A Provocation: Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost: August 19, 2018: John 6:51-58

John 6:51-58
6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

6:52 The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

6:53 So Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.

6:54 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day;

6:55 for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

6:56 Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.

6:57 Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.

6:58 This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.”

A Question or Two:

  • Why is the Exodus so important to John?

Some Longer Reflections:

Jesus.  And bread.  And Jesus.  And bread.  Again.

You likely know all the things I know about Jesus and bread, week after week, year after year.

I work with a text study group: strong pastors, gentle people, kind colleagues.  I was rehearsing all the usual paths through this scene: bread is the “staff of life” (especially for ordinary folk in the ancient world who surely could not even imagine the kind of diet we think is normal); so Jesus is the living bread that everyone can afford, not just the wealthy; the word translated as “eat” actually means “gnaw,” which is worth thinking about; more shocking than that is the line about drinking Jesus’ blood, which runs contrary to any imaginable teaching; etc.  It was going okay.

And then one of the pastors (John Hansen, actually, a strong and insightful person) wondered what the Greek word for “food” was.  “What if this scene isn’t about the Sacrament?” he wondered.  “What if it is about the Incarnation?”

That is a terrific thing to wonder.

What if Jesus means to say that, having come down from the sky, his body is now wormfood?  That is an essential characteristic of human being (and being human).  It also fits strikingly well with the word the storyteller uses for “food.”  The word,βρῶσις, means food, that which can be eaten.  But it also refers to rust and the quality of being liable to be “eaten into.”  In other words: wormfood.

Our imaginations reach to the stars, and our inventions travel to them.  Our creations are stunning, both in their beauty and in their destructive power.  Our hopes reach beyond all limitations.  And we are wormfood.  That physical fact does not reduce our soaring imagination or creative ability.  And our simple mortality energizes our spirit.  If the Deity truly shares our human being, then Jesus’ body has to be wormfood.

This is a short provocation, but it is a strong one.

The notion that the Creator (apart from whom was nothing made that was made) becomes fully subject to the limitations of that Creation is a strange notion, and a strong one.  There is a deep stream in Christian theology, going back at least as far as Irenaeus, whose explorations of the Christian imagination I find amazing.  He reflected on what the Incarnation did to human being, and his imagination soared to the notion that Jesus brought us to share Divinity.

This is a powerful idea.

But this provocation goes in the other direction.  What does the Incarnation do to God?  Our limitations, our unshakeable mortality mean that we can break things that cannot be fixed.  We can lose things that can never be recovered.  We learn that our best creations can be lost and forgotten.  And we learn this together.  It teaches us how precious life is, and how transient.  It teaches us how precious we all are.

In our short time together, we grieve and we rejoice.  We give birth to ideas and to each other.  As we huddle together, we discover love.  We discover love because we are mortal.

That puts an interesting spin on John 3:16.  “Thus God loved the Cosmos: God gave the son as a firstborn.”  Perhaps mortality (discovered in the fact of Incarnation) gave birth to the mutuality of ἀγάπη.  That might be worth thinking about slowly.

It all starts with being wormfood.

A Provocation: Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost: August 12, 2018: John 6:35, 41-51

John 6:35, 41-51
6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

6:41 Then the Jews began to complain about him because he said, “I am the bread that came down from heaven.”

6:42 They were saying, “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?”

6:43 Jesus answered them, “Do not complain among yourselves.

6:44 No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day.

6:45 It is written in the prophets, ‘And they shall all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.

6:46 Not that anyone has seen the Father except the one who is from God; he has seen the Father.

6:47 Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life.

6:48 I am the bread of life.

6:49 Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.

6:50 This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die.

6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.”

A Question or Two:

  • What does the idea of heaven contribute to this scene?
  • What if all this talk about bread and flesh is not simply a coded reference to Communion?
  • What if these words refer to putting your life on the line?

Some Longer Reflections:

“I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

I have to tell you, I am both hungry and thirsty.

Watching political discussion descend into vituperation makes me hunger to be part of a community and culture that identifies the problems that break us and, having identified them, crafts practical solutions that respond to hopeful dreams.

Listening to trolls who are gleeful as they attack anyone who wonders if we can’t do this better makes me thirst for a community and culture that models honor and respect.

Watching ideologues who have one little truth in their hands, ideologues who have been trained to ridicule anyone who has a different truth (however little) makes me desperately hungry and thirsty for the company of people who expect the world to be complex and expect therefore to learn something even from their opponents.

I am enough of a student of history to recognize that there was never a Golden Age when such hungers and thirsts were satisfied.  Historians of an earlier generation debated whether American history was a story of conflict or consensus.  It has always been a story of both, I think.  And I think that is likely true, no matter what community or culture you call home.

But my hunger and thirst do not grow out of a sentimental longing for an imaginary happy time.

I am hungry and thirsty because I am afraid.

Last winter a large group of us joined a march to protest gun violence.  It was very cold and it was snowing.  Across the street was a young man armed with a rifle.  He also was carrying an American flag.  We ignored him, but we noticed him.  Out of the corners of our eyes, we watched him to see what he planned to do with his rifle.

I wondered how the man with the rifle would have reacted had people in the crowd also been armed.  (It would have been incongruous, given the aim of the protest, but still I wondered.)  I wondered what it means that (according to a study conducted by the Urban Institute) a white man who shoots a black man and claims he was “standing his ground” is seventeen times more likely to be acquitted than is a black man who “stands his ground” against a white attacker.  I wondered if the man with the rifle would care about such studies, or if he would see in them a justification for him walking around nervously displaying his gun.

