Backdated: A Picture of Perfection

Now that I’ve taken the plunge, as it were, and got myself a blog, I’m going to go back over a few recent and not-so-recent sermons and writings to fill in a few blanks. Here’s one from the beginning of this month, St David’s Day, which I preached at Bexley Hall Seminary’s community Eucharist at Trinity Lutheran Seminary’s Gloria Dei chapel.

St David’s Day, 1 March 2011

Mark 4: 26-29

A sermon preached at Bexley Hall Seminary at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, OH

Every year, at the end of May, my family would drive across Wales to its western edge and spend a week in the tiny cathedral city of St David’s. In my memory, it is a perfect place of breathtaking beauty. I remember impossibly long, sunny days spent on the beach, itself a perfect combination of golden sand and intriguing rock pools, the sea just wavy enough to be interesting. I remember walking the cliff tops and seeing the seals teaching their pups to bask on the pebbles below. Then, of course, there was the old stone cathedral, the site of St David’s original monastery, nestled into this perfect setting and swept clean by the salt sea breezes.

 The image of perfection doesn’t always hold up to close inspection, though. This being Wales, there were days when it rained, and we had to run through cold, wet grass to reach the outhouse. There was the day when my mother found a venomous snake basking in her path. There was the night when my brother had an asthma attack in the bunk above mine, and I awoke to hear him gasping for breath.

When the picture postcard perfection of my image of St David’s admits a fuller reality, it is more complex, more nuanced than it first appears; but we do this convenient kind of editing of reality with all sorts of things, I think.

We do it when we offer our political system as the solution to the ills of another country, then are surprised when there is struggle and conflict bringing it into effect, forgetting that it only came about here as the result of a war.

We do it when we offer glib comforts to those in mourning, assuring them that their loved ones are in a better place, as though they should be happy, when they want their loved ones right here, right now.

We do this even to the Gospel, making it into some kind of panacea, the ideal solution to all of life’s ills. We get caught up in the promises of healing and wholeness, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of life abundant – and we forget for a moment to look around and notice that there are still unreconciled differences between us, that there is still pain and suffering, that even as we proclaim life we are haunted by the deaths of those we have loved, of those we have seen on television in Libya or in New Zealand, by the knowledge of our own unresolved mortality.

When we create a false picture of perfection, and reality breaks in, we are deflated by a profound sigh of disappointment.

But Jesus, perhaps, had a more perfect view of what makes for perfection than we do.

In the brief gospel image of the kingdom of God offered for St David’s Day, the abundant life of the growing seed and its glorious and mysterious harvest is balanced by the means by which it is harvested. I don’t know about you, but the only time I ever see a sickle, or a scythe pictured, it is in the hands of that cloaked and hooded skeletal figure which personifies death in our cultural imagination. Now, I realize that for the first century audience of that little story, a sickle was a much more ordinary agricultural tool than it is for us today. It was a much less fraught image, with few of the melodramatic overtones or undertones that accompany the hooded figure of death. Even so, having watched the seed grow by night and by day, mysteriously and wonderfully, I can’t help but think that the man of the story must have caught his breath for a moment, hesitated for a heartbeat as he laid his blade against the first stalk of wheat.

This is not a picture postcard of the kingdom of God. It isn’t static; it lives and breathes. This little story of growth and harvest captures the wonder of creation, the mystery of a life fruitfully lived, the pain which accompanies a coming to fruition. This story of growth and harvest understands that life is accompanied by death; that even as the abundance of grain feeds the man’s family or is sold at market to feed another and enrich his family’s purse, there is a loss. The sickle severs the heads from their stalks. The field is left full of stubble. The wind no longer whistles through the long grasses.

 I’ll admit that I’m a little distracted lately by the thought that after two and a half years, I am now at the point where in two and a half months I will be harvesting my degree from Bexley Hall and heading out to market. There is plenty of good in that change, and I am grateful for the steady watering and nourishment which the faculty and staff of Bexley Hall and Trinity Lutheran Seminaries have offered me. But there is certainly a loss involved in moving on from this place, and I find myself catching my breath when I think about the near future.

That, perhaps, is an easy loss to incorporate into our picture of perfection. Others are of course much harder to bear.

We see in the winds of change blowing across North Africa and the Middle East that there is nothing simple and straightforward about the coming to fulfillment of a democratic movement or a revolutionary uprising.

We know the pain of loss. Grief, homesickness, fears of sickness and death are very real to us.

But the image of the kingdom of God we find in this gospel doesn’t shy away from the difficult parts of life. The good news implied in this gospel is that none of the imperfections that we see in life, the danger, the death, the pain and the loss, none of these means that the promises are false, that the kingdom of God has not drawn near. Instead, it understands that catch in the man’s breath as he lays his blade against the grain. The kingdom of God is present in the rain and the cold, as well as in breathtaking beauty. It understands the helplessness of a mother watching her child trying to breathe, the struggles of people trying to free themselves from a tyrannical regime or from a fallen city.

The perfection of Jesus’ own growth into glory included and encompassed death, that final breath on the cross.

Other passages, other promises of Scripture speak of a future when there will be no more death, no more grief, no more sorrow, and these bring us hope. But this gospel comforts us that, for the time being, we needn’t pretend that this future has already come to pass. We can tell it like it is, without denying any part of life or our experiences of death and loss. God is with us as we grow, as we bear fruit, and God is with us when the sickle falls and we are transformed into something new, something else, something wonderful.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing , and Whom Shall I Fear? Urgent Questions for Christians in an Age of Violence, both from Upper Room Books. She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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