family where each member has the freedom to be authentic, transparent and completely loved, supported and accepted to … well … toxic families where anxiety is high, roles are rigid, freedom is absent, and love, if it is expressed, is always conditional. No family really lives at either end of this spectrum: all families live somewhere on this continuum and can move back and forth on it largely in response to stress.
Within each of these family structures, we each have certain roles we play and often those roles are passed down to us over many generations. Largely, these roles develop organically and are we don’t generally reflect upon them critically but they do impact how we see ourselves and how we function in other areas of our lives. You’ve heard about some of these roles. There’s the birth order role: the eldest child (the de facto “standard bearer” of the family), the youngest child (the darling baby of the family who always seems to get away with much more than the eldest child ever did), or the middle child (sandwiched between the eldest and youngest who at times feels lost in the middle). Admittedly, these are broad brush charicatures, but there are some truths within the generalities.
Other family roles are more functional to the emotional system in the family: the peacemaker who brokers the conflicts in the family; the comedian who keeps us laughing; the handy one who can fix anything; the nurturer who heals our skinned knees and broken hearts. Some family roles, though, have a much darker and destructive side: the authoritarian who is to be obeyed without question … or else, the enabler who hides the family’s dark secrets, and the scapegoat upon whom the sins of the family are laid and who always takes the blame – even when the blame belongs elsewhere. Family emotional systems are a complex mixed bag of roles and functions – some of which are life affirming and others which are death dealing.
Today we hear about Jesus’ family of origin and how the family system is reacting against his new identity of spiritual leader as he preaches to the people in his home town. There is very little in the Bible about Jesus’ family of origin – we only get a glimpse of it now and then. Our own image of the Holy Family is shaped by the pictures on Christmas cards showing Mary and Joseph gazing down adoringly at the baby Jesus in the manger. But today we hear that Jesus’ family of origin operated much like our own families full of roles and expectations – and Jesus isn’t doing what the family expects of him!
We know from other gospel accounts that Jesus was the eldest son and as such he had a very particular role to play in the family. He was expected to learn the family’s trade and take over whatever business his own father had built once his father died or could no longer work. He would receive the double portion of inheritance once his parents were not able to work so that he would provide for them in their advancing years – a sort of first century social security program. He would be the elder of the family clan to whom the extended family looked for guidance and support. And he would be the one most responsible for protecting and defending the family's honor. Oh yes … Jesus had family expectations placed upon him and he was not living up to their expectations! So the family decides to restrain him because the word in the street is that Jesus has lost his mind. It seems that Jesus’ own household is divided against itself and the family is poised and ready to pull him back into line!
The pull of the family and its expectations is very, very powerful. Rabbi Edwin Friedman noted in his book Generation to Generation that families have a set of organizing principals or core beliefs about themselves which are often unspoken and unreflected. And the family system will do whatever it takes to defend those organizing principals – whether they are healthy principals or not. Two of the major organizing principals in the families of first century Palestine were the expected role of the eldest son and the importance of protecting the family honor – or in other words, not shaming your family. Stepping away from those organizing principals and doing something different is called self-differentiation. And when someone in the family begins to self-differentiate, it upsets the homeostasis, the balance, of the family. The natural reaction of the family is to bring the one who is self-differentiating back into line – to protect and preserve the family’s organizing principals. This is why we see families who appear to be locked in destructive behaviors repeat this pattern over and over again through multiple generations.
Jesus embodies the self-differentiated person and he is having no part of being dragged back into the roles and expectations of his family system and culture. He knows what his heavenly Father has called him to do and to be and he knows it doesn’t match what his family and culture expect from him. When the crowd tells Jesus his mother, sisters and brothers are asking for him, Jesus turns the tables on the family system: “‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”
Jesus redefines and liberates himself and in turn liberates us from the narrow, finite and even destructive expectations of culture and family. In the Kingdom of God, our relationships are not defined by family roles and expectations. Instead they are defined by whether or not we are doing the will of God. This creates a wholly different kind of relational system than what we learn through our families. It is a relational system which St. Paul would ingeniously call the Body of Christ. It is characterized by relationships of mutuality and interdependence among its members instead of enmeshed co-dependence. As members of the Body of Christ we find the freedom to be authentic, transparent, broken and in desperate need of healing, yet loved in spite of it all. It is a new kind of relational system which liberates us from the rigidity of expected roles and instead allows us to be transformed so that our gifts and graces may be given freely for God’s glory and the welfare of all creation.
At our baptism, we are drawn into membership in the mystical Body of Christ. Through it, we are liberated from the roles and expectations of our own culture and family just as Jesus himself was liberated from his. We are not our roles, we are not the expectations heaped upon us by others, and we are not our failures to meet those expectations. We are the Body of Christ – children of God, beloved of God, called to do the will of God – thanks be to God.
