Archive for August, 2012

June 17th, Third Sunday after Pentecost

As I started to prepare for this Sunday, I was pleased to find that all three of the Scripture readings fit together very nicely. There are many times when this doesn’t happen, and then I have to choose one message over another. Since I think that there are great messages in every part of Scripture, this sometimes causes me problems, as I try to decide which one I should use. This week, however, there was no such problem, as all of the readings have the same basic message, which is that we can never imagine what God can do. Whether we are talking about a shepherd boy becoming a mighty king, a mustard seed growing into a plant large enough so that a bird can build a nest in it, or walking by faith and not by sight – these all point to what God can do, if we let him. They show us the possibilities that God can see, whether we can see them or not.
So, let’s start with the reading from the first book of Samuel. This part of the Old Testament is from what we call the historical part of Scripture. That is partly because much of what is there has been verified by other sources as being historically accurate, but, more importantly, this is where we learn the history of Israel. I have a special affinity for this part of the story, since my father was named Jesse, and my brother is David, but that really has nothing to do with the message – I just like saying it. If you remember, in last week’s reading from Samuel, the Israelites came to him, asking for a king. Samuel, being advised by God, warned them that this might not be the best thing, for a number of reasons, but they insisted. The Lord told Samuel to give in to the people, which, of course, turned out not to be the best thing to have done. It is like a parent saying “no” to a child who wants McDonald’s every day for lunch. There is a reason for the negative response.
However, like many parents who give in to keep the peace, God told Samuel to anoint Saul as the first king of Israel. Of course, as they had been warned, this was NOT a good thing. We skipped over the next few chapters, which serve to prove that having a king was a mistake. The Israelites went to war, and turned away from God, while Saul was their king. This led to the Lord’s rejecting Saul as king, and Samuel’s being sent to Bethlehem, where he was to anoint a new king for God’s people. This brings us to our reading for today.
You know, I think of this story in almost the same way as I think of a search committee in your average church. Saul, the king everyone wanted, the one described as an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites – a head taller than any of the others, he was being removed. He had been rebuked by Samuel, and it was recognized that his time as king was coming to an end, because he had failed to obey the Lord’s commands. And, of course, the search was on for his replacement. Now, I don’t know how much most of you know about a search committee, but they usually start out with something fairly specific in mind. They have a list of requirements, and most of them make good sense when you are discussing a new minister. Or, in this case, a new king. Samuel, following the instructions of the Lord, headed off to Bethlehem, where the elders met him in fear and trembling. Remember, Samuel was known as Saul’s emissary, and where the emissary went, war almost certainly followed. So they were no doubt greatly relieved to learn that Samuel was actually there to choose and anoint a new king. The Lord had told Samuel that the new king was going to be found among the sons of Jesse, so the search had already been narrowed down a bit. Jesse – no doubt bursting with pride – called his oldest son before Samuel. And Eliab looked fine to Samuel. But the Lord rejected him, and advised Samuel not to consider the outward appearance. Because, you see, like most of us, Samuel and the others tended to judge by appearances. If an opinion poll, such as the ones which are done today, had been done in Bethlehem at that time, David would certainly have been rejected. Even Jesse thought that his youngest son was certainly not to be the anointed one. It reminds me of the Cinderella story, in which the wicked step-mother his Cinderella from the prince. Again, we had the youngest child, the one whom the family really didn’t think to be of much account. David was out tending the sheep when Samuel arrived, and it wasn’t until Samuel asked specifically about another son that Jesse even acknowledged his existence. And even then it was dismissively. You can almost hear Jesse say: Well, I have one more son. But I doubt you’d want him. He is the youngest, and he’s just a shepherd. Who would have thought that the older sons who were brought in as more obvious choices were to be rejected? Samuel himself had been surprised that the Lord had rejected Jesse’s other seven sons, but when David was brought in, the Lord said: Rise and anoint him; he is the one. Just imagine the shock of Jesse and David’s brothers. This youngest son, this one who had no authority at all in his father’s house, this shepherd – this is the one who was chosen by God to be the king of Israel? And this shows clearly that discerning of a call is the work of God more than of man. If it were up to us alone, we would choose using earthly standards; but God uses a different measure.
The same applies to other things in our lives. We always think that we know best, but sometimes – in fact, all of the time – God knows better. This is why we need to be very careful, and prayerful, when trying to discern God’s will in our lives. The “Eliabs” in our lives can look really good, but they are not necessarily what is good for us. It is best, whenever possible, to hold out until we clearly hear God say: There, now! That’s what I want for you. That’s what I had in mind for you since the day you were born. And that day, in Bethlehem, David learned what God had in store for him. God knew – even if no one else did – what potential there was in David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons. God knew – even if no one else did – that the smallest, the most insignificant, can be used to accomplish great things. Samuel learned, as we are to learn, that God is concerned with the unseen, with the HEART of a person. And God, through Samuel, said: Bring in the youngest son, the one not considered. This is the one who will be anointed. This is the one who will lead the people, and be known as their greatest king, the hope of the Israelites, the vision for their future.
