Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sermon for Trinity I - Proper 6B
June 14, 2009
All Saints' - Thomasville

This morning’s Gospel lesson we heard two different parables of Jesus in which he describes the Kingdom of God. The first parable speaks of our inability to understand or comprehend the fact that so much of the Providence of God and the in breaking of His Kingdom is so far removed from us, that we merely see the manifestation of most of it in our lives, and that so much of it happens well beyond our control.

The second parable presents us with one of the two different instances where our Lord uses a mustard seed as a descriptor of something larger he wants his hearers to comprehend. In our passage today, the mustard seed is compared to the Kingdom of God and the other is a reference the mustard seed describes the size of our faith. It seems like the phrase we hear more often speaks of mustard seed size faith; I don’t recall hearing many references or stories about the Kingdom of God being compared to a mustard seed, but Jesus makes that very comparison in Mark’s gospel this morning.

The first parable about the seed growing secretly is particular only to Mark, and the parable of the mustard seed appears in all three synoptic gospels. This is significant because Jesus uses parables quite a bit in His ministry and in the almost 40 parables recorded in Scripture only 3 of those are found in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Certainly when this occurs within the Gospel record, there is usually a peculiarity within one of the accounts that provides a particular insight or emphasis which bears further examination.

The Markan version of the mustard seed parable is no exception. For the most part, the three accounts are identical. Luke’s version is slightly different from both Matthew and Mark, but I will save that difference for next year when the Lukan version of this parable comes up in the Lectionary. However, the point of difference between Mark and both Matthew and Luke occurs at the very end of the passage. All three speak of the birds being able to make their nests, but Mark adds one detail that I find quite interesting. Matthew and Luke speak of the nests being made in the trees branches. Mark says that the birds are able to make their nests in its shade.

Some might think that that is a very minor detail and really quite insignificant. However, if you look at the parable as a whole and some of the other Biblical references to shade, I think that Mark is doing something very interesting here.

For example, in the book of Ezekiel we find the parable of the Eagles and the Vine. The political future of Judah is explained in fable-like form, and we hear the following words from the prophet:

"Thus saith the Lord GOD; I will also take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon an high mountain and eminent: In the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it: and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar: and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell" (Ez. 17:22-23).

Certainly some of Jesus’ hearers would have caught this comparison, and realized that the message from Ezekiel sounded remarkably allot like what they were now hearing. Even though there is almost 600 years between these two messages the main point of both is identical. In the Kingdom of God, true shade, true rest, true comfort comes when we dwell and make our home in God’s loving embrace. In Ezekiel’s day, he was speaking about a time to come, Jesus was telling his hearers that the time was now.

Think too about the story of Jonah. Jonah is sitting on the outskirts of Ninevah and is whining and moaning that the people of actually heeded his warnings, listened to his prophesies, repented of their sins, and turned to the Lord. God sends a great gourd which grows up in a night to give him shelter or shade from the scorching sun. Jonah is thankful for this gift from God, but if you remember the story, the next day God sends a worm which attacks the gourd and it withers and dies, and Jonah now mourns the loss of his shade. He is so distraught that he prays to God that he might die for he says that would be better than continuing to live. God’s response sounds strikingly similar to the first parable from this morning’s Gospel. God says to Jonah, “Thou hast had pity on the gourd, for the which thou hast not laboured, neither madest it grow; which came up in a night, and perished in a night” (Jonah 4:10). Jesus is stressing in his teaching what Jonah seemed to miss. We can control so little in life, yet we can take great comfort in placing our trust in the One Source that controls everything. The beginning of Psalm 91 anchors this theme with these words: “WHOSO dwelleth under the defence of the Most High, shall abide under the shadow of the Almighty. I will say unto the LORD, Thou art my hope, and my stronghold; my God, in him will I trust” (Ps. 91:1-2).

In each of these instances, every time that I mentioned the word shade or shadow, the same word that is peculiar to Mark’s rendering of the parable of the mustard seed is found in these Old Testament references as well. The service of Compline has as one of its responses, “Hide me under the shadow of thy wings.” In all these cases, we are seeking to find our home and abode in God.

