Second Sunday after Pentecost Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

I Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; II Cor 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

It was good to have the first reading read by Stuart this morning – I was thinking as he was reading it, it’s being read by Samuel’s granddad! But I wonder where you go when you hear the first reading, where do you go? This is a reading from the Old Testament – Saul, Samuel, David – where does it take you, where do you locate that reading? What do you perceive it’s about? How relevant is it in the present? Read it again, with an eye to what is it about, rather than hearing it as a narrative that is prescribed by the church and if we read it again I think what we find is somewhere in there, it actually echoes – it’s almost as if this is the Old Testament version of the Easter mystery. It’s about the overthrow of worldly power – King Saul; it’s about the recognition and anointing of a new power – it says in verse 1, a son of Bethlehem is the one to be anointed. Death is almost a given as part of the process – in verse 2: ‘if Saul hears of it, he will kill me’; it’s about sacrifice, the giving to the Divine: verse 2 again, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord’. The elders, those in authority, are fearful: verse 4 – ‘they come to meet him trembling’. It contains a lot of the New Testament’s reflections on Christ: the last shall be first, ‘a shepherd will lead them’, ‘there remains yet the youngest but he is keeping the sheep’. And it also contains that wonderful scene of Christ’s baptism - in verse 13: ‘the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David’. It’s all there, it’s all there.

The scriptures are not a historical sequential narrative. In parts, they do in fact document historical events, but the purpose, the point, the value in the scriptures is they seek to reveal to us an eternal truth. They seek to make seen that which unseen. And the purpose of that is to give us the opportunity to realise or to make real something that is more than that which is before our eyes. We can continue our walk through life looking and seeing and living as if what we see is what there is, no more and no less. Or we can reflect on these words and seek to look beyond what the eyes show to us.

In the reading from 2 Corinthians, Paul, after a rather long-winded sermon, comes up with a pretty clear summary in verse 17: If anyone is in Christ, there is, there is a new creation. There is a new creation, the new creation, the kingdom of God, heaven – the new creation is the reality of the word made flesh, in incarnation of the Divine in the world, through humanity revealed in Christ. Once again we do well to contemplate the kingdom of God, Heaven: it is not an ‘other world’, it is the unseen reality of eternity in the present and it’s also the orientation of every religion that I’m familiar with. Doesn’t matter what religion we look toward, each of them has an orientation to the new creation, to the kingdom of God, to heaven. And within our Christian tradition, the kingdom of God remains yet to be explored.

We do have an early understanding of it though - and the church holds fast to that because the church likes to hold fast to its early understandings. And the early understanding of the kingdom of God located it just beyond the firmament, the firmament of the heavens. It actually is why churches are designed the way they are, with ceilings that are way up there, because they give us some sense of that truth that the early church glimpsed - that just beyond there, where that balloon is seeking to be, that’s where heaven is. Now of course the church is just symbolic. The reality that it was a symbol of though, is that if you step outside, particularly at night and see the sky, that is a dome, it’s an upturned pudding basin on which God stuck the stars and just on the other side of that pudding basin, there is the kingdom of God, there is heaven.

Conceptually for orthodox Christians, there it remains. It’s interesting to think that our exploration of space has clearly dispelled any reality that the kingdom of God is on the other side of the pudding basin and yet rather than look deeper for an understanding, the church holds on to its theological position and the only result of heaven being displaced by space travel is that God has been moved further away. The parables invite us to think again, to look deeper, to engage with the reality that was and is evidenced through Christ. And the simple yet profound example of seeds being sowed and a full head of grain being realised is perhaps, a lovely entry point to contemplate the kingdom of God. It’s good to remember that seeds and their growing into a full harvest is a natural process, it is of the created order. And slap-bang in the middle of that parable - so the parable begins in verse 26, so there’s verse 28, verse 29, in the middle of it, verse 28, is that little one line summary, which is the conceptual principle if you like, that is what the parable is seeking to convey: ‘the earth produces of itself’. ‘The earth produces of itself’ - it’s a parable, like the first reading, like the mystery of Easter - echoes once again the revelation of Christ: Christmas - the seed is given; crucifixion - it is entombed in the soil; the resurrection - it rises to bear fruit; and the ascension - the harvest is returned to the hand that first gave it. The earth produces of itself. There is no God in some far away place called heaven that is playing the role of production manager. The earth produces of itself: the kingdom of God is for us to make real. It’s a frightening thought and it probably ranks on the scale of ‘it’s impossible for me’. If the heavens opened and a voice called your name out and said ‘It’s you. I want you to realise the kingdom of God’, we would probably look the other way and pretend it was some loony. And yet that’s what all the scriptures point towards - ‘the earth produces of itself’ - the realisation of the kingdom of God is to be manufactured here and now, in any and every moment.

To dispel the notion of impossibility, a couple of examples have come up in discussions this week. Think about East Germany, particularly East Berlin, in the weeks and months leading up to the taking down of the Berlin Wall. Just before that occurred it was an impossibility – it would never happen. It wasn’t going to happen and if you tried to get across the wall you would be shot, it just wasn’t going to happen. A few people had actually got used to the fact that it wasn’t going to happen and had learned to live with the wall there. There was a few who thought ‘I wish it wasn’t there’ and that sought to have the wall taken down but thought ‘will this ever happen?’ And yet it did, it did. And only weeks afterwards the new order of creation, the new natural order is as acceptable as the old, it’s as if ‘well of course it was going to come down’.

An article I read this week that Andrea gave me from South Africa – exactly the same notion is there. Imagine Apartheid South Africa before Apartheid was dismantled. People lived as if that was the order of things. Some were OK with it, some weren’t OK with it, but it was the given, ‘it is not going to change, it’s too hard, it’s impossible, I can’t change it’. And yet, it changed, and only days and weeks later, there is a new order that just seems quite natural.

There’s great hope in those examples. What they point to is there are tipping points. There are points at which things tip and change from one order to another order, and the changes can be quite radical, quite different - lives lived as if on another planet. If we look again at the idea that we looked at in Lent – the leaven in the lump: the yeast is added to the dough and in there somewhere is an unseen process that changes the whole into bread – no longer yeast, no longer dough, there is an unseen process, the outcome being bread.

‘So if anyone is in Christ there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new’. Our call is to be part of the leaven, to enable and to facilitate the process of a new creation: to bring about change that makes real the kingdom of God.

The great news is it only needs a few committed to all things new and if a few remain committed to all things new, then they will see that everything old will pass away.

The Lord be with you.

Peter Humphris

Textweek Second Sunday after Pentecost