Ordinary Time, Proper 6: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13], 14-17; Mark 4:26-34 (Church of the Nativity, San Rafael)
May and June are amazing months in our cultural calendar - they are often filled with graduations, weddings, baptisms, confirmations, ordinations - and all the family gatherings and reunions around these events. It does seem like it all comes at once!
This is partially the reality of living in the Northern Hemisphere – school years were originally calibrated to the agricultural year and the need for children to be released from school to help with planting and harvesting – join that to the liturgical calendar, where weddings were, for centuries, forbidden during Lent and Easter (the origins of the ‘June bride’), initiation (baptism and confirmation) was limited to the Easter season, and ordinations could only commence in the penitential days after Easter. In the United States, we also have two national days of military or civil significance, Memorial Day and Flag Day (today) – put it all together and it’s the making of a busy calendar!
In light of all these historical and ritual events crammed into the space of a few weeks, it is interesting to hear the gospel proclaimed today reminding us that all things come of God, the creator of all, who calls us to be co-creators as our response to God’s initiative.
Graduations are often called “commencement”, because they do not so much end something as they commence something – they begin something. In Old English, the word actually means to “begin to be, to begin to act or work at something.” Graduations are beginnings – what will be formed, developed, co-created with God from this ritual marking of time – a before and an after?
Confirmation has had a very mixed history of meaning within Christianity, but is still sadly seen by many as a type of graduation from, rather than a commencement to, something. Confirmation confirms – it looks back to one’s baptism and the commitments and promises made and confirms those promises, and looks forward to a lifetime of growing into union with God. In baptism we put on Christ – in life we grow into the garment that is Christ – always making room so that Christ can increase in us. God initiates, we respond in co-creation.
Weddings are a ritual that marks a change – for our culture a change in status from that of a single person – into the liminal state of being engaged (really neither single or married) – and at the wedding, into the status of being married. In more traditional societies today (and for centuries before us) this change of status was huge…it is often obscured today for very good reasons, but we miss the import of the ritual moment and the lifetime of growing into the change that still is important for our society. In the old Anglican liturgy of solemnizing a marriage, the words at the giving of the ring to the woman marked this moment: “with this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow…” New things began, the wedding ended, the marriage begun – and this would continue “till death us do part, according to God’s holy ordinance…” God’s love, now manifest in the love of two people who begin to use that love for co-creation of all types.
And ordinations – yesterday was the day of ordination for this diocese, a ritual moment marking a change in status, and the beginning of being in a new way for those ordained. Our Episcopal version of the Anglican ordination rites are not ambiguous or vague: at the consecration, the bishop calls down the Holy Spirit and says, “therefore, Father, through Jesus Christ your Son, give your Holy Spirit to this person, fill her with grace and power, and make her a priest in your church.” A changed person, a changed status – and so something new commences, it begins.
“Jesus said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
At the preparation of the bread and the cup, and the placing of them on the altar, the priest has a number of options of prayers that can be said. They are usually done silently because often there is a hymn or other music going on, or because a deacon is actually setting the table. The prayers keep the actions from ever becoming mundane, they remind us of the importance of this first action of every Eucharistic liturgy: take, bless, break, give. Take – embedded in the gospels as the actions that Jesus did in meals with others. The prayer that I prefer has echoes of ancient prayers, but is actually written in the 20th century. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, for you have given us this bread to eat, which earth has given and human hands have made, it will become for us the bread of life, blessed be God for ever.” “Blessed are you, Lord our God, for you have given us this wine to drink, fruit of the vine and the work of human hands, it will become for us the cup of salvation, blessed be God for ever.”
Bread – grain grown from earth – creation of God – “first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head,” but also, “the work of human hands.” Bread does not grow from stalks of grain, it starts as grain that must be cut, milled, ground, mixed with other ingredients, and then baked. Wine does not grow on vines – it begins as grapes on the vine – creation of God, then picked and crushed and mixed and fermented – the work of human hands. Co-created, first God, then human activity – together creating something new – something that, in Mark’s gospel, resembles the Kingdom of God.
The gospel suggests that the hidden seed becomes something huge – that it is often the least expected, what appears to be unimportant becomes crucial. In Ezekiel it is similar – God takes a sprig, the small tip of a branch, from the majestic cedar and plants it – what emerges is a “noble cedar” giving life to all creatures. The Apostle Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians reminds us that we cannot see the beginnings, sometimes we cannot see much of anything, “we walk by faith, not by sight,” but we know, we believe that the seed will produce, the tree will shelter, our rituals – God’s initiative and the work of human hands, will commence something, will begin and grow and bear fruit. And it is good to remember that this commencing is not something for the young only. There are those delightful lines in today’s psalm:
“Those who are planted in the house of the Lord shall flourish in the courts of our God; they shall still bear fruit in old age; they shall be green and succulent.”
Even in later years, we begin new things, and by the grace of God, our pliancy, our greenness, still full of sap, bears fruit in new and varied ways. These transitions, these movements must also include those who are journeying toward God from this life to the next life. Dying itself is a commencement, a time of co-creating with God a new set of relationships and way of being in God.
These busy days marking turning points in the lives of individuals, of families, of communities, of the church are exhilarating, exhausting, exciting, and full of new beginnings. We give thanks to God who has begun the good work in each of us, and pray that God will bring it to fulfillment with our cooperation as co-creators. May our commencements, our beginnings, bring hope to a human world beset by violence and war, to the creation in stress and imbalance, and to the church often in need of remembering priorities.
“…if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new. May we begin again today, in grateful response to all that God has formed in us!