Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4:26-34
Ezekiel 17:22-2422Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23On 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. 24All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.
Mark 4:26-3426He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
30He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
33With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
I started my garden a couple weeks ago. At the time I had hoped to soon finish the second bed and plant the seeds that have been lovingly saved and passed on to me by some farmer friends of mine - seeds that we all took the time to bless a few weeks ago in worship...but as you can see, nothing to that affect as yet been accomplished. A few seeds that I hope still to plant are favorites - wax beans and kale, and a few are new attempts - cucumbers and cauliflower and delicata squash. I know at school, Michael took some time with his class to plant beans on the side of a clear cup so they could watch the seed break open and sprout - he probably knows the parts of a plant better than I do!
The passages of scripture this week talk about God’s action and initiative, the unfolding of the kingdom, and our place in the midst of it all.
I have to be honest and say I wish I was a bit more like our sleepy gardener in our Mark passage - throwing seed on the ground and reveling in the mystery of sprouts unfurling toward the sun. I am someone who would make my plants grow by force, if I could (not, of course, that I have the time to put in all the proper effort and research that such an undertaking would entail). I like results - to see the fruits of my labors, to know - for certain - that if I put in the proper inputs, I would receive the proper outputs. I can control the outcome.
What our passages show, however, is that the outcome is anything but under our control. Of course we know that for a plant to grow, it has to be in the proper environment and have opportunity to thrive. Of course we know that a tiny mustard seed doesn’t produce a ginormous tree. The hearers of these parables would have known that as well - and have been perplexed by Jesus’s assertions that the kingdom is like this careless farmer or that the kingdom is like this miracle tree. The point is that the growth - the kingdom - isn’t dependent upon us and our efforts of forcing it to be. God’s kingdom happens even when people would expect nothing to grow out of what has been sown. God’s kingdom happens when we expect one thing - a barren field from slipshod planting or a mustard plant - and get another - a bountiful harvest or a tree that provides shelter for all. (Nevermind the fact that in Jesus’ day, a mustard plant would never be something any self-respecting farmer would have sown - it’s a weed and would have taken over anyone’s field). It’s a sentiment that is echoed in the Ezekiel text - God taking sprigs from trees and making dry trees flourish and drying out thriving trees, making a home for birds of all kinds.
God’s kingdom is unexpected, uncontrollable, and unfolds in ways we have no good grasp on - it’s unmeasurable and unknowable, deep and mysterious. It takes our well-laid plans - or perhaps our not well-thought-out ones, and turns them on its head. It takes our securities and comforts and invites us to challenge our assumptions. It takes our sorrows and hurts and wounds and turns them into places of harvest and abundance.
On Easter - we talked of death and resurrection and spent some time reflecting on the things in our lives that have died and what resurrection work God may do in the year ahead. Death and resurrection are all part of kingdom work - after all, who would have expected God to raise Jesus from the dead after three days?
We wrote on seed paper crosses to name and acknowledge those deaths as well as to name and acknowledge the growth and hope and resurrection God brings about when those deaths happen.
I want to pause here and name for a moment, that we - together - are undergoing one of those big death moments. Our relationship - our connection - to the United Methodist Church, is something this body has discerned needed to die. We prayed and struggled and wrestled and came to this place that meant following God involved stepping away from that connection. Only two weeks ago was that decision ratified by the New England Conference. It’s a death - or maybe more apt, it’s a relationship that is dying. And just like when someone dies, there is a lot of emotion surrounding that process of grief and letting go - even when we know someone is ready to go. There’s sadness, anger...there can be relief and hope and peace...there can be a “thank God it is over.” I want to remind ourselves of that as we make our way through these final weeks.
I also want to remind ourselves that in God’s kingdom, wherever there’s a death, God stands ready to offer new life - and we never know quite what that will look like. This for me is what ties us back to our passages for today. God’s going to work among us - and we have no idea what the Spirit will bring forth. We don’t know the timing and we don’t know the harvest. We may grow impatient at the waiting - wanting to control and force results - just like me and my gardening skills.
