Proper 6B: Perfectly Ordinary

Scattering SeedsOLD TESTAMENT: 1 Samuel 15: 34-16:13

To read the Old Testament Lectionary passage, click here

The story depicted in the books of Samuel tell of a great change in the way that Israel will be governed—from tribes and judges to very intricate government structures, the creating of an empire. Samuel was the last of the judges. The books tell us how Saul first became king and was commissioned to defeat the Philistines. After the disintegration of Saul’s physical and mental health, David comes onto the scene. The previous section 1 Sam 8:1-15:35 is focused on the rise and kingship of Saul. Saul, like David is anointed as King and is successful against the Philistines. However, he appears to anger Samuel by his actions and we see the start of his rejection as the future dynasty of Judah. We then move into the 1 Sam 16 which tells us about the rise of David and the final downfall of Saul.

The choosing of David has always been an interesting passage. You can imagine old Jesse of Bethlehem so thankful that his eldest son would finally have a job. So he pushes Eliab to the front of the line. I mean, it all made sense. He was fit to be king. But he was rejected. Well, surprising, but there are other sons. So he called Abinidab. And Shammah. Both rejected. And then, one at a time, he sent four others. OK, this is getting ridiculous. None of them are accepted! When Samuel asked for Jesse’s younger son, Jesse was surprised. He hadn’t even thought about his youngest. In fact, he had sent him out to keep the sheep while the other brothers, I suppose, were job-hunting.

The passage should probably be read as a story rather than an historical account. But we have the advantage. We know that David is the one who will be chosen. Essentially, God’s choices are not the ones that always make sense to us. They do not always align with what we have planned, with who or what “makes sense”. God’s criteria are not the richest, or the most beautiful, or even the most fitting. God’s criteria are God’s.

Over and over again in this passage, the act of “human-seeing” is contrasted with the act of “God-seeing”. When Eliab came before the elders, the point was made not to look on his appearance; essentially, to not look at him the way we humans normally do. It almost sounds as if appearance was all he really had going for him. And God was looking for something more to lead the people. And yet, when David was chosen, even his physical characteristics are laid out. Perhaps in some way this “human-seeing” finally aligned with the “God-seeing.” Or maybe, just maybe, when the choice is the right one, we finally become at least a little able to see the way God sees.

And so, it says, David is anointed. Going forward, he was the one. It wouldn’t mean that life would be easy; we know, in fact, that David had many problems ahead and that many were brought on by himself and his own actions. Being anointed rather means being thrust into all that is life—challenges and beauty, perils and blessings. It means doing what one is called to do and being able to do just that. God saw that. Maybe we need to just start trusting what God sees and have faith in the faith that God puts in us.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What do you think “God’s criteria” for choosing are?
  3. What parallels do you see with today?
  4. Where do you see yourself in this passage?

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 2 Corinthians 5: 6-17

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

The key to understanding these chapters of 2 Corinthians is to recognize that Paul faces criticism because of his ministry. It is personal and probably also directed against his particular theology. His opponents who have infiltrated Corinth sought to undermine him at a number of points. They apparently make much of their successes. They live “victorious Christian lives”, whereas Paul shows many signs of being weak and vulnerable.

Paul has confidence to live in the here and now, knowing that he has not arrived. He also has confidence in a future beyond this life, which he imagines, using the notion of a new kind of human embodiment. He has explained this in the previous passage. It is typical, however, that he insists that the main thing for him is not his state of happiness in his earthly human body or in another realm, but living a life that pleases God. That relationship matters most. Paul takes his relationship with God seriously – with awe. It is not that Paul is acting out of fear (in his own interests). That kind of motivation cannot be sustained. In 5:11 he speaks of a total transparency and hopes the Corinthians will recognize it and see the contrast with those who have been playing games with them at his expense. Paul has thought his ministry through; his faith has freed him from his own needs so that he can minister to others.

Paul claims that focusing on the purely human aspect of Christ misses the point. The “new creation” is a new mindset, a new way of looking at ministry, a new way of looking at ourselves, and a new way, even, of looking at God. In fact, this new mindset completely changes how Paul views death and, in turn, how he views life. This is not Paul’s way of denigrating the body. It is in fact an articulation of God’s promise that everything will be made new, that everything will be and become a new creation. Paul doesn’t really worry about a timeline here. It’s more a view that this new creation has already begun, has already broken in and disrupted our lives. He doesn’t attempt to explain exactly what happens but rather leaves us with the promise that it will.

There is a lot in this passage. There is comfort for those who are grieving loss. But there is also a calling for us to view the world differently, to, as the Old Testament passage depicts, live our lives as “God-seeing” people in a very human, very ordinary world.

 

Arguing with Paul (2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17)

by Michael A. King

Michael A. King is pastor of Spring Mount Mennonite Church In Spring Mount, Pennsylvania, and owner of Cascadia Publishing House. This article appeared in The Christian Century, June 13, 2006, p. 18. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.

