Thursday, June 14, 2012

Living into God's Promise of New Beginnings -- Lectionary Reflection

Living into God's Promise of New Beginnings

            In a culture that celebrates the “self-made man” who “pulls himself by his bootstraps” it may be unprepared to hear to hear a message about depending on God’s power and presence to live life faithfully.   When we assume that success is the result of our own initiative, then it’s easy to look upon those who have not reached success with a certain disdain.  They are in this situation because of something they have done; otherwise they wouldn’t be in this situation.  That’s the response Job’s friends gave to him.  How can you say you’re innocent if your circumstances suggest otherwise.  If you are poor, then it must be your fault, for as the saying goes “God helps those who help themselves.”  The biblical story is an ongoing reminder that God is the creator and the giver of every good and perfect gift.  We depend upon God’s grace for life.  Having acknowledged this dependence on God, the biblical story of covenant relationship reminds us that the life of faith will express itself through its fruit.  James suggests that “faith without works is dead,” while Paul speaks of the fruit of the Spirit.   The life of faith is a life that is transformed, a life of new beginnings.  God is the source of life and the source of new beginnings, and we live out our lives from the act of reconciliation in Christ.

            Here we stand, in the afterglow of Pentecost, the season of the Spirit, a season of living out our faith.  We have three texts that invite us to live faithfully.  God is the planter of trees and the sower of seeds.  There is in two of the texts an agrarian theme; while the Pauline text, written for an urban community, lacks the agrarian sentiment, it speaks of change and development.  God is well at work in all three passages.  The question is, are we fully aware of the work of God?  Or are we asleep?  Do we understand the implications of what God is doing in our midst? 

            Ezekiel speaks to a people that have experienced deep loss.  The nation has been conquered by a foreign power.  The king and many of its people had been carted off to a foreign land, where they dwell as exiles.  Loss, as I have been learning from my reading of Walter Brueggemann’s The Practice of Prophetic Imagination, can be seen as a sign of divine judgment that one has not lived fully from the covenant relationship.   Israel had broken covenant and experienced the consequences of that lack of trust in God.  But, now in this passage, Israel receives a word of hope and restoration.  God will, in God’s time and way, reconcile that which is alienated from God.  What is broken will be made whole.  And so now we have a word about a tender shoot plucked by God from a tall cedar and then planted on a high and lofty mountain.  And as God’s plants this seedling, it will send out its branches and it will bear fruit.  It will become a mighty cedar and the birds will find shelter in its boughs.  God brings down the high, and lifts up the lowly.  Mary sang of that fact as well.  We can take heart in this proclamation, because God has spoken, and God do what God promises.  Brueggemann notes that for the exilic prophets, there is an appeal to the stories of Genesis, where God creates and where God does the seemingly impossible.  Consider the stories of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel – all are barren, and yet though seemingly impossible they become fruitful and bear children.  What seems impossible is possible with God.  Regarding this dilemma as to what is possible and what is real, Brueggemann writes:
Can YHWH create, yet again, a new history for Israel, after the old history has come to a dismal end?  Here we are the deepest theological question of biblical faith – is the God of faith contained within and informed by what the world knows to be possible?  Or is it within the capacity of God to create a newness that defies the categories of the “possible” that are commonly and reasonably accepted in the world?  (The Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Wordp. 106). 
Ezekiel holds out hope that God can overcome the seeming possibilities to create a new reality by planting a seedling that can take root and become a place of shelter for all.

            As we move from this promise that God will plant the seedling (Israel) on the high mountain, and that it will expand and become a great cedar – looking forward to the restoration of the people of God in their homeland – to Paul’s word about new creation, the point is similar.  What is lost is restored, and God is the one who faithfully brings this to pass.

            “We live by faith not by sight,” that is the message Paul delivers to the Corinthians.  Already have looked to Paul’s call to embrace the spirit over the temporal (2 Cor. 4:13-5:1).  That was last week’s text.  But what does it mean to walk by faith and not by sight.  How do we come to this place?  It is, it appears, a result of seeking to be “acceptable to him, whether we are at home or away from home” (2 Cor. 5:9).  There is here a word of judgment, a recognition that there are consequences of actions.  We receive due recompense for good and ill. 

