Proper 6, Year B: Losing Your Illusions: Axel Rose, Mustard Seeds, and the Veil of Separation from God
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
1 Samuel 15: 34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 26-34
The Reverend Tyler B. Doherty, Priest-in-Charge
“O God, help me to believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.”—Galway Kinnell
One of the biggest roadblocks on the spiritual journey is the presumption that God is somehow absent. In fact, Teresa of Avila writes, “All difficulties in prayer can be traced to one cause: praying as if God were absent.” This presumption, which gets stronger as we get older, is what must be dismantled on the spiritual journey. You could say that the whole purpose of the spiritual journey, the journey into union and communion with God, is about dismantling the monumental illusion that God is distant, or absent. The way of union with God is the way of subtraction. It’s “losing our illusions” to quote those great theologians of the 90s Guns n’ Roses.
When we approach the spiritual journey from the standpoint that God is absent or distant, we begin from the standpoint of lack, of not being enough. We think we have to acquire something we don’t have and we engage in all manner of spiritual calisthenics to make ourselves acceptable in the eyes of God, or to get ourselves noticed by this distant, distracted deity whose attention we have to attract by some dramatic display. Our contemporary consumer culture, of course, reinforces this sense of lack convincing us that we are somehow incomplete unless we have a hairline like Brad Pitt, a bank account like Warren Buffett, and 150,000 followers on Twitter.
We might say that the illusion that God is absent is the veil through which we must see. Jesus’ parables are all about helping us to part the veil of separation from God, to realize and live from the starling fact that God has indeed come near. “The saints and sages down the ages proclaim with their lives and witness that the God we seek has already found us, already looks out our own eyes, is already as St. Augustine famously put it, “closer to me than I am to myself.” O beauty ever ancient, ever new,” he continues, “you were within and I was outside of myself.”
So the whole journey to union and communion is all about discovery and realizing what is already given than it is about acquiring something we don’t have. Last week, Paul was telling us about the house that is not built with hands, that building from God that is eternal in the heavens. When we learn to dwell, to abide, to rest, and live from the gift of God that has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5) we start to learn that the spiritual journey is really all about letting go, letting be, and relinquishing what gets in the way of our realizing that God is already present and active in our lives. We think we have to do all manner of things to somehow earn God’s grace. We think we have to do something to somehow make God present. But that’s all just a trick of the mind that likes to put itself at the center of the show. Rather predictably, it makes it about us and our efforts rather than what God has already done. All that’s really required is that we wake up to the Good News of God in Christ: “you have just won the big mega ball Cosmic Lottery to beat all earthly lotteries. You are a spiritual billionaire. At the very center of your being, in your heart of hearts, you are always at peace, happy, filled with well-being and perfect contentment. You are, right here and now, already in perfect union with God. Believe it nor not, you were born that way.”
Our passage from Mark this morning is all about waking us up to the reality that God is already present at the ground of being. In the first parable, we hear that the seed is scattered and grows of its own accord. Whether we sleep or rise, God is present and active, and it’s our task simply not to interfere with that process. Notice that the parable doesn’t have a long list of requirements or hoops that the sower has to just through. The sower is not out there with grow lamps and fertilizers. The sower is not charting the progress of the plants and worrying about the yield or comparing it to last year’s crop. The sower trusts that the seed is growing and knows enough to let it be. The sower knows that God is present and active in the hidden soil of her heart. The basic thrust of the first part of the parable is just to let ourselves be. Let God live God’s live in you. Open to what is already there. Or alternately, recognize then you are struggling, straining, and caught in attainment and cycle of lack. Relax, rest, allow, be, and you’ll realize that God’s countenance is shining upon you.
The second part of the gospel—the parable of the mustard seed—can also read as trying to wake us up from the dream of separation from dream. You probably remember that mustard plants were considered weeds in ancient Israel, a little like kudzu grass or dandelions today. These weeds are what we need to keep out of the garden if we want it neat, orderly, and predictable. But Jesus is saying that neat, orderly and predictable is not how God works. In God there are no distinction between slave or free, Jew or Greek, male or female, daffodil or dandelion. Our God is a God of surprises who is present and active in all things—even the most seemingly mundane and ordinary.
When we get caught in the trap of thinking that God is absent, or distant, we get tricked into looking for God in big experiences. Like the Israelites under Samuel, we are looking for Kings like all the other nations have, and miss how God is already present and active within and among us in the most humble of circumstances. Jesus, the one who comes as a servant to wash and feed, knows that our expectations of God often blind us to how God is always already showing up in our lives. We create boxes for what God looks like and then walk right past Him when he doesn’t conform to our ideas of he should be. Indeed, the hearers of parable of the mustard seed were accustomed to hearing about the nation of Israel referred to through the figure of the mighty Cedars of Lebanon—these tall magnificent trees not unlike our own California Redwoods. So Jesus is trying to shock us into an appreciation of the God of small things, the God of humble and lowly, the God who shines forth in most ordinary of circumstances and baffles our expectations by showing up when we least expect it. We are looking for God in the Redwoods, and bemoaning the fact that we don’t live in California. All the while, in the dandelions right under our feet that we call Chemlawn to come out and get rid of, God is busy revealing Godself to us that we might see through the veil of separateness and participate in God’s mission to reconciling all things to Himself.
The anointing of David with the horn of oil is all about the same shattering of expectations and the revelation of God’s hidden purpose in the least likely of places. Eliab—the one Samuel is certain is the Lord’s anointed—is passed over in favor of the youngest, the one with the ruddy complexion who’s out tending the sheep and too busy for all the wrangling over who should be King. As our reading from the Old Testament reminds us, “the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” It is when we see with the eye of the heart, and don’t get tricked by outward appearances that we begin to see how God is working in our lives in the most ordinary of circumstances. “If the doors of perception were cleansed,” writes William Blake, “everything would appear… as it is, Infinite.”
God has indeed come very near. He is closer than our breath, than even consciousness itself. The seed is already sown in the field of the heart. All we have to do it let it be, make a little space for God to act, and allow the process of Christ-ening to unfold. When we do that, when we realize that we have been welcomed by the Welcoming One since before we were formed in the womb, we become places of welcome ourselves. Our little, weedy, ordinary lives become a house with windows and doors flung wide open for all the birds of the air whose strange and unexpected voices sing the song of the new creation unfolding right under our blessed little noses.