Homily for Pentecost 3- June 14, 2009

1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13 Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul.  Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. The LORD said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me.” And the LORD said, “Take a heifer with you, and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the LORD.’ 16:3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you.” Samuel did what the LORD commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, “Do you come peaceably?” He said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the LORD; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.  When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before the LORD.”  But the LORD said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the LORD does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, “Neither has the LORD chosen this one.” Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, “The LORD has not chosen any of these.”  Samuel said to Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” And he said, “There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep.” And Samuel said to Jesse, “Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here.”  He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The LORD said, “Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.”   Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the LORD came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.


2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17  So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord — for we walk by faith, not by sight.  Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord.  So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.  For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.  Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences.  We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died.  And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.  From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!


Mark 4:26-34  He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.  The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.” He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?  It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples. 


We all have our own personal spiritual practices, but the Anglican Church invites us into a shared, corporate, “liturgical spirituality,” characterized by sacraments and seasons.  In the season of Pentecost which we are just beginning, we take a lead from the natural world, and we take on the colour green, a sign and incentive pointing us toward growth.  It is a season in which we are invited to “walk by the Spirit.”  As St Paul taught, “those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.”  So it is a time of becoming more deeply rooted in the Christian life, a time to focus on our spirituality, with a view to growing and maturing in Christ, in the spiritual journey,


St Paul teaches us that “we walk by faith not by sight.”  The scriptures appointed for this Sunday suggest to us that outward appearances can be deceiving.  The Kingdom of God is different than the kind of kingdom most of us would create, given the power and opportunity.


In the lesson from I Samuel, the prophet Samuel goes to choose a successor for King Saul, who has failed to be obedient to God and has started making up his own rules apart from God’s directives.  Saul was chosen because he had all the makings of a great worldly leader, but he was chosen as you might choose a captain for a football team.  It says of him: “Saul was a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he; he stood head and shoulders above everyone else” (1Samuel 9:2). According to the First Book of Samuel, he did not turn out to be the kind of leader God had in mind.  God rejected Saul, and so the prophet Samuel is sent to Jesse to find a new king, “a man after God’s own heart” (1Samuel 13:14).   Samuel reviews all of the sons of Jesse and sees many likely candidates, but keeps getting the sense that each one is not “the one,” until finally he asks Jesse if he is hiding any more sons somewhere.  So as we know, David turns up, and the story teaches us something about the criteria of leadership in doing things God’s way.


I have always identified with the call of David – I suspect most clergy can.  I was encouraged by the way God chose the least likely, how God sees things in some people that the world would never see or never acknowledge.  That is one of the characteristics of the kingdom of God.  As it says, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart” and David is a man with a passionate and open heart.  He’s far from perfect, but he relies on his relationship with God perhaps more because of his weakness.  That is a powerful truth that St Paul discovered in his spiritual journey into the kingdom of God – that God’s power is made perfect in our weakness (see 2Corinthians 12).


In trying to guide the Church in the Greek city of Corinth, Paul has had competition, people who have undermined his authority, and his spiritual credentials; they have even made fun of his physical appearance!  They have also created an unfortunate sense of spiritual elitism and division among the Christians there – a self-centered spirituality of entitlement.  Obliged to counteract the negative effects of the “superlative apostles” (as Paul calls them sarcastically), Paul tries to create a balanced approach, and lets the Corinthians know that appearances can be deceiving.  These pretenders may look like they are genuine but are not, and it is by their fruits that they are known for what they are.  From Paul’s perspective, the competing apostles have apparently been operating on very worldly principles – pride, reputation, status – and as a result have created a church community that resembles a typical Junior High School, with all the little cliques, envy, intrigues and petty squabbles which you would expect from those who are not very mature.  


Paul points out that our fulfilment is in greater terms than just being a better Christian than someone else – Jesus had already condemned the Pharisees for catering to the ego that way.  Paul tries to get them to see a larger perspective, because they have become very selfish, very parochial, and despite what the “superlative” apostles are telling them, this is not “as good as it gets.” Paul, as a deep mystic and man of the Spirit, is able to let them know that there is much more in store for them, so he urges them not to settle for some minor sense of self-importance  and superiority,  and thereby miss the vastly greater glory and reward of actually entering the new life.


He says “Even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way.”  To persist in seeing Christ from a strictly human perspective, or perhaps only in reference to Jesus of Nazareth, would be to limit yourself severely.  “Christ” represents a much larger reality.  As JB Philips once suggested to smug, complacent Christians, “Your God is too small.”  To many, Jesus was just another historical figure; to Christians he was/is the embodiment of the Christ-nature of God, a faithful human representation of the divine, the “human face of God.” Paul tries to take the Corinthians (and us) with him on his spiritual journey and into his vision of a new creation. 