I remembered a time, now nearly 50 years ago when I overheard an acquaintance, a co-worker, talking about how he and his friends were going to bring their shotguns to a protest against the war in Vietnam to “teach those damned hippies a lesson they won’t forget.”  He did not know that I was one of the planners of that event.  He was right: I have not forgotten.

I wonder about the impact of Jesus’ words in the midst of this real hunger and thirst, in the middle of well-earned fear.

If those words are used to shame people who hunger and thirst for justice, then Jesus is engaged in a sharp disagreement with himself.  Matthew’s Jesus, in such a reading, is hungry in a way that John’s Jesus rules out.

Such readings are misreadings.

I take Jesus’ words to be like the words of the songs by the people who faced down white supremacists armed with firehoses and snarling police dogs.  One of my teachers was a Freedom Rider in those days.  She said they sang because they were afraid.  But they sang also because they needed to “keep their eyes on the prize,” to quote one of the songs that gave them hope.

I think that Jesus’ words give us a song to sing in these fearsome times.  They offer a glimpse of a community and culture that is worth working and hoping for.

They do not describe the community and culture we currently live in.

A Provocation: Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost: August 5, 2018: John 6:24-35

John 6:24-35
6:24 So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

6:25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?”

6:26 Jesus answered them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.

6:27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

6:28 Then they said to him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?”

6:29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.”

6:30 So they said to him, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing?

6:31 Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.'”

6:32 Then Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but it is my Father who gives you the true bread from heaven.

6:33 For the bread of God is that which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.”

6:34 They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.”

6:35 Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.

A Question or Two:

  • Why is bread called the “staff of life?”
  • No, really, why?

Some Longer Reflections:

It is time that we quit “believing in” God.  Or Jesus.  Or anyone.

Now that I have your attention (or, more likely, now that my reading audience is suddenly smaller and more puzzled), I should probably explain what I think I mean.

Whenever I hear someone say they “believe in” God, I cannot help myself.  I think of the Cowardly Lion in the movie, The Wizard of Oz.  You know the scene.  The heroes are walking through the Haunted Forest.  The Tin Man announces that it is silly to believe in spooks, only to be lifted from the ground and then dropped unceremoniously in a heap.  The Lion then begins chanting his mantra: “I DO believe in spooks.  I DO believe in spooks.  I do, I do, I DO believe in spooks.”

Sometimes when people talk about “believing in God” they could just as well say that they believe in spooks. Or do NOT believe in spooks.  It’s all pretty superstitious, and at least some popular atheists are as superstitious as anybody.  At least it sounds that way to me.  It makes me nervous.

And sometimes it makes me even more nervous when people “believe in” Jesus.  Sometimes they mean that they have the only valid way of being a real Christian.  They call themselves “orthodox,” which just means that they have found someone who is “heterodox” that they want to be superior to.  A long time ago, Kris Kristofferson (in a song he said he owed to John Prine) got it about right:

Cause everybody’s got to have somebody to look down on                                            Someone they can feel better than anytime they please.                                                 Someone doin’ somethin’ dirty decent folks can frown on.                                             If you can’t find nobody else, then help yourself to me.                                       (Jesus Was A Capricorn, 1972)

It doesn’t so much matter “Orthodox what?”  Far too often we use the term just to identify someone else by slanderous contrast, and thus establish our own rightness.

It is time we were done with that.

The phrase that is translated as “believe in” is  πιστεύω εἰς, and that phrase needs a closer look. 

First of all, while we are accustomed to the English notion of believing “in,” the Greek εἰς means “into.”  Translators explain that as meaning that εἰς is being used sloppily, and dialectically, as if “into” was a synonym for “in.”  But that won’t really do, I think.  In English, the two words, different as they are, still share the word “in,” and the notion is that they are somehow part of the same process: if you go “into” a place, then that is the place that you are “in.”  Problem solved.

Well, not in Greek.

In Greek, the two words behind all this are εἰς and ἐν.  The first is a directional word, and renders movement toward and into something; the second can be lots of things, but most just suggest a location, somehow.  If the storyteller had spoken (in Greek) of πιστεύω ἐν (“believing in”), it would refer, somehow, to where you were when you engaged in the act of believing.  That would be odd to translate.  In the scene for this week, the storyteller has Jesus talk about πιστεύω εἰς, about believing “into.”  Whatever that would mean.  

The difficulty is that “believing” in English (whether you are talking about spooks or Jesus) refers (somehow) to a state, a place, somewhere where you can be somehow right.  It is a kind of “stative” verb, and doesn’t exactly express action or movement.  And you can tell that by noticing how awkward it is to try to imagine what “believing into” would mean.

But that is what the phrase in the Greek original says.

The problem is with the word πιστεύω.  Lexicons will tell you that the word means “believe,” and they are sort of right.  But if you dig deeper, you will see that they also tell you that the word means “trust.”  This is also sort of right, and many sermons have been written expanding on the idea that “it is not enough to believe that God exists if you do not trust God to save you.”   Or something.  

The problem with this theology is not with the idea of trusting God, which seems a good thing, all in all.  The problem is with the phrase “it is not enough….”  Any theology that slides into such language will finally always do its work by killing you first.  The dangers of such a notion ought to be clear.  Such theologies imagine a God so furious with our “not-enough-ness” that God has to kill us to make us alive.  If you begin by wallowing in the glorious fury of God, you will have a hard time trusting the deep kindness and mercy (hesed) that both Jewish Scripture and Christian Scripture see as the truest characteristic of the God who creates and calls.

If you read and reflect further, you will notice that, in Jewish texts, πιστεύω and its associated noun, πιστις, refer to the patterns of Torah observance that students learn from their rabbis.  In Jewish texts, πιστεύω refers to the patterns of faithful life that people learn, the patterns that shape them so that everything they do points to the God who made them and loves them intensely.  The patterns vary from rabbi to rabbi, but the deep content is the same: it all comes down to a pattern of living that embodies hesed, the deep kindness of God.

The gospel of John is a Jewish text.

Jesus is Jewish, now and always. 

That would mean that when people as him, “What must we do to perform the works of God?,” they are asking him, as a rabbi, to identify the pattern of living that he teaches.  His answer, then, becomes rather interesting: he says, “This is the work of God, that you shape your lives into the pattern seen in the messiah whom God has sent.”

So, once again, we have a choice to make: does God send messiah to embody the fury of God that burns hot against all human failing?  Or does God love the cosmos so deeply as to have sent messiah to embody that love?

There is something in human religiosity that seems to love anger.  Anger will drive us apart and kill all hope.

There is something in the gospel that offers life, love, and restoration of the entire cosmos.  That is the pattern that we are to “believe into.”

A Provocation: Tenth Sunday after Pentecost: July 29, 2018: John 6:1-21

John 6:1-21
6:1 After this Jesus went to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, also called the Sea of Tiberias.

6:2 A large crowd kept following him, because they saw the signs that he was doing for the sick.

6:3 Jesus went up the mountain and sat down there with his disciples.

6:4 Now the Passover, the festival of the Jews, was near.

6:5 When he looked up and saw a large crowd coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread for these people to eat?”

6:6 He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he was going to do.

6:7 Philip answered him, “Six months’ wages would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.”

6:8 One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him,

6:9 “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish. But what are they among so many people?”

6:10 Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.” Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.

6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.

6:12 When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”

6:13 So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.

6:14 When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”

6:15 When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

6:16 When evening came, his disciples went down to the sea,

6:17 got into a boat, and started across the sea to Capernaum. It was now dark, and Jesus had not yet come to them.

6:18 The sea became rough because a strong wind was blowing.

6:19 When they had rowed about three or four miles, they saw Jesus walking on the sea and coming near the boat, and they were terrified.

6:20 But he said to them, “It is I; do not be afraid.”

6:21 Then they wanted to take him into the boat, and immediately the boat reached the land toward which they were going.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus decide to feed the people?  The storyteller has not told us that they are hungry.

Some Longer Reflections:

This feeding story is one of those rare episodes that appears in all four canonical gospels.  All four gospels share the same basic structure in telling their story of Jesus the Messiah.  But each of the four diverges and tells its own individual story.  Especially John.

But all four share a version of this story, even as they shape it their own ways.  Only John sets it in the context of Passover, which makes the eating interesting.  The foods are not part of the Passover meal, but the provision of food for people on a journey (the Exodus) links this scene with the Passover in Egypt.  The Synoptic gospels draw attention to the hunger of the people and set the story (sometimes explicitly) in the wilderness.  John does not say, or even imply, that the people are hungry or without resources.  Jesus, in John’s version of the story, simply chooses to feed the people.

When the feeding is done, the disciples gather up twelve baskets of bread fragments.  In the gospel of Mark, where there are two separate feeding scenes, when Jesus feeds people in Jewish territory the disciples gather up the fragments in twelve baskets (the number of the tribes of the people of God), and when Jesus feeds people in Gentiles territory the disciples gather up seven baskets of fragments (the number of the nations of Gentiles).  In both cases, the numbers imply wholeness and completeness, so Mark’s storyteller might be signaling that God sends Messiah to nourish all Jews and all Gentiles, which is to say: all the people in all of Creation.

In John, with its single feeding story, the twelve baskets of fragments could signal that Messiah is sent only to Jews.  This would fit with other elements in the story, I suppose.  The feeding takes place on the way to Passover, the festival that remembers what it took to rescue the people of God from the greatest Gentile power of the time, Egypt.  And the people who eat look at the feeding as a sign that Jesus is the “prophet who is to come into the world.”  This is something that Jews would know, and care about, but everyone else would have no clue about.

But it is just as possible that the number twelve here signals the perfect eschatological completion of all things: all of Creation gathered together as a beautiful, beloved Cosmos.  This also fits with John’s larger story: in John 3, it is the whole Cosmos that God “so loves.”  If that is the case, then the festival of Passover signals, this time, that all of Creation is being freed from slavery, just as Israel was freed from physical slavery in Egypt.

I favor this last reading, just as I favor the stream of tradition in John’s story that exults in God’s delight with all of Creation.  It is easy to find parts of John’s gospel (as it currently exists) that angrily reject anyone who is somehow not ideologically exactly right.  At the height of this anger, the storyteller (of John’s complicated and composite gospel) forces Jesus to call faithful Jews “children of [their] father, the Devil” (John 8:44).  This angry voice twists and distorts (in fact, I would say, destroys) the picture of a God who delights in the Cosmos and loves it.  You can find those angry, distorting moments in the story, but you can also find other streams of tradition in John’s story, and those other streams bring life, not crude anger.  I favor life over anger, and I think the oldest stream of storytelling in John agrees with me.

For now, notice that the crowd of Jews on their way to Passover sees the healing and feeding that Jesus does, and calls them all signs that God is reclaiming and restoring Creation, an act of Divine Love (6:14). 

Notice this carefully, because in just twelve verses another stream flows into the story and forces Jesus to say that this same crowd did not see signs at all, but just saw food.  This marks a serious disjunction in the flow of the story.  Either there is a single storyteller who is painting Jesus as inconsistent, even sharply self-contradictory (which would be odd indeed), or the storyteller is being painted as somehow inattentive, as not listening even as the story is being told (which might be even more odd), or we have before us a collision between two storytellers, two streams of tradition.  This last option seems best to fit the textual evidence, at least it seems so to me.

