Monday, June 18, 2012

In Over Our Heads

In Over Our Heads
Mk. 4:26-29[1]
I guess you could say that for most of my life I’ve been obsessed with competence.  Whenever I would start a new job, I would go into overdrive to “learn the ropes” and feel like I knew what I was doing.  That applied to student jobs as well as the various jobs I tried during my “wilderness wandering”—working as a Realtor and running a Senior Center.  The only job I didn’t obsess about when I started out was teaching as a Seminary professor.  I had been in the academic world for years, and it was like a duck taking to water.  I will say that my first class teaching New Testament Greek was a challenge.  I had to adjust my expectations to the actual situation of a student with no knowledge of a subject I had been studying for almost 20 years!  With that exception, I just walked right into teaching and felt very competent in what I was doing. 
Being a pastor is a very different undertaking.  There is a very real sense in which a pastor is more like an entrepreneur trying to build a business to attract a niche market.  Like any entrepreneur, you take a risk on something without every really knowing whether it’s going to work.  I’ll tell you a little secret: when ministers get together, if we’re good friends, we admit that we’re making it up as we go along.  Like entrepreneurs, we’re always improvising and adapting.  We’re not always sure what’s working or not working.  And we don’t have a clue what strategies will help our churches to thrive.  We’re all in over our heads, but we keep trying.  All that may come as a shock to you, but I think that’s built into the nature of church.  In a very real sense, when it comes to the church nobody is competent—we’re all in over our heads. 
In one of the parables from our Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about a farmer who simply scatters seed.  He makes a point to say that the seed grows by itself while the farmer doesn’t know how it happens.  Now, I doubt that most farmers were so incompetent as to not have any idea whatsoever what causes seeds to grow and produce a crop. And I doubt that most farmers only planted seeds and never did anything more to tend the crop.  But for the purpose of this parable, this particular farmer is clueless, and has very little to do with the fact that the seed bears fruit.  He’s in over his head. 
Jesus tells this parable to illustrate what the Kingdom of God is like—the realm of God’s peace and freedom and justice.  Despite the skepticism of many of his enemies, Jesus claimed that this realm was already becoming a reality through him.  Many of them looked around them and saw a lack of peace and freedom and justice and they rejected Jesus’ message.  In fact, some of them thought he was either crazy or demon-possessed, or maybe both!  I have to think that maybe Jesus’ own disciples saw that same lack of peace and freedom and justice, and may have had their own doubts.[2]
I think that’s why Jesus told them this parable.  He was reminding them that when it comes to understanding how God’s Kingdom works, we’re all in over our heads.  We’re clueless.  The realm of peace and freedom and justice that Jesus was talking about is something that only God can create.  Some may find ways that are more or less effective at bringing people in.  But from the biblical standpoint, the only source of any lasting growth is God (1 Cor 3:6-7).[3] 
So what does this mean?  Do we just sit back and wait and pray that God will do something?  Well, in the first place I think it means that we have to begin by recognizing the simple fact that we’re all in over our heads.  We’re dealing with matters that are beyond our understanding and abilities.  But I think it also means that we have to recognize that it’s our job to keep on persevering in the planting and tending the gospel seeds of mercy and kindness and love.[4] And we keep on planting seeds even when we don’t seem to see many results.  Because we’re in over our heads, we have to recognize that we may never know what comes from the seeds we plant.  But because they are gospel seeds, they will bear fruit—in their own way and in their own time.
I think this also means we can’t judge by outward appearances.  By outward appearances, Samuel should have chosen Eliab, Jesse’s oldest son, instead of David, the youngest.[5]  By outward appearances the folks in the church at Corinth probably should never have followed the Apostle Paul.  If church tradition can be trusted, he wasn’t much to look at, and even less of a public speaker.  By outward appearances, churches under 100 members seem irrelevant compared to those with thousands of members. But over and over again, the Scriptures remind us that we simply cannot judge by appearances.[6]  That’s especially true when it comes to what God is doing in this world.[7]
I think all of this means that we have to operate based on faith.  Imagine that—operating on the basis of faith in the church.  But there’s faith, and then there’s faith.  And it seems that Jesus is calling us to approach our task with a faith that cannot know the outcome—at least the immediate outcome.  Investing our lives in the church that seeks to bear witness to God’s realm of peace and freedom and justice in this world requires us to step out in faith that what we’re doing is the right thing and will eventually bear fruit—even if we may not see it.  It means persevering in kindness and love, and looking beyond appearances.  It means recognizing we’re in over our heads, but we can trust that God is working in and through us constantly.[8]

[1] © 2012 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/17/12 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] Cf. Robert A. Guelich, Mark 1:1-8:26, 245, where he suggests that the parable was meant to “assure those who were finding it difficult to comprehend how the Kingdom might be present and at work in a manner contrary to their expectations.”
[3] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:644.
[4] Cf. J. D. Crossan, “The Seed Parables of Jesus,” Journal of Biblical Literature 92 (June 1973): 266.  He says the parable is an image of “resolute and prudent action.”  Cf. also Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:850.
[5] Cf. Bruce C. Birch, “The First and Second Books of Samuel,” in New Interpreters Bible II:1099.  He says, “The theme of David as an unlikely instrument for Israel’s hope continues throughout the story of his early years.” He also reminds us that this is another example of the fact that “One of the most basic themes of the entire biblical message is that God finds possibilities for grace in the most unexpected places and through the most unlikely persons.”
[6] Cf. Birch, 1100, where he says, “If the church is both to discern and to mediate God’s grace in the world, the it, too, must seek to look on the heart—to see as God sees.”
[7] Cf. Guelich, 246: in the context of this chapter, Jesus’ message is that “The Kingdom is present, though unexpectedly vulnerable (4:3–8, 14–20), hidden (4:21) and small (4:31) with a power of its own (4:27–28).”
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.3:850.

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