Able to Hear It

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
June 17, 2018
The Third Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 6B

Ezekiel 17:22–24
Psalm 92:1–4, 11–14
2 Corinthians 5:6 –17
Mark 4:26–34

mustard seedsMy Friends: A story is told about a young man who reported to his Freudian psychoanalyst that he had a recurring dream in which he always smoked a cigar.  Because he was not a smoker of any sort, the man was convinced that the cigar must have some hidden meaning for his neurosis.  Freudian psychology, after all, held that every object in a dream—especially in a recurring dream—has a symbolic meaning very often linked to some childhood trauma or inhibition.  So, the patient and his analyst spent a good deal of time and effort exploring the possible significance of that “dream-cigar” with no success at all.  Finally, after several fruitless—and expensive—sessions, the exasperated psychoanalyst threw up his hands and exclaimed, “You know, sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar!”

Jesus’ parables often hold the same sort of fascination for preachers and modern biblical scholars, and this morning’s reading from the Gospel according to Saint Mark is a case in point.  There has been no end to the imaginative speculation about the hidden meaning of the ground, the seed, its size, the shrub and its stature, and the birds in this particular parable.  It ranges from Jesus’ opposition to colonialism and empire to a resounding critique of Judaism’s ritual purity code.  And all too often, these rather fanciful explications of the parable tell us much more about the biases and concerns of the interpreter than anything about Jesus and his proclamation concerning “the kingdom of God.”

So, this morning, I’m going to take my cues from that frustrated Freudian psychoanalyst in the anecdote and boldly assert that, sometimes, a mustard seed is just that—a mustard seed!  By following the method of interpretation used by the teachers and sages of Jesus’ own time and place, I propose to look first to the peshat, the literal meaning of the story in its historical context and, only then, to venture any derash, or interpretation from that primary meaning.

Mustard_plantIn Jesus’ agrarian setting, mustard was deliberately planted for two primary reasons:  it was a savory used to add some spice to otherwise bland food—just as it is in our own time—and it was thought to have medicinal qualities for problems ranging from toothache, indigestion, asthma, and constipation to snake and scorpion bites, tetanus, and leprous sores.  It was not regarded as an invasive weed, as some modern biblical scholars claim, and its cultivation did not violate any biblical “holiness” laws, as some others have claimed.  If allowed to grow to its maximum height of about four feet, its branches might indeed provide some shade in a very hot climate, as well as  shelter for “birds of the air,” a favorite biblical idiom for Creation as a whole.  In contrast to the mighty “cedar of Lebanon,” a royal idiom in biblical literature, the mustard shrub was small in stature, but, as the parable aptly illustrates, good things often come from small and apparently humble beginnings, even if the mustard seed is not in fact “the smallest of all the seeds Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_Apostles-Ducchio de Buoninsegnaon earth.”  Apparently, that dubious distinction belongs to the orchid!

So, you may be wondering, what’s the fuss?  Why would Jesus go to the trouble of creating a parable—intended to both reveal and conceal its meaning—for such an obvious and banal bit of homely agrarian wisdom?  And why would he reserve the explanation of its alleged hidden depths for his disciples “in private”?

Saint Mark, I think, hints at an answer to these questions in the parable’s concluding statement:  “With many such parables Jesus spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it…”  That phrase, “as they were able to hear it,” is the key to the riddle of most of Jesus’ parables, and it accounts for the need for private explanations to his disciples.  Because they so often question, challenge, and contradict conventional expectations and received wisdom, they only make sense as we are truly “able to truly hear” them in their first-century Jewish context.  Then—and only then—may we tackle the derash, the “interpretation” of the story.

When we apply this method to this morning’s “parable of the mustard seed,” we see clearly that it does indeed stand the conventional expectations of Jesus’ original audience concerning the “kingdom of God” right on their head.  And, with some perseverance, and by the grace of God, the parable might very well challenge our own hopes and understanding as well regarding that elusive “kingdom” or reign of God.

We know that in first-century CE Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, many of the Jewish people were “looking for the redemption of Israel”—understood as its land and its people—from centuries of foreign occupation.  They were waiting for God to act in some decisive and final way to free them from their oppressors and to fulfill God’s covenantal promise to restore the sovereignty of the Jewish people in their ancestral land.  In addition, many of them also expected God to make this political restoration the opening act of God’s providential plan to restore and to consummate God’s whole Creation by bringing “the nations,” the “Gentiles,” into the blessing God had promised to bestow on all peoples through Abraham and his descendents.  In short, they expected the “eschaton,” the “end of days” to come through God’s direct intervention.  An “anointed one,” a “meshiach,” would inaugurate this new era of peace, justice, beatitude, human flourishing and, eventually, God’s promised “shalom”:  the absolutely unique and inclusive “peace and righteousness of God.”  This would signal an end to history and a “resurrection of the dead” for final judgement, after which “God will be all in all” in a “new heaven and a new earth.”  It’s a bold and breathtaking vision of both historical and cosmic regeneration, and it ought to strike a note of recognition because it is—to this very day—the normative belief of all Jews and Christians.  About this, there can be no controversy. How this will unfold, however, was and still is a matter of considerable controversy: then, in Jesus’ own day, and now.

