Sermon for Third Sunday after Pentecost, June 13, 2021
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared in worship and on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Ezekiel 17:22–24 | 2 Corinthians 5:6–10, 14–17 | Mark 4:26–34
God as Gardener—or Arborist: “Someone who cultivates, manages, and studies trees, shrubs, vines, and other perennial woody plants.”
Trees are one of my favorite plants—with shrubs a close second. When we had a new yard in Arvada, our house came with one street-side tree, and the rest we planted with a little research and our ability to bring it home in the minivan. Eventually, we chose a couple ashes and a purple plum; some aspen trees and poplars for privacy between crowded houses. In the landscaping, I planted dwarf alberta spruces, sand cherries, euonymous and a row of boxwood shrubs—like we were in England or something! I enjoyed nurturing these amazing plants and watching them grow. (As I’ve said before, I am not so much a vegetable gardener…) There is nothing like that lovely patch of shade beneath thick leaves in the summer or the twinkling of sun and a breeze on the leaves of a quaking aspen. My youngest even named all the trees, with descriptive monikers like “Leafy.” (And then I would be quizzed on the names to make sure I was paying attention.)
Nowadays my family and I live in a world of plants that is pretty much “survival of the fittest.” There’s not a lot of pampering that happens given water from wells and grazing animals. And these trees and shrubs have good defenses: thorns and stickers and needles—currant, raspberry, ponderosa and spruce. A few things were once planted around the house with some amount of success, but most are—as the North Dakotans call trees that, you know, came up on their own—“volunteers.” This means that a lot of “volunteering” happened many years before houses and roads—for which I am glad. But even if we planted the trees and shrubs and everything else, we don’t—finally—really make things grow. There’s wonder in that seed that does it work, we truly know not how. We can describe it with science, but the actual impetus and mechanism of a growing organism still remains a mystery.
The ancients knew that God was in this wonder. God is the gardener in Eden—and the force that is impetus for life. Seeds are mentioned four times! In Ezekiel we hear that God takes a cutting from a cedar: “I myself will plant it.” “On a high and lofty mountain.” The resulting strong tree becomes a metaphor for another critical aspect of life: Good governance. The new tree stands literally for a new ruler who will reign well from Mt. Zion (of the temple) in Jerusalem—and by which all the other trees will KNOW—really know—the good and true God.
There is a caveat here, however: I bring low the high tree and make high the low tree. I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. It is the recurrent prophetic duty of bringing people back to God and God’s ways: “Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.” Echoed in the words of Jesus: “The first will be last and the last will be first.” “If anyone wants to save their life, they will lose it. And those who lose their life for my sake and for the sake of the gospel, will find it.” Happiness, peace and true strength are funny that way.
400 years or so later we hear Jesus talking about seeds and especially the weedy mustard bush that miraculously grows from a very small seed. There are similarities with the cedar from Ezekiel in these two parables: The mystery of the growth—that is, the lack of human help; the result that is bearing fruit, which gives creatures nourishment and also means seeds that will perpetuate the plant; the sheltering of certain creatures, specifically birds. But before we get too awed by the “noble” cedar and maybe thrown off track by trying to locate who or what this is (note that modern-day Jerusalem is not exactly living up to this nurturing and generous sense of invitation) we remember how metaphors point and enlighten—but don’t give certainty. There are also differences in these plants, after all. The mustard bush is not so spectacular or noticeable. It is common and humble and not always welcome. But it’s also tough and it still shelters those birds and their nests. But this is also a way to understand the way that God keeps giving life: By something Jesus calls God’s Kingdom. And although it may be somewhat hidden like a pesky shrub: We are reminded that it’s close by; it does the simple and beautiful work of shading and nurturing; it’s a “volunteer” shrub- seeding, sprouting and growing all on it’s own.
This, of course, brings me to the mystics. Julian of Norwich who said a few hundred years ago that “sardine can convert you” or contemporary Father Richard Rohr who said a “blade of grass” is enough: The experience of “thisness” or “isness” is a focus on something so small being enough to open us into the overflowing generosity of the Creator. In fact, the smaller and humbler, the better—because it lets us see that there really isn’t any other way to know God than through something that doesn’t have all the attachments and neuroses that we might give other things. That is, it allows us a moment of unimpeded awe. Which can only be explained by faith. What really should not be, is. Therefore, what YOU ARE—THAT you are is sheer miracle and gift of grace. Along with everything else. It’s nothing less than a seismic shift.
Paul says in 2 Corinthians—we “walk by faith and not by sight.” Which is crazy! Why would we want to do that? We fight it tooth and nail. We think we need to plan and figure things out—to SEE the lay of the land. But when our certainty is shaken; when our control slips; when we are humbled and feel common… we are in good company. There are those mustard bushes after all. “Ah ha!” we can say: God caused those plants to grow—and will continue to grow us, too. As we hear in psalm 92: “[They] shall flourish in the courts | of our God; they shall still bear fruit | in old age; they shall be | green and succulent.” Thanks be to God. Amen.