But until the mystical encounter with the risen Christ which transformed his life, Paul too saw Jesus strictly from a human point of view, but he was chasing a shadow.  After his encounter with the risen Lord, he no longer saw himself in the same light, and he no longer saw things in terms of Jew or Gentile, male or female, slave or free – he saw himself as having a new purpose and worth, and he saw the world from a universal and cosmic perspective.  For Paul, it was literally the experience of a new creation, and he invites everyone to share in this new life, into which Christ is the doorway.


Perhaps you can picture two six year olds wandering around the school yard at recess, when a jet flies over.  One says to the other: “That’s a Boeing 777-200ER!  It’s got a wingspan of 200 feet and can handle 440 passengers.  Fully loaded it’s about 650,000 pounds and takes 45,000 gallons of fuel.  It’s got a range of 7700 nautical miles.”  “Yeah, says the other excitedly, “I wonder where it’s going – London,  Madrid,    Tokyo . . .?”  Suddenly the school bell rings and the two look at each other and one says “Now we’ve got to go back to stringing those stupid beads!”   St Paul is a “big picture” guy.  He is trying to teach them about the kingdom of God and take their sense of vision over the horizon, but they insist on nit-picking over their credentials, and being preoccupied with their own status and rights in competition with each other.


Unfortunately, too much modern Christian thinking and practice has not absorbed the fullness of Paul’s message, and continues to operate as the Pharisees did: believing themselves to be the only true faith; seeing themselves, as children do, at the centre of the universe, and nit-picking about minor issues which have almost nothing to do with the larger vision that God offers.


The Kingdom of God was a major theme with Jesus.  In Luke 4:43, Jesus says: “I must proclaim the good news of the kingdom of God to the other cities also; for I was sent for this purpose.”  Keeping in mind that things aren’t always what they seem, we hear Jesus speaking of the kingdom of God in metaphors, because there is no exact earthly or human equivalent for it.  It is, remember, as Paul said, “a new creation,”   so there is no precedent for it, and people can’t look to the past or to their own experience – they have to look forward in hope and trust.  It is like a seed, in that a seed takes time – involves a process – and demands patience trust, and faith on the part of those who plant it and wait for it.  It does not yield instant success, which was a very relevant message for the early Church and the first Christians, struggling in a minority situation – suspect, different, undesirable — and for us as well (as Bishop Lai of Taiwan pointed out to us at our recent Synod).


The Kingdom of God, as Jesus characterizes it, is not necessarily an obvious or instant success story. Jesus likens it to a very small thing which only gradually is recognized as something valuable, something which could easily get lost amidst all the ordinary and conventional “seeds” which get planted in our life, something that some might consider a “weed among the wheat.”  In our time, the small seed, the still small voice, all too easily get lost in the bombardment of noise, images, information and ideas which come pouring out of the TV, the computer, the telephone and the iPod.


“The kingdom of God is like …” or “The kingdom of heaven is like …” occurs many times (about 100) in the New Testament.  In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus is quoted as saying, “The Kingdom of God is within you,”  suggesting that it was immanent and accessible but not necessarily obvious.  Like the arrival of the Messiah, the Kingdom of God is portrayed as subtle, inconspicuous, unobtrusive – an apparently small thing that can grow into something significant. 


Having lived part of my life in Saskatchewan, every winter required a major act of faith to believe that anything was ever going to grow out of that frozen ground.  As a metaphor of the spiritual life, a seed suggests a mysterious process, reveals to us that aspects of the process are obscure and require trust and patience.  There are aspects of it we don’t see – as with the literal seed, much happens below the surface.  Our own growth in the Spirit is a mysterious process, and like the seed we can only be open to the warmth of the sun and the environment in which we are planted, and persist in allowing what is hidden deep within us to surface and emerge into the light.   


As we reflect on what the sacred writings might be speaking to us today, perhaps some questions start to arise: Where is the Kingdom of God in my life?  Where is that little seed hidden amidst all the conventional and predictable stuff, which is really the most fruitful and essential part of me?


“Appearances can be deceiving” – am I devoting time, energy, and attention to things which are really not important? How can we discern and nurture and prioritize the life of the kingdom and not get distracted and disintegrated by too many minor issues?


A seed grows toward becoming something – it has a destiny.  Are we focused on the future, with a sense of hope and destiny or are we locked in the past, unable or unwilling to engage the moment, and the process of becoming?  As a clergy friend of mine said: “We are ideally positioned if 1953 ever rolls around again.”


One church leader has called parishes “outposts of the kingdom.”  Where is the Kingdom in this parish? – Is there a hidden and still obscure dimension waiting to be recognized?  Is our sense of purpose big enough, is our faith being tested and engaged to embrace a larger vision and potential.


One year in Calgary, frustrated by repeated spring frost and snow which kept destroying my bedding plants, in protest I planted a bunch of fake flowers in the flower bed.  Sometimes growth seems slow – in our time, we like things to be instant and easy.  If we are frustrated with where we are, are there processes of nurture and encouragement which might get the seed of faith, the seed of the kingdom, growing? 


Asking the questions is the easy part – doing the work of the kingdom is the part that requires faith hope and love on YOUR part and I wish you well in your ministry and mission in your faith community.