June 17, 2018
4th Sunday after Pentecost / Ordinary Time 11 / Proper 6
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17
Lectionaries: Episcopal, Revised Common, Roman Catholic
Interim Pastor, Mt. Hermon Lutheran Church, West Columbia, SC
Every generation has its Ground Zero. Perhaps now, it is every half generation. The term “Ground Zero” is a malevolent by-product of our newfound ability to kill the world. It refers, scientifically, to the point directly above, below, or at which a nuclear explosion occurs. Less scientifically, and less deadly, it can also mean the center or origin of rapid or violent activity or change. The Twin Towers were Ground Zero of the September 11th attacks. The Holocaust had its Ground Zero, physically, spiritually and theologically. So did the Babylonian Exile that was the historical context for Ezekiel’s preaching. So was the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., a gamechanger for both Judaism and the first Christians.
Locally and recently for those of us in South Carolina, the massacres in Orangeburg and Charleston have been more Ground Zero moments. Every generation has its landscape-changing Ground Zero events. We all have wounds that will not heal, that bleed afresh when too roughly touched.
Into this human condition, scripture speaks. The following three scripture texts were not chosen specifically for this Racial Justice Sunday when we are remembering injustice and working for justice. These are the scriptures assigned for this Sunday in June by the Revised Common Lectionary used as a worship resource by many denominations and congregations. Instead of a context in search of a scripture text, we let the text speak its word to our context. The Spirit speaks to us the word we need to hear at the moment we give ourselves to listen to its voice. The words of scripture don’t change, but they do interpret the time and place where they are heard. Now we allow these scriptures to interpret our Ground Zeros, our concerns about race, justice, and injustice; and to renew our hearts within us.
22Thus says the Lord God:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
23On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
24All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the Lord have spoken;
I will accomplish it.
Ezekiel lived in Babylon in the 6th C BCE and was an active prophet before and after the Ground Zero of the beloved Temple’s destruction in 596. The first twenty-four chapters of his collection of sermons speak of judgment against Israel and Jerusalem. His preaching during this time focused on the holy opinion that their military defeat was the result of divine judgment.
Chapter 17 is a sustained political allegory. The cedar tree represents the Davidic monarchy that appears to have been felled and crushed under the rubble of Jerusalem. But God is not crushed under the rubble. God promises re-growth and new life.
In this allegory is not knowledge, but mystery. Here is not predictability, but unpredictability. We are asked and invited to commit to a hope beyond our already dashed hopes. The prophetic words of Ezekiel are preached to beaten down and beaten up exiles. How often do we feel like exiles from justice, equality, and reconciliation? Exile is not always geographical, but is nearly always spiritual.
Hope is preached to the long-ago exiles declaring God will do something they cannot see in the present nor imagine in the future. Confidence that this is sure, even when all evidence is to the contrary, is the very definition of faith.
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17
6So we are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord—7for we walk by faith, not by sight. 8Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. 9So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. 10For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.
[11Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. 12We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. 13For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. ]14For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. 15And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.
16From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. 17So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
We know we are overhearing conversation between the apostle Paul and the congregation in Corinth, Greece. They had their theological and practical issues to work out. But this is also our conversation with scripture. And here we find so many cross-stitchable phrases to encourage us on. Lift them out and let them lift you up!
Paul has encouraged the Christian community for nearly 2,000 years now to walk by faith and not by sight. We need to hear that because we’ve seen a lot of things and we can’t un-see them. We need to put on the eyeglasses of faith not to obscure the injustices, the bodies, or the hate; but to see the crucified Christ standing at every Ground Zero with justice in one nail-scarred hand and healing in the other.
He writes so boldly that if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation (v. 17) But the “new creation” can be hard to discern when it seems as if nothing really changes under the sun. We shout, “never again” and then there’s another school shooting, another lynching of someone’s soul. Humanity is never really changed by knowing its history or by knowing the facts. The lessons of the past nor the data on the ground are capable of saving us or transforming us. It sure seems that they would create in us new hearts, but alas, they do not. Surely, we don’t need one more Ground Zero to prove it to us.
For Paul, the new creation community, one transformed by Christ, means we are reshaped from self-centeredness to mutual concern, means that we aren’t just familiar with our history and experiences, but also the history and experiences of others. A transformed life means we stay strong in our hope even when all the evidence tempts us to despair. This is a life that cannot be lived in isolation anymore than a finger of the body can decide to go it alone. But because we are always tempted toward isolation, suspicion, and tribalism of all sorts; this new creation is not birthed without a prolonged labor all through the night.
26[Jesus] said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it 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.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
A first read of these parables about seeds assumes we are being encouraged with the obvious, yet remarkable, truth that tiny things have wondrous power. Indeed, they do. Small ideas or events can cause an avalanche of change. Our global and personal histories are full of such phenomena. The growth of an acorn into a mighty oak tree is a mystery that still surprises us. Often, we interpret the parable of the mustard seed as if it were a parable of the acorn.
But it is not.
Mustard seeds don’t grow into massive trees. They actually grow into scraggly annual plants. So, the image of the mustard seed is used ironically, just as the cross is ironically a tree of life. The tree of life is an image used by the ancient Near East as a symbol of power of the monarch. The mighty cedar tree from Ezekiel echoes this. The variety of birds coming to nest in its branches is also ironic in that such a scraggly bush could attract all the birds of the air. And yet, this is our claim of the cross. This cruciform tree of life spreads its arms wide to embrace the whole world. The Ground Zero of Golgotha becomes the Ground Zero of Grace.