Think back to how it was here in State College six months ago. December. Snow on the ground. Ice on the ground. Penetrating winds. School closings. The depths of winter.
But now outside these stained glass windows the world is green with vegetation and the days are warm. Sometimes uncomfortably so.
There has been a change over many intervening weeks. We passed out of winter, and soon the solstice will declare that we have entered summer.
Perhaps someone you know has just graduated from high school. That young woman or young man is now nearly an adult, but maybe you remember when the baby came home from the hospital and you could hold that newborn using one arm. It doesn’t seem that long ago, but the better part of twenty years has passed. Now the new graduate is taller than you are.
There has been a change over the intervening years. A person has passed from infancy through childhood and adolescence, and now stands on the doorstep of adult life.
These changes––from winter to summer, from infancy to adulthood––these changes are wondrous. Because they occur so gradually, and are outside our control, it seems to us that they happen secretly, with a power of their own.
Jesus talks about this sort of development.
One example that he uses is when somebody sows seed. Once placed in the soil, the seed dies as seed and develops as a plant. Hidden from human view, it grows secretly and successfully.
The reason Jesus talks about this is that he wants to communicate to his first disciples and to us how it is that the kingdom of God, the reign of God, comes about in this world. It occurs in ways that are gradual and seem secret to us. A force is at work beyond our control and not of our making.
This may make us uncomfortable! We would prefer perhaps to be in on the plan from start to finish. We would prefer to have our say in how it happens. We would prefer to manage this process.
But that’s not how it works. The seasons change. Children become adults. The kingdom of God goes public. In all these things we may have a stake, but in none of them do we exercise control. At some point our need to manage must give way to our willingness to wonder.
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An event of this sort occurs in the Old Testament story heard this morning.
The Lord sends Samuel to anoint a replacement for King Saul from among the numerous sons of Jesse. It is a very touchy matter, as Saul is still alive and in no mood to abdicate.
And so Samuel visits Jesse without announcing why he has come. Jesse presents his sons to Samuel, but the message Samuel hears from the Lord is that none of them is the right man. The Lord even tells Samuel what his method is in making such decisions. The Lord “does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Starting to feel desperate, Samuel asks Jesse if he has any other sons. Somewhat absent-mindedly, Jesse recalls that there’s also David; he’s out watching the sheep. David is brought in, and Samuel gets the message that David is the one.
The Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.
The Lord considers the heart. Here the heart refers, not simply to the emotional center, but to the core of the entire person, the true self. That’s where the Lord looks. And because that core is secret, there is something secretive about the Lord’s discernment.
So the kingdom comes on earth in ways that seem secretive to us.
• Like winter giving place to summer.
• A baby becoming an adult.
• A seed growing into a plant.
• And the Lord’s discernment about who and what can help his kingdom involves looking at the heart, the heart that remains hidden from ordinary perception.
Our discernment of the kingdom and of how we and others can serve as its agents requires of us a conversion of a certain type, a turning from one perspective to another. We need to be attentive and not always assertive.
When we act in assertive ways, we are claiming that we are in charge. This may be true, at least to some degree.
In other circumstances we are clearly not in charge, and to ignore this is to set ourselves and others up for trouble. Certainly in regard to the kingdom of God, we are not in charge. That’s why it is called the kingdom of God. We are invited to be not assertive, but attentive, paying attention to what matters, which is often something beyond our sight and hard for us to discern.
Attentiveness does not come easily. It is often not honored or even recognized in our society. I think all of us find it hard to be attentive, and some of us find it very hard.
Certainly attentiveness is central to many human activities, from repairing a motorcycle to painting a portrait to counseling a troubled person.
And attentiveness is necessary in living the Christian life. We have to remain insistently open to the growth and change which marks the kingdom of God because often enough that growth occurs in ways easy for us to miss. The kingdom advances gradually, slowly, in ways that are unspectacular, like the changes of the seasons, a child’s progress to adulthood, the growth of a plant from a buried seed.
Attentiveness, remaining insistently open when that is called for, is hard, even if we work at it. But it does bring a great reward, for it leads us to recognize indications of God’s reign and God’s glory in all sorts of places, some of them quite unlikely.
A good practice for any of us would be to start each day wondering where we will encounter the kingdom during the hours ahead of us.
What ordinary experiences will reveal themselves as extraordinary if we remain insistently open to the kingdom?
In what disguises will Jesus appear in the events of the day?
Copyright 2010, Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is the author of A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals (Cowley Publications), a book devoted to helping clergy prepare funeral homilies that are faithful, pastoral, and personal.