Sunday, June 13, 2021

Third Sunday after Pentecost

Mark 4

26 He also said, “This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. 27 Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. 28 All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. 29 As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come.”

30 Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. 32 Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

33 With many similar parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as much as they could understand. 34 He did not say anything to them without using a parable. But when he was alone with his own disciples, he explained everything.

Weston has a secret portal that gets you under the 401.

Weston has a secret Victorian village hidden amid the highrises.

Weston has a somewhat secret shrine to Mary, right up there with Lourdes and Guadalupe.

Weston has a secret history on the west bank of the Humber, until the river had other ideas back in 1850.

Weston is mystified by the secret of all those bank departures, though greed might be the answer.

And finally, number nine on Now Magazines “Hidden Toronto” list of the city’s best-kept secrets is…Weston.

I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface here. And I didn’t even start on the secrets of Mount Dennis or the secret part of Pelmo Park north of the 401.

Leaving that for another day, we are surrounded by things unknown and things unexplained. There is a popular online forum called whatisthisthing, where people will post a picture of something mysterious looking, and enlist others to help them figure it out. It’s the ultimate crowdsourcing, where the secret of an unfamiliar item is revealed by someone who immediately knows what it is.

Related to this is an entire genre of “reality television” with titles like How It’s Made, How Do They Do That? and What on Earth? There is obviously an appetite for understanding hidden things, or things that are remarkable in their creation, even if they are commonplace or familiar.

And that takes us to our lesson. Seeds scattered on the ground, the disproportionate growth of the mustard seed—these parables take something familiar and open up the meaning to reveal more. And in this case we get the explicit introduction “this is what the kingdom of God is like”—the implied purpose of every parable. But before we begin to draw Kingdom lessons, let’s look again at how these tiny literary units work.

These parables use a device best described with the words “and yet.” On other occasions, we have talked about parables creating a world, which sours, then resolves to reveal the Kingdom. These simpler parables function in the same way: describing something, adding the “and yet,” and then pointing to some Kingdom theme.

In the first one, the Parable of the Growing Seed, the constructed world is someone planting seeds, and yet they don’t know how they grow. Still, the growth continues, until the harvest is plentiful. In the second—even simpler than the first—the constructed world is the mustard seed, and yet it’s among the smallest seeds on earth. It grows into a large shrub, and birds make nests in it’s branches.

In each case, the “and yet” is the secret of the parable, the hidden meaning that makes this part of the Kingdom. The simple act of sowing seeds results in the harvest. The tiny seed becomes a shrub, far out of proportion to the size of the seed. It’s about the miracle of growth, of course, but it’s mostly about the abundance that follows the simple act of sowing a seed.

Now, a scientist could explain all the steps needed to achieve germination (even a scientist in elementary school) and tell you about hydrating the seed (imbibition), activating the enzymes inside the seed, and putting down a root (radicle). Soon it will sprout, and the sun will take over from there—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head.

But rather than looking at the science and saying ‘mystery solved,’ I think the mystery deepens. With each new discovery, and each new insight, what is really revealed is the remarkable complexity of everything God made. The more complex, and the more inexplicable, the more we wonder at the gift of the natural world that keeps giving. Things that work in nature for the benefit of others, cures waiting to be discovered in the natural world, even the number of stars in the sky—all reveal the glory of the Most High.

And then God made humans. Odd that we don’t need to condemn humanity for all our failures relating to the natural world, because we humans are busy condemning ourselves. Every day we need to choose whether we are part of the natural world, and therefore worth protecting, or we are somehow outside the natural world, and on our own. At this moment in human history we seem very much on our own, and we may pay a steep price.

In the same manner that we have divided ourselves from the natural world, we insist on dividing ourselves from one another. Some divisions—location, language—are a part of the diversity of human life. While others—race, status, economic standing— we create and impose on each other. The need to feel superior seems hardwired somehow, and the project of human living should always be setting aside that particular need.

It’s no secret that there is racism in Canada. We have been blessed with abundance, and yet we retreat to racism and xenophobia. We have created a society where everyone has access to healthcare and basic needs, and yet we imagine that some are less deserving or jumping some sort of invisible queue. We have all the resources to educate ourselves about how to live together, and yet we retreat to the voices that tell us what we want to hear, even when it leads to violence.

It’s no secret that there is racism in Canada, and yet the solution is within us, since we all contribute in some small way. Sounds like a parable, because it is. This little world we have created, remarkable in so many ways, still sours because we each carry that gene of superiority, that sense of suspicion, and that willingness to listen to the least helpful voices. It’s hard to even name that we carry around the kernel of racism within us, but by naming it we can perhaps begin to move on.

The point of a parable is resolving to reveal the Kingdom. Resolving implies trouble, or some human problem we face. And yet, in the face of trouble, God is most attentive, most willing to stand beside us, and most willing to lift up those in deep need. The parables show us that God’s direction always points to the Kingdom, where everything that divides us is cast out, where everything that hurts us is healed, and everything that separates us from the love of God is set aside—now and forevermore, Amen.

Sunday, June 06, 2021

Second Sunday after Pentecost

 2 Corinthians 4

13 It is written: “I believed; therefore I have spoken.”[a] Since we have that same spirit of[b] faith, we also believe and therefore speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus from the dead will also raise us with Jesus and present us with you to himself. 15 All this is for your benefit, so that the grace that is reaching more and more people may cause thanksgiving to overflow to the glory of God.