And that would leave us with a choice.  Which stream of tradition are we going to swim in: the one that presents a crowd that sees a sign of a loving act of a loving God, or the one that is excited by an angry Jesus?

You have a real choice here, even if you do not read the textual history of John the way I do.  Do you think that God accomplishes salvation and restoration of Creation by means of love or by means of fury?  I think the choice is best solved through theological consideration.  Which choice nourishes a life-giving theology?  Martin Luther, when confronted with the grace of God and the wrath of God, said that he only dared reflect on God’s grace.  I think that, in this, he was quite right.

A Provocation: Ninth Sunday after Pentecost: July 22, 2018: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

30 And the apostles gathered to Jesus

and reported to him all the things that they did

and the things that they taught.  

31 And he says to them:

You yourselves come alone into a wilderness place and rest a little,

for those coming and those going were many

and they did not even have time to eat.  

32 And they went away in the boat into a wilderness place

alone.  

33 Many saw them going off

and knew them

and they ran together by foot from all the cities there.

They came there ahead of them.  

34 After he got out,

he saw a great crowd.

He was moved for them:

they were as sheep that did not have a shepherd.

He began to teach them many things.  

 

54 As they were getting out of the boat,

BANG they recognized him.

55 The whole of that region ran around

and began to carry

upon pallets

those who were in a bad way.

They carried them around wherever they heard that he was.  

56 Wherever he went into a village,

or into a city,

or into a field,

in the fields they placed the weak.

They kept calling him

so that they touch even the fringe of his garment.

As many as touched it were rescued.

A Question or Two:

  • How did the people in the new place “recognize” Jesus?  They had not seen his face on TV, or read about him on Facebook.
  • What was the substance of that “recognition.”

Some Longer Reflections:

So what is this about being like “sheep that did not have a shepherd?”

If the image is to be read politically, it is no surprise that they do not have a shepherd.  Rome rules the Mediterranean, and thus Rome rules the Jewish homeland.  And before Rome there was a parade of foreign rulers all the way back to the Babylonian Conquest.  The Jewish people have not had a Jewish leader since 586 B.C.E.

If this is political (and it IS political, but it may be other things as well), the storyteller is telling us that Jesus shares the desire for freedom and autonomy.  The storyteller is making it clear that Jesus is a patriot, not a Roman collaborator or a non-partisan religious being who is above it all.  That matters.

If the image is to be read religiously, interpreters need to proceed wisely.  Preachers sometimes imagine that the point is that Jesus thinks Judaism provides no guidance, no shepherding.  When preachers do this, they often make Jesus into a Protestant, usually some kind of “non-denominational” Evangelical.

Jesus was not any kind of Evangelical, denominational or otherwise.  Jesus is Jewish.

But the storyteller might be making a comment about the Temple.  The Jerusalem Temple was the stable center of the Jewish world, but the Temple as it stood then was the work of Herod the Great, the murderous ruler that the rabbis refuse to recognize as a Jew.  And the priests who staffed the Temple had the task of managing the re-balancing of the world and thus were essential to Jewish life.  But Rome had suborned the Chief Priests, forcing them to become a Roman “organ of liaison,” the local link through which Rome controlled its conquered peoples.  All of this meant that the factors that made the world stable had been undercut, and therefore it was (again) not surprising that the people were like sheep without a shepherd.

Or the storyteller could be making a comment for the contemporary audience.  Though Jesus lived in the first 1/3 of the 1st century C.E., the gospel of Mark was written in its current form in the last 1/3 of that century.  The story came to its final form, therefore, after Rome had destroyed the Temple.  The Temple and its staff of priests, however compromised by Roman actions, had kept the world stable.  The storyteller might, therefore, be telling us that the destruction of the Temple had left the people without stability, without safety, and thus like sheep without a shepherd.

And if the image is to be read sociologically, the storyteller is telling us that the people with power were managing the world to preserve their own interests, their own advantages, their own privilege.  That means that common people were left vulnerable.  This is not a new phenomenon, nor is it uncommon.

The outcome of this twisting of society can be see in Madeleine Albright’s book, Fascism: A Warning.  “To create tyranny out of the fears and hopes of average people, money is required, and so, too, ambition and twisted ideas.  It is the combination that kills.”  (Fascism: A Warning, chapter p. 229)  Common people are left without protection against the wolves that will hunt them.  And sometimes those common people even find themselves supporting the wolves that hunt them.  This is very likely what the storyteller means by “sheep without a shepherd.”

So, the question for this week is: why does Jesus respond to this complex situation by “teach[ing] them many things?”  What does he teach them?

Think about this carefully.  I do not trust the simpler answers.  Jesus is called (quite helpfully) a “messiah of peace,” but that does not mean that he is simple or non-political, and it does not mean that he is passive.  It may not mean that he is a pacifist, at least not in any usual way.  Jesus is also called a true revolutionary, but that does not mean that he can be enlisted in any and every revolution that is recruiting.  Jesus is called the “lamb of God” (whatever that means), but reading Revelation makes it clear that Christians did not imagine that Jesus was simply a non-resisting victim.

This is complicated.  But if we are to be followers of the Messiah, we have to puzzle out what Messiah might teach us about the political, religious, and sociological meaning of being “without a shepherd.”  What are the things that leave people unprotected, aimless, hopeless?  What do we do when we learn that we have no protection, no goal, and nothing on which we dare stake ourselves?

Secretary Albright offers us help here.  Fascism, in her view arises out of such political, religious, and sociological vulnerability.  It arises, she suggests, because it tells people whom to fear and whom to resent.  (Fascism, p. 8)  What did Jesus teach that would counteract the message of fear and resentment?