It’s not an easy path - slow, mysterious growth comes hard. Seasons of fallowness can leave us impatient. Plants that grow in ways we don’t like or that we don’t think belong in our garden frustrate us. Turning over our wants and desires and dreams for the sake of what God wants to grow can be a struggle.
But I know that with faithful perseverance, with steady, constant surrender to the leadings of the spirit, with loving attention paid to the smallest, most insignificant things, with an open-hearted embrace of people and situations the world has written off, with a posture of open-handed trust - that we will be surprised beyond our wildest imaginings at what God does as a result of this step of faith.
The seeds have been planted. Our invitation - and challenge - is to rest in God’s grace...to tend to what springs forth (even if it looks like a weed)...and to release ourselves (both as individual people and as a people) again and again into God’s care and provision, trusting that it is God - and not us - who will bring the abundant harvest...who brings green growth to our barren places...who will create in us a shelter for all who need a home. Amen.
Scripture - Mark 3:20-35
Mark 3:20-35 (New Revised Standard Version)
Then he went home; 20 and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, “He has gone out of his mind.” 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, “He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons.” 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.
28 “Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin”— 30 for they had said, “He has an unclean spirit.”
31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, “Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.” 33 And he replied, “Who are my mother and my brothers?” 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Jesus has this odd notion of family. In this text, he returns home and his own family comes out to protect him because they are worried that the crowd is going to do something dangerous to him - they fear for his safety because of the fact that the crowd is saying “he’s out of his mind” and the scribes are calling him demon possessed. In the midst of this teaching, Jesus receives word that his mother and brother and sisters are around him - and he uses that as a teaching opportunity to declare that all who do the will of God is brother and sister and mother - he takes the definition of family and extends the circle, making family about more than blood relation, but about connection in the heart of God -- and that means something pretty powerful. It means we’re obligated to one another in the same way we understand healthy families are obligated to one another -- and all the negotiations that go with it.
I think about that especially as we approach Annual Conference this week, and the vote that will take place on Friday on our disaffiliation from the United Methodist Church. This vote is happening because we chose to treat our LGBTQIA friends and families as part of our circle - affirming and celebrating their gifts, beloved in the eyes of God for who God created them to be.
The three churches disaffiliating (HopeGateWay in Portland, Tuttle Rd. in Cumberland, and us) are sharing our reasons to convince the Annual Conference session to let us leave through a video. Representatives from each of our congregations shared their thoughts - and for worship today, I’d like for this to be a reminder of why we’ve taken these steps.
This is what it means to be church - we are a family together. We belong to one another - in ways that go beyond mere blood connection - though there is plenty of that here to be sure. We empower and give strength to the weak, we listen to the voices from the margins, we look out for each other. We love each other as if Jesus were right alongside us.
As we take this next step this week, may we keep those bonds of kinship in the family of Christ in mind and take them to heart. Amen.
Scripture - Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17, Romans 8:12-17
Isaiah 6:1-8, New Revised Standard Version
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” 4The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.
5And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” 6Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”
John 3:1-17, New Revised Standard Version3Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” 4Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. 7Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ 8The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 9Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” 10Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? 11“Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. 12If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? 13No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. 16“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. 17“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.
Romans 8:12-17, The Message
12-14 So don’t you see that we don’t owe this old do-it-yourself life one red cent. There’s nothing in it for us, nothing at all. The best thing to do is give it a decent burial and get on with your new life. God’s Spirit beckons. There are things to do and places to go!
15-17 This resurrection life you received from God is not a timid, grave-tending life. It’s adventurously expectant, greeting God with a childlike “What’s next, Papa?” God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know we are going to get what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance! We go through exactly what Christ goes through. If we go through the hard times with him, then we’re certainly going to go through the good times with him!
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer.
Mother, Child, Womb.
Lover, Beloved, Love.
For generations, Christians have tried to articulate the myriad and mysterious ways they’ve experienced and encountered God. To be sure - Christians - along with our Jewish and Muslim siblings - assert that there is one God. And yet, in our faith, there is this doctrine of the Trinity (a word that appears nowhere in Scripture) as a way of coming to term with this One God in three persons that are all equally God and yet distinct. (In reality, this doctrine came about 350 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus). Portions of what I’m sharing this morning are attributed to Rev. Dr. Carl Gregg, who blogs over on patheos.com.