            The word here is one of new beginnings.  There is death and there is resurrection – in this life as well as at the end of life.  We all die in Christ.   That is, in Christ we let go of the world that holds us back from embracing the way of God. Now, it’s not easy letting go.  Death is not something we embrace easily.  This is true of the body as well as the spirit.  Letting go means embracing the unknown.  It’s a risky venture.  However, since he died for all, then we should live appropriately.  We live not for ourselves, but for the one who died for all and yet was raised.  To do this, we must cease trying to understand what this means from a human perspective.  We’ve been trying to know Christ by human standards.  Indeed, we like to put Christ in a box.  Either we try to make Jesus so divine that there is no human dimension to his life.  He’s holy; he’s just not part of us.  Or, perhaps, especially in this age, we seek to make him so human, that nothing of God really remains.  He’s a good man, maybe even a prophet, but by prophet we simply mean a moralist, a political operative, who uses religious language.  But, there’s no true encounter with the living God in this person.  He ceases to be the human face of God.  But Paul insists – don’t try to know him from a human standpoint.  Does that mean that we abandon our historical studies?  No, that’s not the way forward.  But at the very least, we need to recognize that there is more to Jesus than what the eye can discern.  We can’t start with what our senses tell us is possible and allow that to define for us what is real, for God is not seen with the eye or touched with the hands. 

            With our eyes looking at Jesus, whom we know no longer from human standards, we’re able to recognize that in him God is reconciling us, and we become as a result part of the new creation.  The old is gone, the new things have arrived.  I have long found this to be a definitive statement of the gospel.  It is a word of hope, because the things that have held us down are gone.  We can experience something new.  The past doesn’t determine the future.  This was true for Ezekiel’s audience, which lived in exile.  Judgment looked so final, and yet here is a word that it isn’t over quite yet. 

            As I think on this passage I’m reminded of the “restorative justice” movement.  It’s a movement that seeks to move us beyond the idea that judgment is about retribution or punishment, but is instead focused on restoring a person to active participation in society.  Of course, it requires something of the person standing under judgment.  It requires them to face their victim and make restitution – as they are able.  But the point is restoring relationships.   That doesn’t mean that we always go back to the way things were.  In many cases that’s not possible.  But, we can begin a new chapter, a new way of living.  As Brian Wren writes in stanza 3 of his hymn “This Is a Day of New Beginnings,” (one of my favorites):  “Then let us, with the Spirit’s daring, step from the past and leave behind our disappointment, guilt, and grieving, seeking new paths, and sure to find. “  And then in the final stanza, we sing:  “In faith we gather round the table to taste and share what love can do.  This is a day of new beginnings; our God is making all things new.”  Amen!

            In the Gospel we return to the image of God the planter.  This time God is sowing seed upon the ground, and this seed is a sign of God’s reign.  In this parable, the point is that a farmer discovers that someone has sown seed on the land, and it sprouts and it grows, and the farmer knows not how.  The earth itself produces the crop.  First comes the stalk, then the head, then the full head of the grain.  Unlike my yard, it seems to need little help from the farmer – until harvest time comes, and the farmer then goes out to reap the crop. 
            Continuing on a theme, Jesus compares the kingdom to a mustard seed.  It’s the smallest of seeds, but it grows into the largest of plants.  So large does it become that the birds can nest in its branches – even as they nested in the branches of Ezekiel’s cedar tree.  I must note that the mustard plants I know of are very different from this image.  The mustard plants that grow along the hills of the California coast, they do spread, but they’re not large enough for birds to nest in.  Either Jesus doesn’t know much about mustard, or it’s really beside the point.  The kingdom starts small, but then spreads out, becoming host to the denizens of the kingdom.  Ultimately, it is God who is responsible. 

            Finally there is this word about the purpose of parables.  We like to think of them as illustrations, which help people understand the things of God – much like sermon illustrations.  They’re meant to clarify and convey meaning, moving the message from abstraction to a degree of concreteness.  At least in Mark, the parables have the opposite effect.  He spoke in parables to the people, and then explained the meaning to the disciples in private. 

            The kingdom of God, apparently, requires a degree of spiritual insight to understand.  It’s dependent on God’s actions, and those with ears to hear, will hear it.

            So in our world where the self-made person is king or queen, can we rest in the knowledge that the way of newness is a gift of God?  Can we relinquish our need to control?  Can we let God’s reality define our sense of what is possible?  If so, then perhaps we can embrace the reign of God that brings us newness of life!   

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