A Mighty Shrub

A Homily for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost

Texts: Ezekiel 17:22-24; 2 Corinthians 5:6-17; St. Mark 4:26-34


Grace to you and peace to you from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, who has sown the seeds of the Kingdom. Amen.

Is it any wonder that Scripture makes such frequent reference to trees? They are signs of abundance and long life, and for good reason. Even a humble acacia tree of fifteen feet would soar above its desert surroundings and be the tallest object in a small Israelite town, a landmark that lasts for decades. A sycamore, that preferred perch for Zacchaeus, could easily grow up to sixty feet tall. The ancient economy depended on trees which provided timber for building, fuel for burning, and fruit for eating. Precious commodities like frankincense and myrrh come from trees.  These majestic plants were so important to life across the entire ancient world that they took on sacred characteristics in societies from Scandinavia to India.

But in the ancient Near East, no tree loomed quite as large as the mighty cedars of Mount Lebanon. These massive conifers could soar 130 feet into the air, grow to over eight feet around at the base, and live for five centuries. Cedar wood, pleasant smelling and naturally resistant to rot and insects, built the navies of the ancient world, the railroads of the Ottoman Empire in the modern world, and gave their wood to both the first and second Temples in Jerusalem.

The Kingdom of God, our Lord says, is like a mustard seed. It’s small, insignificant, easy to miss. But plant it in the ground and it will grow and grow and grow until it becomes the mightiest…

…shrub.

Well, that’s different. How shall we compare the mighty cedars of Lebanon, the majestic redwoods of California, and the ancient trees of the world that have lived for millennia to a shrub? Even the greatest of all shrubs?

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Mustard

Mustard is an odd plant. You can eat the greens, feed them to animals, or compost the plant as a fertilizer. But it also grows quickly and spreads easily. The seed can hide in the soil for years before sprouting up. You might easily buy a parcel of land and wake up surprised one morning to find that mustard has overgrown your crop. And once it’s taken root, it’s difficult to get rid of. If I may translate this parable into Southern, “The Kingdom of God is like kudzu, which becomes the greatest of vines.”

From our perspective, there’s more to contrast than compare between cedars and mustard. To be fair, mustard plants are surprisingly resistant to insects, just like cedars, but that’s about where the favorable comparisons stop. Consider the differences: One, towering and majestic, the other lowly, reaching only eight feet, and even then, only under the most ideal conditions; one that lasts for decades and centuries, the other exists for only a season.

Compared with Jesus’ parable, it’s much easier to understand Ezekiel’s point: that God is planting a sprig from a mighty cedar which will grow into something great and mighty. Oh, to be a cedar, towering above the forest, to stand for generations, to be the subject of sacred myth and poetry. But no, Jesus goes with, of all things, a shrub. From a human point of view, it’s so foolish to compare the Kingdom – that glorious treasure, that pearl of great price – to a wild-growing, uncontrollable shrub.

But nothing is ever what it seems in the Kingdom. Let’s consider Ezekiel more closely:

I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish.

As Babylon is cutting a path of destruction towards Judah, as Ezekiel himself is telling the people to prepare for destruction and exile, there comes a promise that they shall, in the Lord’s own time, stand tall like cedars. Regarded from a human perspective, this is foolishness: a false hope in a time of crisis, as though the tiny kingdom of Judah could withstand the onslaught of the mighty Babylonian Empire.

The entire story of Israel, though, is one of a people who are, from a human perspective, unworthy. Consider the people the Lord has chosen. A cowardly, adulterous, childless old shepherd named Abram and his post-menopausal wife, Sarai – they’re supposed to found a great family as a blessing to the world? A liar with no inheritance named Jacob, who betrays his family and runs away; he’s supposed to be a patriarch? A people with no homeland living enslaved in Egypt – they’re God’s chosen ones, the recipients of the Lord’s favor? A young woman named Mary, betrothed to a working class man in a far flung province of an oppressive empire – she’ll give birth to the King of Kings? An impulsive fisherman named Simon; he’s going to be the rock of the Church? A treasonous street preacher beaten and nailed to a cross; he’s the fulfillment of God’s covenant, the savior of the world?

The story of our redemption is the story of shrubs and dried, dead old wood. From our point of view, there’s nothing worth saving.

But it’s not about us, is it? It’s not about what potential we see, about what we value. The things we look down upon and reject, these are the people that God favors. New life can come to dry wood, and shrubs can grow mighty, and not even death is the end of the story. There is new creation erupting forth from this life because, yes, Jesus died for us, but more than that, our Lord was raised for our sake, too. In the new life of the Resurrection, Christ is renewing all things. Glory! Hallelujah! Let us rejoice!

Maybe, though, we should be careful what we wish for. Maybe, when we pray “Thy Kingdom come,” we’d really rather not wake up to a bunch of wild mustard plants invading our carefully cultivated garden. We’d rather keep our lofty cedars than have them chopped down and replaced with something as bitter as mustard greens.

Consider last week’s Gospel and the shock it must have been to the Blessed Virgin Mary and to Saint James, Christ’s mother and brother, as they try go get Jesus’ attention, only to hear him say, “These other folks are my family now. The ones who do the will of God are my brother and sister and mother.”

The Kingdom of God really is like a mustard seed: dead in the earth, it sprouts up and grows uncontrollably, and before you know it, it’s bursting forth everywhere, ruining our best-laid plans. It pops up in places where we don’t expect it, where we don’t really want it, driving us to love people who, from a human point of view, are of no account. Suddenly, that mustard seed is bringing forth new life, spreading its branches and tendrils wide, overrunning your neatly ordered life.

The Kingdom can’t be contained to Sunday mornings in the pew but sprouts up on Monday, when you pass by the homeless person asking for money to buy a descent meal, and on Wednesday, when you hear about families being ripped apart by our government, and on Thursday when you feel the Spirit calling you to do something: to feed the hungry, the care for the foreigner, to visit the imprisoned, to love the widow and the orphan.

Suddenly, the immigrant, the prisoner, the beggar on the street corner is no longer a nuisance or a threat. No, suddenly these people are beloved children of God, our siblings in Christ, an opportunity to serve the Lord in the “least of these.”

Maybe instead of an invitation to the Sacraments, they should come with a warning: “Caution: Here is God’s grace, the free gift of salvation. It will ruin your reputation and cost your life. Enter these water at your own risk.” “Warning: This meal will change everything. You are what you eat.”

Dear ones, the old things are passing away. Our pride, our greed, our fear – all of our sinful ways are being overgrown by God’s Kingdom. That is no easy feat. It’s possible only by divine grace. It will sting when we awaken one morning to find our garden overrun with mustard shrubs. But take heart, for everything is being made new. God’s grace is sending out green shoots of new life into this tired old world, working even within us to make us new and open our eyes to the new creation, sending us out to live for Christ, and through Christ, to live for our neighbors.

May our Heavenly Father, who has sown good seed among us, bring us to completion.

May Christ enter into our hearts, bringing us to new life like dried wood made green.

May the Spirit drive us out into the world to sprout up wildly, unpredictably like mustard shrubs.

Amen.

 

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