These three scripture passages are representative of the ways that folks in the Bible - as well as the early Christians - experienced Jesus.
In our Isaiah text, we see a God who is beyond us - a transcendent God - a holy God - a God that is completely other, unable to be fully known or comprehended. This is a God clothed in majesty and awe, a God to be worshiped and venerated, a God that makes us very aware of our limits and mortality.
In our Nicodemous text, we see a God who is with us. Even as God is beyond us, God is with us - present fully in the person of Jesus. In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus - we (and the early Christians) see and experience a God that is with us in the flesh - teaching, eating, healing, walking, grieving, dying - in all these acts, we see and experience God enfleshed.
And finally in our Romans text - we see a God within us - present among us, working in our hearts and in our communities. Jesus was no longer physically present with them, and there would always be this understanding of God’s holiness and transcendence that is beyond them -- but they still felt this closeness - this empowering work among them and sensed God at work within them as if they were breathing - and here we have the Holy Spirit.
God beyond….God with...God within...Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and all one God with three distinct persons that exist and interact and relate with each other.
Now I don’t want to get too theologically heady and wander down the rabbit trail of why the early Christians needed the doctrine of the Trinity and all the theological arguments that cropped up, giving rise to creeds of various kinds and ideas that were ultimately denounced as heresies. We won’t go there today.
What I do want to explore is what the Trinity invites us into - because it’s difficult to understand or explain well or to consider what impact it has in day to day lives.
First, it invites us into mystery. There is something profoundly mysterious about the Trinity that defies our fully naming and understanding what it means. It points to how our human images and metaphors ultimately fall short in describing who God is - because in what universe does Father and Son and Holy Spirit - 1 + 1 + 1 = 1 -- 1 God? Each fully God and each fully distinct - and isn’t that a wonderfully beautiful mystery?
Secondly, it invites us into deep relationship.
There’s this passage from the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams - who writes this:
“Grace, for the Christian believer, is a transformation that depends in large part on knowing yourself to be seen in a certain way: as significant, as wanted. The whole story of creation, incarnation, and our incorporation into the fellowship of Christ’s body tell us that God desires us, as if we were God, as if we were that unconditional response to God’s giving that God’s self makes in the life of the Trinity. We are created so that we may be caught up in this; so that we may grow into the wholehearted love of God by learning that God loves us as God loves God. The life of the Christian community has as its rationale - if not invariably its practical reality - the task of teaching us this: so soldering our relations that human beings may see themselves as desired, as occasion as of joy.”
Embedded in this idea - that God desires us as if we were God, that God loves us as God loves God - and the idea that Jesus invites us to love our neighbor in the same way we love ourselves - shows the way that we are all bound up together in this deep relational dance. In fact, this was another way early Christians interpreted the Trinity - through the word perichoresis - “to dance around” some of these early theologians believed that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit “dance around” each other, and in this dance we all find our place.
Contemporary author and theologian Len Sweet puts it this way: “The choreia or dance of God is the choreography of the cosmos, the interrelationship of Creator, creation, and life itself, the holy creativity of the All in All.” he continues, “The dancing metaphor of the holy Trinity is envisioned and embodied as a circle dance...The dance of the triune divine is moving, active, eternally both transcendent and immanent, and flowing together in a joyful and harmonious, rhythmic and resonant celebration of life.”
Imagine the dynamic love flowing through the persons of Trinity - and that God loves us in that very same way God loves God’s self...and in the way God loves us we are invited to love other human beings...in the same way we love ourselves.
Can you feel the rhythm and movement and mystery surrounding that idea?
I want to close with an excerpt from St. Patrick’s Breastplate - and as you hear these words, I invite you to consider the way you experience or name the Trinity - and what that means for you as you seek to embrace the mystery of God and immerse your whole being in that powerful, transcendent love of God which flows through us to love one another.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three.
Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.
I bind unto myself the Name,
The strong Name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same.
The Three in One, and One in Three,
Of Whom all nature hath creation,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word:
Praise to the Lord of my salvation,
Salvation is of Christ the Lord.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the community of Chebeague and its church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and five year old son and 2 year old daughter, along with their yellow lab. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the church community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.