3rd after Pentecost, June 14 2015
1 Samuel 15.34-16.13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5.6-17; Mark 4.26-34
John McCulloch, Church of Scotland
You may be pleased to know that I am not usually in the habit of quoting Napoleon… especially from the pulpit….
However, when he was exiled after he had lost the battle of Waterloo, one of his entries in his memoirs is highly pertinent to the gospel reading we have just heard from Mark chapter 4.
Reflecting on the demise of his military campaign he wrote: “My kingdom has fallen because I had built it with power, but the kingdom of Jesus Christ will last forever because it was built on love”. …..
In the gospel reading today, Jesus communicates what the kingdom of God looks like, and he does so through the use of parables.
The metaphors Jesus uses to describe the kingdom of God would have radically challenged and subverted the ideas about how the kingdom of God would be established.
You will note how Jesus in Mark 4.26 describes the kingdom of God as seed that is scattered, pushing through the darkness of earth and rock to provide nourishment and shelter once the grain has ripened.
And in verse 30, we are presented with the well-known parable of the mustard seed, which although is the smallest of all seeds, “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”, as it reads in verse 32.
What is so striking about the analogy of the kingdom as seeds that are planted is that it contrasts so radically with the ideas of power around at the time. The Jews were under Roman occupation, by the greatest military super-power that existed in the ancient world. Many of the children of Israel were expecting a mighty messiah-king who would liberate them through military victory.
But the parables of Jesus point to a Kingdom that will become established through non-violence. It is a kingdom that will grow peacefully and become a source of nourishment and blessing for the whole of the created order, providing shade from the heat, nesting places for the birds, and food for the hungry.
What is interesting that the Old Testament reading from 1 Samuel today is that it all about kings and kingdoms.
The context that immediately precedes it tells us how Samuel rebuked Saul and rejected him as king, because he did not completely destroy the whole of the Amalekites, but took their spoil and spared their king, Agag. Samuel – a little rusty perhaps with social graces – doesn’t hang about, but hews Agag in pieces before the Lord.
Our reading follows on from this, and tells us how Samuel travels to Ramah. There God instructs him to go to the house of Jesse the Bethlehemite in search of a new king to anoint.
Ramah was believed to be on a hill not far from Jerusalem, and the meaning of the word means a “high” or a “lofty” place. It is significant that Samuel seeks him from a high place.
Notice how the parables of the kingdom subvert this completely. The seed starts down in the depths of the earth, and grows, pushing through the darkness to break into the light. It is organic, non-violent, and dependent on God.
In our Old Testament reading, Jesse presents Samuel with his seven sons, one by one. Each is rejected in turn. David the shepherd boy, who had been left behind to tend the sheep, is anointed king of Israel.
Both readings cause us to question the relationship between power and authority.
I remember a sermon by the American evangelical Tony Campolo in which he spoke about the difference between power and authority.
To illustrate his point, Campolo used the example of an armed policeman who signals to a driver to stop because he has been speeding. The driver obeys, because he knows the officer carries a gun. He has power, and that power can coerce.
Campolo then contrasted this with a story about Mother Teresa, who in 1984 travelled to a convent in Norristown, Pennsylvania, where her nuns needed planning permission to build a shelter for the homeless and a soup kitchen to help the most vulnerable. They came up against all sorts of red tape and obstacles by the local authorities, and there were powerful representations from wealthy business leaders who were concerned that the centre would attract the wrong kind of people. The project was turned down. And then mother Teresa arrived in town. In front of the cameras, she begged and pleaded with the authorities to change course. And they did. The project went ahead.
Mother Teresa did not have money, or power. She hardly spoke English. She didn’t even have an America passport! The governing authorities had money, power and position. But she had something far greater than they: she had authority.
Do you see the difference? Power has its way through coercion and a show of superior strength, but real authority comes from a life lived out in the service of others.
Love is always measured by how much power it gives up. This is true of all marriages and relationships, as many of you know. I can almost guarantee that the person in a relationship who has most power is almost certainly the one who is exercising the least love.
The philosopher and psychologist Karl Jung wrote that, “Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other”.
The sociologist Willard Waller said: “The more you love, the more power you give up. Love makes you vulnerable.”
God exemplifies this by coming to us and incarnating into our world of human suffering and pain. He enters our world of unanswered questions, doubts and fears; and reaches out to us in healing love.
Henri Nouwen knew this better than most. As he moved from a place of academic power surrounded by the brightest students in the Ivy League universities of the United States to live alongside the profoundly disabled and the broken, he experienced the love of Christ in a new way. His love increased as he gave up power and opened himself up to vulnerability, thus following in the footsteps of Christ. The love he felt well up within him showed itself in compassion.
In his book Compassion he writes:
“The compassion Jesus offers challenges us to give up our fearful clinging and to enter with him into the fearless life of God himself […] Through union with him, we are lifted out from our competitiveness with each other into the divine wholeness. By sharing in the wholeness of the one in whom no competition exists, we can enter into new, compassionate relationships with each other. By accepting our identities from the one who is the giver of life, we can be with each other without distance or fear. This new identity free from greed and desire for power, allows us to enter so fully and unconditionally into the sufferings of others that it becomes possible for us to heal the sick and call the dead to life”.
In our gospel reading Jesus is showing us that the kingdom of God is being established through love.
It is a kingdom different to the kingdom of this world. Psalm 20 prophetically states that we are to take pride in the name of The Lord rather than in military might: “Some take pride in chariots, and some in horses, but our pride is in the name of the Lord.” And, as our epistle reminds us, it is by his spirit that we are enabled to walk by faith and not by sight.
Just as we can hardly see the mustard seed, we often look out on our world of conflict and cannot see the kingdom of God at hand. But God calls us to see our world through the eyes of faith. He calls us to be a part of his kingdom that is making all things new.
Can we believe that the kingdom of God is at work in our world and that we are called to be a part of it?
“If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation, everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new.”