11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
ELEVENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
Ezekiel 17:22-24 | 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 | Mark 4:26-34
Oh God, strength of those who hope in you, graciously hear our pleas, and since without you mortal frailty can do nothing, grant us always the help of your grace. Then following your commands, we may please you by our resolve and our deeds. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever, amen.
ONE of the things that I think about a lot in my work of trying to interpret these scripture readings to give you as clear a picture of what it is that God is trying to show us, I think about that responsibility, and I also think about how many ministers throughout the world and throughout time have looked at these stories and gotten a different image of who God is and what he’s about and what our relationship is with him. It’s almost like we have too much freedom. It would be better if the scriptures were a little more specific, a little clearer. You can have a God that is loving and compassionate. You can preach a God that is demanding and angry. You can preach a Jesus that is close. You can preach a God that is distant. So what do we do with this kind of ambiguity, this confusion?
Well, this set of readings is fascinating to me, because it has, as an overarching theme, images of who God is in the first and second reading. Then this mysterious invitation to ponder something that is very natural — the way things grow. What I know it’s pointing to is, how we understand the work of our getting to know this God. Where do we go to find the final word, the truth? It is clear that it has to be a direct conversation with divinity. It has to be something personal. You can take all of the stories and all the images and work on them, but the only one that can really explain them is God. That is why it is so important in my ministry to continue to talk about this indwelling presence of God, which is the truth that guides you, that frees you, that gives you authority to make decisions — decisions on who you are and what you are here for.
So let’s look at these stories, because I think it points out something I really want to share with you, and I’m hoping I’m able to do it. It starts with this. The images we have of God in the beginning, in the Old Testament, he’s revealing himself always as one like all the other gods, and those gods were very human. They lost their temper. They were temperamental. They were demanding, and they wanted nothing more than for everyone to obey them. That is the key. God is the one who makes you do things in order to have his favor. So that first reading is really interesting, from Ezekiel, because it’s God saying, “Look, I’m in charge. I can make things happen. I can lift up things, and I can put them down. I can make them fruitful. I can make them unfruitful. I — I — I can do anything.” You realize what is happening in the Old Testament is that God is revealing himself as the source of everything — good and evil. Isn’t it interesting, in the Old Testament, which didn’t focus that much on dying and going to receive reward or punishment. No, everything was done in this world. So whenever you saw a person who was ill or in trouble or in a bad place, it was because God was displeased with them because they broke the law. So all pain and suffering was caused by God for being upset and angry at the people who weren’t doing what they were supposed to do. So you can see this was a kind of police state in a way. God is running it, and if you are not doing what he says, you are in deep, deep trouble; no even hint of forgiveness. A little touch of compassion in the sense that he’d say, “Well, even when I want to kill you all, I sort of regret it, and I won’t do that anymore.” So you start seeing this God, this powerful force, beginning to grow into the compassionate God who really is.
The second reading is Paul talking. Now, remember, Paul is very much a Pharisee. He is a converted Pharisee, but he is very much part of that system of a god of reward and punishment. So at the end of this passage you listened to he says very clearly that, “We have to please God. If we don’t, we’re going to get our comeuppance. When you die, you’ll be rewarded or punished for everything you’ve done.” Well, that isn’t really the message of Jesus. “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing. Don’t punish them. Awaken them. Show them the way. Enlighten them.” So first and foremost, you have this system that you have to make sure you are not caught in that was very much a part of the system when human beings were more childlike, and children understand things black and white. In fact, if you look at the sin of Adam, the sin was they were talked into being like God. Well, God was the one that made things happen, and so Adam and Eve thought, “God would like us to be like him, and he’s in charge. He can make crops grow, or he can not make them grow.” So it was a kind of image of being in control. Maybe that was the biggest sin. “I want to be in control and make things happen.” That is dangerous because that “in-control” thing always turns into: you evaluating yourself, evaluating your friends, evaluating God. If you are in this control mode, that means you are required to do what you need to do in order to get something from someone, or to get something from God. Salvation. In a way, it is a non-loving kind of way to have a relationship. “I’ll be what you need me to be in order to be loved by you, and so I’m working and trying very hard to receive something back.” Therefore the focus is on self rather than on the other.
