Saturday, June 6, 2009

Proper 6 Year B

Proper 6 Year
(Revised Common Lectionary)

I Samuel 15: 34-16:13; Psalm 20
OR Ezekiel 17: 22-24; Psalm 92: 1-4,11-14
II Corinthians 5:6-10,{11-13], 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

David is intorduced into Israel's grand narrative of her relationship with the God of Abraham and Moses. The Lord's strong emotional commitment to Israel is on full display. The Lord regrets making Saul King of Israel and directs Samuel to go behind Saul's back to anoint a new king. The Lord lays out a plan. Go to Bethlehem, take a heifer for sacrifice, find a man named Jesse and tell him you want him and his sons to join you in sacrifice. Samuel follows these instructions and meets all of Jesse's sons. Each one is considered and rejected until there is only the youngest left who has to be summoned form the fields where is is shepherding his father's sheep. Still unnamed, the "handsome" last brother is brought to the prophet. "Rise and anoint him; for he is the one," the Lord tells Samuel. Only at this point in the story is his name revealed-- David.

The psalmist prays for the safety of the Lord's anointed.


As a member of an aristocratic family, Ezekiel is among the first forced to abandon Jerusalem and marched to their captor's city, Babylon. For most of the book that bears his name, Ezekiel blames his fellow Judean Israelites and then their enemies for their humiliating fate. But then he hints at a better future. "...The Lord God, I myself," the prophet says, will break off a tender twig and plant it on "the highest mountain of Israel." There it will grow strong, flourish and "produce boughs and bear fruit and become a noble cedar." All the other trees (Israel's neighbors) will see what has happened and "know that I am the Lord." When the Lord is finished, trees that are short now will be made tall and tall trees made short.

The psalmist recalls the Lord's kindness, steadfastness and acts of the Lord's hands as reasons to sing the Lord's praises. He then cites the two tallest trees with the deepest roots that produce the most significant abundance in his environ-- the palm and the cedar-- to characterize the "righteous" person.

Paul seems to allude to a pressing reality for himself and then erupt in one of his ecstatic declarations about his/our new status in Christ. He seems to be addressing questions in the Corinthian community about his reputation or integrity. He expresses full confidence that he is ready to stand "before the judgment seat of Christ," as must we all. He rebuts any murmurings about his stability by wrtitng to them, "For if we are besides ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you." "...If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation."

Mark's narrative of the public life of Jesus has begun with his baptism, the call of his disciples and the first accusations against him by the general public: "he is beside himself." Then Mark launches a long section of parables by explaining that Jesus spoke "the word" to the public in parables only, "but explained everything in private to his disciples." The parable Jesus tells at first seems quite straightforward. He compares the "Kingdom of God" to a tiny seed, so small it is not even noticed. Its embedding and generation are not even seen and seem to be haphazard and spontaneous. But its growth can be very substantial and productive. Given the dominance of farming in the lives of Jesus' hearers, he uses a common, ordinary, everyday experience, but re-presents it in such a way that he catches the imagination. Its meaning is clear, but never settled. (We can assume it stuck in the hearts and minds of those who first heard it because it got included in the written record.) This simple story never stops yielding a harvest, down to today.

[Because the Revised Common Lectionary offers two sets of readings from the Hebrew scriptures for the next ten Sundays, through proper 16, the preacher might want to consider a strategic decision this Sunday about which set to have read in the liturgy. The first set of readings in Year B follow the narrative of David from a young boy to his death and burial and the ascendancy of Solomon. The second set of readings are randomly chosen to complement the epistle and gospel.]

The Bible is a collection of narratives (even those long lists of "begats" and obtuse purity laws serve their respective narratives). They ought not to be systematized, synthesized or homogenized. "God is a name (without concept)," insists Jean-Luc Nancy (
Dis-Enclosure, p. 87) Each ought to be taken on its own terms and for its own purposes. Nor ought these stories be reduced to concepts or principles or plans. They are wild and cannot be tamed or dominated by us. Consider the reading from Samuel where David is introduced into Israel's grand narrative of relationship with God and the story told by Jesus within Mark's carefully crafted context.

We see a conniving God at work, recruiting an accomplice, Samuel, manipulating the piety of Benjamin's family and undermining the King God had chosen as the first king of Israel. This is shocking, unnerving, therefore, unforgettable. What kind of God is this? What is going on here? "God is not within the jurisdiction of a question," Jean-Luc Nancy insists (
Ibid). We live with no final answers if we enter into relationship with the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus. We can hazard some guesses, thereby joining all those faithful in "sacra conversazione" who over the centuries have been as equally unsettled by this same God. We could interpret this incident right at the beginning of the saga of David as the work of a God so in love with those who are in relationship with God that God might suspend the rules to accomplish a larger goal. (But that is a privilege only allowed by God to God and not permission for us to suspend the rules. Only God can see the larger picture and allow love to suspend the rules.) But that is only one interprettion and certainly not the last!

The story Jesus tells finally raises more questions than it answers. Jesus uses something taken for granted and causes us to see something entirely new. Someone throws some seed on the ground. After a few days it sprouts and grows and no one knows how. Taking that image even furthe, Jesus refers to a mustard seed, which is conventionally regraded as the smallest of all seeds. Playing with these routine things raised to a new level of meaningfulness by story-telling is how one can find the beginning of a path to the "kingdom of God." Which Jesus will continue to talk about and in the end quietly and submissively fulfill with his own life at the conclusion of Mark's narrative.

Writing about his friend, Tolkien's,
Lord of the Rings, C.S. Lewis made an observation about myth that could apply to all story-telling, "...The value of of the myth it that it takes all the things we know and restores to them rich significance which has been hidden by 'the veil of familiarity'." "As long as the story lingers in our mind, the real things are more themselves.." ( On Stories, p. 90)

Mark pointedly writes that "With many parables Jesus spoke the Word." Mark does
not write that Jesus used stories to illustrate "the Word." The stories were "the Word." They do not have layers to be peeled away to get to a hidden or esoteric or conceptual meaning. There is no work of analysis or dissection or categorizing or even allagorizing or moralizing to be done. This kind of story does not introduce us to ideas, but to a Name "(without concept)." It does not invite speculative dallying, but personal commitment to a relationship with a God who does not always put all the cards on the table or even play by the same rules we know, but who has demonstrated a radical commitment to our well-being. It engenders-- overnight, while we were asleep when the "seed" was out of sight and out of mind-- an irresistible curiosity, a willingness to start out on a relationship we will never fully understand but we can never fully forget either. "As long as the story lingers in our minds, the real things are more themselves." Writing about the "christian parable," Jean-Luc Nancy says, "the excess of its truth does not have the indeterminate character of a general lesson that, in some way out of proportion with each particular case, would suggest a regulatory principle." "...If you do not understand, do not look for the reason in an obscurity of the text but only within yourself, in the obscurity of your heart." "...There is a message there for those who want to and know how to be called." (Noli me tangere, pp 8-9)