When I read the lectionary texts for this week, I was disappointed. Give me texts of David sinning, Amos raging against the “cows” of Bashan or Jesus again in trouble for loving outcasts. These I can run with. But don’t give me Paul always confident, walking by faith and not sight, apparently really feeling he’d rather be at home with the Lord than in his body, regarding no one from a human point of view, celebrating that “in Christ there is a new creation. everything old has passed away — see, everything has become new!” Don’t give me texts like that because my life so often clashes with them. I remember my boyhood in my missionary family amid the ceaseless quest of Christians around me to live in the new creation. I haven’t forgotten how guilty that boy felt, stuck in his trash-filled old humanity — unsure how to reconcile what seemed to him the ethereality of Christian living with a body that seemed always to run hot when it was supposed to run cold or cool when it was supposed to run warm.

Nor will I forget the day I casually asked my mother how a relative had died, back when I was too young to remember. I expected to hear about cancer or heart trouble. No. He had gone out to the fields with his hunting gun and had shot himself. Some who loved him found out how he died only when they came to view his body. In those days and among those Christians committed to their new beings in Christ, no one knew how to make human space for suicide. They knew only to grow scar tissue around the wound and continue on in new creation. But as I grew up, I heard my very bones groaning that what would kill me was being other than human. I struggled to believe that anything could be made new. How could any of us trust that “everything has become new” when it was precisely such faith that helped kill my relative? Depression and faith had fed each other. Awareness of how far short of the new creation he fell had fueled his guilt and misery, even as he interpreted the depressive attacks as failure to live in Christ.

Because Paul is part of God-breathed scripture, I will wrestle with what I can learn from his wish to be away from his body, at home with Christ, made new. But boy does he cut against my grain! How do we give up the human point of view without giving up the truth about ourselves as human beings? My truth is that I don’t want to leave my body or its loves. I wouldn’t rather be at home with the Lord; I want to be right here! I love this world. The older I get the more I love elemental things: leaves shimmering in the breeze at sunset; morning coffee with my wife; a daughter’s impish smile; cruising in the 1990 Subaru I bought from my dad, with the sunroof open, my dad’s spirit still in the car. Why would I want a point of view that didn’t cling to such things?

So am I a bad Christian? I have often thought so. Good Christians are like the ones I saw this morning leaving a Bible study at Vernfield Restaurant, walking out with Bibles in hand. I bear them no ill will, but I don’t want to spend hours with men helping each other be new creations. I want to be in my Subaru, smiling up through the roof not at Christ but at blue trimmed with clouds. Then I thought of Angie, a waitress at the restaurant, who greeted me when I arrived: “Well, hello, dear,” she said. “Welcome to your office.” We both laughed as I went to the table that has indeed become my office — there where I visit with congregants in a down-home setting well suited to probing human truths and new creations.

I thought of Ike, whom I’ve often met there, and of the time we debated whether he was ready to become a Mennonite. If he had to be perfect like it seemed to him Mennonites are, then no way! “Perfect” wasn’t in him. But he’d be glad to start traveling toward Christ and see where it got him. So to the shock of many, particularly himself, he became a Mennonite. I thought of the next morning, when I planned to meet Ike. Ike would report on his latest struggle to be a Mennonite Christian. Amid laughter, because you can’t be with wild Ike without laughing, we’d consider his options. Like the time he reported that his ex had stolen wood from his woodpile. And we pondered what might happen if instead of demanding his wood back he added more to her pile.

Ike is not Paul, and neither am I. Maybe new creation language would sing to us too if we had raged against Christ before our human point of view burned up on the Damascus Road. But both Ike and I have experienced the new creation as a club that can be used, often with the best of intentions, to assault our human truths and cause lies, pain and sometimes even death. So we don’t talk much about being new creations. We look for Christ within our human lives rather than try to leave our human lives to be with Christ. Still, how often do we ask, “What does Jesus teach about this? How is his Spirit nudging there? What would Paul say if writing to us? If we tried that instead of this same-old same-old, what would happen then?” So maybe in our way we’re trying to get where Paul wants to go. And as much as I don’t want to leave this body, I do hope that when I’m dragged out — kicking and screaming all the way — at home with the Lord is where I’ll be.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What happens if we focus solely on the human aspect of Jesus? What do we miss?
  3. What does the term “new creation” mean for you?
  4. What does Paul’s call for confidence in that Creation mean for you?

 

 GOSPEL: Mark 4: 26-34

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Our Gospel reading for today is, if you’ll excuse the pun, ripe with planting and harvest images. It is the epitome of that which we cannot control, for which we cannot plan. Oh sure, we can go and buy a plant, or three, or a whole row. If we desired, we could plant a whole crop. We can plant it, and feed it, and water it. We can prune it and cover it and open its branches to the sun. We can go buy a book to research the best environment and the best care that we can give our plant, to find out the best height to which it should grow before we cut it back and what the best season to do that would be. But, regardless of how much we plan and how much we do, we cannot make our plant grow. Like the passage says, the earth produces of itself. God has set Creation in motion, a Creation that cycles through life and death and life again, a Creation that is never-ending. And even though we are called to be good stewards, to, literally, take dominion over it, to do things to help it along, the harvest will come when the harvest will come. We are not called to plan its completion but rather we are invited to participate in its Creation, to be a part of bringing in the fullness of the Kingdom of God.

