Third Sunday after Pentecost
June 17th 2012
Ezekiel 17: 22-24
Psalm 92: 1-4, 11-14
2 Corinthians 5:6-17
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Christ speaks through stories, miracles and signs. He guides us through images and pictures and the occasional sermon. He says little about the Kingdom of God directly; we get to piece it together through his images and through his commandments. Jesus' first disciples were lucky since he pulled them aside afterward and explained what he said. We, on the other hand, rely on the witness of the first disciples. We rely on reading Scripture, on coming together week by week to break bread, and on the prayers. We have to look to Scripture and tradition to help us make sense of the Kingdom of God.
Frequently all the talk about the Kingdom of God is confusing. Jesus didn't make it easy to comprehend. Jesus didn't just write out a booklet on “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Disciples” or a commentary on Scripture. He didn't write out a political platform about the Kingdom or pen a memoir. Instead, Jesus met with people and he loved them. He taught them and sent them out to the world. He gave them rich images and stories to draw people into the Kingdom of God.
How many parables start out “The Kingdom of God is like...”? Jesus doesn't say outright what the Kingdom is. He compares it to stuff we can know or imagine because it draws us into the image. We have to set the scene -- we have to see the mustard seed or see a farmer scattering seed which will grow. We have to dream up that old woman searching for a lost coin or the father welcoming back a son. By involving our imaginations, we start to see little details. These little details flesh out the parables and give them life. Sometimes we see a detail in our imagination that we hadn't noticed before and we breathe in and say, “Ah ha!” In fact, imagination is so important that St Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order, included it as part of his Spiritual Exercises. Our imagination can be a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to make the parable or story more real for us. We start to see ourselves in the story -- and we start to understand what Jesus is telling us.
These images, parables and comparisons do have limits, however. The mustard seed may grow up into the greatest of all shrubs, but should we then compare the mustard seed to the sequoia which is much, much bigger? No. By comparing the mustard shrub to a sequoia we'll probably miss the fact that the Kingdom of God grows from humble beginnings. The stories draw us in, but we should be careful not to get lost or miss the bigger picture.
Similarly, we can't push the image and language of God as Father too much or we risk talking about God as literally a father -- and that literal view paints a picture of God as a bearded old man sitting on a glorious throne. It suggests God is like the stereotypical picture of a 1950's family: children romping in the yard, the wife in the kitchen making a pot roast, and God walks in from a long day in the office as a patent attorney. Yeah, that image doesn't really make the Gospel much clearer. Let's look at the “God the Father” language more closely.
In what way is God our father, then? God is our father because God loves us dearly and because God calls us to be a holy people, a nation of sons and daughters sanctified in the Spirit. Jesus tells us to call God our Father because it shows how important we are to God. Calling God 'father' is our way of showing how important God is to us.
The richness of these parables and images is rooted in our experience. For example, a good father shows us glimpses of God's own love and guidance. A good father will pull us aside and explain to us what we've done wrong and encourage us to be better because we're capable of it. That experience helps us make sense of how God is our Father. God wants us to live up to our fullest potential and to use all our gifts.
On the other hand, if someone is a bad father, then we see how God's love for us and our relationship with God are so crucial. Our most important relationship is not with a person who mistreats us but with God. Of course, dads and other human beings are mixed: not just good and not just bad, so we have glimpses of both God's fatherly goodness and our need to cultivate a good relationship with God our Father.
Relationships are not frozen in time. They grow and change and sometimes wither. Our relationships with our fathers -- and with our mothers and siblings and friends and children -- change over time. The dad we saw as children changes as we ourselves change.
Imagine your father or a very close friend, spouse or child. How has that relationship changed over time? What are the habits and traits that you love, and are those the same things that made you like this person in the beginning? How do you spend time together now, and do you do the same things now that you used to do? Is it necessarily wrong that things have changed? Of course not.
Let's imagine a positive father and child relationship. It's a happy start. The daughter is born and crawls and walks, always eager to see her daddy's face. She hears the back door opening and flies in its direction, wondering if daddy brought home a present. As a little kid, the daughter looks up to dad. Dad knows everything – from why the sun goes up and down to why the grass grows. It doesn't matter if dad is right in his facts because it all makes sense. Dad keeps the monsters at bay and he somehow manages to make burned hamburgers from the grill taste great. Dad keeps her safe, fed, happy. Dad makes everything right.
As a teenager, the daughter now sees her dad differently. His explanations no longer work. The sun does not rise and set because it's racing against the moon. His explanation was just silly and now it embarrasses her to think she ever believed him. Now she's being asked to take on more and more responsibilities in school and at home. Dad doesn't just provide everything like a servant. She's struggling to decide who she is, and dad's advice is unappreciated. Doesn't he understand how hard it is to be alive in this world today? She doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up but she sure doesn't need dad telling her what to do. She questions, she tests her boundaries. She looks at her dad and sees a very different man than the one she saw as a kid.
As an adult, she now starts to see what dad was talking about. Apparently he knew something after all! She starts to sympathize with the guy; she now has a child of her own and she dreads those teenage years. She's also juggling so many responsibilities now. She has work, church, family. She wants to do it all but can't. The energy and time and money just aren't there. She has to make a special effort to pick up the phone and talk to her dad, much less muster up the effort she needs to go visit him.
At this point, can we see how our relationship with God can be like these stages? Sometimes we just trust in God and everything seems right. Sometimes we question what we were taught and have to struggle through doubt and fear. Sometimes it takes a whole lot of effort just to remember God's there. None of these stages are right or wrong, and none is better to another. They just are. Our relationship with God changes over time. Sometimes it's easier to trust. Sometimes that trust feels childish. Sometimes we question, and sometimes we understand.
It's most important that we have a relationship with God and that we nourish it. We spend time with God and let the relationship grow and change. There's no way we can dictate what kind of relationship we'll have with anyone; it is formed by the time we spend with that person.
How, then, do we maintain and develop a relationship with God? How do we spend time with him? Franciscan priest Dan Horan talks about different ways we keep in contact with God. He describes volunteer work, worship in the church community, Scripture reflection, theological study, and personal prayer as different ways of spending time with God and getting to know him better. You set aside time for God and God's people and God's work, and through that you start to see God in different ways. The relationship changes as you change, and it changes as you learn more about God and listen.
What does Scripture say? What does the Prayer Book teach you? What do you see when volunteering at the soup kitchen? When praying by yourself, what do you feel the Spirit doing? How did it feel when we were listening to the readings earlier today? You were spending time with God by listening to St Paul and Ezekiel and hearing about their relationship with God the Father. The Holy Spirit is working through them to tell us more and more about God. Sometimes it feels like listening to one of dad's stories over and over again, but sometimes you hear something you hadn't heard before.
God wants to spend time with us. Let's make that happen. Pick up the phone ... or, better yet, why not invite God to dinner tonight? Like dear old dad, God doesn't want anything fancy for Father's Day. He just wants to be with you.
Happy Father's Day!