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Seeds and Shade

“Seeds and Shade”

Kate Fiedler

June 17, 2018

Ezekiel 17:22-24 & Mark 4:26-34

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Ezekiel 17:22-24    Israel Exalted at Last

22 Thus 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.
23 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.
24 All 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: 26-34

The Parable of the Growing Seed

26 He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”

The Parable of the Mustard Seed

30 He also said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet 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.”

The Use of Parables

33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

Dahlias are a big deal in my family.  My grandfather used to grow them for competitions in the annual September flower shows in Richmond, sometimes winning the prize for his flowers.  Years later, decades after his death, my father gave my mom dahlia bulbs as a memorial gift of sorts.  Mom has since created her own splendid garden plot in the backyard of dahlias of all sizes, types, and colors that bloom throughout the second half of summer, especially when the net fence keeps the neighborhood deer at bay.  These family flowers have graced many tables and been the centerpiece for family celebrations.  Mom’s beloved dahlias have been used as sermon illustrations before by other family preachers. She has no interest in flower competitions, but the memory of my grandfather sprouts and blossoms with each bloom.  Regrettably, the green thumb seems to have skipped a generation—my brother and I are not the master gardeners like our mom and grandpa.  But whenever there is talk of planting and growing, of seeds and sprouts, I can’t help but think of the dozens of dahlias that grace my parents’ backyard.

Likely, you noticed that today’s passages focus on planting and growing, provision and harvesting.  Both the speech from the prophet Ezekiel and the parables from Mark center around seeds and sprigs, shrubs and trees, branches and nests—the work of the Creator and the wonders of creation.  There is a lot to say about the mysteries of the plant world and the excitement of seeds and bulbs that grow into flowers, vegetables, and fruit that sweeten the summer.   Both texts are packed with meaning and symbolism, and today I want to highlight two points:  the mystery of God’s work, that is interwoven with grace and gift, and the mystery of God’s kingdom, where social reversals are the norm as God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.

We’ll begin with the Gospel.  The fourth chapter of Mark highlights the work in the fields, beginning with the parable of the sower.  We pick up the text as Jesus tells another parable about someone sowing seed on the ground.  This time, the story focuses on the activity of the seed and the growth of the crops, without much care or attention from the sower.  Jesus reminds the crowds and the disciples that God is at work while they are sleeping.  The seed sprouts, grows, and ripens even while the sower is going about their life.  The earth produces of itself; a mystery that still excites hopeful gardeners and farmers with each season.  God is tending to the work, in ways that we can’t fully explain or describe.  The sower has a part to play in this parable, spreading the seed and collecting the harvest, but God’s work is underground and beyond our imagination.  God’s grace too, plays a part.

At the March meeting of the Session, Nancy Myer shared her plans to attend seminary this fall—while still working at UPC.  The Session joyfully approved her request to become an Inquirer with hearty encouragement. Nancy first contemplated visiting a seminary campus to consider her call over 10 years ago.  She too is a faithful preacher’s kid, and she has served four churches.  She is clear that God is calling her to a new chapter in her ministry AND to continue to serve this congregation.  After sharing more details about her plans, Nancy was surrounded by the Session and staff as we laid hands on her, and the meeting closed as Margaret offered this well-known prayer:

[Eternal God,]

It helps [us], now and then, to step back and take a long view.
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts, it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction of the magnificent
enterprise that is God’s work.

Nothing we do is complete, which is a way of saying that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing

that.
This enables us to do something, and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way, an
opportunity for the Lord’s grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the

master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.[1]

This prayer highlights what we know and what we can’t fathom when we live into our faith.  Just as Jesus taught in the parables, this prayer illustrates that God’s work is far beyond the part we play, responding to God’s call on our lives includes mystery and grace, just like the growth and blossoming of dahlias and mustard bushes.  When Nancy began considering a call to Chapel Hill, she didn’t know then that she might soon consider a call to ordained ministry, to baptize babies, and to invite this church family to God’s table.  She didn’t have to know the full plan at work then, but she trusts that God knew.

This prayer is included in the extraordinary Mission Study Report—which is in its final editing stage after the Session received it with gratitude on Thursday.  This prayer describes what Jesus was teaching his disciples, and what we are still learning today.  God’s work never ends and is not fully grasped or understood in a lifetime.  We are called to play our part, adding our joys and gifts as part of the body of Christ.  Even if tending to church committees or the least of these may seem as insignificant as a mustard seed, God’s work encompasses the full picture and the fullness of time.  Trusting that God’s grace is at work in the earth, at work in our community, at work in our world, even when we sleep and rise night and day with apprehension for the state of things and the lack of visible growth, we are called to play our part.  God calls us to participate in the mystery of grace.

To be honest, I originally outlined a different second half to this sermon.  There is plenty of ground to cover when approaching parables.  I was energized to share a story about past Father’s Day gifts:  the drawings and gratitude I shared with my dad, art projects from my preschool days.  But my heart couldn’t stick to the plan when pictures of toddlers and young children kept filling my newsfeed.  When the same scriptures that I hold dear were interpreted in a way that separates families instead of focusing on God’s love, I realized I couldn’t continue to talk about the parables or stories from my preschool days. Lives are on the line.  Reading that 2,000 children were separated from their families in the last six weeks, a prophetic word weighed on my heart.[2]  The more I read the scriptures, the more I am convinced that God extends welcome to the foreigner and comfort to the oppressed.  Regardless of party affiliation, we hear God’s word calling us to welcome the children and to extend hospitality to the stranger.  God speaks a powerful word through the prophets throughout Biblical history and now.  So, instead, we’ll turn to Ezekiel’s text, listening with new ears and open hearts to God’s prophetic speech to a people destitute in exile, deep in despair.

