Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Kingdom Comes in Parables

Memorial Church
Harvard University
July 5th,  2015

Good morning. If you are visiting Memorial Church let me welcome you. This place of worship and teaching at the heart of a great university is unique and important in American life and in the life of this city. This week-end it is a good place to be and it is important to reflect together and to share prayers.

Jan and I always enjoy our times here and this week-end is the anniversary of our move to Boston from New Haven a very long time ago. We came for a year thinking that we would then be drawn west and we are still here.
Beware of decisions made off handedly as they can sometimes be the most important decisions you make.

Let us pray: Lord, may the words from my mouth edify and may the intentions of my heart be appropriate for this hour.

Our texts for the morning are at one level quite appropriate for the heart of a university for they remind those of us who are parents to beware of what we pray for. The hand we are dealt when we bring children into the world, when we bring children into our lives in any fashion, often plays out in ways that confound and surprise us. 

David is 30 when he is called to rule the united kingdoms of Israel and Judah; it is some years after he had been called by Samuel to rule a portion of the divided kingdom. You want your sons and daughters to succeed, but no one in his family thought this was what would happen. They are astonished even as they are  honored, but given the course of the next 40 years we know that at least someone thought or said: wait a minute, are you sure you want to be this successful?

Mark is the gospel we are reading for a period on Sundays during this summer if we follow the common Lectionary. Tradition has it that John Mark wrote the book while in Rome and that it was drawn from the preaching of Peter. There are few actual words spoken by Jesus. His teaching depends on parables which by definition call on us to seek out understanding. These are stories that make a point and may be carried in memory to be called upon when needed or when insight offers new conclusions that bring new insight.  We are told that those closest to Jesus understood although their actions later tend to make us wonder if that is true. Others are left to ponder. We with the benefit of history can think through these tales as we do this morning.

As Jesus moves through Galilee he draws close to his home and we get a sense that all is not right with his family. His mother and brother come to watch him worried that all is not right. They are concerned about him.  They are afraid he has lost his mind. It is one thing to wish for a child to be a Torah scholar, but where did he get these notions?

Think for a moment of your dreams for your children, of your dreams for yourself. We have so many.  The poet Freyla Manfred sums up the end of so many of our dreams;
Imagine This
Imagine this: only one leg and lucky to have it,,,,
Smoothing down the sidewalk on a magic moving chair,
Teaching every child you meet the true story
Of this sad, sweet, tragic, Fourth of July world.”

And what is the true story? Sounds a bit like the musings of a Marathon bombing survivor.  The true story is that things often do not go as hoped in this “sweet, sad, tragic, 4th of July world”.  His family had hopes for Jesus; he might become a great teacher. More simply they wanted him to do well, have a family, live near home and here he is coming into town on a river of rumors, stirring the gossip in the neighborhood with stories of what he has done.
Jesus preaching in his own religious community left his audience gasping: not at his wisdom but at his arrogance.
When told his mother and brothers are there he redefines family: “who are my mother and my brothers? And looking around on those near him, he said, “Here are my mothers and my brothers!”  How often have we heard these stories as children become adults and redefine their lives in “this sad, sweet, tragic, 4th of July world.”?

 “Where did you get these notions, they asked?” the question is appropriate and in keeping with the tenor of the gospel of Mark.  Held to be the earliest of the gospels, Mark is also a minimalist text.  The book tends to offer few details, The other gospels expand and fill in gaps in information but in Mark the story unfolds in short, terse paragraphs leaving us to go elsewhere for details. We do well to remember than the church in Mark’s day had no place else to go. It is only later that we enjoy multiple witnesses.

And now he is in town teaching at the local synagogue. He has come with tales of healing and parables about seeds sown and an uncertain harvest. He speaks of the smallest seed growing into the largest tree. People wonder who speaks for him. Sometimes those whom he has aided have been told to tell no one: “remain silent, tell no one.”  Sometimes the word is tell every one.  He even healed a woman who was not Jewish and left a leader of the synagogue waiting while he did so. Now he gave life to Jairus’ daughter, but the symbolism spoke volumes. The “A” list had been turned upside down. The other, the stranger was as important as the conventionally religious.

His loudest fan was a man who was said to have been insane. He had gone around the neighborhood telling people Jesus had made him whole. He was about as welcome as Donald Trump would be at a celebration of Cinco de Mayo. What is a mother to do in this “sad, sweet, tragic 4th of July world.”?

Comparing the world of Jesus’ day to our 4th of July world may be a bit misleading. The 4th of July exudes triumphalism; there was little of that in Nazareth. We know how the story ends, but forget how it began: in defeat. Mark leaves out the details, but the prospects are not good. Jesus is said to have been nearly powerless in his home regions; only a few told stories of being healed.

When he sends out the 12 on a mission they go not as conquerors, but rather as those who may be ignored. If so, they are told not to act with power but rather to move on to where they are welcome. Go on, do your work. What he is specific about is that they are not to seek out the plush places, the comfortable B and Bs but to stay among the people and do their work.
This 4th of July we are grappling with enormous dislocation. The stock-markets hang on the results of the Greek vote.  We live in fear of the other named  Isis. And we talk of Jesus who came home and was rejected. It is one thing to be rejected by strangers, but these were people who knew him. And yet he continued to teach and heal in a sad, sweet, tragic, 4th of July world.

Maybe things would be clearer if he had spoken more pointedly rather than  using parables, but people were challenged by them: looking but not seeing, listening but not understanding and when they did see; when did understand they turned the world upside down.

And if Jesus came to Cambridge and taught in parables what might he say to us:

There was a Bible study in a large city.
The great and the small were gathered to share
And a stranger came in and sat with them and challenged them.
When he could not bear their words, he took
Out his gun and killed them.
The nation was shaken and uncertain, but the people of the city were steadfast.
There were those still in pain who forgave the stranger.
And some took down their flags, the long standing symbols of oppression.
And some said, it was such a small gesture in response to such a great tragedy. Why did it take so long?
That is the way it is with the kingdom of heaven!

And the Supreme Court said that those who love may have the protection of law.
And some said God was displeased
having forgotten that the Teacher when asked had said that doing justice was required of those who loved God and the greatest commandment was to love the neighbor as we love ourselves.

There was a young man who committed a horrific act.
He was part of our community though his origins were distant; he went to school in Cambridge.
When brought to trial he remained silent and showed no emotion as he heard the account of his crimes.
And he learned of the pain he had wrought.
When he spoke he offered an apology-
He is young and unschooled.
His words were imprecise; his manner rough.
And those who wished to hear him found the words
Unsatisfactory and he remains a stranger to those who lived near him. He will die for his crime.
The forgiveness of Charleston does not reach to Cambridge.

That is the way it is with the kingdom of heaven!
Let those with eyes see and those with ears hear.

The word of the Lord in our sad, sweet, tragic 4th of July world.

Robert M. Randolph
Chaplain to the Institute