Sermon from June 17, 2018

The Smallest of Seeds: Making High the Low Tree       
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder

United Church of Strafford, Vermont
June 17, 2018   Fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 92; Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4:26-34

Yesterday at recycling someone told me that he was discouraged to the point of despair about our country.  I urged him to let his voice be heard and get involved in making things better and he looked me in the eye and asked, “What’s the use?”  Today’s scriptures speak to such a question and such a time.

The prophet, priest and poet, Ezekiel, saw that his nation had abandoned the path of God.  Its wealthy, powerful rulers showed no compassion for the poor whom they oppressed or the vulnerable whom they neglected.  The rulers believed that God had made Israel great and that they could do anything they wanted and God would make Israel even greater.

Ezekiel prophesied that his nation would be destroyed because of its arrogant corruption, and sure enough, Babylon invaded, destroyed the temple, scorched the earth, killed the rulers and took much of the population captive.

Ezekiel wrote, “All the trees of the field shall know that I am God. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.”  Ezekiel said that God would preserve a remnant of the tree of Israel and nurture it so it would bear much fruit.  God would restore the way of justice and mercy so the nation would be a blessing and beloved community to all people.  The weak and meek, the poor and lowly, the low tree would be lifted high.

Today’s gospel passage took place six hundred years later in Roman-occupied Israel where again the rich were getting richer while the poor were oppressed and the vulnerable neglected.  God’s way of compassion and justice for all had been abandoned.

Jesus called people to shift their allegiance from the materialistic, hard-hearted realm of Caesar and Herod to the spiritual, merciful, loving realm of God.

Jesus lifted the poor and the outcast.  He healed the sick and lame.  He restored people to sanity and serenity.

The official power to forgive and thereby declare people healed resided in the temple priests.  Jesus usurped that power.  On top of that he violated Sabbath laws in order to feed the hungry and heal the diseased.

Jesus was revolutionary and his message was popular among the oppressed.  The political and religious rulers were talking about how to destroy him.  Jesus took his top followers on retreat and organized them into a movement to spread his ministry and recruit more people to the effort to establish the realm of God on earth.

The gospel passage from last week showed Jesus returning from that retreat to find his mother and family coming to stop him.  They feared he had gone crazy and would get himself killed.  At the same time temple representatives came and declared that he was serving Satan, the implication being that he was an enemy of the temple and guilty of treason against the state and anyone who followed him could end in prison or worse.

The encounter with Jesus’ family and the authorities was a reminder of how weak and vulnerable their movement was, despite the crowds, and how difficult it was to bring people into their movement, even their own friends and families.

Jesus did not let up, though.  He went to the seashore to teach, and the crowd became so large that he got in a boat and spoke to them from the water.  The first teaching he gave was the parable of the sower that I talked about with the children.  It explains why people have a hard time shifting their allegiance from the material realm to the spiritual, shifting from the way of self-interest to the way of God’s love and justice.  Only a few seeds end up finding deep fertile soil, only a small percentage of people take the message of God’s realm to heart and develop a life of loving service that is not crowded out by the cares and concerns of this world.

The parable of the sower explained why their movement was small, but then in today’s parables Jesus explained them why their numbers did not matter.

Jesus said that the realm of God is like a field we plant with seed, and lo and behold by a power that is not ours in its own time it sprouts and grows and bears much fruit.  The realm of God is like the smallest of seeds that then turns into the greatest of trees.  God makes high the low tree.

We do not know what will come of the humble seeds we sow, the smile, the helping hand, the support we give to the foodshelf, our presence at the rally or meeting, the song we sing in choir, our listening ear and open heart after worship, the compassion and kindness we extend to the challenging person at work, the broken relationship we reconcile and restore.  All we know is that God will use these things in unforeseeable ways, and that the realm of God will grow and bear fruit.  This is God’s doing, working through people who nurture God’s love in their heart and plant seeds.

We look around today and see what a small percentage of society chooses to be part of the movement to establish God’s realm on earth.  We look at the massive forces we have to overcome to change the world, and we can understand the despair expressed by the man at recycling.

But Jesus says look, just plant your tiny seeds and watch what happens.  Our seeds release God’s force of love and life and light, the greatest power in the universe, and some of those seeds will find fertile ground and will not be stopped.

Rosa Parks was arrested for sitting in the front of a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama in 1955.  It was a tiny thing—one powerless black woman in a white supremacist southern society, one miniscule act of civil disobedience.  The same tactic had been tried before and nothing had come of it.  Rosa Parks could have asked “What’s the use?”

Yet it grew from the smallest seed to the mightiest of shrubs, it inspired the sowing of tens of thousands of other seeds, it gave us Martin Luther King Jr. and Fannie Lou Hamer and the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act and a president of African descent and the song “We Shall Overcome” that we are still singing.  The realm of God on earth grew by leaps and bounds.  We are still part of that same movement today, and every little seed we plant God can use in ways we cannot foresee if we do not lose hope and we keep planting together.

The Poor People’s Campaign was one of the fruits of that seed Rosa Parks sowed.  Martin Luther King Jr. had just launched it when he was assassinated.  The FBI worked hard to destroy the first Poor People’s Campaign, but now, fifty years later, it has been revived and people from our congregation have planted our seeds in that field, and we will again tomorrow.  The crowd in Montpelier looks small, but thousands of people over 37 states have come out each Monday.  It has grown to be the largest nonviolent action of its kind in this century.

William Sloane Coffin rose to national prominence when he was a Freedom Rider on a bus in the segregated south.  Bill sat in these pews and preached from this pulpit, he inspired us to plant our seeds of compassion and justice and peace.  After today we will look at your responses to the statements of future direction on the wall in the Parish Hall and shape a plan for the seeds that we as a congregation will sow in the years ahead, in part because of the seeds Bill sowed.  Bill was a big seed, no doubt about it.  He was a mighty tree unto himself, but the seeds that this little congregation will sow day in and day out over the years to come could amount to a whole forest.

Jesus looked out at village and rural people like us, people with every right to let the ways of national government and culture discourage us, with every right to think that we are too small to make a difference.  He looked out and said do not be discouraged.  Be the smallest of seeds, be the low tree and God will lift you high.

God is in the seeds of love you sow.  God will make fruits from them that you cannot imagine.  Your courageous, bold perseverance will lead to a beloved community on earth with branches stretching farther than our eyes can see where all the birds of the air will build nests and find shade.

The Psalm says, “The righteous flourish like the palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.  They are planted in the house of God; they flourish in your courts, O God.  In old age they still produce fruit; they are always green and full of sap.”  It is God who does this, the force of love and life and light flowing within and around us.  It does not matter how small or old or weak we are.  All we need to do is sow our seeds.  God will do the rest, and will show us how we can serve.

Let us pray together in silence….

I am only one
But still I am one.
I cannot do everything,
But still I can do something.
And because I cannot do everything
I will not refuse to do the something I can do.

Edward Everett Hale

 

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