Jesus wants so much to help his disciples to see what is wrong with that system, and so he gives a beautiful image about reality. He calls it the world. Basically he’s talking about the kingdom of God when he talks about the world, and he’s saying, “It’s like this,” he used an example that they would understand because they were mostly farmers and agrarian people, "you know how it is when a seed is in the ground and it gets moisture and then the sun. It grows, and it becomes bigger — first a little shoot, then the grain and then the harvest. It’s all about this thing that happens that you don’t know how it works. You don’t know how it works.” But it is clear, especially in the second creation story in Genesis in the second chapter. God created the world in seven days, and no human being is in the second story, in the second chapter — God didn’t make human beings in that time, but it was after it was all over, and he looked at the earth, and he looked at all this stuff, and he said, “It’s not tended very well. There should be somebody looking after all this.” So he takes moisture and mixes it with earth and forms a man and blows into his nostrils and said, “Here, I need your help to help me run this kingdom. Tend it for me. Tend it. Help it. It grows on its own, but if there’s not someone watching it, it won’t do as well. I need your help. Partner with me in taking care of the kingdom.” That’s what God says to every human being. So when he realized that Adam would do that, and then all of a sudden, Adam, at the end of looking at all this work and looking at all the animals that then God created to help him — you’ll have the animals to do the work for you. Then he realizes, “Well, I like the animals and all, but there’s nobody really like a partner to me.” So God says, “Partner with me.” And then he says, “Well, give me a partner too.” So he creates Eve. “Flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone. This one is like me.”
In every relationship there has to be this dimension of being like the other, being — in a way when we get to the heart of who we are, who God is, who we are, we’re all reflecting the same truth, the same dynamic. We all work from the same perspective in terms of what brings life and what brings death. So what do we learn from this? What is it God’s saying? He is saying, “If you really want to be fruitful in this world, and you’re tending my world with me, you have to understand how it works.” So he uses this beautiful, simple image of a seed in the ground that begins to grow and produce fruit. So what is the seed? Well, I could think of a couple of things, but I want to call the seed, life — potential life in you. We have human life. We come from animals. We act like animals sometimes, but we have this evolutionary process going on. So there’s something more in us than our animal nature. I want to call it our divine nature. So imagine this seed that God has planted in every soul is this capacity we have to be like God, to be lovers, to give life, not demanding that we do what they ask and therefore rewarding them. No.
Jesus is the best example we have of what it means to tend and to care for people. That is, to want nothing other than that they live and grow, and that we have nothing other than compassion and understanding for them. Never do we want to punish them. Do we want them to grow, change and experience difficulty? Sure, but no punishment. No anger. Just forgiveness, understanding, and compassion. That is in you. That is in me. We have it. How do you nurture it? Well, look at what happens to a seed? It seems dead. It seems that it is not active. It is in you. I know people that have divine nature in them, and they do anything but divine things, and they are lost. But a seed, once moisture hits it, it is automatic. It can’t stop what it is going to do. It bursts into life. What is water? Grace. Grace, God’s presence in us, that mysterious presence that would ignite something. All of a sudden, you realize you have it inside of you and it is there. So water comes in. Grace comes into this inner core of divinity in us and awakens it and becomes a personal voice. It is God living inside of you. Then the sun is needed; the sun is enlightenment. So the journey with this beautiful process that is unfolding inside of us, is you becoming more and more enlightened as to what this world is for, who you are, who God is and what we’re doing. The beauty of it is the relationships we have, if they are truly loving, are the relationships that want to do those things — Awaken that inner core of truth. Nurture it. Engage with it. Support it. Enlighten it. It is so different than a relationship where you are working for something from someone. “I love you, and the way I’m going to show my love for you is do everything you want me to do, and then you’ll love me in return. I’ll earn that love, and then I’ll feel okay.” Except the more you give away of yourself to someone else in that kind of relationship, the more you find resentment. We’re not here to be controlled by another person. We’re not here to control another person. We’re here to tend the growth that God has placed within each human being, the potential of becoming who they are, of finding their gift and giving it to the world.
I don't know that I’ve ever had those kinds of relationships in my life. It seems I mostly have worked for love, and to get it, I’d do anything. And then that made me feel better, and then I find that I kind of create a monster, because I can’t ultimately fulfill all their needs. And I need them, of course, to act in a way that I need them to act. So it’s like the most unfortunate thing that we get caught in this primary image of God as a God who demands love in order to give love. That is never going to be the heart of any healthy relationship.
Father, your desire, your longing is to awaken within us the gift that you placed there. Our destiny, our purpose is to become who you call us to be, and in that process, it’s hard for us to discern, to know how to do this. So you come and stay within us and speak to us. Awaken in all of us an awareness of this personal presence you have with us and your sincere desire to continue to move us more and more out of illusions into the truth and out of the lies that we’ve learned from so many places. They’ve kept us from the joy and the peace that you want for us. So bless us with wisdom. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen.