Sunday, June 18, 2006

Sunday 11, Time after Pentecost
Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17
Mark 4:26-34

For thou, Jehovah, hast made me glad through thy work: I will triumph in the works of thy hands.

This is one of the rare occasions when the Lutheran Lectionary does not line up with the Revised Common Lectionary. Though 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Psalm 20 are listed as alternative texts, today's Midweek Oasis will not reference those two passages.

We had a rather large area of yard we wanted to fill with something bright that would cover the ground quickly and be simple grow. At the same time we were trying to fill our garden, a friend spent an afternoon pruning hers removing the excessive amounts of "Wandering Jew" from her garden. She told me at the time that it was exactly what we needed and all we would have to do was push the broken end into the ground. It would grow so quickly that we would soon be grumbling about the intrusion on my yard.

I was surprised it would be so easy. I am not a great gardener, though I am trying to learn. I know there are plants that will root fairly easily all you have to do is take a cutting and put it in water for a few days and you will soon see roots. Then you can plant the cutting in the dirt and it will grow. I've recently learned, however, that there are many plants that do not require the extra step. You simply have to cut and then stick it into the ground. Last year I received a cutting of a cactus that began blooming just days after I put the cutting into dirt. There was not even time for the cactus to grow roots and it was already bearing fruit.

Despite this recent acquisition of knowledge, I had some difficulty with today's Old Testament lesson. 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 that is impossible to grow from a cutting and plant it in a place where it is impossible for it to grow. Not only will it grow, but it will bear 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. The LORD says, "All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord." (NRSV)

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 was a time of doubt for His people. They were in exile, with little hope for ever being a nation again. They had no king, they had no power and they had no future. It seemed to them that the promise was conditional, and since the people had broken the conditions there was no hope. Matthew Henry writes, "David's prosperity broke the condition, and so forfeited the promise. But the unbelief of man shall not invalidate the promise of God. He will find another seed of David in which it shall be accomplished; and that is promised in these verses."

We can look back and see that the fulfillment of this promise came at the incarnation of Jesus Christ. He was the shoot taken from the topmost twigs, giving up the glory of heaven to take on human flesh. He was a powerless infant born into a difficult world in impossible circumstances. He had no roots, born and laid in a manger and soon rushed off to Egypt for a few years. The odds were against Him, but He grew in strength and wisdom and grace.

In this passage God compares Himself to all others. Nebuchadnezzar tried to rule over God's people by placing his choice for king in place, but God had different plans. "I, Jehovah, have brought down the high tree, have exalted the low tree, have dried up the green tree, and have made the dry tree to flourish; I, Jehovah, have spoken and have done it." God does exactly the opposite of what we would expect. What gardener would let a green tree dry out to make a dead tree flourish?

There are some parallels between the Old Testament lesson and the Gospel for this day. In both a plant is planted from seemingly impossible conditions and grows to be bigger than we would expect and home to the creatures of the world. The mustard seed is, according to the text, the smallest of all seeds. How could such a small seed grow to become the largest shrub?

Yet, there is another dimension to this parable that should be noted. Mustard is a weed. Oh, mustard has been used for millennia for medicinal and culinary purposes, and it is cultivated in many parts of the world. There are more than a thousand different types of mustard. There is even a museum devoted to mustard. It has been used since the ancient times as a poultice and thought to be very beneficial to health. It was prescribed for everything from swollen tonsils to epilepsy. Pliny the Elder is even quoted as saying, "With a few spoonfuls of mustard, a cold and lazy woman can become an ideal wife." So it was also the tonic for what was called, "feminine lassitude."

So, mustard was used for practical reasons, but it was still a weed. Pliny wrote, "It grows entirely wild, though it is improved by being transplanted: but on the other hand when it has once been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place free of it, as the seed when it falls germinates at once." It was an annoyance.

Even though mustard is cultivated by modern farmers it is also annoying to farmers. You can often see dark green plants in the middle of fields sown with wheat or other grains, plants that were obviously not planted by the farmer. This is often mustard, whose seed is so light it is easily carried by the wind, or it is dropped by a passing bird that was unable to digest the seed. So, mustard is a weed that grows where it is not wanted, is impossible to get rid of and grows so large that creatures can dwell in its branches.

That's the kingdom of God. God does the impossible with the annoying in the most unexpected places. We hate to think of Jesus as a weed, but He certainly was to many of the people who had to deal with Him. The parables for today come in the middle of a series of parables about the kingdom of God. In the previous chapter we saw that some of the people thought that Jesus had gone out of His mind. Others thought He was possessed by Beelzebub. He responded to their criticisms with explanations of the kingdom of God. Even still, His explanations defied their understanding. The kingdom of God is like a weed?

