This sermon was preached at the New Scotland Presbyterian Church in Slingerlands, New York on Sunday June 14, 2015. The scripture passages are Ezekiel 17: 22-24 and Mark 4:26-34. It was a joy to share worship with this congregation!
Our scripture readings today are all about images.
Images of nature.
In some ways it is really too bad we are sitting inside on this beautiful day.
Because the scripture readings we just heard…they are all about outside.
So as we begin to reflect together this morning on scripture I invite you to just close your eyes for a few minutes and allow your mind to wander—and to see what images come to you as I read out the various types of nature that are mentioned in scripture today – Ezekiel and Mark. Close your eyes if you feel comfortable….
Winged Creatures of Every Kind
Trees—both green and dry
A Growing Plant—stalk, head and grain
Birds of the Air
Just keep your eyes closed for a minute and allow your mind to wander through these images of nature—the goodness of God’s first gift, the Creation.
What images of nature did you see?
As you cycle through these images in your mind’s eye say to yourself,
“Thank you—God of Creation….thank you for these precious and wild gifts.
Anyone want to share what they saw?……
Like many people I find that my most healing and connected moments happen when I am outside, in nature.
A walk in the woods.
A day at the beach.
A drive through the countryside.
Sitting on a porch.
Being outside is good for your health. Those who are outside more have better cognitive function and suffer less from depression. It is no wonder to me that the Creation—animals, earth and sea, creatures of every kind, night and day, stars and planets– were the first things that God created. Even though we like to think that the world revolves around us, we were created at the end of all of that, and quickly in Genesis it is people who bring destructive energy to the Creation that God calls Good over and over again….
God’s radical renewal is what the passages we are offered today are all about.
We begin in Ezekiel.
A description is offered of the next messianic leader of Israel—the image is offered in the form of a cedar tree. God the great Gardener plucks off one branch and it is taken to a high mountain. There the branch is replanted where it can grow and all of nature will know that it is a place of safe-haven, a tree that produces fruit – sustenance, and in its branches and under its shade there will be a home of peace and safety. In the vision that Ezekiel speaks, God will create the opportunity for a reversal of fortunes—the high trees will be made low and the low trees will be made high.
Justice will be enacted.
Wrongs will be corrected.
Those in power will be de-throned.
Those who have been oppressed will be elevated back to their rightful place.
And yet even in the creation of something new—a piece of it is taken from the former thing—the original tree. The new world that Ezekiel envisions has its root in the past—but Ezekiel is also very specific—the part of the old tree that is used as a transplant to grow the new tree is new growth.
Old growth is left on the tree.
It is only the new part that can be cut off, and is healthy enough to be transplanted into new life.
The Prophet Ezekiel has some questions for us today—
the church, the institution:
- What in our life or way of living needs to be let go of so that God can build something new?
- Where is the new growth—the seed of the future and the next community?
- How are “old growth” communities serving as incubators for new birth and new life?
- When new life happens in one of our “old growth” communities are we willing to allow that precious new life and precious new hope to be cut off and taken away from us?
- Are we willing to trust that God’s Spirit can do a new thing?
- We are asked to trust the Divine Wisdom. Can we do that? Can we let go just enough to be the Church reformed, always reforming?
In our congregations today we are living with the holy grief that one life and way of living is dying or has already died. But the promise is that there are still green shoots—new life. And that God will cut them off and take them somewhere new to be planted. That somewhere, something new will grow and flourish but that it will not be ours to control, determine or even create.
A hard truth. A difficult message.
Mark’s Gospel offers us the familiar parable of the mustard seed. A traditional interpretation is that we should not be afraid of small things—because with nurturing they can grow up to be large. We plant mustard seeds of faith—knowing that with God’s help, new life can grow and flourish. “Be a mustard seed!” we tell each other.
Another interpretation that I would like to offer today is very different.
Which is that mustard seeds in the time of Jesus were not wanted.
In the last house I lived in I had cultivated a garden over the years. But in my first year I made the mistake of planting a pot of mint directly into the ground.
I should have kept it in the pot.
