A sermon about greenness (a manifesto of sorts)

This sermon was preached at First Congregational Church of Battle Creek on Sunday, August 15th, 2021. The text is Mark 6.30-44. Listen along here, starting at 33:00.

I speak in the name of the Crucified and Risen One. Amen.

Unlike last week’s text, with its salacious intrigues and revenge plots and beheadings, this text is a much more familiar one. In fact today’s story is one of those archetypal Gospel stories that has become so familiar to those of us who grew up in the Church that it just blends into the wallpaper nowadays. “Five loaves, two fish, five thousand people eat, and the message is we should offer up whatever we have feed people.” I mean, yeah, that’s not a bad sermon. But it’s an easy sermon. It’s one that we’ve learned to expect, and so it doesn’t hook us as easily anymore (although, who among us has actually done what the text suggests we do in order to participate in Jesus’ miracle as it continues happening today?) 

At any rate, this text or its parallel in one of the other three gospels comes up at least one Sunday out of every year, so it swings through our consciousness like a comet swinging through the inner solar system and lighting up the night sky every so often. Every time we sit down with the text, there is something new to be discovered, experienced, and astonished by. This is one of the benefits of reading scripture over and over from a quiet, open-hearted place: the more you ruminate on it, like sheep chewing on fresh green fescue, the more new things begin to emerge from the humus of the text, things that you haven’t noticed before.

So this time around, I noticed three things:

First, when Jesus has compassion on the crowd “because they are like sheep without a shepherd,” his first response is not immediately to begin healing and feeding them. His first response is to teach them (and to teach them many things, specifically). There’s a lot that I could say about that as someone whose job is to teach you, you know. But I’m not sure I want to preach about that.

Second, in the middle of this desert place, in the middle of the wilderness, there is still green grass. Soft, tender fescue, the kind of grass that shepherds will lead their flocks over mountains and through shadowy valleys to allow their flocks to get to. (Please do not imagine here a fairway or a putting green or an HOA-approved landscape, though; that kind of manicured lawn does not exist in nature.) In the middle of the wilderness, life insists on itself.

Third, and this is what really got me this time around: this use of the word “green” is the only time in the New Testament that anything is described as “green” (with the exception of three references to “green grass” in that trip diary to end all trip diaries, Revelation). The only time! In fact when I started to dig into this little nugget of information I realized how rarely the writers of the New Testament make any reference to the color of things—which suggests to me that this is not something that we should miss here, especially if we’re holding in mind that other interpretive principle I brought up last week, namely, gospel writers don’t waste papyrus. What seems like a small, insignificant, even irrelevant detail to us was important enough to be written down and meticulously copied by hand over centuries, and the holding of this minute or insignificant of a detail by a sacred text can open us to a new world of small wonder.

So why does it matter that Mark tells us that the grass is green? Consider what we know about the color “green” these days:

A plant is green because within its cells are structures that look very similar to human blood cells and which are filled with a green pigment called chlorophyll, a molecule that is eerily similar to the pigment that makes our blood red. We all remember this from high school biology, I suspect. But think about it: that greenness is one of our planet’s native ways of harnessing the virtually unlimited power of the Sun. Photosynthesis makes life as we know it on Earth possible, including our fossil-fuel addicted contemporary society—oil and coal are nothing more than the infinite power of the sun, tinctured into darkness. Nature is stupendously generous.

The Pulitzer-winning author Annie Dillard writes: “Nature is, above all, profligate. Don’t believe them when they tell you how economical and thrifty nature is, whose leaves return to the soil. Wouldn’t it be cheaper to leave them on the tree in the first place? This deciduous business alone is a radical scheme, the brainchild of a deranged manic-depressive with limitless capital. Extravagance! Nature will try anything once.”

Substitute “Nature” with “God” in these lines and you begin to grab at the contours of a different kind of theology, a different way of seeing just who this “God” character is and what she might be up to in our world. God is, above all, profligate (in other words, extravagant, wasteful, gracious); Don’t believe them when they say God doesn’t speak new things into being anymore. God will try anything once. 

The reality is that existence is abundance. And it is in the heat and light of this core of abundance that miracles happen: when you have learned to see the greenness of the grass under your feet, when we have recognized that particular miracle, we begin to perceive, bit by bit, that every pulsation of our heart in our chest is itself a miracle that it has taken the wisdom of this Universe nearly 14 billion years to perfect, four billion of which were especially interested in cultivating a small, watery planet circling a nondescript star out of billions of stars in this single galaxy, one sea of stars among a universe filled with a trillion others. 

The Wisdom of God, the Universe, whatever you want to call this huge Thing in which we live and move and have our being, is the same power that shines forth in the Sun, the same power that churns the oceans of this planet through wind and tide and gravity and makes life possible, the very power that greens the grass, and it binds everything and everyone together in a web of relationship.  

The 11th century mystic Hildegard of Bingen perceived this with all the clarity of a contemporary theoretical physicist when she composed her masterpiece of medieval poetry and music, “O Nobilissima Viriditas.” Let me read this to you.

Hildegard of Bingen, by Tracy Councill

“O most noble Greening Power, rooted in the sun,
And who shines in bright serenity upon the wheel,
Nothing on earth can comprehend you,
You are encircled in the arms of divine mysteries.
You are radiant as the dawn and burn as the flame of the sun.”

