11th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Ezekiel 17:22-24, 2 Cor 5:6-17, Mark 4:26-34
May the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all our hearts be now and always acceptable to you, O Lord, our Rock and Our Redeemer. Amen
A woman steps onto a stage, her Stradivarius violin tucked under her arm. She glances at the audience as she leads her three companions who carry viola, cello and another violin. The applause that greeted them dies away and the players take their seats in a semi-circle. The violinist lifts her bow. A thousand people are silent: everyone is waiting for the first note. The players have memorised the first lines and so they’re looking, not at the music, but at each other. They watch each other, expectant and still, and they wait for the sign that will break this moment of absolute silence – the palpable silent anticipation of sound. Suddenly music begins and the tension is released. The gut-strings are brought to life under the quickening touch of the violinist, and the players are so caught up in the ebb and flow of the music that their feet leave the floor as they rock in their chairs: they lean into one another when the harmony is close, and away when the bowing is full. For the time that they play, they are one. Their unity is costly as they give of themselves to one another, and as together they lay their music before the audience as an offering, a gift they feel compelled to give. The music pours out from and between them, flowing less like water than like blood – a primitive, life-giving gift offered in surrender to the composer’s direction and the audience demand. So vulnerable do they become under the gaze of those watching that their sound itself will become a wound – a sacrifice they willingly make, fashioning a beauty that needs neither explanation nor excuse.
The people who listen form a unique company of strangers who have become for one night an audience who experience something unrepeatable. In their minds a hundred questions are raised by this beauty. How did Dvorak know so much truth about life? How does the violin express so much grief in the arms of the woman who plays it? At the end of the concert an elderly man in the audience turns to me with tears running down his face. I can hardly hear his words over the tumultuous ovation as he whispers almost in bewilderment, ‘That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard’.
These are the first words in a beautiful book ‘Our Sound is our wound’ by Lucy Winkett – who wrote this as one of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s lent study books a few years ago. She writes of the sound of the scriptures, the sound of our wounds, the sound the angels, the sound of freedom and the sound of the resurrection. This book had quite an impact on me. Our world is full of noise – as I sit here in comparative silence – there is still noise – the computer is gently humming, the fridge motor is buzzing in the kitchen and every so often there is a tick or flick of sound from the wood burner and the gentle intake of breath from one of the dogs stretched on the mat. This core of this book has remained with me and the need to find silence and the hope of God in a busy world.
What struck me was the sound of today’s readings. The silence before Jesus speaks, perhaps the intake of breath and then words. The voice of Jesus, the challenge, the hope, the call, the love, sown with the whisper of the seeds scattered, the swish of the sickle at harvest time. The seeds themselves are silent (at least to our ears!). They change irreversibly, give of themselves totally and utterly. In what? The Kingdom of God – the soil that enables growth, the silence yet warmth, the smile of the sun. The love of God – the kingdom of God. And yet that expectation – leaves a yawning silence.
Parables, as Eugene Peterson has said, are in this sense like narrative time bombs. You hear them – tick – wonder about them – tick – think maybe you’ve got it – tick – and then as you walk away – tick – or over the course of the next day or so – tick – and all of a sudden the truth Jesus meant to convey strikes home – boom! – almost overwhelming you with its implications or blinding you with its vision.
Jesus describes the coming Kingdom of God in parables because he knows the reality it introduces is unexpected and that his hearers can’t really take it in all at once.
And so the first parable might be about the wonder of faith or the need to be ready to bring in the harvest. Or it might be about our complete inability to control the coming kingdom, to dictate whether we (and others) believe (or not). This second possibility is uncomfortable because it leaves us vulnerable. God’s kingdom cannot be controlled or influenced, and can only be received as a gift. In this sense, faith can be a lot more like falling in love than making a decision. Because kingdom-faith, like love, is something that comes from the outside and grabs hold of you, whether you want it to or not.
The second parable tells an even more difficult truth. Perhaps it is about how God can grow small things into grand ones, although that feels a bit like a fable. Or maybe it’s really about the God’s desire for penetrating and taking over our lives, sometimes against our better judgment.
So also with God’s kingdom. If it were sold in a box, it would likely have a warning – “maybe hazardous to your health.” But that’s just it, the kingdom isn’t a commodity to be bought and sold, used diligently but carefully. It’s a new reality that invades and eventually overcomes the old one. It’s a promise that creates hope and expectation, leads people to change their jobs to share it, and to leave behind their old ways to live it. The kingdom is dangerous because you just don’t know where it will take you or what you will do when it grabs hold of you.
And those birds that are attracted to its shade? It’s easy to assume this was simply a bush, large enough to shelter creatures. But in the parable Jesus told just before these two – the birds are the ones who snatch away the seed the farmer sows, it’s not so easy to be certain. These birds might be the undesirables. Yet across Mark’s Gospel it just these people who flock to the kingdom Jesus proclaims. The original followers of Jesus were lowly fishermen, despised tax collectors, prostitutes and criminals.
I don’t know how these parables and this sermon will sound to most of you. But I do know how it will sound to everyone – established or not, longtime parishioner or first time visitor – who is struggling, who does not feel accepted, who wonders about the future, or who has experienced significant loss or rejection. Because in these parables Jesus does remind us that the Kingdom of God comes of its own…and comes for us. The Kingdom Jesus proclaims has room for everyone. It overturns the things the world has taught us are insurmountable and creates a new and open – and for this reason perhaps a little bit frightening – future.
It is in these seeds, the words that Jesus speaks and his silence. In following his song, we will ebb and flow, we will become vulnerable, we will wait in anticipation, we will put ourselves at the mercy of others, we will surrender and give as we feel compelled to do.
Finish with Lucy Winkett “As we choose our battles and listen for the songs of lament, pain and freedom in a world bellowing with violence and fear, we live our lives attentive to the movement of the Spirit and know that it is in the love of God that we find rest from a noisy world. Living our lives grounded in this love will leave us wounded, but will cultivate our compassion. This love will nurture our courage and help us find our voice. This love will seize our hope and insist on justice. And the sound of this love is God’s redemptive song that, when we have heard it, we too long to sing and become the most beautiful thing.”.