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Pharisees_and_the_Saduccees_Come_to_Tempt_Jesus_(Les_pharisiens_et_les_saducéens_viennent_pour_tenter_Jésus)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallIn Jesus’ time, the Jewish Zealots and the Essenes sought to force God to hasten the end-time:  through revolutionary violence, in the case of the Zealots, and by punctilious observance of the laws of ritual purity and Temple worship for the Essenes.  The Sadducees, a wealthy and mostly priestly elite, sought to maintain the status quo by collaborating with foreign rule.  In the telling words of the High Priest Caiaphas, “Better that one man should die than the whole nation be destroyed.”  The Pharisee sages, with whom Jesus had the most affinity, encouraged prayer, Torah study, Shabbat observance, and “tzedekah” or “charity,” as well as the extension of Temple piety to the synagogue and the home.  They were content to leave the times and details of the Messiah’s coming and the end-time to the will and purposes of God alone.  Their motto, which found its way eventually into the Pirkei Avoth, the Sayings of the Elders, was “Be like the sons of Aaron the priest, loving peace and pursuing it always.”

So, when we hear the parable of the seeds in this context, it turns out that Jesus is telling his disciples—then and now—a great deal about the coming “kingdom of God” in his deceptively simple parable, but only as we are able to hear it.  The reign of God will never come, according to Jesus, as a result of human agency alone unaided by God’s sanctifying grace.  It is God who “gives the growth” in all circumstances—then and now.  Our vocation is to scatter the seed of the “Gospel,” the “good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” by word and deed until the time of the great harvest in the biblical “fullness of time”—that is, God’s time.  And, to those who would try to force God’s hand by using violence to usher in the “kingdom of God,” such as the Essenes and Zealots of his own day, Jesus issues a resounding “No!” through his parable.  God’s kingdom is an organic reality and it grows slowly and silently over time.  Humanity will never create any sort of homemade paradise through violence and war in our fallen, but not forsaken world.  The murderous totalitarianisms of the twentieth century are a testimony to that grim realization.  God’s reign will come through the working of God’s providential will in which, according to Saint John Paul, “there are no mere coincidences.”  Our task is to spread the “good news” of humankind’s restoration in Jesus Christ, who reveals humanity to itself, together with God’s intention to restore and to consummate God’s “very good” creation in “the fullness of time.”  We do this best, in the words of the holy prophet Micah, by “doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with our God.”  And we are summoned to do this, not through any spectacular, world-historical event, but through the humble circumstances of the daily and the ordinary in our own small corner of the world.  God will do the rest.  The holy prophet Ezekiel in this morning’s echo of Jesus’ parable assures us of this when God, speaking through the prophet, thunders:  “I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.”

St_Josephs_Abbey,_Spencer_MABecause the “kingdom of God” is both an interior and exterior reality, Jesus’ parable of the seeds also applies to the journey of our soul into God’s infinity.  Wherever the Spirit of Christ is, there is the “kingdom of God” in all its fullness and splendor.  And it too is best understood as an organic and developmental reality, evolving by the grace of God through what Father Thomas Keating describes as the “four consents” that God invites us to make over the course of a lifetime:  the consent to our basic goodness as a creature made in the “bet’selem,” ”the image and likeness of God”; the consent to use our human creativity in the service of God’s “very good” Creation; the consent to our non-being in due course; and, finally, the consent to our transformation.  These “four consents” are only possible through the grace of God whose Holy Spirit is the sole director and sanctifier of our souls.  “Fortunately,” Fr. Keating also reminds us, “God has a whole eternity to make us disciples.”  Another great Cistercian writer of the twentieth century, Father Thomas Merton, captures the organic nature of the “interior kingdom” when he writes about the deliberate location of Trappist monasteries in remote settings in these terms:

Forest and field, sun and wind and sky, earth and water, all speak the same silent language, reminding the monk that he is here to develop like all the things that grow around him.  He is planted in the garden of the Lord, and his existence now has one meaning only: to reach out for the light and truth and the waters of grace, to sink his roots into and raise his branches into God’s good air and breathe heaven and absorb its wonderful rays. (Thomas Merton, The Waters of Siloe, 274)

In another place in the Gospel, Jesus told his disciples that they were “the salt of the earth” and the “light of the world”:  salt, which preserves and adds spice; light, which guides our feet into the way of “shalom,” “the peace and righteousness of God.”  This morning, Jesus is telling us Christians that, by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, “who can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine,” (BCP) we are also like a mustard seed: medicine and savor that “becomes the greatest of all shrubs…so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” We, Jews and Christians, are covenant partners with God in God’s still unfolding restoration and perfection of Creation and God’s perennial summons to growth and human flourishing.  God asks no more of us, but also no less; and always as we are able to hear it.  AMEN.


