June 16, 2024 — The Rev Canon Britt Olson

posted in: Sermons 0

Proper 6

Most of us at some point in our lives have had a vision or an image in our head of what life will be like when we are at our best, our most successful, living life to the fullest.  Sometimes this comes as new opportunities are developing and we are both hopeful and inspired.  Sometimes it comes as a consolation and a hope when things are difficult and the way ahead seems fraught with obstacles. 

In both the Old and New Testament this morning a vision was described for God’s people.  The visions have some common themes and so do the situation of the people although their times are nearly 500 years apart.

Ezekiel is speaking to a people in exile, discouraged, declining and desperate.  A powerful nation, the Babylonians, have come to Israel and taken the strongest and most productive people back with them as slaves where they are kept in captivity in a foreign land.  Meanwhile their homes have been plundered and their religious Temple has been destroyed.  It is an incredibly grim time for them and they are in danger of losing hope.  All they have worked for is disappearing.  They are shrinking and losing sight of who God had called them to be; a people of promise; a light and beacon of God’s presence and faithfulness.

Into their despair, the prophet receives an incredible message of hope and restoration.  Did you hear it?  God is going to do something remarkable.  The image is powerful.  God will take a shoot from the tallest and strongest tree, one of the fabled cedars of Lebanon and then God will plant this small and tender sapling on the tallest mountain in the region where God will care for it.  Over the years, it will grow stronger and taller until it will be seen from every vantage point.  In a time when there were no billboards, spotlights or neon, this tree would be a beacon, a landmark visible for miles around. 

You get the image, don’t you?  When you’re small and beleaguered you desperately want to believe that the situation can be reversed.  How amazing it will be when the exiled people of God are returned to their land and their strength is restored.  Instead of being oppressed and dismissed, everyone will see them as a sign of strength and success.  It’s a powerful image to sustain a depressed people.

In my own life, there have been times where my failure or difficult circumstances have led me to daydream about how it might look if things turned around.  Years ago I was a finalist in the search for a new Bishop in Oregon.  After nearly a year of application, interviews, planning and walkabouts around the Diocese, I could visualize myself as the next Bishop, sitting in the lovely office in green Portland, visiting congregations all over my beautiful home state, taking my part in the councils of the church, everything really except for wearing the mitre, which I knew would look silly on me.  But then election day arrived coincident with my 50th birthday and they didn’t choose me.  And like any of us who has experienced disappointment, I was ashamed.  I felt like a failure.  I questioned whether or not I had anything to offer. 

In my lowest moments when I couldn’t see God’s grace in this or remember who I was as God’s beloved, I wanted the man who was elected Bishop to fail.  I wanted them to know that they’d picked the wrong person.  And I visualized myself being elected Bishop in some larger, richer and more prestigious diocese just so I could prove that the one they had rejected actually turned out to be more successful and prestigious.  The image of redemption that I created in my mind didn’t include coming to Seattle and the small but mighty St. Luke’s, Ballard.

But thankfully, God, through the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the love of Christ had another image in mind.  When Jesus is just beginning to give his disciples a vision for what life with him will mean, he uses a lot of parables.  They are short and seemingly simple, but the more you consider them, the more perplexing and disturbing they become.  We heard two of them today, but it’s the second that really intrigues me. 

Jesus knew the Hebrew Scriptures and he knew the words of Ezekiel promising that God would establish Israel as a lofty cedar tree on the highest mountain.  So when Jesus begins to sketch out his vision for what God’s Kingdom will be like, he knows what his listeners expect.  After all, the people of Israel are under Roman occupation.  At least they are still in their own land and have their re-built Temple but that won’t last for long.  In fact, one of the most shocking things Jesus does is predict the destruction of the Temple!  Those who have come to Jesus are beleaguered.  They are sick, poor, confused, desperate, depressed and hoping for a new life, a better life, a more successful and comfortable life.  So they are really paying attention when Jesus begins to describe for them what God’s Kingdom is like.  After all he promised that the Kingdom has come with him and that there are signs of it all around.  And so he teaches.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed, a tiny, insignificant, unimportant seed, which falls into the ground and then springs up with the rains to form, and here is the strange part, a fairly large shrub.  Not a glorious cedar tree, not a majestic Redwood, not a sturdy Oak or a giant Sequoia, not even a birch or elm or even a nice dogwood.  And here’s the deal about the mustard plant… it’s an annual.  It only lives for a season and unless it re-seeds itself the species will not continue.  Some trees live for hundreds of years but this vision includes a shrub that must be re-generated every Spring. 

The value of the mustard plant for Jesus is very different from Ezekiel’s vision of the great cedar tree.  The lowly mustard shrub won’t be up on a high mountain for everyone to see.  The plant will be near to the ground and mostly unremarkable.  People may pass by it all the time and fail to notice it.  What is Jesus up to?  Why does he use this image?  How can this be encouraging or inspirational to a people who already feel insignificant? 

Well, there’s a clue here.  The value of the shrub is that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.  This mustard plant will provide shelter for small animals.  It will be a home for the weak.  It will provide cover from the relentless sun and from the sight of predators.  Its branches will be a protection so that the vulnerable can be safe.  In its shade, many will find rest.

Jesus’ image of the Kingdom of God is of a place of rest, safety, comfort and shelter for the least and the last and the lost.  It is not about being big or grand or successful but rather about welcoming and caring for those for whom life’s circumstances are very difficult.  This vision calls all who follow Jesus to a life which is more concerned with the vulnerable than with image or esteem.     

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *