A sermon for the Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 14, 2015. The lectionary readings are Ezekiel 17:22-24, Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14, 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17, and Mark 4:26-34.
If you are in way a gardener, or pass by a garden, or notice things that come from gardens—you know we’re heading into “boom time.” Things are climbing, stretching, creeping, blooming, and making fruit. The combination of warm, sunny days with occasional downpours of rain create what almost looks like ground-level fireworks. It’s a season of growth.
In the church, too, we’re heading into a season of growth. The great celebrations of Easter and Pentecost are behind us, and so through the summer and into the fall, the scriptures invite us to think about the Kingdom of God—that commonwealth or realm of God that has as its very nature to grow, and grow, and grow.
Growth runs through our scriptures today like a vine of squash or kudzu. In Ezekiel, God plants a tree as a symbol and reminder that God tends and cares for all his creatures, no matter what storm or drought or calamity. The Psalm reminds us that those who are planted in the House of God—those who make God their Master Gardener will flourish and bear fruit and live fresh, new lives even when they are old in years. And then in the Epistle, St. Paul tells the Corinthians about spiritual growth and reminds them that like a plant that dies so that seed can create new life, Christ died giving us seeds for eternal life.
The Gospel we just heard comes in the form of a parable, or several parables. Many will recall that one of the great (though sometimes confusing) aspects of a parable is that the assigned characters in the story can shift around. It’s never dead-set who is who. That’s probably why Jesus told so many parables—because no matter how many times someone heard it, they might hear their own place in the story slightly differently.
Because of this, whenever we read or hear a parable, there’s an invitation for us to step inside and try on some of the different characters and attitudes. Which one speaks to us today? Which one fits best? Which one challenges and which one offer comfort? We can look at both parables and wonder where we are.
For example, in today’s story, you may identify with the sower, the one who plants seeds and hopes for the best. Whether seeds or seedlings, the intention is that they will grow. If may be an idea or a practice or a project that you’re just beginning. You do a little to get it started, but then it’s out of your hands. It may be taken out of your hands, or other things may grow to overshadow your project—maybe there is the equivalent of a storm, or maybe the birds in your world eat up the seeds you’ve sown. If you are the sower, you make an investment and then over time, you have to manage your relationship to the seeds you’ve planted. How much will you try to control? How much will you let go?
Or, maybe you identify with the seed or the seedling. You feel like you’ve been placed in a certain place—maybe it’s fertile ground, or it could be rocky stuff. Maybe you’re trying your best to put down roots and yet over and over again, something comes to move you along and keep you scattered. You’re trying to find a foothold. You’re trying to find something that will stay still long enough to enjoy the sun, to absorb the rain, to find the energy and life within yourself to grow, to expand, to become. You might feel as tiny and insignificant as a mustard seed. Perhaps you have the idea of the mustard tree in your mind, but it seems so far off, and so far ahead, it’s hard to see how you might reach that place.
The sower and the seed are major characters in our reading, but there are also birds, birds that take shade. Someone else has done the planting and the growing has already happened, and the birds are able to enjoy what has been done, safely make a nest, take advantage of the shade, and enjoy the view. But one day, the birds too, might be called upon to add just the right component to God’s unfolding kingdom.
Jesus tells these parables to try to convey a sense of what he calls the Kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is not so much a literal place as it is every place, every place where God’s intention is allowed to take root and grow. The kingdom is full of mystery—it grows at its own rate. Some parts can be planned, laid out, and organized. But other areas of the kingdom are up to God’s own good grace—we have to let go.
To me, our Gospel today seems to call us to begin to enter the Kingdom of God first by noticing, by being witnesses who have faith. We are called to see and to believe.
And that’s not as easy as one might think, this “being a witness.” We have to be awake, to pay attention, to sort out what we think we’re seeing from what we actually see. We’ll need to compare our view with another person’s, and then together, come up with a glimpse of reality.
The parables of sower and seed and growth and goodness remind us that God is working in our world—around us, within us, in little things and in large things—it’s for us to take note, to observe, to see.
It’s at times easy to notice the obvious and outer signs of God’s presence, but with faith, we can also see God in the hidden places. We see what initially looks only like pain and misery. We see disease and violence and poverty. We see a terribly distorted version of the world God has created. But with eyes wide open, and eyes of faith, we can begin to see the seeds for compassion, for sharing, for sacrifice, and for healing. Jesus encourages to have faith that seeds will find what they need to grow. Have faith that growth will happen in God’s good time. Have faith like that of the mustard seed, faith that might be tiny at first, but with God’s help grows into something that helps others.
Paul’s letter to the Corinthians talks about walking by faith, not by sight. He’s not so much opposing seeing and believing as he is pointing to the way of seeing deeply that involves faith. Paul warns about those who boast in outward appearance—see through that, Paul urges. Christ died on the cross and to all appearances, so died the dream of God. But for those with eyes to see, he has risen for us. For those of us with eyes to see, to notice, to witness, our faith leads us further and as though we’re given enough to move forward through a fog, with more faith, we see more and move farther along.
Thinking about the scriptures today, I remember someone with good “eyes of faith.” About ten years ago, I went with a group on a mission trip to Honduras. Our task was to help the congregation there build some new, simple church pews, and also to build friendships and relationships with Christians who live very different lives from ours. One of the people who went wish us was a then-70-year old woman named Kathy. Since Kathy wasn’t sure how much of the construction or the climbing of hills she could do, she asked if she could primarily help with the cooking. And so, that’s what she did. She helped with the cooking, spoke almost no Spanish but was able to communicate with other women in the kitchen who spoke no English, and things went well. The week went along nicely. Most of us noticed that the people from the congregation who were handy really didn’t need our help at all, and were really being gracious to allow us to help them with a project they clearly could handle. But Kathy—there in the kitchen, saw something else. She noticed how easily and quickly the women moved in the kitchen and she began to wonder what they might do if they had a larger, commercial oven. Kathy asked the priest about this, and the priest asked the women in Spanish, and they didn’t even pause before they replied, “Oh, we’d start a business and bake things and take them to the market to sell them. Kathy was able to see a possibility, something that could grow. When Kathy went home, she got her church to start raising money. Our church added some, and the church in Honduras bought an oven and began a business.
Those who see with faith will see all kinds of possibilities, and the vision never dims. It is as Paul says, “If anyone is in Christ, that person is a new creation. Everything old has passed away, and the new has come alive.”
Friends, the kingdom of God grows around us and within us. It’s our gift and charge to notice, to witness and to enjoy and share the bounty.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.