Sunday, June 14, 2009

Lectionary 11
Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

They shall still bring forth fruit in old age; they shall be full of sap and green: to show that Jehovah is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.

This week we begin the long season of Ordinary Sundays, which lasts throughout the summer and except for a few special days (Reformation, All Saints and Christ the King) will take us to the end of the church year. During these days we look at the mission of the Church and our place within that mission. We will focus on the text from Mark, although there is a month or so when we will consider John 6 and the bread of life.

Last Sunday we looked at the doctrine of the Trinity, which is central to the Christian understanding of God. The concept is mysterious and confusing, leading to misunderstandings between Trinitarians and non-Trinitarians. Those who see the Godhead as three-in-one are accused of worshipping three separate gods. As the early Christians studied the scriptures, both the Old Testament and the witness of the disciples, they began to see the Trinity and found it to be the logical expression of the God they saw revealed in and through Jesus Christ. Some things Jesus said did not make sense without this understanding of God. Some of the things He did had far more meaning when seen through this light. What was a small seed of an idea became a foundational teaching by the fourth century because the Church fathers were finally able to bring together all the questions, answers and ideas into one concise creed. It was at the council of Nicaea that the doctrine was finally given full expression.

It took a lot of discussion and study. Origen, Tertullian and Athanasius were the early scholars working through the ideas. They came to their understanding as they fought heresy in the early church. Others continued to develop and defend the doctrine, including a group of men we remember on this Sunday called the Cappadocian fathers: Basil the Great, Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus. These three were bishops and doctors of the Church. These three men were influenced by Macrina, a teacher and abbess and sister to Basil and Gregory of Nyssa. She was intelligent, learned and committed to a faithful and faith-filled Christian life of perfection. She provided a place for her brothers and their friend to pray and live and study at the community she established on the family estate.

Gregory of Nyssa and Gregory of Nazianzus were both unwilling leaders of the Church, but served with humility and dedication. Basil established a rule of monastic life that is still used today, preferring community life to hermitage. Gregory of Nazianzus was a great preacher, working especially where the Arian ideology had taken root, planting Orthodoxy to regions where Orthodoxy was not widespread. Gregory wrote about spiritual life and the Christian use of worship and sacraments to contemplate God.

The images in our scriptures have to do with big things happening out of small beginnings. These early church fathers were certainly valuable as individuals, each providing good things in the development of the Church. However, we remember them together, each recognized as a part of a whole community that made a difference in the lives of Christians. Along with Macrina, these brothers and their friend each had a part in growing the church—one in establishing how to live in community, one in preaching the message and one in teaching people how to worship God. We are reminded by their stories that we are all individuals, small parts of the larger community working together for the sake of the world.

We might think we aren’t big enough to make a difference, or smart enough, or gifted enough. We look at those who have made an impact and think that we can’t possibly do anything of value. We are nothing more than small bushes, especially when compared to those who appear to be so successful in the world and in ministry. What can one person in a small congregation in a small town do as compared to the famous pastor at a megachurch in a big city? But God does not always do things the way the world expects. He’s turned the world upside down. He’s done what no man can do.

God can do the impossible. Today’s Old Testament passage is a promise to do what can’t be done. I know little about the propagation of trees, but I thought trees required roots when planted. To grow new trees either you have to do so from seed or you can take a cutting and graft it into another root. The scriptures even talk about grafting—like when the Gentiles will be grafted into the root. But I find it hard to understand how someone could take a twig from the top of a tree and plant it on the highest mountain. Everything about this passage is senseless.

Besides having no roots, it seems odd that the shoot would be planted at the heights of the highest mountain in Israel. Though Israel is not known for having towering mountains like Everest or Kilimanjaro, Mount Hermon is tall enough to have snow covered peaks and a line beyond which it is impossible for large trees to grow. If you or I would try to plant a cedar tree on the top of Mount Hermon, we would fail; we certainly could not make it bear fruit.

But that's what makes this passage so amazing. In it God is promising to do the impossible—to take a cutting of a tree and plant it in a place where it should not be able to grow. But we see in this passage that not only will it grow, but it will bear also fruit and become a towering cedar tree. Not only will it grow, but it will provide a place of protection and habitation for winged creatures of every kind. Of course, this imagery is not meant to be taken literally. God is not going to take a shoot off a tall cedar tree and plant it on the top of a mountain. This passage is a parable, meant to make the people think about God and what He can do, to have hope in the midst of their trouble.

Israel had turned away from God. The kings had lost their way. The people were no longer worshipping only the God of their forefathers. They were not doing justice or living as God intended them to live. The only way to get their attention was to use the nations of the world. God gave Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians the power to defeat Israel in Jerusalem and take the king captive. The king made a vow with Nebuchadnezzar, and the Babylonians did not destroy Jerusalem. But the king thought he could be unfaithful to the covenant he made with Nebuchadnezzar, so he sought the help of Egypt. Egypt did not help Israel. As a matter of fact, Egypt helped with the destruction of what little was left. God allowed this to happen because the king was not faithful to the vow he made in God’s name.