According to the writer known as Mark, Jesus tells us that this is what the Kingdom of God is like. The planter scatters the seed and then goes on about business, trusting that the seed will sprout and the grain will come to be. The earth produces of itself. The Greek could be translated as “automatic”. It’s just going to happen, just as God has promised, just as God has planned. We don’t really understand it. We understand WHAT happens. We know germination and photosynthesis.   But it isn’t really ours to understand. I guess we’ll just have to chalk it up to grace. I mean, it’s pretty ordinary, when you think about it. It happens every day. There’s nothing strange about it. We learned the process in Biology class. But somewhere along the way, the ordinary becomes extraordinary. I mean, really, this seed becomes a plant and grows and produces fruit or flowers or something that the earth needs, something that we need. THAT is what our faith journey is all about.

The passage says that too, using yet another agricultural image that is familiar to all of us. Once again we have a seed, but this time, it is a specific seed, a tiny, tiny mustard seed. It’s really nothing more than a spec. Now often when we read of the mustard seed, we somehow conjure up this image of this tiny, spec of a seed that grows into a mighty tree. The parable is often used to depict that even a tiny spec of faith can do mighty things. And while I think that’s noble and all, I’m going to take us in a slightly different direction.

First of all, that tiny mustard seed, probably one to two millimeters in diameter, does not, no matter how hard it tries, grow into a majestic redwood. This is not magic. Rather, it grows into an ordinary bush. And that ordinary bush produces an ordinary harvest which, eventually, ends up as a spread on our sandwich. There’s nothing really surprising about the outcome. It’s what is supposed to happen. It’s what God has promised.

Maybe the Parable of the Mustard Seed was never meant to be a depiction of our faith at all; maybe instead Jesus was trying to show us that in which we are called to put our faith. God has laid out this beautiful, remarkable, ordinary world. We can’t plan for all of it, no matter how hard we try. We don’t know when the sun will shine or when the rain will fall. We don’t know whether or not our plant will become frail or diseased or when it will grow into what we hope like everything it will be. We don’t know if our plant will grow to be harvested into that lovely spicy brown condiment or if it will die far too soon. We can’t control or plan for any of that.

But the promise is that God takes the ordinary things that make up our life and when it’s all said and done, they become extra-ordinary. The passage doesn’t say that the mustard seed becomes a tree. It, rather, becomes the greatest of shrubs. It becomes exactly what it’s supposed to be—the ordinary for which we’ve planned with something extra that can only be a touch of the Divine. It is the way that all ordinary things become extra-ordinary.

These two parables defy failure—failure that we sometimes feel in this world and within our own lives. They have to do with shifting focus from ourselves to the world around us. The truth is, we really don’t know HOW seed sprouts; we just know that it does. The parables invite us to believe that God’s reign will happen, whether or not we understand it.

This is not a sort of naïve optimism. Rather, they encourage us to defy hopelessness and to believe that nothing will serve the interests of those who surround us, our planet and ourselves, better than to allow ourselves to be part of God’s reign, or in less “real” terms, God’s life and love in the world even as we do not yet know it.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What does “hope” mean for you?
  3. What does “knowing” have to do with belief?
  4. What does this say about our ordinary lives?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

God took delight in creation, and surely I should do the same—seeing myself as God sees me, with the same delight. Do I yet believe in the delight-fullness of my own self? And yet also draw back and realize that in the end I am mystery. (Esther de Waal, Lost in Wonder, 31)

 

We of the modern time live much more in the attitude of interrogation than of exclamation. We so blur our world with question marks that we lose the sense of wonder and sometimes even of vision. It is refreshing to note how frequently the great spiritual teachers of the New Testament introduce their message with the world “behold!” They speak because they see and they want their hearers and their readers to see. Their “behold” is more than an interjection—it has the force of an imperative, as though they would say: ‘Just see what I see. Open your eyes to the full meaning of what is before you, which is the method of all true teachers. (Rufus Jones)

Learn to see and then you’ll know that there is no end to the new worlds of our vision. (Carlos Castaneda)

 

Closing

 

I am here in this solitude before you, and I am glad because you see me here. For, it is here, I think, that you want to see me and I am seen by you. My being here is a response you have asked of me, to something I have not clearly heard. But I have responded…You have called me here to be repeatedly born in the Spirit as your child. Repeatedly born in light, in unknowing, in faith, in awareness, in gratitude, in poverty, in presence, and in praise. Amen. (Thomas Merton)

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