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Homily by Dr. Miriam Pepper

Ordinary Sunday 13, Year B
South Sydney Uniting Church
June 14, 2015

Mark 4:26-34

‘Extraordinary and Ordinary’

I was recently introduced by a colleague to a folk singer from the Midwest of the USA called Peter Mayer. Here are some lines from his song, Holy Now(1):

When I was in Sunday school
We would learn about the time
Moses split the sea in two
Jesus made the water wine
And I remember feeling sad
That miracles don’t happen still
But now I can’t keep track
Cause everything’s a miracle…

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all…

This song is simple but uplifting, ordinary but remarkable. It’s about the miraculous in the everyday and holiness in the here and now.

Today we hear in Mark’s gospel that God’s reign is like grain scattered that grows and ripens, like a tiny mustard seed that is planted and develops into a shrub and provides shelter for birds. These parables have brought a message of profound hope to Christians throughout the ages. Small acts of faithfulness can in time bear fruit. Humble beginnings lead to outcomes that are many orders of magnitude larger than those beginnings. To Mark’s community, a tiny community living under the brutality of occupation by the Roman Empire, trying to live another story, it was a sign of hope and promise that God’s kingdom of love, justice and inclusion would grow and flourish in time.

These parables also work against any sense of that we control God’s workings in this world we play a part in them, but they are also beyond us. The sower scatters the seeds but does not know how they come to fruition they sprout, grow and ripen “by themselves”.

The important work of ASCA, Adults Surviving Child Abuse, who support people who have experienced childhood abuse, is one such seed. To express our solidarity, love and care for survivors of abuse and their families and friends, as we do through our Blue Knot Day services, is not only to lament abuse and harm, but also to believe in and be part of a journey toward healing and fullness of life. The outworkings of such solidarity may not always be apparent to us.

But there is something about the parable about the seeds that has troubled me as I’ve brooded over it the last week. I get the same troubled feeling when passages that invoke the physical world, parts of nature and so on, are interpreted only metaphorically as a literary device. It seems to me that it is important to read the metaphor (or simile in this case) back the other way as well, and not to abstract too much too quickly. Let me explain what I mean.

Perhaps it is obvious to say, but Mark’s community in first century Palestine would have known what happens when seeds are planted. Sure, they wouldn’t have understood the processes, but they knew the importance of good soil and water, what kind of seed produced what kind of plant and so on. These were normal everyday facts of life. Just as they are normal, everyday facts that undergird our own existence even if they mostly fly under the radar in urban life.

Yet if seeds are used as a metaphor for the reign of God, and to demonstrate that the kingdom is neither obvious, nor controllable, nor proportionate (to use Ched Myers’ words), then I look again at an ordinary seed and its becoming as likewise neither obvious, nor controllable, nor proportionate. It is quite simply extraordinary. That a tiny seed contains the genetic information that encodes what the seed is to become, that a handful of soil can contain billions of microorganisms as well as thousands of insects, mites and worms, is remarkable. (2015 is the UN International Year of Soils.)

More generally, it seems to me that these parables invite us to look again at the ordinary with new eyes and to see it as extraordinary. And so we come back to Peter Mayer:

Wine from water is not so small
But an even better magic trick
Is that anything is here at all
So the challenging thing becomes
Not to look for miracles
But finding where there isn’t one

This song has come in for the criticism that everything isn’t a miracle, everything isn’t holy. There is suffering and injustice in the world. This is of course so, but what this song is about is a corrective to seeing nothing amazing in the ordinary.

And so I’d like to finish off today with some reflections from Sydney Pentecostal theologian Shane Clifton about suffering and extraordinariness. Shane writes that miraculous healing is central to Pentecostal theology, concepts of faith, and practices of prayer but that it hurts people with permanent illnesses, injuries and disabilities who aren’t healed. Supernatural healing, he says, is rare and miraculous, but injury, suffering and disability are a part of life. In one way or another, we are all disabled we are all subject to “embodied limits”. Theologies of and prayer for healing need to take this seriously. The focus then should not be on supernatural healing events, but on but Jesus’ radical inclusion of those who are excluded including the sick and the disabled and on fullness of life within limits. The “social model of disability”, which understands disability not as an individual pathology, but as social structures and practices that exclude the disabled and prevent them from fullness of life, is important here.

Shane, who is a quadriplegic, writes “I have not had any spectacular or miraculous healing, notwithstanding prayer from thousands of people around the world as well as ‘the laying on of hands’ by people with reputations for a healing gift. But in the face of embodied limits that once seemed insurmountable, I have since been transformed: by an outpouring of love from family and friends, by prayer that ministered grace and established hope, by acts of charity that funded rehabilitation and made my home accessible, by a Spirit-filled workplace that went out of its way to accommodate my needs and yet treated me as a scholar and a not a cripple, by providential encouragements in the many times that I was down. And as I have been helped to flourish within the limits of a spinal cord injury, the community supporting me has also been transformed and enriched.”(2) Not a supernatural healing “event”, but a slow transformation for Shane but also for the larger community like the growing of a seed. Extraordinary indeed!

(1) Peter Mayer, Holy Now, www.petermayer.net
(2) Shane Clifton (2014) The Dark Side of Prayer for Healing: Toward a Theology of Well-Being, Pneuma, 36:204225.

Dr. Miriam Pepper