And here’s where today’s well-worn story of Jesus feeding this crowd of shepherdless people in the wilderness taps into this deeper vein of nature mysticism: For a universe that can produce the shining of the sun, the greening of the grass, and creatures that can actually perceive these stupendous and profligate gifts in all their beauty and majesty and respond with acts of beauty in return, well, if that’s the universe we live in (which it is), producing a few extra loaves of bread and some fish out of seemingly nowhere seems, well, not so miraculous after all. 

Don’t get stuck on the strangeness of the miracle here, even if you are a dyed-in-the-wool skeptic. This miracle (which I do believe happened literally, but that’s beside the point) is recorded in this story to inspire us to wonder. Wonder is our gateway to an experience of God. And fortunately for us, Mark included a little tiny detail that can inspire us to wonder even after we’ve ceased to believe in miracles. He has given us a handhold to a cosmic watercourse of wisdom in a single, short word: “green,” a word that even today connotes the thriving of all living beings.

And where does this green grass grow? In the wilderness, in the deserted place. Divine abundance, “greening power,” has a tendency to emerge most dramatically in spaces where that have, in our limited human perspectives, very little to commend them to our refined, self-conscious sensibilities. But greenness is everywhere. And yet we are starved for greenness. But we don’t see the miracle of greenness because we have forgotten how to see it, even when it is right in front of our noses. And when we have forgotten how to see, instead of greenness, we see only desert. 

We cannot see the way that the ever-present miracle of simply being here is enough to hold, to give supportive context to, even the most painful, complicated, and uncertain turns in our human dramas. We can scarcely see our way out of a wet paper bag because of the way that contemporary society has so atomized and isolated our experiences into seven billion different perspectives on the world. (Being stuck inside a pandemic hasn’t helped this either—we’re starved for greenness literally, too). So how do we learn to see?

Well, one way to start is by ruminating on such stories as this one, chewing on them like sheep, such that they become part of us (or, if you insist on being a carnivore about it, cracking the bone and sucking out the marrow of the stories!) After all, before any talk of feeding anyone occurs in this story, Jesus teaches them many things, and we know that Jesus always taught in stories. A story has a lot more than a bare recital of facts—Jesus’ stories were training in seeing reality in a new way. And what Jesus was principally concerned with teaching us in his embodied life was teaching us a new way of seeing—a new way of knowing. A seeing, a knowing, an experiencing, not more, but seeing, knowing, and experiencing with more of us. This is known as “Wisdom.”

When we see and know with more of us, our consciousness slowly expands, and we begin to see beyond the world as our rational, binary mind perceives it. As our consciousness expands, we begin to see unity within diversity, and we begin to see over the dividing walls of hostility that separate us humans into “us-versus-them.” As that consciousness continues to expand through practice of the way that Jesus taught us, namely, a way of whole-hearted surrender, as humans, once again perceive ourselves as being interconnected with, and interdependent upon, and both impacting and being impacted by, not just every other human being, but every other species on this planet, and this planet itself and every other planet in this solar system, and every other corner of the universe as one great, living, wholeness, and from that perspective, begin to live in this world, in this very moment, in this sanctuary in this city, with the only possible response to such an expansive view of where we stand in this world: gratitude, awe, and compassion for our fellow creatures. Mysticism and social justice are two sides of the same coin; they are the in-breath and out-breath of any path towards truth. 

And what can we see once we have learned to see with more of us? What do we do with it? Well, we can see the greenness of the grass. And life begins to look a lot more simple, because we are more and more satisfied with the minute miracles that, when taken in sum, make up a human life well-lived: friendship, conversation, pleasure, depth, satisfying work, simple gifts, conscious love. We hold our possessions with a looser grip. We begin to let go of things that once we clung to for dear life as we begin to recognize the ways that each moment, each blade of grass in our lawn, each hair on our head, each turning of the planet from dusk to dawn and back again, is nothing short of an absolute miracle.

And this is what I believe Christianity has to offer this world today. I believe that this is what this congregation can offer the world today: to become a place where the in-breath and the out-breath, the vertical dimension of spirituality and the horizontal dimension of social justice, can make themselves manifest and work in synchrony with one another, like the pistons of an engine, to turn us into the kind of place that generates fully conscious humans who are actually able, more or less, to love their neighbors as themselves, to love their enemies, to take up the ministry of reconciliation that Christ entrusted to us as his students and, I don’t know, actually do it!

And I believe that can be true, and I believe that it is already beginning to happen, because I have the privilege of getting to watch you. I have seen the way that you have surrounded one another with compassion in the chaos of these last eighteen months. I have seen the way that you enfold and support one another even in the midst of difficult conflict when emotions are running high. I have heard the shouts and laughs and songs of kids in our preschool filling the halls. I could go on.

This church is not a desert place. Do not let anything about exterior appearances fool you. There is still Greenness here, and I believe we are poised to become, in our own way, a patch of green grass in the wilderness place of the world-as-it-is in 2021. For people are hungry, not just for physical food, but for wisdom, for connectedness, for belonging, for the Greening power that our tradition knows by the name of “Christ.” And Jesus says, “you give them something to eat!” Amen.

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