Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sermon for III Pentecost (Proper 6)

Holy Trinity, Danville--Mark 4:26-34

There’s a movie that was hugely popular in the early ‘80s called Chariots of Fire. Some of you, no doubt, remember it. For me, the most memorable part of the movie was the opening scene, which took place at the funeral of the main character (the rest of the film was then, of course, a flashback). And what I remember most vividly about that scene was a particularly stirring hymn that they sang at the funeral, a hymn that, in its day, was known by just about every man, woman, and child in England, and it’s from this hymn that the title line of the movie comes—“bring me my … chariot of fire.” It’s a setting of a short poem by William Blake, which you may be familiar with, and which I will shortly read to you.

But first, two bits of information: the poem was written during the Industrial Revolution in England, so the expression “dark satanic mills” refers to the factories that employed thousands of workers in sweaty and back-breaking labor. And, it’s based on the legend—interesting but not really grounded in anything resembling historical fact—that the young man Jesus, before he began his public ministry, travelled to England with his uncle, who was involved in the tin trade. So, with those two observations in mind, here is Jerusalem, by William Blake:

                        And did those feet in ancient times
                        Walk upon England's mountains green?
                        And was the holy lamb of God
                        In England's pleasant pastures seen?
                        And did the countenance divine
                        Shine forth upon those clouded hills?
                        And was Jerusalem builded here
                        among those dark satanic mills?

                        Bring me my bow of burning gold,
                        Bring me my arrows of desire.
                        Bring me my spear! O clouds unfold,
                        Bring me my chariot of fire.
                        I will not cease from mental fight,
                        Bor shall my sword sleep in my hand,
                        Till we have built Jerusalem
                        In England's green and pleasant land.

“Till we have built Jerusalem...” Jerusalem, of course, is a sort of biblical code word for the perfect society, the kingdom of God come in all its fullness, where the lion lies down with the lamb and children play with snakes and nobody goes hungry or poorly housed or is treated unjustly or has any reason to weep. William Blake looked at the “dark satanic mills” and vowed to labor without ceasing until “Jerusalem”—the perfect society of his dreams—was built in his country.

We all have a “Jerusalem” that we would like to build. We all have some area of intense discomfort with things as they are, and are anxious to make the transition to things as they will be. We are all aware that the kingdom of God is here, but not yet completely here, and poems like Jerusalem make us want to join the struggle, and storm the gates of hell like the soldiers who invaded the beaches of Normandy on D-day.

The “Jerusalem” that we would like to build may be, as it was for Blake, one of social justice, changing the structures and fabric of our society to reflect God’s justice and compassion and love. The “Jerusalem” we would like to build may be one of restoring morality and virtue and integrity to our nation and our community, of strengthening families and developing character. It may be the vision of a civil society that truly provides liberty and justice for all. Or, we may have a burning concern to build up the church, perhaps even a particular parish—perhaps even Holy Trinity! I will admit that building up all the churches of this diocese, and planting new ones, has been the “Jerusalem” of my life for the past four-and-a-half years. Or, the Jerusalem that we seek to build may be entirely interior: a quest for knowledge, or skill, or spiritual growth. Indeed, when we pray “thy kingdom come,” the vision of the kingdom that each of us brings to that prayer varies greatly from person to person.

What these different visions have in common however, is the notion that we are key players in bringing the dream to reality, that God is depending on us to “make it happen,” and that the only reason mankind has not yet achieved the ideal society is that we haven’t yet all gotten together and coordinated our efforts and worked hard enough. It seems like plain common sense. When president Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, said that “God's work must truly be our own,” who would have been inclined to question him? Of course God’s work must be our work, and where can we sign up? The same thing goes for the expression, “God helps those who help themselves.” After all, it's even in the Bible, isn't it?

Or is it?

Actually, “God helps those who help themselves” may at times be a useful piece of advice, but it is nowhere to be found in Holy Scripture! And the idea that God’s work must truly be our own may find some support in the Bible, but not in the way President Kennedy was thinking. Through the parables of Jesus recorded for us today in Mark's gospel, God gives us a reality check. He lets us in on an important bit of information about his kingdom and when and how it will come into its fullness.

A farmer goes out and plants his crops—preparing the ground, sowing the seed, giving it a little water. Then he goes home and takes a nap!And it's not a fretful, anxiety-ridden sleep. He sleeps like a newborn baby. And he rises, and goes back to sleep, and rises, and goes back to sleep, and before he knows it, the seeds have sprouted, and grown, and the next thing the farmer does is harvest the crop. What he had thrown into the ground as dry, lifeless seeds, have now become a lush, mature, edible, marketable crop. The farmer prepared, and the farmer planted, and the farmer tended, and the farmer harvested, but as to what took place in between those activities, and how it was accomplished and when it was accomplished, the farmer is completely in the dark. He does not make the crops grow.
And you and I do not make "Jerusalem" happen. God wants us to be available for him to work through us, but he does not depend on us. There is absolutely nothing we can do to either advance or hinder the progress of the kingdom of God. God is in charge of seeing that his kingdom comes, that “Jerusalem” happens. I admire William Blake's spirit and courage, and the music to which his poem has been set is uplifting and thrilling, and I love hearing it sung! But William Blake went to his grave without ever having built “Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.” And you and I will go to our graves without ever having built “Jerusalem,” whether “Jerusalem” is a vision for peace and social justice, public and personal righteousness, church growth and evangelism, or personal spiritual development.

Some of us have the privilege of laying the foundation of some corner of God's kingdom, and some of us pound a few nails here or install some plumbing there, and others of us at times have the honor of opening the doors, but we are not the builders. God is the builder.
The city gets built his way and in his time, and, although we all have jobs to do, the project belongs to God, and there's really nothing any one of us can do to either slow down the work or speed it up.  

To the extent that we take responsibility for God’s work, we find ourselves engaged in maneuvering and manipulating, fretting and worrying. To the extent that we leave the building of God’s kingdom to God, and stick to our job of announcing it and living it and taking care of those relatively small tasks that are assigned to us, we exercise the eyes of faith that see the crop already in the seed, the fulfillment already in the promise. If we try to build Jerusalem, we find ourselves wrapped up in legalities and technicalities, and a bunch of anxiety. If we remember that that Jerusalem is the city of God, we give ourselves over to waiting and watching that will enable us to see it over the horizon and proclaim the good news with boldness. As long as we cling to the burden of making God’s kingdom happen, we are subject to doubt and anxiety. When we yield that burden back to God, we open ourselves to confidence and hope.

“Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven.” Amen.

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