Second Sunday after Pentecost Sunday June 14 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

Proper 6B/Ordinary 11B/Pentecost 2 Textweek

I Samuel 15:34-16:13; Psalm 20; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

It’s a bit too cold to go into sermons that require a lot of thought today. The first reading is worth going back over when you’re in front of a fire and bit warm, so that the synapses have thawed out. It’s a reading that talks about the divine process and its interaction with, not the kingdom of God, but the kingdoms of this world. So one of the ways to really read that reading is to read one of the news reports on the recent elections in Iraq, and then read this as a report of an election - about the forming of the rulers of the kingdoms of this world. There is, even though we deny it and no longer keep it in the foreground, there is a relationship; there is an involvement. There is no way that we run this world without an an interaction and engagement of the Divine.

The second reading, if you then spill over to that, what you will see is, Paul is now in the place of living out, with living life in the world, confident in God. Again, it’s something that is not that often available to us today, because as soon as we move into that place where Paul comes from, you’ll get a television ad or another update on swine flu; fear will kick in and take you back out of that space, so it’s hard to stay there. So just have a look at those readings yourself, in consideration of those events in the world and our place in them.

I just want to spend a few minutes with this text: “30 He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 31 It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; 32 yet 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."

How are we to understand this parable, and how has this parable been understood? Its essence or echo can be found in every religious tradition, and in each it has been seen in a number of different interpretations.

Some traditions have only seen the seed, small and unfulfilled, and of these, some choose to maintain the seed as the seed, telling all that they have yet to find the place of worthiness - the place of the tree. Subliminally teaching that the seed, forever earth-grounded, is without the means to reach the divine heavens - the very place that is held up in the up-stretched arms of the tree’s branches. Often the priest in these traditions can be seen to imitate the tree, standing up in front of rows of seeds with their own arms outstretched, a silent language that says, ‘I am the tree; you in the darkness of your soil are only seeds.’

Many in those traditions adopted their seedlike smallness as their given place. They never looked beyond the darkness of their surroundings, occasionally and only occasionally being struck by awe and wonder at a glimpse of Light. Some traditions, with much thought and research, saw the literal sense of the parable. They immediately grew or threw themselves into THE Tree and sought then to cut down every other tree that was not the same. How splendid they were. They constructed tall buildings with spires and steeples so that their own tree-e-ness could be accommodated. An inquisition was created in order to determine the type of wood that every branch was made of and those trees that failed the test were burnt. Unwittingly the ash from these burnt trees fed the soil in which seeds were sill quietly contemplating their own movement.

A small group of mystics heard the parable with the ears of their soul. They wondered, not at the beauty of the tree nor at the potential of the seed; they wondered at the divine movement and saw that same divine movement in humanity, in creation and in their hearts. The poetry of the seed spoke itself into the words of the tree; their own voices were changed and they shone their faces in the direction of “all will be well’.

Many of the traditions venerated the tree and the seed. Did they not know that this was a parable? Among the venerators, the blind Christians created a festival of seeds called Christmas and invented stories of Divine birth. Next, they trimmed the tree into a more geometric form and installed it over the fear of death. They created another festival called Easter, but the lifeless branches now trimmed away from touching the heavens, seemed to hold a message of death. The blind Christians got so muddled with their festivals and ended up trimming trees to celebrate Christmas and swapping eggs – the seeds of life - to celebrate Easter.

Many of the more fundamental groups sang love songs to “their trees”. Some knew the exact location of the parabled tree. They found the mountain on which it had sprouted and made this a Holy place. They created web-sites with satellite images to show any who doubted the definitive truth that they had found the tree…. or their tree.

Not to be outdone, another fundamental group created the city of the seed, venerating the very place where the seed had first birthed itself toward the ground of being. They constructed a wall and invited people to wail and cry in order to symbolically water the seeds. These Holy places were quite a hit. With sacred territories already marked out and marketed, it was difficult for some newer fundamental groups to gain the attention they wanted, so they donned explosive vests and blew themselves up. They too were quite a hit - with the media of the fear-mongers.

All over the world the parable took shape and form. One very quiet group enjoyed the autumn colours of the tree, so they wore saffron robes and spoke kindly of a man who had sat under the tree and learned its secrets. Another more vibrant group saw the many creatures that came to the tree for shelter or food. They saw that the tree was a source of life and gifted itself to so many animals, but before they finished their contemplation they constructed statues of all these animals and created a separate Parable for each and every one of them.

As time moved relentlessly on, each and all of these traditions refined their worship of the tree, or their worship of the seed. The festivals became more elaborate. Whole symphonies were composed to hail the tree or venerate the seed. The symphonies were almost as loud as the arguments between the different groups, and the explosive vests even louder.

One stood under the tree and called Jihad. One stood under the tree and rallied the crusades. One sat under the tree and refused to eat, and another trimmed its branches into the arrows of war.

As history unfolded the parable remained forever new, silently waiting in the now of eternity, waiting to be read again, to be seen, to be enfleshed in the soul of humanity.

How are we to understand this parable? It speaks of dying and rising, of seeds entombed and of a freedom to follow the wind and reach for the sky. Its beginning is grounded, earthed, very much in and of the world. But the parable has a movement and it comes to fullness as an image of standing tall, reaching to the heavens, an inviting image that offers hospitality to the birds of the air.

How are we to understand this parable? It echoes another familiar story, the story of John who baptised a man, and when he came up out of the water the heavens opened and the spirit descended on him like a dove. The birds of the air make their nest.

I don’t understand the traditions that have heard this parable before me, but I do seek to understand this parable, and the one whom John baptised, he seems to show an understanding; he seems to reveal that it is to be lived, not heard.


The Lord be with you. Peter Humphris