Because as the years went by the mint expanded its territory. I would pull it up, but it would always come back. A cold winter would not shock it into death. It would crowd out other plants. Another challenge we faced was that our neighbor planted bamboo and I would find runners deep under my yard—shoots coming up 20 feet from a stalk. I spent a lot of time hacking away at bamboo, and we tried to keep up with mint tea in the summer months.
But it was never enough.
There was always mint left over.
Bamboo was always pushing its way out of the ground somewhere else.
Mustard seed is like that.
It is an invasive plant.
Biblical prohibitions were present in the time of Jesus to not co-mingle plants, animals, fibers. And this mandate extended to gardening or farming. So a mustard seed was seen as a problem. Not only would it re-seed itself all over the garden and be a nuisance—but there was actual religious law against such a thing!
So when Jesus suggests to his mostly Jewish audience in a public space that the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed he is saying something truly radical.
That as people of faith we are called to bring about the reign of God.
And it will not come from conventional places.
The things that were considered unclean by society are actually clean.
Faith is uncontrollable.
You might want to have a neatly edged and clipped garden with everything it its place, nothing co-mingled.
In control. Under control.
But that is not the way of the Spirit or the call of God.
“Be a mustard seed!” Jesus says. Does it now sound different to you!?
Be a weed, be invasive!
Jesus is calling for an uncontrollable, you-are-not-supposed-to-be-there lived out faith.
And lastly Jesus is saying that the plants and trees that he will cultivate are not there for the comfort, sustenance or beauty of the owners of the garden—but as home for the “birds of the air”—for each one of us, so we can experience a place of shade—rest, care and love. The mustard seed is radical because it there to build a space for all people (not just the wanted, well-manicured, well-intentioned, well-put-together people, but all people!), while at the same time invading and usurping the current power structure.
Once again Jesus has offered us a powerful and prophetic parable.
Once again Jesus is speaking words in public that those in power are using to build the case to eventually bring him to trial and murder him.
Once again as we sit here 2000 years later we must examine ourselves in light of the teachings of Jesus:
Am I a mustard-seed gardener or farmer in how I live out my faith?
Am I living my life as a disciple of Christ as an invasive species?
Do I prefer control or holy messiness?
Does my living out of my faith live up to this parable?
Does this congregation live as mustard seeds—wild and out of control, growing into every nook and cranny of the community around us?
Are we building a place of safety and care for everyone?
Is what we build or grow about us or about the kingdom of God?
Scripture today sounded good and comforting when I first read it, didn’t it?
Birds of the air, trees, plants, the beauty of nature.
This is what we want our faith communities, our congregations to be like.
Calm, harmonious, comforting.
Stable like a tree, with deep roots.
And they have been these things for each of us for many years.
However, we follow a God of disruption and Creation.
A Christ who says, “See I come to make all things new!”
A Spirit who says, “The wind blows where it chooses. You hear its sound, but no one knows where it came from or where it is going.”
I want to encourage you to take the steps in faith to live into what the Prophet Ezekiel and the Prophet Jesus have offered us today.
Allowing something new to take root.
Embracing “messy” and “out of control.”
Spending your energy looking for the new shoots of life so that they can be cut off and sent away to begin something new.
Reclaiming our twin calling to be both evangelists and gardeners.
To step out into the unknown with full faith, knowing that our God of love has already created a new nest for each of us.
To be new.
Do not be afraid of the dizzying pace of change that God has set us down in the midst of.
For God is the God of cedars high in the mountains!
And God is the God of mustard seeds growing all over homespun gardens and fields!
Do not be afraid!
As we close today let me read to you a poem that can also be a prayer,
“A Child Unborn” by Wendell Berry:
A child unborn, the coming year
Grows big within us, dangerous
And yet we hunger as we fear
For its increase, the blunted bud
To free the leaf to have its day,
The unborn to be born. The ones
Who are to come are on their way,
And though we stand in mortal good
Among our dead, we turn in doom
In joy to welcome them, stirred by
That Ghost who stirs in both seed and tomb,
Who brings the stones to parenthood.