A Provocation: Eighth Sunday after Pentecost: July 15, 2018: Mark 6:14-29

Mark 6:14-29

14 And Herod the king heard,

for his name was becoming visible,

he was saying:

“John the Baptizer has been raised out of death

and on account of this the deeds of power are being worked in him. ” 

15 But others were saying:

“Elijah it is.”  

Others were saying:

“A prophet!

Like, one of the prophets!”  

16 But after Herod heard, he was saying:

“The one whom I beheaded,

(John, wasn’t it?),

that one has been raised.”  

17 For the same Herod sent

and arrested John

and imprisoned him in a guardhouse

on account of Herodias the wife of Phillip,

his brother,

because he married her.  

18 For John kept saying to Herod:

“It is not allowed for you to have the wife of your brother. ” 

19 But Herodias had it in for him

and wanted to kill him,

and she was not able.  

20 For Herod feared John

because he knew him to be a righteous and holy man.

He protected him;

he listened to him many times;

he was very much at a loss.  

He did listen to him gladly.  

21 An opportune day came when Herod

for his birthday

made a feast for his courtiers

and the commanders of the cohorts

and the leading citizens of Galilee.  

22 His daughter came in,

(the daughter of Herodias)

she danced and it was pleasing

to Herod

and to the dinner guests.

The king said to the little girl:

“Ask me whatever you wish and I will give it to you.”

23 He swore to her:

“Whatever you ask me I will give to you,

up to half of my dominion.”  

24 She went out;

she said to her mother:

“What shall I ask?”  

She said:

“The head of John the Baptizer.”  

25 After she went in

BANG with haste

to the king

she asked,

she says to him:

“I want…,

at once…,

I want you to give to me…,

upon a plate…,

the head of John the Baptizer.”

26 The king became very sad

on account of the oaths and the dinner guests

he did not want to put her off.

27 BANG the king sent a guard

he commanded him to bring the head to him.  

After he went out he beheaded him in the guardhouse

28 and brought the head his upon a plate

and gave it to the little girl

and the little girl gave it to her mother.  

29 And after his disciples heard

they came and picked up his corpse

and placed it in a grave.

(This translation is from my book, Provoking the Gospel of Mark: A Storyteller’s Commentary.)

A Question or Two:

  • Who did Herod invite to his party?
  • Why did they accept the invitation?

Some Longer Reflections:

There are two examples of creativity in this scene.

Creativity matters.  It is a trait we share with God, in whose image we are created.

The first instance of creativity is rooted in how people are seeing Jesus.

They hear his teaching.  They see people healed and restored.  And they say, “Elijah!”  They say, “A Prophet!”

That is not simply a perception.  That is an interpretation, a creation.

We do it all the time.  Seeing isn’t just seeing.  Seeing always involves “seeing as.”  Sometimes we call it “recognition,” which incorporates cognition into perception.  And when we say that someone is “perceptive,” we do not just mean that the organs involved in sense perception are in working order.  We sometimes use the word, “perceptive,” when we are talking about people who have “insight, ” which is another word that involves seeing and something much more.

In this case, the act of creative seeing has its roots in faith.  For people to see Jesus and say, “Elijah!,” they have to know the stories about Elijah, they have to remember what he did and they have to remember that Elijah’s acts were seen as the acts of God in the world.  But more than that, they have to expect God to act like that again.

Think about that.

People see and hear Jesus.  They see Elijah because they remember Elijah.  And in seeing and remembering Jesus and Elijah, they see God.

That is important, given that God is achingly invisible, a word that needs to be said more vigorously, somehow.  “Invisible” seems too tame, too detached, too something.  It is not that God can’t be seen (like air can’t be seen, but is still obviously there).  The problem is that God NEEDS to be seen, and we cannot see Her.  That is what makes this seen of creative and faithful insight so important.  People need to see God, and they do see Her, because the stories they remember teach them how.

That is one of the things that worries me about the present moment.  I find fewer people who remember the stories that would teach them to see God acting in the world.  To be sure, many people DO remember those stories, but (in my experience) there are fewer people who know the stories well enough to look at Jesus and say, “Elijah!”

And I find more people who know stories about God know mostly sentimental and superstitious stories, which diminishes what they can mean when they say, “God!”

When the people in the story say, “Elijah!  A prophet!,” they expect that this perception will require something of them, something that will transform them even as God transforms the world. 

That is the real creativity in this scene.  It makes people new.  It remakes the world, raising it to life.

The second creative act in this scene comes a bit later, and has a rather different outcome.

Herod has a birthday.  Herod has a party.  Herod invites a crowd of people who, like him, are deeply woven into the play of power that is the Roman Empire: his courtiers, his commanders, and the “leading citizens of Galilee.”  Many of these people might have been (somehow) Jewish.  Herod was, though the rabbis refuse to recognize that murderer as a Jew.  But if the people at the party were (somehow) Jewish, anyone looking in the window would have seen them as involved and implicated in the play of Roman power.

Herod had a party, and at the party Herod’s daughter danced.  We do not know what kind of dance this was, only that it was danced by a little girl, and that it pleased the crowd.

Let this disturb you a bit.  No matter what is going on, there is something dangerous going on.

Herod offers the little girl a reward for her dancing.  The girl asks her mother what this reward should be.  The answer is disgusting, but not surprising, given that this is Herod’s family: murder runs in this family.

But now comes the act of creativity. 

When the little girl goes back to Herod, she does not simply repeat her mother’s words.  That would have been shocking in itself.

When the little girl goes back, she says:

 

 

I want…,

at once…,

I want you to give to me…,

upon a plate…,

the head of John the Baptizer.

She does not simply repeat what she heard.  She improvises.

