Growing in Christ

Kousa dogwood 2018
A sermon for June 17, 2018.  The scripture readings are Ezekiel 17:22-24Psalm 92:1-4,11-142 Corinthians 5:6-17,  Mark 4:26-34

Listen to the sermon HERE.

If you like or notice gardens, you will have noticed that we are heading into “boom time.” The Kousa dogwood outside has put on its show and is winding down, but the clematis exploding in purple and the hydrangeas are making their blue and white snowballs. All over the place—in the church garden, in Carl Schurz and Central Park, along sidewalks, on door stoops, and window boxes things are climbing, stretching, creeping, blooming, and making fruit. 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. In Ezekiel, God plants a tree as a symbol and reminder that God tends and cares for all his creatures, no matter what may come: storm, drought, or disaster. Both Ezekiel and the Psalm reminds us that those who allow God to do the planting–who let God be the Master Gardener—all those will flourish and bear fruit and live fresh, new lives season after season, even into old age. The Epistle, too, is about spiritual growth as St. Paul reminds the Corinthians that death and life are part of a cycle: Christ went through death in order for new life to come. Just like a plant that dies so that seed can create new life, Christ died giving us seeds for eternal life.
Today’s Gospel comes in the form of a parable, or several parables—those stories that allow us to identify with various characters as the wear the story again and again. 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 or offers comfort?

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 hope is that there will be growth. It 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. But if you’re the sower, you make an initial 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? When will you ask for help?

On the other hand, you might hear today’s Gospel and identity a little with the seed. Perhaps you feel like you’ve been placed in a certain place—a family, a relationship, a workplace, a social situation. Where you’ve been placed might be fertile ground with lots of resources and room for growth. Or, it might be a rocky place, full of challenges and rough spots.

Or maybe you’re just trying your best to put down roots somewhere, 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.

For a number of reasons, one can feel like the seed—waiting on outside forces and trusting God. One can feel as tiny and insignificant as a mustard seed. But it’s those times that it’s especially important to remember that built into every seed–deep down–is the capacity to grow into something useful and beautiful.

The birds, too, play a part in the parable. The birds take shade. They find rest and refuge. Someone else has done the major planting and much of the growing, 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 help us understand what he calls the Kingdom of God. This “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.

Given the political currents in our country and in many other places of the world, it might feel like in every direction seeds are trampled and growing things are poisoned or torn down. But with faith, we can also see God’s movement and growth 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 then, with eyes of faith, we look closer. We can begin to see the seeds for compassion, for sharing, for sacrifice, and for healing.

Thinking about the scriptures today, I remember someone with good “eyes of faith.” About fifteen years ago, I went with a group from the Diocese of New York 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 with 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.”

Today we baptize Milo and Leon who are just beginning to grow. They are like little seeds, full of potential and wonder, beauty and love. In baptism we add water. With Holy Oil we add nourishment. And with our prayers, we lift them into God’s love so that the light of Christ will shine fully in their lives.

And just a word or two for those who are more comfortable listening in Spanish:

El Evangelio de hoy nos enseña acerca del crecimiento. Al igual que los plantadores, a veces echamos semillas y confiamos en Dios para el crecimiento. Al igual que las semillas, a veces nos sentimos desamparados y pequeños, pero debemos recordar que nuestra naturaleza es crecer.

Hoy bautizamos a Milo y Leon que recién están comenzando a crecer. Son como pequeñas semillas, llenas de potencial y maravilla, belleza y amor. En el bautismo, agregamos agua. Con el Chrisma agregamos alimento. Y con nuestras oraciones, los elevamos al amor de Dios para que la luz de Cristo brille por completo en sus vidas.

Friends, the kingdom of God grows around us and within us. May God continue to grow us in faith and love.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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