Ezekiel was a prophet during a tumultuous time.  He relayed the word of the Lord during years that included the Babylonian attack on Jerusalem, the deportation of many of Judah’s citizens—including Ezekiel, the destruction of the temple, and over sixteen years of exile.  Ezekiel has many visions, and these verses come at the conclusion of a riddle filled with warning about great eagles, cedar trees and vines, and the impending destruction of Jerusalem and its people if they live like the Babylonians, breaking their covenant with God.  God’s words are harsh and condemning.

Our passage today marks a distinct shift, a focus on the restoration and future return to acknowledging the power of the Lord.  Encouraging words about noble cedars with shade for all winged creatures become powerful, prophetic speech about hope and the human condition, about reversals of the status quo, about upheavals of power and assumed hierarchy.   God declares,

23 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.
24 All 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.

You can imagine how Ezekiel was relieved to share these words of hope after saying so much about the current exile and the destruction that was to come.  Imagine how the people languishing in doubt and worrying about the future held on to the hope of returning home.  You may not have caught the shade God throws on the powerful and the mighty when Gene/Tim read it earlier.  In Ezekiel’s day, God was not intimidated by the power or the might of the Babylonian empire; God cared about the wellbeing of all people.  The noble cedar in this allegory has space enough for every kind of bird, branches and shade for winged creatures of every kind.  God declares there will be a place to call home for everyone, every beloved child of God.  God declares that today as well.  The Lord has spoken; the Lord will accomplish it.  When the fullness of God’s kingdom is at hand, God will bring down the high and will make high the low.  God will take care of those who are languishing and will take care of those who are flourishing.  God’s prophetic speech rings true today; God’s message is just as powerful in 2018. God still calls people of faith to work for justice and righteousness, to create a world that reflects God’s love for all, for all creation.  Just as there is room at the table for all, and there is room in the shade for all birds, there is room in our world for all people.  In both the Old and New Testament, there is a powerful theme of God’s concern for the stranger, the outcast, the least of these, and the children.  God’s encouragement of hope in the future for God’s covenant people then is a call to action for us, for we who profess to be God’s people today.  We too, have work to do.

On the front of your bulletin, you’ll find a prayer from Pádraig Ó Tuama.  He is a poet and the leader of the Corrymeela Community, the longest established peace and reconciliation organization in Northern Ireland.  Perhaps you too hope for more peace and reconciliation in our world.  In closing, I’d like to move from talk of seeds and shade to Padraig’s prayer of shelter and shadow.

~ It is in the shelter of each other that the people live.

~ It is in the shadow of each other that the people live.

 

We know that sometimes we are alone,

and sometimes we are in community.

 

Sometimes we are in shadow,

and sometimes we are surrounded by shelter.

 

Sometimes we feel like exiles –

in our land, in our languages and in our bodies.

And sometimes we feel surrounded by welcome.

 

As we seek to be human together,

may we share the things that do not fade:

generosity, truth-telling, silence, respect and love.

 

And may the power we share

be for the good of all.

 

We honour God, the source of this rich life.

And we honour each other, story-full and lovely.

 

Whether in our shadow or in our shelter,

may we live well

and fully

with each other.

Amen.[3]

 

May it be so, friends.  Whether our faith and prayer life are in the seed phase or the shade phase.  Whether we are living through a season of shadow or shelter, whether we feel more like the strong, towering cedars or the humble, wide-reaching mustard shrub, we take heart that God is present alongside us, loving us into bloom, even while we are sleeping, embracing us with a mysterious grace that holds fast and will never let us go.  We may not fully understand it.  Nevertheless, may we honor God, honor each other, honor the children, and live well.

 

Thanks be to the Creator of all Life, the Redeemer of the Truth, and the Sustainer of Hope.  Amen

[1] I adapted this prayer and used it in part to fit the context of preaching.  Use the link below or search “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own” to find the full text; it’s lovely.

This prayer was first presented by Cardinal Dearden in 1979 and quoted by Pope Francis in 2015. This reflection is an excerpt from a homily written for Cardinal Dearden by then-Fr. Ken Untener on the occasion of the Mass for Deceased Priests, October 25, 1979. Pope Francis quoted Cardinal Dearden in his remarks to the Roman Curia on December 21, 2015. Fr. Untener was named bishop of Saginaw, Michigan, in 1980.

http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/prayers/prophets-of-a-future-not-our-own.cfm

[2] “Separated at the Border From Their Parents: In Six Weeks, 1,995 Children”  https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/us/politics/trump-immigration-separation-border.html

[3] Ó Tuama, Pádraig. “A prayer of shelter and shadow.” Daily Prayers with the Corrymeela Community. Norwich: Canterbury Press, 2017.  p. 46

Kate Fiedler , Associate Pastor for Adult Ministries

Email: kate@upcch.org

Phone: (919) 929.2102 ext. 130

Bio:

Kate joined the staff in November of 2014 as the Associate Pastor for Adult Ministries. She focuses her energy on strengthening the adult education program, coordinating congregational life events, and extending warm hospitality to new members. Kate grew up in Virginia and North Carolina, and she has moved back and forth across the state line seven times. She is a graduate of Davidson College and Union Presbyterian Seminary. Before arriving in Chapel Hill, Kate served as the Associate Chaplain at Trinity Episcopal School in Charlotte–teaching third through eighth graders–and then as the Director of Admissions at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Kate enjoys road trips, live music, reading, exploring new restaurants, and cheering on her favorite sports teams: the Bears, the Cubs, and the Tar Heels.