Where the pious pout

File:Pouting boy in Shamar, Iraq.jpg

Watching for the Morning of July 30, 2017

Year A

The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 12 / Lectionary 17

A mustard seed doesn’t become a tree. It can be a big bush, but not a tree. And it was improper to plant mustard in your garden. It had something to do with the mixing of kinds and the unruliness of mustard. God’s commands to ancient Israel were to keep such things separate. But it’s not like Matthew doesn’t understand this. Matthew does indeed. There is a scandal, here. Like leaven hidden. You don’t ‘hide’ leaven in the loaf unless it’s not supposed to be there. Like maybe someone intentionally desecrating the Passover bread.

Flaunting boundaries. Jesus has been doing this all along. Not just welcoming outcasts, but laying hands on the dead and touching lepers and not observing the fasts, and eating with unwashed hands and sharing the gifts of God with a Canaanite woman (well, those last two stories come after this one, but we who hear the text know something about the audacity of Jesus).

So why does Matthew let Jesus call the mustard shrub a tree? So that Jesus can say that “the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” It is an allusion to the prophetic word in Ezekiel about the splendid cedar that will rise from the broken twig God will plant.

We are still proclaiming the wondrous and unexpected harvest that will certainly come. God’s scandalous kingdom where sinners are welcomed and the dead are raised and the pious pout and fume. But those who see and hear will sell all to possess it. The priceless pearl. The surprise treasure. The dawn of grace.

So Sunday we hear Solomon ask for wisdom and receive all things. We will hear the psalmist sing of the glories of God’s teaching and hunger to hear what is now proclaimed in Jesus. And Paul will describe the creation groaning for that day when the promise is made complete and exult that nothing can separate us from the love of God. And Jesus will tell us that the reality dawning in this audacious Jesus is worth selling everything to possess.

The Prayer for July 30, 2017

O God, whose promises never fail
and whose purpose for the world
will be brought to its fulfillment in Christ Jesus:
grant us wisdom to recognize the riches of your grace
and to live now the joy that awaits us;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for July 30, 2017

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12
“At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” – After David’s death, Solomon gains the throne and comes to worship at the ancient holy site of Gibeon where he asks God for wisdom.

Psalmody: Psalm 119:129-136
“The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” – In a majestic tour de force in praise of God’s law/teaching/word, the poet celebrates the guiding commands of God in twenty-two eight-line strophes that proceed from Aleph to Taw (A to Z) with each of the eight lines in every strophe beginning with the same letter of the Hebrew alphabet.

Second Reading: Romans 8:22-23, 26-39 (appointed 8:26-39)
“What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?”
– Paul’s argument that God has reconciled us to himself through Christ by God’s favor (grace) apprehended by our trust in his promise (faith) now culminates in an ecstatic declaration that nothing in the heavens or on earth can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field.” – From unlikely beginnings – a tiny seed, a bit of yeast – comes an extraordinary end, so it is with the reign of God. What is sown looks frail and powerless – a Galilean rabble and a crucified ‘messiah’ – but from it will come an exceptional harvest. Like a merchant finding a priceless pearl or a farmer finding a great treasure, the wise will do all in their power to obtain it.

Image: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3APouting_boy_in_Shamar%2C_Iraq.jpg See page for author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

The mustard seed and vulture kings

Wednesday

Mark 4:26-34

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Cedar trees in the Cedars of God nature preserve on Mount Lebanon, Lebanon.

“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.”

At least Mark properly calls the fruit of the mustard seed a ‘bush’. Matthew records Jesus saying: it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, and Luke also records that it grew and became a tree.” Why would they make such a mistake? Because this isn’t about taxonomy, it is about the promise in Ezekiel 17 of a righteous king.

