A sermon for the
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
June 17, 2018
Trinity Episcopal Church in Easton, Pennsylvania
by Millard S. Cook
you entrusted your Son Jesus,
the child of Mary,
to the care of Joseph, an earthly father.
Bless all fathers
as they care for their families.
Give them strength and wisdom,
tenderness and patience;
support them in the work they have to do,
protecting those who look to them,
as we look to you for love and salvation,
through Jesus Christ our rock and defender. Amen.
In our secular calendar, today is that one day each year in which we celebrate the vocation of Fatherhood. It is a day in which we give thanks for Fathers, Grandfathers, Godfathers, Foster Fathers and for all who serve in that most important role in the lives of daughters and sons. It would be impossible to overstate the importance of this special charism. Those children who have been blessed with loving, supportive, and caring Fathers have such an important foundation in life. And those who lack this blessing often experience an absence in their lives which haunts them throughout their life. All of use are called to be a source of hope and strength for those men who strive to live out the calling to be a Father. May we be quick to encourage them and slow to criticize them. Above all else, may we daily hold them in prayer that God will give them wisdom, understanding and strength. May they be blessed with patience and with gentleness as they seek to nourish, protect and empower the children placed in their care.
The Second Vatican Council in the Document on the Liturgy spoke of the amazing ways in which God is present in Worship. It pointed out that God is present when the Word is proclaimed—and most especially in the Gospel. It is no mistake that word literally means “Good News.” And yet, there are times in which the ideas and images which confront us in these readings can confuse us and give us pause. In large part, this is because they challenge us to see things in a new and different way and to understand how it is that the values and priorities found in these readings often stand in opposition to the values and priorities which we experience in the world in which we daily live, move and have our being,
In the Hebrew Scriptures, there are amazing stories. Woven together, these varied stories of patriarchs and matriarchs tell the story of God’s reign. All too often they use language which is both beautiful and foreign to us who live in a time very distant and removed from that daily reality. Because they were a nomadic people, we hear stories of animals, of sheep and lambs and goats. We hear stories of predators like bears and lions. Later, when they became settled and turned to farming, there were stories of plants: grapes and olives and wheat and barley. The land in which they settled was called a place of “milk and honey.” From a literal standpoint this would not have made much sense at all. In fact, so many have written powerfully of the “modern miracle” of Israel. In the twentieth century a rough and rugged land that was mostly rocky, arid dusty was transformed into one of the most fertile and productive places on earth. The language of scripture, then, has another purpose–It is designed to offer hope.
The language of the Prophets is especially representative of this idea. The prophets speak boldly to tell what God sees in the world. Kings and rulers feared prophets because they spoke powerfully about justice and equality. In God’s world each person is worthy of respect and love and of being treated with dignity. They contrasted the promise of God that there could be an abundance for all with the scarcity caused when the rich and powerful hoarded and refused to share their surplus with those in need. They contrasted the peace of God’s world with the hatred and violence of those who wanted to maintain the status quo which supported their comfortable lives. They spoke of an inclusive and welcoming community in which there was room for all, and all were welcome—the newly arrived immigrant as much as the long-established sojourner.
The prophet Ezekiel uses an amazing image. God will break off a tender twig from a cedar tree and plant it
“On a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the Lord.”
In God’s vision something which seems small and even insignificant is transformed. A tiny twig becomes a huge tree which provides a kind of oasis for all in need. It becomes a place of hospitality for community where all are welcome and dwell in peace. The needs—even the desires—of every creature is met and there is such abundance that they all share with gratitude. Then too, one can not forget the beautiful aroma of the rich cedar wood. As anyone who had a cedar chest in their home knows too, it discouraged moths and other things which would cause harm to the things it protected. It symbolized safety and security.
A persistent image in these prophetic stories is the mystery of God’s action. Mighty signs and wonders are accomplished by God. For humans unaided, such actions have proven to be impossible. And yet, there is often the sense that humans are called to cooperate in bringing about the unfolding of God’s plan. We are presented with images of God as farmer and shepherd—and of actual farmers and shepherds who work with God. Although it is the power of God which brings this wonderful plan to completion—it becomes increasingly clear that humans too play an essential role in the new reality which God plans for all creation. Humans are invited and given a redemptive mission of working alongside God to bring healing, justice and equality to the world. This is especially true in the unfolding theology of the Messiah. It is almost as if though the Messiah is the missing ingredient which will be needed to set God’s plan into motion.
The notion of a discrepancy between reality as we usually see it and as God sees it is found throughout the writings of Saint Paul. He uses paradoxical images—especially in speaking of Christ—to make clear the surprising nature of God’s plan. It isn’t at all what we expected. God uses weakness, limitations and flawed creation to bring forth strength, completion and perfection. And all of this happens in an almost invisible way, imperceptibly, slowly, incrementally. Then suddenly, dramatically and openly God’s plan is revealed before our eyes. It is God’s work! This new reality is so different from anything that we have ever known that St. Paul refers to it as a “new creation.” Even more, he explains that Christ is the power—the activating ingredient—which makes it possible. He contrasts the death of Christ with the new life which the Christian community now experiences. It is the very love of Christ, he proclaims, which impels us to act in Christ’s name to begin to transform the world. We do this because we now have a new way of seeing the world. There is an astonishing equality in this new world—we no longer live for ourselves, but for others.
Our Lord makes use of that beautiful prophetic imagery to describe the transformative cooperation between God and humans in transforming the world. He too speaks of small and insignificant things—things like a tiny, almost invisible seed, which produces a bush. Even smaller than the twig mentioned by Ezekiel it provides the same kind of oasis.
In so many of the parables there are important ideas. They make clear the fact that ultimately it is God who is at work. Humans might plant the seed, but it is God who makes it grow. This is language which we hear today:
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”
Humans might be tempted to quibble about the particular seed that is chosen, the ground where it is planted, the appropriate fertilizer and amount of water which it needs. God always knows best, though. And even if humans make wrong decisions about some of these things, God will ensure that the plan unfolds.
Something which is overlooked is the very nature of the mustard bush. For farmers who intend to plant a crop of their own choosing, it is a nuisance. If it once takes hold and grows in a field, it is almost impossible to eradicate. It is too big to pull up by the roots. If ever it blooms and produces seed, they will spread and take over the entire field. God’s realm can not be contained. It has already taken root and will be brought to its fulfillment. It can not be stopped—only slowed temporarily here and there. In the end it will prevail!
Another important lesson to be learned from the mustard seed is that nothing is really insignificant after all. This is a most comforting thought for each of us. In the face of adversity and trouble we are so often tempted to think, “What can I do after all?” We can feel overwhelmed by the massive problems that surround us and become incapacitated by our fears. The mustard seed reminds me of a line from an old hymn that I learned as a child, “Little is much when God is in it.” God is able to take our little, if offered in love, and multiply it—like loaves and fishes—so that it becomes more than enough! In Christ there Is always an abundance, always a surplus.
The lesson—and the challenge for all of us—is too get busy. We are called to do small and insignificant things for God here and now. God will take care of the rest. So let us console the mourning, give food to the hungry, visit the sick and those in prison, let us love and encourage every person. Let us work for peace and justice, let us work to bring down unjust institutions and systems. Let us make no peace with hatred, fear of others, racism, misogyny, homophobia. In small acts of love and kindness—in loud shouts of protest—may we truly be mustard seeds taking over the field for God.