The first parable is about seeds that grow without the help of the sower. Jesus says, "So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed upon the earth; and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring up and grow, he knoweth not how." We can't make seeds grow. We can't force the roots out of the seed or draw the seedling out of the earth. We plant seeds and then we wait. Yet, we do not just wait. We water the seed and insure that it has the proper light. We weed the garden around the seed so that it won't be choked by weeds. We add fertilizer, put up fences to keep out the birds and the rabbits.

Yet, even with all this work, there is no way we can make it grow. One day there is nothing and the next there is a sprout. We are like that sower. We plant the seeds of the kingdom and wait. Sometimes it seems to take a long, long time to see any sign of growth, but suddenly it is there. This parable seems to give us permission to sit and do nothing to sleep. There are many parents that do exactly that. They get their children, their babies, baptized but then never again darken the door of the church. When asked about raising their children in the faith as is promised by the parents at baptism they say that they would rather let God grow the faith. They want to allow their children to make their own choice when it comes to religious practice. They don't want to force anything on their children.

Yet, they'll never get to know Jesus if they aren't given a chance to hear God's word and live amongst His people. How can they choose if they have not heard? How will they grow if they haven't been watered? How will they survive if they aren't protected from the weeds, the birds and the rabbits that will easily destroy them if given the chance? If the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a seed so small that grows into a plant that goes where it is not wanted and won't go away, then who would want to choose it? We are called to plant the seeds and to be ready for the harvest, but we need not sit around and wait. Though God brings the growth, He also calls and gives us the gifts to nurture the seeds.

When we think of mustard, we realize that it is a much better example than you would at first assume. It was used for medicinal reasons it brings healing. The healing is not always pleasant. Mustard plastic can help with respiratory ailments, but it often burns the skin. It is used to add flavor to bland foods, but it can often be too hot to handle.

Two peasants took their goods to the market in town and did very well one day. They decided to take some of their profit and use it for a special meal at the inn. It was strange for them because they normally could not afford to eat in such a place. As they waited to be served, they noticed two other men dipping their meat in a bowl of creamy yellow stuff. The men were using very little. The peasants assumed that the yellow stuff must be very expensive. Confident in their new found wealth, the peasants decided to show the other men what it means to live large. They ordered two bowls of the mustard and began to eat it with a spoon. One bite set their tongues aflame. Even their beer could not quench the heat. They left the inn and decided that rich food was too much for them and they never went into an inn again.

Jesus taught things that did not sit well with folk. They thought He was either insane or a child of the devil. His parables spoke of extraordinary things, and yet they did so in such ordinary ways. Everyone knew about mustard but the knowledge was not always about something positive. Yet, Jesus' parables gave a new understanding of even the ordinary things. We generally interpret this parable to mean that small seeds can grow into big faith. We can also see how God uses weeds to do wonderful things and that no matter how hard they try, He's not going anywhere.

Paul faced difficult times. As a matter of fact, there were many who would have preferred for his ministry to fail. He was attacked, not only according to his theology, but also personally. People in the congregation of the Corinthians were trying to undermine his ministry and the seeds he'd already planted. Paul did not give up, even though he would have preferred to be with Jesus. "Being therefore always of good courage, and knowing that, whilst we are at home in the body, we are absent from the Lord (for we walk by faith, not by sight); we are of good courage, I say, and are willing rather to be absent from the body, and to be at home with the Lord. Wherefore also we make it our aim, whether at home or absent, to be well-pleasing unto him." Even though he wanted to be home with the Lord, he stayed to continue the work Jesus called him to do planting and nurturing the seeds of the kingdom.

Paul writes, "Wherefore if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature: the old things are passed away; behold, they are become new." The scriptures today are about making old things new, even if it is our ideas that are transformed. We have one idea about how to understand the parable of the mustard seed and now we can look at it from a new perspective. We have one idea about how to propagate cedar trees and now we have seen something different. Most of all, we've seen that the kingdom of God is different than we expect. It can be something mighty and majestic, like a towering cedar, but it is also a weed. It can come from a cutting that has no possibility of surviving or from a seed that is too small to even be digested in a bird.

Most of all we learn that God is not going anywhere and He is doing amazing things. He brings life and in the blink of an eye He can make nothing something spectacular. God has promised to do the impossible. He did it in and through Jesus. Even today He is making all things new. He has called us to dwell in the shadow of His grace and to produce fruit in keeping with His forgiveness. He is taking the seeds that we have planted and He is bringing them to life. He is also making the seeds in our hearts grow. It is indeed good to give thanks to the Lord, to sing praises to His name. "For thou, Jehovah, hast made me glad through thy work: I will triumph in the works of thy hands." Thanks be to God.

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