16 Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. 17 For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. 18 So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen on Zoom, but on what is unseen beyond Zoom. Since what is seen on Zoom is temporary, but what is unseen (beyond Zoom) is eternal.

I think I mentioned before about the highly “curated” world some have created for Zoom. Appropriate artwork, a plant or two, lighting just right, doors closed to block noise and wandering family members. Some, of course, preempt the entire curation process by simply selecting an engaging background: palm trees, outer space, or that view from the end of the dock.

A lot of ink has been spilled in the age of Covid about the meaning behind what you present. Books say “look at me, I’m clever.” Diplomas on the wall say “trust me” or maybe “take me seriously.” An open door in the background says openness, or maybe it says you’re one of those brave people who can arrange their desk with their back to the door. I’m not one of them.

Whatever message you send, intentional or unintentional, curated or uncurated, it’s not real. We have advanced to the point where we can present ourselves to the world the way we choose, for good or for ill. One of the primary objections to social media—Facebook or Instagram—is that it breeds the abiding sense that other people are having better lives: more adventuresome, more meaningful, more beautiful. But it’s not real, it’s an illusion we create, or an illusion we consume.

Of course, with all technology, there is a lively debate about whether we would be better off without it. Philosophers would step into the sermon at this point to remind us that the minute someone invented the bicycle it guaranteed that someone would be the first to fall off a bicycle, in the same way that the invention of the telephone pretty well guaranteed that someone would call and offer to clean my ducts. Phones don’t phone people, duct cleaners phone people.

So we can’t turn back the clock, but we don’t have to accept our reality either. And this seems to be the subtext of Paul meditation on reality found in 2 Corinthians 4. Jesus has died, and Jesus has risen, and Jesus will come again to take us to himself. Outwardly the followers of Jesus were aging, some wasting away, some sleeping in death, but Paul says “do not lose heart,” for you are, in fact, being renewed day by day. The momentary affliction that is holding you down today will be replaced by an eternal weight of glory.

And I’m sure some were convinced. Some understood that the promise to return in glory didn’t have a date attached. Some knew that brothers and sisters in the faith would pass before that great and glorious day, and trusted that all would be sorted in eternity. Some were able to “trust the process,” words that never fully convince anyone, while others were not able to trust the process. And for the unconvinced, Paul had more to say:

So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.

It’s amazing really, the extent to which Paul could make good on his promise to be “all things to all people.” To those familiar with Plato he had one message, and to those who had never heard of Plato, he had another. Ironic that Paul, the tentmaker, had a foot in each world, and could speak to both.

To the Platonist, or those who knew about Plato, he seems to be making a reference to The Allegory of the Cave. In the allegory, his fictional cave dwellers are chained in a cave, facing away from the light, only able to see shadows of the world behind them. Some try to turn around, only to be blinded by the light of reality, and some may even escape—to see the full reality of the world beyond the cave. But there is more: anyone who tries to return to the darkness of the cave to warn the others will be disoriented and stumbling about as they enter, which will only serve as a warning to the cave dwellers that escape may not be worth it.

Paul is suggesting that those who live in a land of shadows need to see the light, regardless of the risk.

To the practical, or those who knew about practical things, Paul returns to tentmaking. Tents are great, tents offer a temporary solution to a practical problem, but tents are easily destroyed. Fortuitously, we have a building from God built for us, not made by human hands, but eternal in the heavens.

Back to the cave reference, Plato (and Paul) give us an allegory that fits any number of situations. Anyone who feels timid, or troubled, or overwhelmed, can find themselves in the Allegory of the Cave. Venturing beyond the known, the familiar, the comfortable, will seem like a risky endeavor. Anyone who has created a false reality for themselves, or has had a false reality imposed on them, will understand the Allegory of the Cave. Indeed, anyone who is tired of the way we have structured life in the cave of this society, will understand the power of the allegory to encourage some and inhibit others. Some want to escape the cave we have created, and others are happy with shadows.

The last fews days have been difficult for most, and most of all for Canadians that live in this land that once belonged to others. We are the heirs of a society that lived in the cave of superiority, the abiding belief that the shadows on the wall meant that our culture, language, and religion were better than the culture, language, and religion of the Indigenous peoples who have called this place home for countless generations. And now, in recent years, some have come to see reality, and others have not. Part of our work as a church is to convince ourselves (and others) that the reality of our past is hard to face, but facing it is the right and true thing to do. But there is more.

Some in the church will be tempted to define our relationship with First Nations as a social justice issue, something to champion with them and for them. The additional layer of reality here, however, is that it’s not a social justice issue for a church that operated residential schools. It would be like if I assaulted someone and then became a champion for victim’s rights. We need to be about reconciliation, and right relations, and repairing the damage we helped cause.

What is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.

Such is the Christian hope. The earthly tent we live in, the tent of superiority, and structured inequality, and state-sponsored violence will be swept away in time, leaving an eternal dwelling place, the place God would have us dwell. And then, at the last, all will be one—on earth, as it is in heaven.

May God help us as we seek this place. Amen.