Pentecost 3B: Growth Beyond Our Understanding

The Readings for the Third Sunday of Pentecost are:

Old Testament      Ezekiel 17:22–24

Psalm                    Psalm 92:1–4, 12–15

New Testament     2 Corinthians 5:6–10 (11–13) 14–17

Gospel                   Mark 4:26–34

Many years ago I was feeling very sorry for myself. My first marriage had come apart, and with it almost all of what I had considered proof of God’s goodness. God was good to me by giving me a loving wife and children, but now all that was in shambles.

Almost.

In my self pity I took a long walk. At the end of the sidewalk was the county fairgrounds, and I sat down, and hung my head. When I looked up there was a giant oak tree with a squirrel, curious as to what I was doing there, flicking its tail.

Instantly I awakened to the idea that the little rodent, the tree, and the grass and soil beneath it all were all there yesterday, and would be there after many tomorrows. I knew I was part of the sturdy whole of it all. Sometimes the sun shines. Sometimes the darkness falls. But God’s goodness is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

Ezekiel must have been outdoors with nature when he wrote chapter 17. The first 21 verses focus on birds and plants. The fist great eagle is Nebuchadnezzar II of the mighty and expansive Babylonian empire who invades and carries away the “top of the cedar,” namely the Judean King Jehoiachin and his family into exile. He then plants a “seed” who is Jehoiachin’s uncle, Mattaniah, on the throne as a puppet king. Then comes the second eagle, another superpower great man, we know as Pharaoh Neco of Egypt, who renames Mattaniah Zedekiah. This vine of a man stretches out his branches to Neco, hoping for protection.

But Ezekiel sees this move by Zedekiah as rebellion against God, because Zedekiah has made a pact with Babylon and sealed it by swearing on the Lord’s name. Such politics of convenience may seem like it will get an edge for Judah, but Ezekiel sees it as gross apostasy that will be punished.

Of course the punishment for this and many other sins of Judah do come crashing down in the Exile. Ezekiel writes when Judah and all she had held dear as proof of God’s goodness were in shambles.

Then comes the following verses which give us our reading for today. “I myself will act,” says the Lord. Judah made a fine mess of things, now God will act. And there follows more meditation on nature.

“I will take a tiny, tender sprig from the top of the cedar, and plant it on the mountain height of Israel, and it will grow, bear fruit, and be a shelter for every kind of bird.”

And though, if you look around, you will quickly see that no mountain or tree in Israel can compete with the lofty heights and noble empires of Babylon or Egypt. Yet, God says, I’m in charge here, and eventually all these other mountains and trees shall bow down. Not to Israel, but to Israel’s God. Israel’s God shows power and goodness in bringing the high trees low and the low trees high. It happens often in history, and Mary will tell us that, in Christ, all this happens definitively.

Psalm 92 picks up on this same natural image of the tree. It must have been penned by someone facing the diminished quality of life that comes with age. Common sense says the older we get the dryer and less productive our lives become. But, in truth, it’s not a quantitative matter of age, but a qualitative matter of righteousness. Or should we say it is how close to the water of life our roots are, and that underground waterway is sure tenacious in seeking us out. It is reaching to us, and if we reach out with our roots to the water that refreshes—roots of music and the singing of praise, then we are made glad and part of God’s working in the world.

Jesus, in Mark’s Gospel takes us back to the seed; and with the image of the mustard plant, to the notion that a healthy plant or tree spreads branches and becomes shelter for others.

But perhaps the most striking note the Gospel sounds is when Jesus emphasizes that growth goes on while we are sleeping, and while we haven’t a clue as to how it all happens.

In that scene at the end of the sidewalk—of  the ground, the grass, the squirrel, and the mighty oak tree–God caught me unawares in my self pity. I don’t know how it happened. And the pain of the divorce dissipated while I slept. And when I didn’t know what to do, wounds healed anyway. Even though my first wife and I divorced, we kept loving our children, and, even in a way, I believe, we kept loving each other at a distance, and in new ways. Years later we served the bread and wine of communion side by side at our son’s wedding.

God’s planting had grown while we slept.

Surely we feel sorry for ourselves as a nation and a world. The pandemic has exposed us all to anxiety, depression, economic hardship, and the harsh truths of our social inequities and injustices. The institutions we counted on have been strained, undermined, and mistrusted. In our self pity we are very likely to believe there is nothing to believe in. Our world seems in shambles.

But, look up! There is a tree with a bird in a branch. God has kept things growing while you were asleep, and while you hadn’t a clue as to what was going on. God is working in your heart every moment. God is speaking of love to you. And if you plant yourself close to the water of God’s love you will find your own branches growing. If you share your praise and gladness and confidence in the God of love, you will find others seeking shelter in your faith.

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About John

John is a retired pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who has served congregations for over 40 years, including in rural, suburban, campus ministry and urban settings. His love of Border Collie sheepdogs has been fortified by his many friendships with shepherds all around the world. Nothing he has ever or will ever accomplish is as significant as the patience God, his wife and his friends have shown in putting up with his deficiencies.
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