“Here”

Dear friends, how good it is to be here. Wherever you are is called Here / And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,/ Must ask permission to know it and be known. After fifteen months of exile, here we are again, gathered in this sacred space. Here, the air vibrates with music and prayer. And glass is alive with color, detail, and story. Here is the Word of God and the people of God. Here we are friends in Christ, held in bonds of love as strong as death. Here we laugh, cry, and remember. Deep currents of grace and growth live here. And yet, this is not really the same here we left behind all those months ago, is it? Here is, indeed, a powerful stranger. We come here scarred and tired, grateful, and strong, different in ways we don’t yet have words to express. For one thing, we have changed as worshippers. Our sacred space now encompasses Zoom and YouTube. We have redefined what it means to be here. We have a new way of understanding presence.

As we prepared for today—stringing cable, downloading apps to make phones into cameras, hooking up the sound system to the new software, printing paper bulletins again—my spirit was conflicted. Anticipation and excitement bubbled up in me. I couldn’t wait to be here, couldn’t wait to be with all of you in this new way. And at the same time, I found myself dreading today a little bit, too. There was so much to do to be prepared. And yet truth be told, I didn’t really even know how to prepare. It has felt a bit like diving off a cliff. At the same time, I realize that in-person worship leadership uses muscles in me that are out of shape. It’s a kind of energy I’ve grown unused to expending. So, I feel like I’m coming alive again. It’s wonderful, and it’s uncomfortable. It’s absolutely necessary, and it’s confusing, frightening, and overwhelming.

Today’s parables from the Gospel of Mark are about this very subject—coming alive. Both parables feature seeds. Specifically, they ponder how seeds grow into their full potential. The first parable emphasizes the fact that the seed knows what to do. Nurtured by earth, sun, and rain, it grows automatically, according to its own internal program. After scattering the seed, the sower does nothing except sleep and rise, sleep and rise. Well, in this weather, the sower would have to water those seeds. But not in the parable. The sower just watches the show. And harvests the grain when it is ready. The other, better known, parable of the sower found in Mark (which we didn’t read today) offers an interesting compliment and contrast to this one. In that parable, most of the seeds fail to thrive. They run into rocky soil, trampling feet, scorching sun, and choking thorns.

The mustard seed parable adds another layer. I don’t think Jesus offered this parable with a straight face. There are many aspects of the scene that might have caused his hearers to raise their eyebrows or roll their eyes. First of all, mustard can behave like an invasive weed rather than a cherished crop. Mustard tends to thrive in marginal locations. As one online source put its it: “Habitats include weedy meadows, thickets, areas along railroads and roadsides, fallow fields, vacant lots, and miscellaneous waste places.”[1] And yet, people do cultivate mustard sometimes. It’s a very useful plant. The leaves and stems can be eaten, the seeds ground for spice and used as a medicine in an impressive variety of ways. Still, to call mustard “the greatest of all shrubs” is a strange exaggeration. It grows to be about 6-8 feet high at its tallest. The idea that birds would find shade and make nests in this skinny shrub seems like a bit of a stretch.

I think Jesus is being a bit funny, a bit absurd, in order to help his audience free up their heart, minds and spirits. God’s new reality, he suggests, is constantly subverting our ideas about what it ought to be. It is “the greatest” and greatness is redefined. It centers what is marginal. It yields a medicinal crop that is flavorful, colorful, and healing, instead of a cash crop that reinforces the economy of accumulation and scarcity. It offers shelter, shade, and nurture—and does so in unexpected and unconventional ways.

As usual, with Jesus, in these seed parables, taken as a whole, we encounter the wisdom and challenge of both/and thinking. God’s new reality grows on its own, without our help, with a comforting yet mysterious inevitability. And, at the same time, there are many obstacles to our participation in the process of this unfolding. Thomas Keating, in his book on centering prayer says: “Transformation is completely God’s work. We can’t do anything to make it happen. We can only prevent it from happening.”[2]

We come alive, as Paul would say, when we walk according to the Spirit rather than the flesh. The flesh is the anxious, small, isolated self the part of us that needs to know, needs to control, and needs to feel secure at all times. The flesh is mired in sin, stuck in resistance to God’s presence and work. The flesh prevents the sprouting of seeds and the blossoming of transformations. We look to Jesus, who shares our fragile human flesh and at the same time, embodies the spirit’s liberation. Instead of achievement and striving, Jesus models receptivity, release, and surrender. Jesus shows us how to get our egos out the way, how to trust in the deeper part of ourselves that is complete and connected. It’s a bit like this: “The forest breathes. Listen. It answers, / I have made this place around you.”

I’m establishing gardens in our new yard. Right now, I’m preparing a bed for the raspberries that are waiting (as patiently as they can) in buckets. The soil is intensely compacted beneath the sod. I’m working slowly and methodically, removing the top layer of soil temporarily, then loosening the soil below that. The deeper layer is a bit like concrete in places, and I have to scrape it away with the shovel in small slices. I’ve seen almost no worms or insects. This soil appears sterile, even dead. It’s such a contrast to the soil in my garden at the old place, which was packed with organic matter, and teeming with creepy crawly creatures.

As I work with this distressed soil, alarm bells are going off in my body and spirit. In my own self, I can feel our human alienation from the land that is our life. My yard is a microcosm of a global crisis. We are reaping the natural results of walking in the flesh, of normalizing the small self’s impulse to exploit and control. Again, the poet says it best: “If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, / You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows / Where you are. You must let it find you.”

It is good to be here. “Here” is a season of struggle and reckoning, an era of pandemics and political chaos. “Here” is a powerful stranger, an era of ambiguity and disorientation. And “here” is sacred ground. “Here” we are growing. “Here” God’s new reality is emerging with color, humor, and flavor. Here God is offering us counterintuitive greatness. Here God is providing shade, shelter, and solace. Here we are, indeed, coming alive. Amen.

[1] https://www.illinoiswildflowers.info/weeds/plants/black_mustard.htm

[2] (Open Mind, Open Heart, p. 66)