Judah’s involvement in imperial politics went poorly for the nation. When Babylon rose to power and marched on the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, Pharaoh Neco came to Assyria’s aid to prevent Babylon’s domination of the region. Josiah, the righteous king in whom the author of Samuel & Kings puts his hope, marched out to prevent the Egyptian advance and was killed in the valley of Megiddo. Jehoahaz, the royal son, aged 23 and now become king, goes to submit to Pharaoh, but is seized and taken to Egypt as a hostage. Pharaoh installs his brother, Jehoiakim, on the throne. Jehoiakim wisely switches side when Neco falls to Nebuchadnezzar, but when the Babylonian invasion of Egypt fails – and Nebuchadnezzar must withdraw to quell a rebellion at home – Jehoiakim betrays his new master.

Nebuchadnezzar, however, deals quickly with the insurrection at home and marches back to Jerusalem and besieges the city. The help Jehoiakim expects from Egypt never materializes and the rebel king dies during the siege (a curiously timed and unexplained death). On taking the throne, his son, the 18-year-old Jehoiachin, surrenders. He is taken in chains to Babylon with a host of other captives from the elite families of the city, and Nebuchadnezzar installs his uncle, Zedekiah, as king. Ezekiel is among these first captives carried into exile in 597/6 BCE.

Jeremiah and Ezekiel, speaking on God’s behalf, are the lone voices of sanity, urging the king to submit to Babylonian rule. The royal prophets – the talking heads and tea leaf readers who dine at the king’s table – urge him to action, promising success, telling the king what he wants to hear. Zedekiah reaches out to Egypt for support and breaks his covenant/treaty with Babylon. But, again, Egyptian help does not materialize and Jerusalem, the monarchy, the temple and priesthood are all brutally and thoroughly destroyed. A second deportation begins Judah’s long exile.

Ezekiel embodies these troubling events in his parable of the great eagle/vulture* (Babylon/Nebuchadnezzar) who plucks a sprig from the Forest of Lebanon (the royal hall in Jerusalem) and carries it off to “a city of merchants” (Babylon). Then he takes “a seed from the land” (Zedekiah) and plants it in fertile soil where it grows into a vine – a vine, not a great tree; low, not exalted. But the vine does not send its roots towards the first eagle; instead it looks for strength and help from “a second eagle” (Egypt). And then, the prophet asks, what that first eagle will do? Will he not come and tear up the vine, rip up its roots, and leave it to wither beneath the hot desert winds?

The prophet’s fears are realized. But this word of doom is not all that the prophet has to say to us. God himself – not an eagle/vulture – will take a tender sprig and plant it on Mt. Zion where it will become a great tree in which “every kind of bird will live”. God promises a true king – not these rapacious vulture kings, nor the lowly vine, but a great cedar that shelters all.

This is why the insignificant mustard seed becomes a shelter for the birds. It is why Matthew and Luke call it a tree, lest we miss the allusion. This Jesus is the lowly twig become a great cedar. This Jesus is the shelter for all peoples. This Jesus is the promised ruler who will free God’s world from the vultures and provide a safe home for all.

*Note: the word translated ‘eagle’ also means vulture as can be seen in the allusion to shaved heads in Micah 1:16. (This Hebrew word is used also for a scavenging bird in Proverbs 30:17 and Hosea 8:1). The eagle is a noble national symbol to the United States, but an unclean bird to Israel.
Photo: By Jerzy Strzelecki (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Trees, parables, and the dominion of God

File:Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar - Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon - Google Art Project.jpg

Pilgrimage to the Cedars of Lebanon, Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar (1853 – 1919)

Watching for the Morning of June 14, 2015

Year B

The Third Sunday after Pentecost:
Proper 06 / Lectionary 11

Perhaps the farmer in Jesus’ parable of the growing seed is a lazy and worthless farmer, sleeping instead of tending his fields, but though he sleeps, the seed wondrously grows and a harvest will come. Just so the mustard seed seems like nothing, but it will become a great shrub sheltering the birds of the air. Jesus may seem like nothing, now, a peasant preacher and wonder worker in a land occupied by a great empire – but the reign of God comes.

The parable evokes the promise of God in our reading from Ezekiel about a twig that will grow to become a great cedar in which “every kind of bird” will find shelter – the promise of a just king in whom all nations will rest.

