SLOW SEEDS??

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time 6-17-18

Ezekiel 17:22-24, Ps 92:2-16, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, Mark 4:26-34

All of our readings are beautiful and encouraging today. Our first reading, from the Prophet Ezekiel, brings us poetry about God’s love for us. After the Exile to Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, the people of Israel feared that all the promises God had made to King David were forgotten. Ezekiel assures them that God has not forgotten, and that he will restore them as his people. God’s people will be like a “withered tree that blooms.” In fact, God will take from the very top of the giant cedar tree a tender shoot, a small branch, and he will plant that shoot on a mountain top. In time that small tender shoot will become a giant cedar tree. This is a poetic reference to a descendent of the last King from David’s line who was still alive. The promise that the Messiah will be a descendent of King David will still be fulfilled in Jesus. Not only that, but all the nations of the earth, represented by all the birds that nest in the tree, will gather once again. It is a wonderful image of evil overcome and goodness triumphant.

The Psalm also speaks of flourishing palm trees and great cedar trees, trees bearing fruit even in old age, vigorous and sturdy, a testament to God’s goodness and justice. Again, this poetic image brings us confidence in the permanence of God and God’s care for us. We can depend on the eternal security we find with God. We find strength and stability, as well as refreshment and restoration with God.

St. Paul in the 2nd reading speaks as a missionary who has traveled thousands of miles for God, facing multiple threats to his life as well as rejection and ridicule for his faith. He has found that wherever he is, home or away, in life or in death, his goal is to be pleasing to the Lord.   We will all face a final judgment, and all that we have done will be open to view. But that does not frighten us if what we have done has been good and we have led a life in imitation of Christ’s.

In our Gospel, we have two parables about seeds. Both parables deal with the same problem…why things appear as they do if the kingdom of God is indeed present. How can we experience evil and sickness if God is God of the world? We ask the same questions that the people asked of Ezekiel – has God forgotten us? Why is there so much evil, and why is life so difficult?

In the first parable we have today, the Growing Seed, the man sows, he sleeps and rises (this image indicates the passage of time) and then the man harvests the crop. There is every reason to believe the man also tills the soil, weeds, irrigates, and protects the crop while it grows. Ask any farmer – they do not sit idly by and wait for God to do all the work. Likewise, farmers will tell you they do not create the growth. They do the sowing and God begins process of growth.  But the parable says in effect, “The Kingdom is like a farmer who goes about his normal process of sowing seeds in the earth. Then the hand of God produces a plant and its fruit, and then comes the harvest.” It is a process of waiting patiently for the crop to ripen, and only at the right time can the harvest begin. The Kingdom of God will be ripe at the right time; the reign of God will be complete in God’s time.

The parables of the Sower who casts seed on the path and the rocks, in the thorns, and in the good soil, the Growing seed and the Mustard Seed ( all found in the same chapter of Mark) all answer questions and challenges to Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom. Jesus announced the coming of the kingdom earlier in this same chapter of Mark when he told the parable of the man who sowed seed on the path and on the rocky ground, in the thorns and on good soil. He told his disciples then, “To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God…” But the people’s response was, “where?” and “why aren’t we free from Roman rule?” and “why are we still poor?” and “why are bad things still happening?” So Jesus tells us that it’s not a simple thing, this Kingdom. It is not an outward remodeling job of the world, where workers come and repair things on a schedule. Rather, the Kingdom is a total change of human hearts. It is happening at just the right speed, and the passage of time will be necessary. But there was a time of sowing (interpreted as being in the ministry of Jesus), a period of time is necessary for growth (now), and there will be a time of harvest. Traditionally in the Bible, “harvest” is the time of judgment and the end of time. Like the plant growth, some of which is not visible because it happens under the ground, we will not see all that happens during the growth of the Kingdom.

So we do not bring in the kingdom – we are the servants of the King who continue to sow and weed and water and protect, but we are not the cause or creator. Our own lives must follow the same process. God continuously reaches out to us, teaching us to obey, to reach out in love, to better understand the scriptures, to worship with a more pure heart. God is constantly planting the seeds of Godliness in us and others. We must nurture those seeds so that new life may grow within us. The process is slow, often delayed by our own distraction with other things.   The change within us must occur at what we might call a sub-cellular level, which cannot be rushed. I have often wondered, at the rate of one wafer per week, how many years it would take for all of my body cells to be made of Jesus. I haven’t done the math, but I am sure that the answer is, “a lifetime.” The fullness of the kingdom will come when the time is right. We can be confident that God, the cause and creator, is at work and God can and will bring us safely to harvest. Jesus is reassuring us the process is in motion; the goal has been set and will be achieved.

It is easy to become discouraged when we see dishonest people with tremendous wealth and power. It is hard to watch liars and thieves prosper. It makes us angry when we see innocent people suffer, it is terrible to see children shot down in schools. It is hard to watch people loose their savings and freedom to sickness or injuries which might have been prevented. We want to shake our fist at God, question the very existence of God, or demand an explanation of this world which seems filled with evil and injustice. Why would we not question that the kingdom of God is here, now?   How and when will the Kingdom finally overcome everything we judge to be wrong and unfair?   That is the question that we are given an answer for today.

Paul says it best when he writes, “We walk by faith and not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) The Prophet Isaiah says God’s thoughts are not our thoughts, and God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8), and St. Peter said, “Do not ignore this one fact, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” (2Peter 3:8-9)

Continue to sow the seeds of love and truth, and believe.