Poor old Nicodemus … he just can’t seem to understand Jesus. Bless his heart! Now if you’re from the South, you know about the nuance of that phrase, “Bless his heart,” don’t you? “Bless his heart” or “bless your heart” can have many connotations depending upon the context. It could really mean “bless your heart” as in when something unfortunate befalls someone and it’s an expression of sympathy. But at other times it can be a way of softening the blow of a pointed comment or even a put down. As in, “When the Lord was passing out brains, she was on a coffee break … bless her heart!” or “That boy fell out of the ugly tree and hit every branch on the way down … bless his heart!”
Today we might say “bless his heart” about Nicodemus. Here is this Pharisee, a teacher of the law, who isn’t one of those ones trying to test Jesus to trip him up but instead he has perceived in Jesus the closeness of his relationship to God and he wants to know more. But to those of us who know the story, he just seems to be confused, doesn’t he? Bless his heart.
But lest we be tempted to judge Nicodemus as particularly clueless, it is a grand irony that today is Trinity Sunday. If there is anything which draws us up short in understanding God, it is the doctrine of the Trinity. The Sunday after Whitsunday (the old name for Pentecost Sunday) was the day Thomas a Becket was consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury and he declared the anniversary of his consecration to be a day set aside to honor the Holy Trinity. So this feast day has its roots in our own Anglican heritage. But this concept of the Holy Trinity – a God who is a trinity of persons in unity of being – is something which confounds us as much as being born again confounded Nicodemus.
Yet there are those who have tried to explain the Holy Trinity. If you look in the Book of Common Prayer on page 864, back in the Historical Documents section, you’ll find the Quincunque Vult – or the Creed of Saint Athanasius – which attempts to explicate this doctrine more fully. “And the Catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance. For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the Glory equal, the Majesty co-eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreate, the Son uncreate, and the Holy Ghost uncreate. The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible.” (to which George Bernard Shaw quipped, “the whole thing is incomprehensible!”).
And perhaps this is the best place to begin – God is incomprehensible. God is far beyond the rationality of the human mind. God is the Great Divine Mystery and any mere words or constructs which humans try to use to describe this Mystery will always be paltry and finite. Language is limited and often a poor means of communication … but it is all we have. Bless our hearts!
But lest we throw up our hands and walk away from the incomprehensible Majesty of this Triune God we really can’t understand, our readings today beckon us not to do so. One thing we can say about the nature of a God who is a Trinity of Persons in Unity of Being is that this God is by very nature a relational God. This is not some deistic type of God who created the world and then largely left it all to its own devices. This is not a capricious God who toys with humanity in a detached abstract way. No – we Christians believe in this Triune God who is wholly Other and yet is in intimate relationship with all the created order.
God’s manifestation to Isaiah was an awe inspiring and terrifying vision. The Lord of Hosts enthroned in the temple with the heavenly host of Seraphs calling out, the pivots of the temple shaking at the sound, the place filling with smoke – Isaiah’s response was to name his own unworthiness to be in this Presence. But God did not manifest to Isaiah this way to frighten him or denigrate him – God did it to call Isaiah to go to the people of Israel and declare God’s great love for them in a time of great crisis.
Jesus, likewise, engages Nicodemus in relationship to draw him closer to the Kingdom of God. He gently challenges Nicodemus and tells him about the transformation needed to be a part of the Kingdom. And while this encounter with Nicodemus is the most well-known to us, John’s gospel has Nicodemus appearing two more times. In the 7th chapter Nicodemus makes the case for not judging Jesus without a fair hearing which results in his being put down by his fellow Pharisees. And in the 19th chapter it is Nicodemus who brings 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body of Jesus for burial with Joseph of Arimathea. These accounts point to a continuing, and even incomprehensible, relationship between Jesus and Nicodemus.
Jesus tells Nicodemus that he must be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the serpent on the pole. This reference is to a story in the Book of Numbers where Moses lifted up a bronze serpent on a pole so that the people of Israel could look upon it and be healed. Jesus tells Nicodemus that he himself is the one by and through whom we will be healed. And this is because the incomprehensible Triune God shows us through Christ the nature of self-sacrificial love that we might be drawn into the same kinds of loving relationship – both with God and with each other.
This is our call – to proclaim the incomprehensible love of God in a world which needs this love now more than ever. We are called in our imperfection, in the midst of the sometimes mess of our lives, just as we are, to show that God has made us worthy through Christ to be called his children. We have been called, we are being healed, and our response can be no less than Isaiah’s: “Here I am. Send me.”