And the image of the noble tree is taken up by the psalmist to declare that the righteous – those who show fidelity to God and to others – are like the noble cedar whose beautiful, aromatic wood lines the temple of God, and like the date-palm whose fruit adds sweetness and joy to life, year after year.

Enriching such reflection are the words of Paul in our second reading declaring that Christ “died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them.” In Christ the new creation is at hand, the dawning of God’s realm of grace and life, the reconciliation of heaven and earth.

The Prayer June 14, 2015

Lord of All,
your reign of grace and life moves towards its consummation
when all shall find shelter in your arms.
Increase in us faith and hope
that we may live and serve you with joy;
through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Texts for June 14, 2015

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24
“I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar.” – Building on the metaphor of the lowly vine planted by Nebuchadnezzar (the king of Judah) who broke his covenant with Babylon and brought destruction on the nation, the prophet proclaims God’s promise of a great cedar, a noble king, in whom all the nations will find shelter.

Psalmody: Psalm 92:12-15 (Appointed: 92:1-4, 12-15)
“The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”
– Those who are faithful towards God and others are compared with the long-lived and noble trees: the cedar that adorns the temple, and the date-palm that brings sweetness.

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:14-17 (Appointed: 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17)
“if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”
– All things have changed in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The new age is at hand, the creation set free from sin and death, and those who are in Christ are part of that new creation.

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34
“The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” – Jesus uses the metaphor of the sown seed growing towards harvest and the mustard seed become a great shrub to give insight into the mystery of the reign of God. What is now hidden moves inexorably towards its fulfillment.

 

Image: By Csontváry Kosztka, Tivadar (1853 – 1919) (Hungarian) (Painter, Details of artist on Google Art Project) [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Something so small

Sunday Evening

Matthew 13

File:Sequoiadendron giganteum MHNT.BOT.2004.0.191.jpg

Cones and seed of a Giant Sequoia, by Didier Descouens

31He put before them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”

I brought a hammer, pliers and screwdriver for the children’s message on Sunday. For each I had asked, “What is this for?” and received the expected answers, “to pound nails,” to “turn bolts,” to turn screws.”

I then pulled from my bag a seedpod from a liquidambar tree. It’s a little smaller than a golf ball, with spikey tendrils that snag easily in fur to help disperse the seeds far and wide. They used to get so tangled in the feathers of my childhood cocker spaniel that I had to cut them free with scissors. Jeremy identified them as “those things in the playground my sister hates.” They hurt when you step on them.

I then pulled out a small redwood seed cone, and from the cone a small redwood seed. I told him it was from the redwood trees outside, but he asked “what trees?” so we ducked out the vestry door to look at the five majestic spires. If you only come into the sanctuary from the direction of the parking lot, you may not notice them. But there, beneath the towering redwoods, Jeremy gave the remark that is the heart and soul of the parable of the mustard seed: “It’s amazing something so big could come from something so small.”

There was nothing more to say, really, though I had planned to. We walked back inside and I took the Bible from the lectern (properly called an ambo, it serves as both lectern and pulpit) and asked whether the Bible was more like the tools or the seed. And he answered without any hesitation, “the seed.”

I forget, sometimes, how clearly children see.

The Word of God is not a tool we use to craft objects or people of our own design; it is a seed that grows into the object of God’s design.

From the seed of God’s word grows hope, compassion, justice, mercy, patience, truthfulness, integrity, joy. From the seed of God’s word grew St. Patrick’s courage and compassion to go back as a missionary to the people who had captured and held him captive as a slave. From the seed of God’s word grew the courage to sit at lunch counters and to stand before fire hoses. From the seed of God’s word has grown a multitude of orphanages, clinics and hospitals and wells to bring clean water in remote places. From the seed of God’s word come millions of simple acts of kindness. From the seed of God’s word hearts are healed and lives grow into the image of Christ.

Scripture can be used as a tool to build a house of slavery; but the seed of the word grows into a community of freed people.

And “It’s amazing something so big could come from something so small.”