Love Personified

Homily for Sunday, May 27, 2018
Trinity Sunday
Preached at Bethany Convent, Arlington, MA

Yosemite-el-capitanIn rock climbing circles, John Long is legend.  Now 64, Long was one of the first to “free climb”—that is, to climb without ropes—famous rock faces such as the Paisano Overhang at Suicide Rock in California, the so-called Hangover at Tahquitz Rock, also in California, and the east face of Washington Column in Yosemite (also in California).  In 1975—on Memorial Day weekend—he and two friends completed the first ever one-day ascent of El Capitan, the famous granite monolith in Yosemite.

Looking up from the bottom of El Capitan, and then looking out 2,500 feet up, Long writes:

You stumble into the forest and wend through the pines that finally open up, and there—before you, above you, around you—a sea of granite soars straight [up], stunning for its colors and sheer bulk; and terrible for the emptiness that sets in your gut as your eyes pan up its titanic corners and towers. Continue reading

Encountering God’s Essence (and Energies)

Homily preached by the Rev. James La Macchia
Trinity Parish of Newton Centre
May 27, 2018
Feast of the Holy Trinity—Year B

Isaiah 6:1–8
Psalm 29
Romans 8:12–17
John 3:1–17

Trinity circle croppedMy Friends:  We have come to that Sunday of the Great Church Year that nearly every clergy person dreads: Holy Trinity Sunday.  Having just celebrated the Feast of Pentecost at the end of the Great Fifty Days of Easter last week, with its celebration of God’s gift of the Holy Spirit to the nascent Church of Jesus Christ, we are now bidden by our liturgical calendar to contemplate and glorify that greatest of all mysteries—God’s self-revelation as a Trinity of Persons—before we cross the threshold into the season known as Ordinary Time.  This movement, of course, implies that we have already been immersed in the extraordinary since the First Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the Great Church Year.  And indeed we have, as we have celebrated every one of the great mysteries of our redemption and salvation with each passing feast day and each special season for the Spirit.  Some will say that with Trinity Sunday, our liturgical calendar has saved the best for last; others might claim that the Church has given us today the “mother of all the mysteries” of our Christian Faith.  I subscribe to both of these points-of-view. Continue reading

Division and Reconciliation

Homily for Sunday, May 13, 2018
Easter 7B
1 John 5:9–13
John 17:6–19

“That they may be one, as we are one.” — John 17:22

Christ_Taking_Leave_of_the_Apostles-Ducchio di BuoninsegnaOver the past weeks we have been “cherry picking” our way through the first letter of John, reading from chapter 1 here and chapter 3 there; from chapter 4 here and from chapter 5 there.  This “cherry picking” is understandable because the letter itself is not a model of coherence.  Unlike John’s Gospel—which came from the same early Christian community as did 1 John, and in which each and every word seems to have been thought through, weighed and intentionally chosen—the first letter of John seems “from the hip,” as it were: more emotional, with less concern for a formal cohesion; more—perhaps—defensive. Continue reading

Going Back

Homily for Sunday, May 5, 2018
Easter 6B
Acts 10:44–48
John 15:9–17

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word.”
“Just as the Father has loved me, so I have loved you.”

bakery-3056086_960_720I am a fan—and as of this moment an out-of-the-closet fan—of the New York Times’ “Modern Love” column, which I read every Sunday.  A year ago January, one Betsy Verecky, now in Nashua, New Hampshire, but at the time living in Brooklyn, chronicled her crush on the hipster owner of a local bakery.  In her essay, “Boy, What a Fabulous Baker” [Jan 20, 2017], Verecky tells of her first visit to the bakery where she was smitten, not only by the baker’s friendly manner and muscular forearms, but by his bread: Continue reading

Paying Attention

Homily for Sunday, April 29, 2018
Easter 5B
John 15:1–8

hospital bed-Matthew Perkins

Photo credit: Matthew Perkins

In October of 2016, the New York Times printed a letter from the Boston writer Peter DeMarco to the staff of the intensive care unit of the CHA Cambridge Hospital, thanking them for their care of his wife, who at age 34 was first hospitalized and then died from an asthma attack. DeMarco writes:



As I begin to tell my friends and family about the seven days you treated my wife […] they stop me at about the 15th name [… of] the doctors, nurses, respiratory specialists, social workers, even cleaning staff members who cared for her:

“How do you remember any of their names?”  they ask.  How could I not, I respond.  Every single one of you treated Laura with such professionalism, kindness and dignity as she lay unconscious.  When she needed shots, you apologized that it was going to hurt a little, whether or not she could hear.  When you listened to her heart and lungs through your stethoscopes, and her gown began to slip, you pulled it up to respectfully cover her.  You spread a blanket, not only when her body temperature needed regulating, but also when the room was just a little cold, and you thought she’d sleep more comfortably […] Continue reading

A Horizontal Path

Homily for April 22, 2018
Easter 4B
John 10:11–18

Naoya Hatakeyama-Slow

Slow, by Naoya Hatakeyama

The Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama is known for his photos of cities and cityscapes.  To take his photos, Hatakeyama walks—and walks and walks—and he says that, as he walks, everything in his field of vision reduces to two things: things standing up, and things lying down.  Hatakeyama writes: Continue reading