Wisdom of our wounds - part three

NOTE: Here are this week's sermon notes and songs. This is actually part two in a series called: Learning the Unforced Rhythms of Grace. Last week, however, I shared two distinct versions of the first part of this message; I ended up using the second one - more tender - with music and poetry rather than the first more theologically/biblically didactic. At this stage in my ministry, I prefer the more gentle approach in most things. At any rate, this is the conclusion which we will share on Sunday, June 14th at 10:30 am. Texts for the day include: Ezekiel 17: 22-24, I Corinthians 1: 18-31 and Mark 4: 26-34. Join us if you can...

Every spiritual tradition – and I mean every spiritual tradition – has a set of time-tested practices and disciplines designed to help us listen to and experience the blessings of the Living God. You can call it prayer or yoga, meditation or contemplation…

• the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism
• the Five Pillars of Islam
• the daily prayers and annual cycle of feasting and fasting in Judaism
• or the deep spirituality of Christianity’s journey from ashes to fire during Lent, Easter and Pentecost…

… the result is the same: communion with the heart of the sacred and intimacy with God’s grace. “Come with me,” Jesus told us, “… and learn the unforced rhythms of grace.”

Last week I spoke with you of a faith commitment we have been invited to embrace: the upside down wisdom of God’s kingdom. It not only engages our imagination alongside our heart, mind, body and soul, it also gives us a lens through which we can discover part of what God’s love looks like in our lives, habits and activities. Today’s gospel puts it like this:

What shall we say the kingdom of God is like or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest seed you plant in the ground. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds of the air can perch in its shade.

Do you see how Jesus is subverting and upending the conventional wisdom of his era and our own? Let’s take a little time to lovingly play with these words and ideas because they are vital to discerning the wisdom of our wounds, ok?

Now there are two background insights required if we’re going to make this little parable our own – and the first has to do with the very words “the kingdom of God.” It sounds like a place, right? It really has to do with a relationship – not a destination – and certainly not that vague and lovely little word “heaven.” When Jesus talks about the kingdom of God, my friends, he is NOT speaking about where we go when we die. Rather, he is pointing to a way of living – a standard for living – in which God’s grace and presence is our deepest goal. Not money, not happiness, not health or love or the American dream: God’s grace. Is that clear? And be careful not to misunderstand for I am not saying there is anything wrong with money or happiness or even the American dream.

+ Although it should be noted that it would take 8 more planet earths to sustain the world population living like we do now – so maybe I should qualify that American dream stuff?

+ Still, you get my point, yes? The first insight about the kingdom of God has to do with embracing a way of living that puts God’s grace at the center of all we think, say and do.

And the second background insight is equally counter-cultural: more often than not when Jesus talks about the kingdom of God he does so with a real sense of humor. He is playful rather than pious – Zen-like instead of magisterial – more about the upside down jokes and riddles of God’s grace than the articulation of a systematic theology. In other words, Jesus asks us to look for – and even enter into – the kingdom like a child.

+ Do you know the story about the little girl who was sitting in church with her mother while the minister droned on and on and on about some abstract theological construct? After wiggling and fidgeting and doing all the drawing on the bulletin she could handle, she pulled on her mother’s skirt and whispered, “Momma, if we give him money now, will he let us go?

+ What about the little boy whose father gave him a $10 bill to put into the collection plate, but when the offering was taken he refused? On the way out of church, the child stopped to shake the pastor’s hand and when he did, he slipped him the money. “Um, why did you give me this ten dollar bill?” the ministered asked curiously. To which the child said clearly, “Because my daddy says you are truly the poorest preacher he’s ever met.”

That is the spirit of Christ’s teaching about the kingdom of God. It is almost as if he is saying to us: “O for God’s sake, quit being so serious!” That is what’s going on with our lessons this morning: Jesus is giving us a subversive, upside down, kingdom riddle that challenges the conventional wisdom about religion, God’s grace and where they meet in our ordinary lives. One of my favorite spiritual mentors, Thomas Keating, a Benedictine monk from Colorado, writes: For many in Jesus’ time there “was a tension between everyday reality… and the popular understanding of how God acted in the world.” (And I suspect this is true in every age with every faith tradition, yes?)

From the heyday of national power and prestige during the reigns of King David and King Solomon, Israel had been on a downhill slide for several centuries, its kingdom conquered and divided several times over. If one lives in occupied territories, as the Israelites of Jesus’ time did, the question naturally arises, “Is this ghastly oppression by the Romans a punishment from God, or is our suffering just a part of the human condition?” In particular…this tension was most clear in their first century understanding of the words: the kingdom of God… which had specific connotations of power, triumph, holiness and goodness… the cultural symbol for God’s kingdom was the great cedars of Lebanon. They were comparable to the huge redwood trees of California and grew straight up for two or three hundred feet or more so that every kind of bird could enjoy the shade of these great and majestic trees. The Kingdom of God Is Like… - Keating, p. 37

Do you see where this is going? Conventional wisdom and tradition had come to identify God’s kingdom with the cedars of Lebanon but what does Jesus call it? A mustard seed – and this, too, needs a little background work so that we can appreciate the joke. Because the key is not the size of the mustard seed, arguably the smallest seed of all, but what it does in your garden.