My students and friends who play improvisatory jazz have told me that the way you learn to improvise is to play scales, to play through ordinary chord changes and melodic progressions.  You play basic scales and changes and progressions until they work their way into your body, until you physically re-member them.  Then, and only then, can you leap off what you have heard, leaping so that you can land in the arms of that which you have re-membered.

The little girl also knows stories, and she remembers them.  This scares me to death.

It matters what stories we re-member.

It matters very much.  It matters because those stories are what make us able to see God acting in the world.  What stories are we re-membering these days?

A Provocation: Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: July 8, 2018: Mark 6:1-13

Mark 6:1-13
6:1 He left that place and came to his hometown, and his disciples followed him.

6:2 On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, “Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands!

6:3 Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him.

6:4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

6:5 And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.

6:6 And he was amazed at their unbelief. Then he went about among the villages teaching.

6:7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits.

6:8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts;

6:9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics.

6:10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place.

6:11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.”

6:12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent.

6:13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus send the disciples out into communities were no one seems to know them?

Some Longer Reflections:

6:4 Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

I used to think that this scene was about how the old folks from the old hometown insisted on underestimating Jesus.  I might have been right to think that.  The storyteller seems to agree with me.  But working with actors has taught me never to assume that the first way you play something is the only way it can be played.  My first assumptions may still be correct.  But actors teach you that there is always more.  Always.

Here’s a thing: the people who have known you since you were a goofy kid are not overly impressed by your press releases.

This truth has more than one edge.  Sometimes people who have known you forever use that long acquaintance to undercut you and your achievements.  Gaslighting is used to “keep you in your place.”  Maybe that is what the crowd is doing in this scene.  Maybe they are trying to keep Jesus small and submissive.  Women experience this all the time.  So do men.

But there is another edge here, as well.  Communities also keep us grounded.  They keep us from taking ourselves too seriously.  What if that is what is going on in this scene?  What if Jesus’s community is reminding him to keep his feet on the ground even as he reaches for something beyond all human reach?  What if they are right?

This scene is strong enough to stand up to reading it against the grain.

When people ask, “Who do you think you are?,” it is not always an attempt to constrain you.  Sometimes, especially when they know you, they are reminding you that the world is turned right-side-up by small deeds as much as by large ones.  Ordinary lives and regular responsibilities are as much a part of saving the world as are grandiose schemes.  Sometimes they are more important.

If the crowd in this scene is telling Jesus to remember who he is, that is an important act in the gospel of Mark.  In this gospel, Jesus does not enter the story having been introduced first as being at the side of God (see the gospel of John).  He does not even enter the story as a result of a virgin birth (see Matthew and Luke).  He is drawn into the story by the words of Isaiah the prophet and of John the Baptist.  If Mark were the only gospel we had, we would properly assume that Jesus is a builder like his father, an ordinary tradesman who hears Isaiah and John and responds.  His response, in that case, is the response of a faithful Jew who knows that the world asks more of us than that we simply plod along just doing our jobs.  But the crowd is here reminding him that the world also needs us to do our jobs.

Seen in that light, the crowd is perhaps reminding Jesus that high hopes require hard work, and that faithfulness has more dimensions than just those that soar to the heavens.  They are reminding him of the need for balance.

They may still be wrong.  The storyteller thinks they are.

But it worth remembering (in every generation) that if faithful and hopeful people flit off into the heavens, the battle will be won by cynics who take advantage of their idealism.  Martin Luther might (or might not) have said that if he knew that the world was ending, he would plant a tree.  Rabbis have said similar things.  So have people who have eaten fruit from trees that were planted in the middle world-ending catastrophes.

Maybe the messiah needs balance as much as we do.

Or maybe not.

A Provocation: Sixth Sunday After Pentecost: July 1, 2018: Mark 5:21-43

Mark 5:21-43
5:21 When Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered around him; and he was by the sea.

5:22 Then one of the leaders of the synagogue named Jairus came and, when he saw him, fell at his feet

5:23 and begged him repeatedly, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well, and live.”

5:24 So he went with him. And a large crowd followed him and pressed in on him.

5:25 Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years.

5:26 She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse.

5:27 She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak,

5:28 for she said, “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.”

5:29 Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease.

5:30 Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my clothes?”

5:31 And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, ‘Who touched me?'”

5:32 He looked all around to see who had done it.

5:33 But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.

5:34 He said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”

5:35 While he was still speaking, some people came from the leader’s house to say, “Your daughter is dead. Why trouble the teacher any further?”

5:36 But overhearing what they said, Jesus said to the leader of the synagogue, “Do not fear, only believe.”

5:37 He allowed no one to follow him except Peter, James, and John, the brother of James.

5:38 When they came to the house of the leader of the synagogue, he saw a commotion, people weeping and wailing loudly.

5:39 When he had entered, he said to them, “Why do you make a commotion and weep? The child is not dead but sleeping.”

5:40 And they laughed at him. Then he put them all outside, and took the child’s father and mother and those who were with him, and went in where the child was.

5:41 He took her by the hand and said to her, “Talitha cum,” which means, “Little girl, get up!”

5:42 And immediately the girl got up and began to walk about (she was twelve years of age). At this they were overcome with amazement.

5:43 He strictly ordered them that no one should know this, and told them to give her something to eat.

 

A Question or Two:

  • Why does this story follow the story of the storm in a boat?

Some Longer Reflections:

This is a remarkable little story.  In twenty short verses, two women are healed.  One woman had “suffered under many physicians” for twelve years.  One woman had only been alive for twelve years.  Both are well at the end of the story.

Working with actors to explore biblical stories has taught me to look for those physical moments when the story crystallizes.  I see three really important crystalline moments in this story (there are more, but we’re only looking at three for now).