Both of these parables have very practical applications for us today. I’m sure many of us are concerned about the financial stability and well-being of our country; we are worried about the violent outbreaks both at home and abroad; we are concerned about our Church and the attacks on the Truth from within and without; we fear what it will be like to wake up the morning after losing a spouse, or sibling, or parent, or child. These emotions are real, they are not without grounds. One of the things that make them real is the power we can allow them to have, and how they can grip us almost to the point of paralysis. However, I believe what Jesus wants us to hear today is that much of what we fear is what we cannot control. Many of the things which concern us the most are things that God is begging us to turn over to Him so that we might face them with His guidance and judgment.

20th Century Protestant Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote one of the most famous prayers of the modern age, The Serenity Prayer. I’m sure that most of you know the abbreviated form of this beautiful prayer, but I want you to hear the full version of this prayer.

"God, give us grace to accept with serenity
the things that cannot be changed,
Courage to change the things
which should be changed,
and the Wisdom to distinguish
the one from the other.
Living one day at a time,
Enjoying one moment at a time,
Accepting hardship as a pathway to peace,
Taking, as Jesus did,
This sinful world as it is,
Not as I would have it,
Trusting that You will make all things right,
If I surrender to Your will,
So that I may be reasonably happy in this life,
And supremely happy with You forever in the next. Amen."

I wish to close with a portion of a homily delivered by Peter Chrysologus on the parable of the mustard seed. If that name is unfamiliar to you, I’ll have to admit it was unfamiliar to me as well until this past week. He was a man who lived in the 4th and 5th Centuries, and served as Bishop of Ravenna in Italy for roughly 17 years. He was known as the “Doctor of Homilies” because of his short but thought provoking talks. Pope Leo XIII declared him a Doctor of the Church in 1729 and his Feast Day is celebrated in the Roman Church on July 30.

God desires that we sow the seeds of the Kingdom in our hearts so that we might find rest for ourselves, and then in turn, sow those same seeds with others. Jesus’ ultimate goal was to seek and to save that which was lost. We were once lost, and have now been found. Our calling is point others to Christ Jesus our Lord so that they might find rest in the shade that God provides.

"It is up to us to sow this mustard seed in our minds and let it grow within us into a great tree of understanding reaching up to heaven and elevating all our faculties; then it will spread out branches of knowledge, the pungent savor of its fruit will make our mouths burn, its fiery kernel will kindle a blaze within us inflaming our hearts, and the taste of it will dispel our unenlightened repugnance. Yes, it is true: a mustard seed is indeed an image of the kingdom of God. Christ is the kingdom of heaven. Sown like a mustard seed in the garden of the virgin’s womb, he grew up into the tree of the cross whose branches stretch across the world. Crushed in the mortar of the passion, its fruit has produced seasoning enough for the flavoring and preservation of every living creature with which it comes in contact. As long as a mustard seed remains intact, its properties lie dormant; but when it is crushed they are exceedingly evident. So it was with Christ; he chose to have his power concealed….Christ became all things in order to restore all of us in himself. The man Christ received the mustard seed which represents the kingdom of God; as man he received it, though as God he had always possessed it. He sowed it in his garden, that is in his bride, the Church. The Church is a garden extending over the whole world, tilled by the plough of the gospel, fenced in by stakes of doctrine and discipline, cleared of every harmful weed by the labor of the apostles, fragrant and lovely with perennial flowers: virgin’s lilies and martyr’s roses set amid the pleasant verdure of all who bear witness to Christ and the tender plants of all who have faith in him. Such then is the mustard seed which Christ sowed in his garden. When he promised a kingdom to the patriarchs, the seed took root in them, with the prophets it sprang up; with the apostles it grew tall; in the Church it became a great tree putting forth innumerable branches laden with gifts. And now you too must take the wings of the psalmist’s dove, gleaming gold in the rays of divine sunlight, and fly to rest for ever among those sturdy, fruitful branches. No snares are set to trap you there; fly off, then, with confidence and dwell secure in its shelter."

Citations available upon request

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