Sunday, June 17, 2018
The mustard seed becomes a great shrub that shelters the birds, recalling ancient images of the tree of life. We’d expect a cedar or a sequoia, but Jesus finds the power of God better imaged in a tiny, no-account seed. It’s not the way we expect divine activity to look. Yet the tree of life is here, in the cross around which we gather, the tree into which we are grafted through baptism, the true vine that nourishes us with its fruit in the cup we share. It may not appear all that impressive, but while nobody’s looking it grows with a power beyond our understanding.
Prayer of the Day
O God, you are the tree of life, offering shelter to all the world. Graft us into yourself and nurture our growth, that we may bear your truth and love to those in need, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Readings and Psalm
Ezekiel 17:22-24 The sign of the cedar, planted on the mountain of Israel
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17 In Christ, a new creation
Mark 4:26-34 The parable of the mustard seed
Title: Growing a Home for All
Who are the gardeners among us? I know, we are urbanites. We don’t have space for gardens. We own no plot of soil to plant seeds. At best we have some potted plants in our apartments. But maybe there are some who have access to good rich soil. Maybe someone has a window box and plant an herb garden. (It could happen.)
Gardening. There is such a spiritual practice side to gardening. Right up there with sheep, seeds and farming imagery are Jesus’ most popular object lessons that fill his parables. And as we hear from Mark at the end of this gospel reading, Jesus was known as a real story teller.
While there are many attributes which are important to be a good gardener, there are three that I would like to draw our attention to this morning: Persistence, Patience, and Hope. (Sounds like three sisters in a Jane Austin novel.)
A gardener must be persistent with her attention and her labor. Watering, weeding, trimming, weeding, monitoring for infestation or disease, weeding, watering, weeding, and weeding, and weeding some more. You can tell which job I hated most as a gardener. Without persistent attention and care giving, a garden becomes over grown. That which you want to grow and be fruitful gets overpowered and choked by that which is unwanted and un-useful. Without a watchful unwavering eye, the garden becomes infested with pests and pestilence so that the fruitfulness disappears or never even happens. Persistence is paid off at the time of harvest when much is brought in, much is enjoyed, much can even be shared with others.
Along with persistent attention, calm patience is also needed by the gardener. As Jesus points out, you plant those seeds and they you have to wait, and wait, and wait. And when you finally see the tiny plants growing, then you have to wait so more before any fruit or flower begins to appear. And then when the plant finally begins to produce whatever is its purpose, you have to wait for it to ripen. That could be the most patience demanding part. You see it, but it’s not ready yet. When can we pick it? Says the impatient gardener in training. We’ll know, says the wise patient gardener schooled by many seasons.
And so, it is that third aspect that must be in the heart of every gardener if they are even going to start. Hope. There is nothing to be persistent over or patient with, if you do not start with the hope that there is something worth the effort. So, a seed, the beginning, the possibility, the promise, becomes a great symbol of hope.
Jesus points to the mystery of seeds in his parable. You ever take a minute to look at that seed and wonder how is it possible that so much plant, shrub or even tree can be packed into that little container? But we plant them. And some miracle of water takes place, un-seen by us. Sunlight blesses and empowers the tiny plant as it peeks its first leaves through the dirt. And the gardeners hope is affirmed as growth continues. Now fruit and flower are hoped for and seem just as much a miracle when they do appear.
And yet, with Ezekiel’s cedar and Jesus’ mustard tree, from the readings this morning, it is not the fruit and the harvest that are highlighted. There more to the persistent, patient, and hope-filled practice of gardening and growing than just producing measurable fruit and numbered flowers. For in both the first reading and the gospel, the outcome of the growing is that a home is provided through the miracle of seed or sprig to large shrub and tree.
For Ezekiel and his fellow exiles, the king has proved untrustworthy. He has broken alliances with some, and made ineffective pacts with others. (I don’t know who you might be thinking of, but I’m talking about Zedekiah.) The country has been lost due to poor leadership and merciless policies that hurt the poor and favored the rich. But God is a gardener who is persistent, patient, and, regardless of how many time the people forsake God, hope fills every divine action and a new tree is planted. And in this tree God says every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. Those fragile creatures that fill the air with song and whose flight inspires us to soar, with find safety and protection. And not just one kind of bird but every kind of bird, winged creatures of every kind with nest.
What a wonderful image to put before us, be inspired by, to celebrate as we begin this Pride week. A week when we highlight the diversity of humanity, the wide-embrace of God’s love, the all-inclusive grace that is ours through Christ Jesus, and the Spirit whose wind blows that all might take flight and live in love and light. God plants the great tree that is Christ, so that all might find a home.
Likewise, Jesus speaks of the hope that is packed into that smallest of seeds – the mustard seed. But there are those four essential words – “when it is sown.” Sure you can hold that seed and marvel at its potential. You can put it in a pendant like my sister had when we were little and hold as a symbol that big things come in small packages. But when it is sown, when the persistence, patience and hope of a gardener are employed it comes to its purpose. And it grows, and it offers safety, refuge, home, peace to so many who are fragile, wanting, beautiful, who sing God a new song.
Friends in Christ, we are that mustard seed, and through the power of the almighty gardener, through God’s persistence, patience and hope, we have been sown and we are becoming that mustard tree that is home to so many. This is wonderfully affirmed to me this past week. Some know I was in Milan this past week. And while I went over there as a playwright, just as many questions were put to me as pastor of St. John’s. In a land where the church is hostile to the LGBTQ community, folks rejoiced at the witness of this community of faith and the ministry of radical welcome that we practice.
As we approach this week, as we approach each day of our lives, trust wholly that we thrive in the persistence, patience, and hope of our gardening God, knowing that we have been sown in the waters of baptism, where the seed dies so that it my live a new life. We are nourished at the table so that we might grow into our purpose as followers of Christ. We are filled with the Holy Spirit so that we might serve a world where refugees and immigrants are seeking shelter and home, where rejected youth are seeking shelter and home, where oppressed peoples are seeking shelter and home, where the sick and the lonely are seeking shelter and home. This is our calling, this is our mission, because we have found shelter and home in our persistent Creator through our patient savior Christ Jesus, in the power of the hope-filled Holy Spirit.
The Rev. Mark Erson,