Texts: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17; Mark 4:26-34
Theme: Not at all obvious this week. I'm going for "Nature Mysticism" for reasons that may or may not become clear as these notes proceed.
Introduction. Both Ezekiel and Jesus take their cue from the natural world today. Their teaching proceeds analogically from observation of natural processes. St Paul (at a stretch!) takes a similar line with his reference to the new creation (in contrast, of course, to the old creation, the natural world). He is particularly interesting today as he sees the main contrast between the old and new creations as being the difference between selfishness and altruism – living for ourselves or living for others (for Christ).
Background. There are a number of ways into these texts today. One is the time of the year. We are approaching midwinter. Naked, apparently lifeless, trees are all around us. The dazzling colours of summer and autumn have gone from our sight and faded from our memory. It's harder to see God in such a pared-down environment. The natural world is passing through its Good Friday and Holy Saturday experiences: resurrection is still some weeks away. Our faith alone stands witness to the sure and certain hope of a new spring.
Another useful context may be the ghastly unfolding drama of the Feilding Murder Trial. Human nature in all its frailty and failings is being laid bare for all to see, to stop and ponder, to look at ourselves, our relationships, and how we treat other people. Whatever the outcome of the trial (whether Ewen killed Scott or not), is outside our knowledge at this time. But the animosity that had already built up between them is not: we have known about it since the first time we heard or read the story of Cain and Abel. In the night before Jesus was betrayed by one of his own inner circle, and thrice denied by another, the whole jolly lot had been jockeying for position. Power, property, position, privilege, all such selfish desires are what St Paul had in mind when he urged the Corinthians to start again – to recognise that in Christ we have become a new creation. Mystics down through the ages have talked of the need to crucify our old self with its emphasis on having, and enter the Self where life is all about being, not.
Which gets me to my favourite mystic at the moment. Thanks to the wonders of Kindle I am reading my way through the works of Evelyn Underhill, all of which are available at a ridiculously low price (some are even free and others are 99 cents American. The major works, each over 500 pages long, are less than $US 6. End of Advertisement.) One of her great strengths is that she herself was a mystic, so her works are all infused with practical experience as well as enormous learning. And yet she is able to write clearly and simply for beginners like me. The first step is to learn to be fully present in whatever we are doing. Have you ever had the experience of reading a book, turning over a page, and then realising that your mind has been somewhere else and you have no clear recollection of what you have just read? Something similar may even have occurred to you in a church service! Or you may have been driving into the city and suddenly realised that you have already passed Pigeon Flat but have no clear recollection of doing so.
Buddhists refer to this mental propensity as "Monkey mind" apparently. I think for me the better analogy is the roving dog. Tie him up as best you can, fence-proof your yard, or whatever, and sooner or later he will break free and go off on an adventure of his own. Underhill stresses the need to learn to control the mind through daily sessions of meditation. The classical name for this process is recollection, to keep the mind focused on one thing, and bring it back every time it wanders off by itself. The next stage is to learn to really look at things without analysing, classifying, naming and judging. To observe the world around us as it is, to relate to it in its reality, to understand it in relation to ourselves. From this grows a love for the created world, the first and basic stage of nature mysticism, which is the start (first stage) of the contemplative life.
Dame Julian of Norwich famously held a small round object, about the size of a hazelnut, in the palm of her hand and wondered how something so small could go on existing. It then came to her that this object is "all there is" (a representative sample of all creation), and that it existed because God created it, God loves it, and God sustains it (keeps it in existence). All very simple but profound. Bear that in mind as you ponder today's short passage from the prophet Ezekiel.
Ezekiel. In that characteristic phrase of prophetic writing, the word of the Lord frequently came to Ezekiel. In the most famous passage in this book, it did a lot more than that, of course: he was transported to a valley full of dry bones. Today nothing so spectacular occurs, but he is given a "word picture". God describes a somewhat unusual method of propagating cedar trees, using a cutting from the highest growing tips of a mature tree. Not being an expert in the field, I have no idea whether such a method was ever used in practice, but that's not the point. The point is, what is happening for Ezekiel at this moment? My guess is that he is up in the mountains somewhere, marvelling at the height of some full-grown cedars, and reminding himself that each of them came from a small seed in a cone. Perhaps he also saw a wee 'self-sown' sapling nearby. As he contemplated all this a voice inside him started to speak, drawing an analogy between a great cedar tree and Israel. We are used to the image of Israel as a vine planted by the Lord; this one is similar. Just as God causes trees to grow, so he is the source of all life for the people of Israel.