+ First, mustard is essentially a weed – a common and fast growing plant – that is considered unclean. It was not to be mixed in your garden with other vegetables because it would overwhelm and crowd out the other plants. There was no order to this crazy weed and “it was forbidden in your household garden.” (Keating, p. 38)

+ Second, when a mustard plant matures it is about as far as the cedars of Lebanon as the Atlantic Ocean is from the Pacific. It only grows to be about four feet high with a few gnarly branches that might provide shade for a few birds with a good imagination, but not much else.

And this is what the kingdom of God is like Jesus tells us: not a big and powerful force to be reckoned with at the end of time but… a bush – an ordinary shrub – a modest weed that is unclean right here and now. In a word, Jesus’ parable implies that if we accept the God of everyday life, we can find God in everyday life. We do not have to wait for an apocalyptic deliverance at the end of time – we do not have to wait for an inflated and grandiose liberation – because the kingdom is available right now.” (Keating, p. 39)

St. Paul understood this upside down and subversive quality to God’s kingdom because it up-ended his life and called him to change directions in the most radical way. Once he was going to Damascus to attack the early church only to find himself becoming its first truly international missionary.

+ Once he was deeply rooted in a traditional way of interpreting Torah but came to embrace a more playful and fluid take on God’s law.

+ Once he was all about keeping insiders holy and pure only to find himself teaching the world that in Christ there are NO insiders or outsiders – no male nor female, Jew nor Greek, gay nor straight, rich nor poor, male nor female: we are one in the Lord.

Listen to how Paul spoke of this upside down kingdom of God: The Message that points to Christ on the Cross seems like sheer silliness to those hell-bent on destruction, but for those on the way of salvation it makes perfect sense. This is the way God works and most powerfully as it turns out. It's written, I’ll turn conventional wisdom on its head, I’ll expose so-called experts as crackpots. So where can you find someone truly wise, truly educated, truly intelligent in this day and age? Hasn't God exposed it all as pretentious nonsense? Since the world in all its fancy wisdom never had a clue when it came to knowing God, God in his wisdom took delight in using what the world considered dumb—foolish actually—to bring those who trust him into the way of salvation. (I Corinthians I: 18-21)

This foolishness – this upside down wisdom – is very important. Listen to another way of saying this same thing from the musical genius of Leonard Cohen who tells us: there is a crack in everything… that’s how the light gets in.

Now here’s where the rubber meets the road when it comes to applying the wisdom of our wounds. We’ve already established that everybody hurts, yes? I don’t have to convince you that our lives are a combination of blessings and curses, joys and sorrows, light and shadow to say nothing of beauty and pain. And some people just never want to discover what the blessing of God might be in their wounds.

+ They are angry about life’s pain – and become resentful. They are frustrated by the limitations of their reality – and get stuck in self-pity. They see the blessings of others but fail to find the joy that God has brought to every life.

+ But that’s not God’s plan – that’s not how the kingdom mystery works – there is a wisdom to our wounds that can change and heal our lives if we’re willing to embrace it.

Let me be clear: if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got. The truth of the upside down kingdom of God as Jesus teaches, however, is that you can experience joy amidst the sorrow – hope alongside of the pain – God’s presence in even your hardest experiences. And this is how it works: we must playfully do the opposite of what our wounds tell us.

+ If we have been wounded in the heart and have nourished a fear of intimacy, our wound will often tell us to run away when things get complicated. But the wisdom of that wound whispers: stay put and face the music, right?

+ If our anger call us to want to fight everything out so that we are always the winner, the wisdom of the wound suggests that the wiser course would be to keep our mouth shut and sometimes walk away.

And if you find your need for love has takes you into all the wrong places with all the wrong people like a moth drawn to the flame, before getting burned up the wisdom of the wound invites you to step back rather than jump off the cliff of self-destruction and make some quiet and alone time.

Do you sense how this works? By going in the opposite direction of your wounded feelings, they become a sacred teacher rather than a source of agony or shame. In fact, using the insights of Jesus about the kingdom of God helps give our wounds a holy wisdom.

Most people want a cure for their pain: they want a pill – or a bottle – or a distraction – or a pay check – or a lover or some magician to take away the anguish of real life. What’s more, most of us have been trained – or brain-washed – into believing that if we just work hard enough – or think profoundly enough – we ought to be able to solve all our own problems.

+ That’s not what the kingdom of God is all about; and if you go looking for distractions or glitter or addictions or magic you will get only as good as you gave.

+ But if you want to live more fully into Christ’s joy – if you want to make the promises of Jesus real within your flesh – then learning the wisdom of the wound and the unforced rhythms of grace is essential.

It begins modestly – like a mustard seed – playfully – like a child – in the everyday – rather than the great cathedrals, intuitions or cedars of Lebanon. And the good news here is that means God’s grace is available to us all right now.

“To what shall I liken the kingdom of God?” Jesus asked. The kingdom is made real in our ordinary daily life and how we live it. Can you accept the Lord in the everyday? Can you see God’s extraordinary grace in the ordinary? If you can then you can enjoy the kingdom here and now, without having to wait for an apocalypse or someone to deliver you from your wounds: so let those who have ears to hear, hear. (portions taken from Keating, p. 41)

Sing with me...


Timothy Gent said…
Could you please refrain from showing my artwork Man on the road to Damascus or any future pictures from www.tgent.co.uk as whether you are aware or not, you are in breach of international copyright laws by reproducing my painting without prior consent.

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