... Ecclesiastes 2:26 ...
Cast your bread upon the waters,
for you will find it after many days.

Day of Pentecost 3 Year B Father's Day,
Message June 17th, 2012

Discerning Minds: Hope Ethics and the Kingdom

1 Samuel; Mark 4:26-34

Of all that differentiates humanity from the rest of the animal kingdom, ethics may arguably be one of the foremost determinants. To be sure, brain power, use of tools, and awareness of self as sentient beings are also separations, but ethics define who we are as a people and sets the boundaries as to moral principles and the distinctions between right and wrong. From the very beginning of human civilization ethical behaviour has contributed to our societal and cultural norms allowing us to live in community and develop in all spheres of existence. Despite the presence of ethical consciousness, ethics is probably not of our own making. To the contrary it might well be said that ethical awareness stems from Divine grace given to humanity to allow it to become more than just another of the animals of creation.

And ethics is all about discernment – how to tell the right from the wrong, the best options, the better direction of growth or discovery, the practical uses of inventions and so forth. NO one aspect of our lives is free from the scrutiny of ethical inquisition. Medical managements and treatments are constantly being judged as to best practices. Our legal system is totally based on ethical behaviours of its citizens and most recently business has been taken to task in every field as to its practices – be they dealings with employees, environmental impacts or consumer satisfaction.

At the very heart of ethical behaviour and ethical judgements however, is the ability to discern. Discernment is that gift from God which allows for free will, encourages scientific curiosity, promotes self-examination and above all, stimulates theological thought. Unfortunately discernment is not an easy task. How do we make decisions? How do we determine the best course of action? What makes for one way superior to another? Why do we choose one career path over another? Such are the questions that require discernment and ethical decision-making. Unfortunately the answers to these and most questions do not have an easy “yes or no”. In fact most of our decisions have a vast expanse of grey and require us to use all our senses to come to an answer – and even then we might find ourselves being perplexed and deceived.

Such was the experience of Samuel as he attempts to anoint a successor to Saul. Having been directed to go to Jesse to select a successor from among his sons, Samuel looks on Eliab and thinks that here is the chosen one. And perhaps we should not be surprised. Eliab is the eldest – the culturally appointed heir; not only is he the natural heir he is big strong and good looking. “Surely”, though Samuel, “this must be the Lord’s anointed1” But we are told God warned Samuel not to look on the outward appearance for the Lord sees not as humans see but the Lord looks upon the heart. Just as the saying goes, “Don’t judge a book by its cover”, so Samuel is warned not to be hasty in his determination of whom to anoint. The psalm while expressing the prayers of the people for a successful military campaign remains quite adamant that power – true power and success lies not with strength of arms but in trust in the Lord God. Likewise Paul enjoins his listeners to walk by faith not by sight for our senses can deceive and our determinations lead us astray. Only by placing our hope in God might we find our true course. Again however, this is not a simple matter and leaves much to cause us concern.

Even Jesus’ parables do not help quieten our discomfiture in this discernment process. Most of Jesus’ teachings were done in parables – a literary device which sparks the imagination to regard any problem from multiple angles. Parables like onions have many layers and the more you examine the topic the more layers you find. Jesus never came outright with a “how-to” blueprint for success or 12 step DYI assembly kit. Yet he did give or more likely coax his disciples to solve dilemmas from a foundation of righteousness. That foundation was to understand God’s kingdom and what God was calling humanity to become.

Hence all the Kingdom of God parables. Some of these deal with what the kingdom is like as afar as faith or grace are concerned; some deal with its size or extent or even function. The common element is all the kingdom parables however, is that they leave the listener with no easy interpretation and anyone who attempts to inform you of an all-inclusive definitive rendering of any or all parables is one who will ultimately do you a disservice.

This is most obvious in the first parable for the day – 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. Is this giving a scenario that states the Kingdom of God is like the see, the earth, the sower? Perhaps it would have us relate to something other than the kingdom per se such as God’s grace or faith. Perhaps all are correct and the listener has to sort out and work through each.

The second parable of the mustard seed is somewhat more manageable. Yet each generation has seen in it a new meaning for the situations confronting them. In Roman times it was a promise of Christian growth. In alter times it brought forth hope for emancipation, freedom from slavery and promise of prosperity. Each might have been valid for the time but none can prove constant over time.

The Parables do offer hope but they also issue a warning. We can trust in God and God’s kingdom to unfold as it should and that despite our own best endeavours the outcome is unlikely to be altered. The warning implicit in every parable is a caution against a definitive interpretation or a hasty perception. Judge not a book by its cover or a pat interpretation of a parable. Of this truth our history of the sciences offers a useful lesson. At one time the teaching was adamant – the earth was the center of the universe and everything revolved around us. Sometime later this had to be revised – the sun was the center and all revolved around it. Today neither is seen to be correct and in fact the center is not precisely known at all. What 50 years ago was accepted as fact that no other mass could travel as fast as light is not up for debate. Medical discoveries in every time has quashed pre-conceived notions and broadened our understanding of the dynamics of the human anatomy and physiology as well as the various causes and forms of disease.

As we read and re-read scripture we will be amazed at what new messages truths and insights might be revealed and how God opens us to still greater possibilities. May God’s Holy Spirit kindle in us discerning minds and an awareness of yet greater understanding.

Amen