So, the parable found in Ezekiel 17 tells the story of this time in the life of Israel. Our passage takes this story in a new and unexpected way. God will take a shoot and make it grow where it can never grow. A shoot clipped from the top of a cedar tree will not grow on the top of a mountain. Even if that snippet could grow, it wouldn’t grow into a vine. But, just as God could use Nebuchadnezzar to bring His people back into His heart, He can also bring life to that which should be dead. He does this so that the world will know that He is God. God turns the world upside down so that we can see His power and His mercy and His grace.

Jesus used parables as He explained the kingdom of God to the crowds. He used natural examples to give the people spiritual concepts. When we hear the stories He told, they make little sense to us. What does a seed have to do with the kingdom of God? If you aren’t a farmer, the agricultural references might be pointless. Sometimes the stories were even confusing to those who understood the references, especially since the stories could not always be taken literally. The stories talk about things that aren’t completely true. Yes, a plant grows without the help or knowledge of man, but what farmer doesn’t put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into his farms? And we know that the mustard seed isn’t really the smallest seed. We also know that it doesn’t grow so big that the birds can build nests in it. Yet, these parables have long helped us to understand that God is in control and that He has begun a great thing with just a tiny seed.

Though the parables seem to be nothing more than stories, they cause us to think more deeply about what Jesus is saying and to take ownership of the information He is sharing. We aren’t the only ones confused. So are the disciples, and we benefit from their uncertainty because Jesus often explains these parables to them. But it does us well to look beyond the story and think about what it meant not only for the disciples and early hearers, but also for us today. That’s what the Cappadocian Fathers did so long ago—they listened to what Jesus said by studying the witness left behind, worked to understand what it meant, and then share that understanding with others.

So, how do we judge success? All too often we judge success by the size or the impact of something. The big megachurch in the big city is seen as a success because huge crowds attend their meetings. Are they more successful than the country church that only has a membership of a few hundred?

Unfortunately, many people do define success in tangible ways. It was happening in Corinth with those who were in opposition to the work Paul was doing with the new Christians there. They were claiming greater success because they were being paid and were thriving in their positions in the church. However, Paul refused to be paid. He preferred to give the Gospel to the people for free so that no one could question his integrity. To Paul, success was not about how much he had gathered in material but how well the people who have heard his message were living. Were they sharing the Gospel with others? Were they glorifying God with their gifts both material and spiritual? Were they loving as Christ loved and living as Christ lived? Have they been transformed by the Gospel message into a new creation whose desires are the same as God?

Those who are at peace, who are truly successful, are those who are content in their circumstances: the pastor whose congregation is reaching out to the community through a food bank or other ministry, the Christian using his or her gifts to bring wholeness and healing to the neighbors, the church that worships God with humility and dedication—they are not conforming to the expectations of the world, but living happy in their circumstances today. As for Paul, he was confident in God’s grace and could continue to do the work he was called to do even though it seemed to some that he was a failure. He knew that God knew him and to Paul, that was all that matters.

True success comes when we understand that God has turned the world upside down.

It is valuable to look at the different ways words are translated in the scriptures because it sometimes gives another level of understanding. Take today’s Psalm, for instance. Verse 4b says, “I will triumph in the works of thy hands” in the American Standard Version. In other versions, the Hebrew word that was translated as “triumph” is translated “sing for joy.” Now, since triumph can be defined “to rejoice over a success or victory,” “sing for joy” makes sense. This song is a liturgical hymn of praise used in the Temple worship on the Sabbath after the exile, in the morning when the sacrifice was offered. The promise from Ezekiel was being realized. The people were joyful and thankful that God rescued them, restored them and replanted them in their home. They were growing again, and they were happy.

But the word “triumph” can also mean “to be victorious or successful.” As we look at the rest of the passage, we see that the psalmist is singing over the success which God gives. God will make His righteous people flourish like a palm tree. They shall grow like the tall cedars of Lebanon. They shall bring forth fruit; they will be healthy and green. Notice that the triumph here is not human success or victory. The triumph is God’s. He does these things. When the psalmist says, “I will triumph in the works of thy hands” the psalmist is not saying that he will be triumphant, but that God will make him triumphant. It is all about God’s hands, all about God’s works, all about God’s triumph. All that we have, all that we are, is thanks to God. Whether we rise to the heights of a palm or cedar tree, or if we spread out like a vine, our fruit is brought to the world by God’s hands.

And so we sing about the triumph of God and we triumph in His hands. We both sing of His success and are victorious in His grace. He is faithful. His lovingkindness is manifest in the lives of His people, as they share His grace so that the world will know that He is God. That's what it is all about, these ordinary days of the Church year: learning about how God is manifest in this great world of ours so that as we spread out like a vine, giving shade and fruit to the world, they will know that it is all about Him.

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