First, the woman comes up behind Jesus in the crushing crowd and touches his cloak.

In the middle of a jostling crowd, there is one intentional touch.  Two things happen out of this touch, both of them bodily: the woman knows “in her body” that she had been healed, and Jesus knows, again in his body, that  δύναμις (power, potency) had gone out of him.  That means that this crystalline moment unites two bodies in shock and transformation.  Watch that as it happens.

Second, the woman comes forward and falls down in front of Jesus.

This decisive action breaks the energetic but pointless dithering that we see Jesus doing.  Jesus appears even frantic, turning and turning around in the crowd, hunting and hunting, looking for the woman who had touched his cloak.  This random chaos suddenly resolves when the woman acts.  This is worth noting.  It is not the Messiah who is moving this story forward, it is the woman.  Jesus does not find her, she comes forward to him.  She may be frightened and trembling, but she is the actor that allows the scene to move forward.

The third moment takes more careful attention.

If you aren’t watching carefully, you will miss it.  I missed it for years.  It wasn’t until I started working with actors to explore these stories that I first saw it.  Now I can’t unsee it.

Jesus is speaking to the woman who came forward.  Messengers come to tell Jairus that his daughter has died.  Jesus hears them, and speaks to the father.  At first interpretive glance, this appears to be a scene that is all about Jesus’ decisive actions and words.

At first glance.

But the crystallizing moment is hidden in a tiny dependent clause.  All of these actions take place “While he was still speaking.”  If Jesus can be interrupted, he is not the decisive actor in this scene.  And the messengers trigger a shift in the scene, but that does not make them the central characters.

The storyteller informs us that Jesus is still speaking.  But that means that the woman is still listening.

I had never imagined what the message of the girl’s death would have done to the woman who touched Jesus, the woman who came forward and fell at his feet.  The first time I explored this scene with actors, the woman, kneeling at the center of the scene, heard the words, looked up sharply, and her face fell.  She heard that the little girl had died while Jesus was turning and turning around in the crowd, searching for her.

As is so often the case in Mark’s gospel, the storyteller trusts the audience to see what just happened, and leaves it to draw its own conclusions.

While he was still speaking, the messengers came.  While he was still dithering, the little girl had died.  Do not leap ahead to the end of the story and insist that everything turns out alright in the end unless you have felt the crushing realization that your child has just died, that a lovely 12 year-old life has just ended on the very brink of adulthood with the promises of the future beginning to blossom all around her.  Do not leap.  Do not insist.  The grief of the parents is real, and your need for a happy Jesus-ending obscures your ability to empathize.  In the gospel of John, when Jesus delays and Lazarus dies, both Martha and Mary say, pointedly, “If you had been here, my brother would not have died.”  I imagine Jairus might have started to say something similar to Jesus when he realized what messianic dithering had cost him.  I imagine that the girl’s mother might have said the same thing to Jesus even after her daughter was raised to life.  Or at least she thought it.

If this last crystalline moment catches your eye like it catches mine, how do you preach?  How do you ponder?  How do you imagine Messiah?

It seems to me that this moment while Jesus is still speaking teaches us to be suspicious of any notion of Messiah that sounds too much like a stereotypical “superhero.”  If our notion of Messiah offers quick and simple solutions to every problem (Miracles While You Wait!!), then the woman whose face fell stands staring at our notions in disbelief.  If there is not enough Messiah to go around, and only those who beg the right way or believe the right way, or were born the right way are rescued, then the woman’s reaction is also my reaction.  “Messiah” is a promise for all of Creation.  Anything less inclusive simply re-inscribes the randomness of life, makes it (in fact) into Scripture.

And that will not do.

This crystalline scene focuses our attention.  A “partial” Messiah (in all of the possible senses of “partial,” including “partisan”) is no Messiah at all, and properly spurs protest against a world that accepts luck and calls it virtue.  (You know the snappy saying: “He was born on third base and he thinks he hit a triple.”)  Sometimes we witness luck and call it a miracle, or see it as evidence of Divine Favor.  God is surely woven into the reality of the real world, and when people thank God for an unexpected recovery from illness or an escape from death, they are surely right to do so.  But proper faith in Messiah uses miracle stories to focus our attention on people whose daughter dies while Messiah wastes time.  If we are to be messianists (Christ-ians) and not simply gamblers who have not yet crapped out, we have to learn from the woman whose heart stops when she hears that the daughter died.

Proper stories of Messiah teach us to see those people who are left vulnerable.

A Provocation: Fifth Sunday After Pentecost: June 24, 2018: Mark 4:35-41

Mark 4:35-41
4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

4:36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

4:37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.

4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

4:40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

4:41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

A Question or Two:

  • Why was Jesus asleep?  Do not answer hastily.

Some Longer Reflections:

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

What a question.

Interpreters sometimes make fun of the terrified disciples, pointing out how dense they must be.  “Don’t they know who is in the boat with them?!”, they ask.

It goes on from there.

Faith is made into an Olympic event, an achievement.  Fear is shamed, with Jesus as the authority.

This is dangerous.  Think about it before you make it part of your theology.

Yes, I know, Jesus said it.  In this scene, Jesus does shame the disciples for being afraid.  And for Christians, Jesus is an unquestioned authority.

That does not change my judgment that it is dangerous to shame people for being afraid, and if that is what Jesus is doing, then he is dangerous, too.

But gospel stories are more complicated than that.

Gospel stories are complicated, and reading them is not so simple that you can just pick isolated moments that appeal to you and call it the gospel truth.  This simple scene is more complicated than it looks.

This scene is part of the larger story that Mark is telling, and even though generations of interpreters have said that Mark’s gospel is simple, uncomplicated, rough, and straightforward, that mostly reveals that biblical interpreters are not always good at reading stories.