Whatever the deficiencies may or not be from the point of view of plantation forestry, the imagery helps to convey an important message about Israel. Firstly, it is dependent for its life, health and growth on God. Secondly, life comes from life, the living pass on life to others. Thirdly, the tree/nation does not exist for itself: it reaches (branches) out to provide care, shelter and nourishment to others. It must be hospitable, welcoming birds/people of every kind. Fourthly, it will bear fruit, and we remember what John's gospel tells us along these lines. Fifthly,It will be an example to other trees/nations, to the glory of God. Finally, this is not head knowledge, something that Ezekiel has learned through study or intellectual activity, logic and inference. This is knowledge that has "come to him" through the word of God. It's what the mystics refer to as intuition or infused knowledge. It's at the heart of nature mysticism.
Taking It Personally.
· Are you a good looker? No, I'm not asking about your appearance, but your ability to really look at something. Follow Dame Julian's example. Pick up a small object – a nut would be ideal – and really look at it for 5 minutes. What does that process teach you?
· If you are a gardener, take a cutting from a shrub or something. As you go through this process rehearse this passage in your mind. What does this process tell you that hadn't become clear to you from simply reading the passage?
· Focus your attention on a bare deciduous tree. How does it differ in appearance from a dead tree? What gives you confidence that the tree will produce new leaves in due course? Is that just Nature doing her thing, or is it by God's will? Are they just two ways of saying the same thing?
· Draw a tree to represent yourself. What sort of tree is it? Tall and strong, gnarled and windswept, open and multi-branched, clipped and narrow, "good for food and pleasing to the eye", or ready for the wood-pile? Take your findings into prayer.
Corinthians. St Paul knew nothing about tidy paragraphs, much less self-contained sound-bites. Consequently it is often difficult to make extracts from his writings with a clear beginning and ending. Today is a good example. We open with a characteristic "Therefore", a word much loved by St Paul, which inevitably refers to something that he has already written. In this case he has written an extremely important sentence immediately before this "Therefore": Now it is God who has made us for this very purpose and has given us the Spirit as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come. Our passage also finishes too early, omitting to remind us that we are given the same ministry of reconciliation that was given by the Father to the Son. For me the important verses in this passage are verses 14-17, as St Paul begins to spell out his understanding of the new creation in Christ. His teaching is interpreted in the mystical tradition as dying to the self (the demanding ego) and being born into the Self
Taking It Personally.
· Paul hangs loose to his own mortality because of his confidence in his own immortality. Do you?
· Ponder his reference to the "judgment seat of Christ". How do you feel about that? Are you accountable for your life in this way? Are you more comfortable with the idea of "consequences", "reaping what we sow", "bringing it on our own heads"? How does that differ from "karma"?
· How much does fear (for example, of doing the wrong thing) govern your life?
· Use verses 15-17 as a basis for self-examination today. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you seek to apply these verses to yourself.
Mark. Read the whole of chapter 4 before concentrating on today's passage. Look at its structure, and notice the surprising ending. It's primarily concerned with Jesus' preferred teaching method of parables. It opens with one of his major parables, the Parable of the Sower, including a somewhat laboured explanation. Then the flow seems to be interrupted (verses 21-25) by some notes on the teaching method and the demands that places on the students (disciples): the teacher requires the students to do some work for themselves. Then follow two more "seed" parables, before the chapter ends with a seemingly unrelated episode of the Stilling of the Storm (more about that next week).
Taking It Personally.
· Still on the gardening theme, sow some seeds as you ponder today's little parables. What do you "see" in this teaching from acting this out that wasn't obvious to you as you read the text?
· Refer back to verses 21-25. What do they tell you about your approach to grasping the inner meaning of Jesus' parables? Have you 'ears to hear'?
· Notice the similarity in wording between verse 32 and the passage from Ezekiel. Are you an open and welcoming presence to others?
· Ponder verse 34. Why is Jesus using a different approach to teaching the insiders and outsiders? Does that say something about the teaching ministry of the Church?