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Faith and Anguish Will Meet

19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.

As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration.  Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans.  As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News.  Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people.  Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic.  It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation.  It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born.  While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.

Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people.  When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33).  He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah.  Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown.  It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols.  Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice.  The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect.  Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones.  Then he ran.

For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him.  Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains.  God asked him why he was in hiding.  Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God.  But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead.  I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.”  That is the voice of anguish.  God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain.  God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.

Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever.  They want God’s love and glory to return.  They imagine kindness and truth meeting.  When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet.  Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven.  Being holy people is difficult.

So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either.   Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party!  It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief.  But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food.  Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs.  Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.

Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake.  Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them.  They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt.  There it is again, “Do not be afraid.”  If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be.  As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.

What did we learn?

1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.

2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.

3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.

4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.

 

Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0

Isaiah 50:4-7; Ps: 22:8-9, 17-20, 23-24; Phil 2:6-11; Matthew26:14 – 27:66

Final Score: Faithfulness 72,000; Abandonment 0

Shortly before Christ died, He uttered those famous words which have been preserved in Aramaic: “ Ele, Ele, Lama Sabachthane”, or in English, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Those words are the opening words of Psalm 22, but unfortunately not one of the verses we read today from that Psalm.  At the crucifixion, they are a quotation, not a question or a statement.  Why does Jesus quote the 22nd Psalm?

Now we are all familiar with the 23rd Psalm.  Both Psalm 22 and Psalm 23 are poetic songs, written about the Messiah, the Savior, who was to come.  In Jesus’ day, everyone who worshiped the God of Israel had learned the 22nd Psalm by heart.  So anyone listening to Jesus while he was on the cross knew exactly the verses that followed.  Let’s look at them.

Verse 6 of Ps 22: “To you they cried out and they escaped, in you they trusted and were not disappointed.” God has always hears our cries.

Verse 7: “But I am a worm, hardly human.” Think about the physical condition of Christ at this point.  Matthew 27: 26 “…after having Jesus scourged, Pilot delivered Him to be crucified.”  What does scourged mean?  The Romans used whips with pieces of sharp metal at the ends.  It cut and tore the flesh, leaving the body cut to the bone, bleeding profusely.  A person rarely survived this.  The soldiers who scourged him took no pity on him.  He would have looked hardly human after being scourged.  He would have been soaked in scarlet blood, and looked like the worms that were crushed to make scarlet dye for fabric.

Verse 8: “All who see me mock me… they curl their lips and jeer.” We read Matthew 27:29, “(The soldiers) mocked him…and they spat on him, and beat him on the head.”

Verse 9: “You relied on the Lord- let him deliver you.” In Matt 27:43: “(The chief priests say) He trusts in God, let him deliver him.”   Remember what Jesus told Peter in the Garden, Matt 26: 53 “Do you think that I cannot appeal to My Father, and He will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?”  (That would be 72,000 angles.)

Verse 12: “There is no one to help.” In Mark 14:50, in the Garden, when Jesus was arrested, Mark tells us that all the disciples left him and fled.

Verse 14: “Like water my life drains away; all my bones grow soft.” Jesus was dying from loss of blood, and he could no longer lift him self up to breathe, as if his bones were no longer hard.

Verse 15: “My strength has dried up…” Even as Jesus carried his cross to the crucifixion site, he lost his strength and Simon of Cyrene had to carry it. (Matt 27:32)

Verse 16: “They pierced my hands and my feet.” In Luke (24: 39), The Risen Christ shows his pierced hands and feet to the disciples.

Verse 17: “They divide my garments among them; for my clothing they cast lots.” The soldiers do this in John’s Gospel (19:24)

But then, we come to verse 20, the Psalmist says, “Lord, do not stay far off, come quickly to help me.” Gone is the idea of abandonment!  Instead there is a firm certainty in the faithfulness of God. This continues in verse 25: “For God has not spurned or disdained the misery of this poor wretch; did not turn away, but heard me when I cried out.  Verse 27: “…those who seek the Lord will offer praise.  May your hearts enjoy life forever!”  Not only is God faithful, but eternally faithful.  And finally, the last verse, verse 32: “The generation to come will be told of the Lord, that they may proclaim to a people yet unborn  (us), his righteousness; ‘He (The Lord) has done it’.”  By the way, the Psalm’s Hebrew phrase “He has done it” is best translated into the Aramaic idiom of “It is finished.”

It makes no difference if you see this Psalm as the prophecy of King David and his description of the Messiah coming true down to the smallest detail, or if you see the Gospel writers, convinced without a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah, telling the events of the Passion in the familiar words of the prophecy. Either way, the Gospels have accomplished their goal: to proclaim the Good News of Jesus.

Well, we’re back to the first verse of the Psalm, then. Did Jesus mean that God had turned his back on him, abandoned him?  No.  Jesus was teaching the faithfulness of God from the Cross! Jesus was saying, “Look at me!  You know the Psalm.  Believe this promise of God’s faithfulness; God is near to you always.  God never turns his back on us, no matter what was done or how long the list of sin.  To say otherwise denies the love of God.”

St. Paul said it so well: “Who shall separate us from this love? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?  But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers; not height nor depth, nor any created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”  (Romans 8: 35-39)