One of the central complications in Mark’s story lies in the way Jesus is presented.  Sensitive readers, now a long time ago, have noted that Jesus apparently has more success early in the gospel than he has in later scenes.  He heals more people; he feeds larger crowds; he attracts large crowds of believers, while at the end of the story the crowds call for his death.

While I do not find this reading of Mark’s story altogether persuasive, I appreciate the way this interpretation pays attention to narrative change and development.  Mark’s storyteller does indeed tells a story that progresses, and that means that the characters also change.  Assessing the characters requires paying attention to the whole story, and what they say or do in any individual scene.

So where does this scene in the boat in the storm fit into Mark’s whole story?

I work with actors, and several years ago we were studying this story together.  The actors noted how easily Jesus handles deadly danger in this scene.  The fishermen in the scene knew boats and they knew storms.  This one could kill them, and they knew it.  They had every reason to be afraid.  Jesus was not afraid, and the storyteller shows us why: he has mastery over the forces of death-dealing chaos.  He speaks and there is a dead calm.

But the actors noticed that at the end of the story things are different. 

Jesus is again assailed by deadly force, this time in the person of Pontius Pilate who is the face on the Roman hurricane of chaos and deadly force.  Taking the model seen in the “Storm in a  Boat” scene, Jesus should awake from sleep and quietly calm the chaos.  From the cross he should confidently announce his upcoming resurrection, mocking the Roman confidence in cruelty.  He should at the least echo the words of heroic martyrs in the stories we love to tell about them: he should say something about regretting having only one life to give for the kingdom of God, or something like that.

The actors noticed that Jesus says none of this.

“My God,” he screams, “why have you abandoned me?”

These two little scenes fight against each other.  The actors created a performance that wove the two scenes together.  They found that the first scene lends power to the last scene.  They found that the last scene is decisive.  To make this clear, they quoted Jesus’ own words back to him.  When Jesus screamed in agony, they asked him, “Have you still no faith?”  And in the dead calm that followed that question, Jesus asked, “Don’t you care that I’m dying?”

I will remember the impact of that scene forever.

I think that Mark’s storyteller intended that.  That memory makes it clear that raising the world to life and justice is not simple, and not the least bit easy.  It is not enough to be awakened from sleep, to be woke, as it were.  The fight against chaos is real, as is the fear.

And the fight against chaos is long.

So, if the question is: Why are you afraid?, the answer is that there are things worth being afraid of.  And if the question is: Have you still no faith?, the answer is that sometimes faithfulness and confidence are not at all the same thing.  And if the question is: Don’t you care that we’re dying?, the answer is that the messiah now knows what that question means.  The crucifixion scene in Mark’s story makes that clear.

It may be that the only kind of messiah who can actually help turn the world right-side-up is one that knows why people ask why God has abandoned them.

A Provocation: Fourth Sunday After Pentecost: June 17, 2018: Mark 4:26-34

Mark 4:26-34
4:26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground,

4:27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.

4:28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

4:29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

4:30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it?

4:31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth;

4:32 yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

4:33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it;

4:34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

A Question or Two:

  • Why does Jesus use agriculture to talk about the reign of God?

Some Longer Reflections:

This week a single phrase has caught my ear: “The earth produces of itself.”

The actor in the parable dumps seed on the ground.  “Scatter” sounds too technical, too much like a National Geographic special on television with skilled farmers sowing seed in carefully tended fields.  The word in Greek is βάλλω, and that word just means “throw.”  It implies a heedless act. 

Joseph Sittler, an amazing preacher and interpreters, suggested (now many years ago) that “dump” is the best translation.  I think Sittler was correct.  It could be that the person is indeed a skillful farmer, but the storyteller uses a word that treats the sowing as “dumping,” essential an act that has nothing to do with having a good crop. 

Of course, any farmer knows that it makes a great difference how you plant, but the storyteller is aiming our eyes at all that we DO NOT know.  And good farmers know that this list is long.  In this case, the storyteller focuses on just one thing: the seed grows, “he does not know how.” 

Martin Luther agreed (Luther, M. Martin Luthers Werke: Kritische Gesammtausgabe 120 vols. [vol. 19, p. 496]. Weimar: H. Böhlau, 1883-2009): if you could understand a grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.  My father was an Ag teacher, and from him I learned to hear the wonder that any good farmer has in the face of the ordinary miracle that attends her everyday work.  

All of that sets the background for the sentence that caught my ear.

The earth produces of itself.

The Greek for this sentence is: αὐτομάτη  γῆ καρποφορεῖ.  The final word, καρποφορεῖ, means “bears fruit,” which is the essential act on which all life depends.  My father taught me to understand that the more you understand about agricultural fruitfulness, the more you are embraced by wonder.  The words before that wonder-full word are  γῆ, and they mean the earth, picking up the Greek root that becomes part of the word, “geography.”  

It is the first word that matters most.  The word is αὐτομάτη.  “Of itself” is a good translation of this word, but it misses something.  The word, transliterated, is “automaté.”  That is the word from which the English word “automatic” comes.   

Stop and think about that for a while.  The ordinary earth produces automatically. 

Jesus says that this is a good image of the reign of God.  

But that means that the miracle of the reign of God happens automatically: Creation produces it of itself.

Stop and think about this VERY slowly.  We have invested barrels of theological ink in insisting that the reign of God is an external reality separate from us and our world.  God has been presented as entering the world (some truly unfortunate praise songs picture it as an invasion), but the storyteller has Jesus say that all this happens from WITHIN Creation.

The reign of God is like this: the earth produces it of itself.

This might change everything.