In a sense, David was the smallest of Jesse’s sons. Maybe he wasn’t the smallest physically – we really don’t know that for sure, one way or the other – but he was small in that Jesse didn’t even see the possibility hidden in him. As you heard in the children’s story, seeds are also small. And, in one of my favourite hymns, we sing about the apple tree that is in the seed. Each verse of this hymn ends with: unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see. The parables in today’s Gospel reading compare the reign of God with the mysterious way of a seed’s growth. Even today, in this advanced technological age, we are fascinated by this. And, if you don’t believe me, find a small child, and teach him or her how to sprout a seed. You will be just as amazed as the child, as the seed bursts open, and the first tendrils of green start to appear. Jesus said that the kingdom of God is like those seeds, the ones scattered to grow even though the farmer doesn’t know how this happens, and the tiny mustard seed, which will grow into a plant big enough for birds to build a nest in.
Now, you know that Jesus taught in parables, and, to me, it feels that parables are not unlike seeds themselves. They contain so much more that we can imagine, and this is why they need an explanation. If you will notice, at the end of today’s Gospel reading, Mark wrote: With many similar parables, Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything. Jesus taught in this way because of his audience, which was diverse, to say the least. He spoke to the learned and unlearned, the rich and the poor, the powerful and those with no power at all. He knew, as do most modern preachers, that a story – or a parable – was the best way to reach the most people. I would be willing to wager that the sermons which you remember most are the ones with good illustrations, the ones with interesting stories, rather than the ones filled with academic facts. When I working on an English degree, one of the things we were told is that, after food and drink, humanity hungers for stories. Henry Brinton, a Presbyterian minister in Virginia, said that Jesus used parables “to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the people who crowded around him, aching for insight and inspiration” . Even then, people were seeking, people were looking, people were wanting more. And Jesus gave it to them in the form of parables.
Today, we see the power of story even more strongly, as we see people respond to spiritual themes in films and novels. Harry Potter – even though some fundamentalist groups decry this as a Satanist work – is a classic story of good vs evil. When I was in seminary, we were required to watch Gran Torino, which I would recommend to anyone. It was a fairly typical Clint Eastwood picture – an older Clint, of course – but had a redemptive quality which made it, in many ways, one of his best. The ending was a bit forced, but when you consider that many in the audience were likely unchurched people, it was probably the best way to make the point.
But parables are more than just a good story, more than an illustration to help explain things. If anything, parables sometimes make things harder to understand, especially for those close-minded and hard-hearted people who listen but will not hear. Parables make us think, and, just when we think that we have figured out what Jesus meant, along comes another thought which shows us that it means even more.
In this 21st century, we tend to use the left side of our brains more, as we figure things out in a logical manner. But that is not how the parables are to be understood. We need to – if not think outside the box – then, at least to use the right side of our brains more. Parables challenge us to see two very different realities – the one that is most obviously presented, and the one that requires some explanation. Sometimes it is like going into the wardrobe, and coming out in Narnia. And, while Narnia is full on magic, is it where we really want to live? Before answering that question, before looking deeper into the parables, think about the cost of discipleship. This is something we have often discussed in this church, and something we will continue to discuss. But once we realize that the parables are, at the same time, a story, and yet so much more than just a story, then we will know that they tell the truth of our lives.
For we are mustard seeds in God’s garden; we are the seed scattered by the sower; and we are the ones who will bear much fruit, and grow so big that others will see us plainly. But even then, we need to be careful. For to us, in Québec, the mustard seed might seem like something fairly innocent. But to farmers of Jesus’ time, it was not so innocent. In fact, it was regarded as a weed, in much the same way as dandelions are regarded here today, if not worse. Jesus’ hearers would have likely been offended by the reference to such a weed, which they would themselves never have planted. But, like most weeds, this plant would have been tough and tenacious. Think about the followers of Jesus as mustard seeds in the world of their time. They would have been going against all that was orderly in their world – against the religious leaders and the civil leaders of their day. Their faith, which would sustain them through many trials after the crucifixion, was as stubborn as any weed, refusing to be eradicated. And that is what our faith must be. In this secular world, it is harder and harder to hold onto faith, but, as Christians, that is what we must do. As Paul said, we live by faith, not by sight. We trust that God will see what we cannot see.
Faith, like the mustard seed, may begin in smallness, and may even continue in smallness for a long time. But it will grow. And the growth, according to Jesus, leads to greatness, a greatness we cannot even begin to imagine. But God can imagine it. God can see it. Even more, God intended for it to happen all along. We are surrounded by big things – by governments, by institutions – and yet, our faith can conquer all of these. Without faith, we can do nothing. With it, there is nothing we cannot do. Thanks be to God.


August 2012
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