22 Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out. I will break off a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel I will plant it, in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit, and become a noble cedar. Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind. 24 All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree, I make high the low tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the Lord have spoken; I will accomplish it.
The Holy Gospel according to Mark, the 4th chapter. Glory to you, O Lord.
26 He also said, "The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, 27 and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. 28 The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. 29 But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come." 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."33 With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; 34 he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The theme of today’s scripture lessons is trees. Ezekiel tells us that the LORD will take a sprig from the top of a cedar and plant it on a mountain top. It will grow and become a lofty cedar tree.
Our psalmist reminds us that the righteous will flourish like palm trees and the cedars of Lebanon. Those trees who are planted in the house of the LORD will still bear fruit and still be green and succulent in their old age.
Jesus tells us the parable of the mustard seed that grows into a shrub so big that birds can nest in it.
I have always loved trees. When I was a little girl, we played in the woods behind our house all summer with all of the neighbor kids. It was shady and cool and beautiful. We each had our own tree. My tree was a big old oak tree. It was shaped like the letter 4 (with a branch that went like this).
The trunk of my tree was probably a foot in diameter. The arm went across about 3 or 4 feet off the ground so it was low enough for me to climb and sit up there for hours and read a book. My sister’s tree was a smaller maple tree. The branch she sat on was bouncy. She could pretend she was riding a horse.
Trees are beautiful. One of the things I learned about trees is that the root system, the part of the tree we can’t see, is as large as the system of branches that we can see. One of the reasons that trees can stand is that their roots are intertwined.
That’s not their only connection, though. Back in the 1990s, tree scientists discovered that trees communicate with each other. For real. “They have a complicated network of chemical ways to send messages to each other. They depend on a complex network of relationships, alliances, and kinship networks. Wise old mother trees feed their saplings with liquid sugar and warn the neighbors when danger approaches.”
Tree communication happens slowly through an underground network of fungus. They share water and nutrients. Scientists say that trees are careful to share the sunlight and grow so that their branches don’t encroach on each other’s space.
Trees don’t just communicate through their roots. They also send signals through the air. The acacia tree in Africa emits a distress signal in the form of ethylene gas when the leaves are chewed by giraffes. When this gas reaches neighboring acacia trees, those trees pump tannins into their leaves. Tannins make the giraffes sick. Giraffes seem to know that the trees are communicating so they graze on the trees walking into the wind.
God has certainly made a beautiful, amazing, complicated world for us to live in. Our scriptures give us poetic pictures of our world to help us understand our relationships with our Creator and with each other. I think there are some lessons for us from the trees today.
The first thing I notice about our readings about trees is that God is the One who makes things happen. God is the one who plucks off the sprig from the cedar tree and plants it so that it grows. Nothing grows without God’s help. This sprig doesn’t grow into just any tree in the forest.
This tree doesn’t hide with the others. God relocates this tree and plants it on the mountain top. It grows tall and stately up there. This cedar tree has a purpose in life. This cedar tree provides shade. This cedar tree is home for birds. This cedar tree proclaims that God is the LORD.
The next thing I notice is that when God plants you, good things happen. When you stay close to the house of the LORD, you keep bearing fruit even into your old age. You keep feeling young and healthy when you are surrounded by other worshippers who are singing and making music to praise the LORD.
Another thing I notice is that God made trees to be in community. God made us to support each other and communicate with each other and help raise our young together. God made us to care for each other’s children. Like the trees, our roots are intertwined. We are made to support each other. We are made to communicate with each other and warn each other about danger. We are created to help each other raise our young.
But, you may not always feel like a lofty cedar sitting on top of a mountain praising God. You may not always feel like a palm tree by the stream in the courts of the LORD. You may be having one of those days, or even times in your life, when you feel like a little mustard seed, when you think your life isn’t going to amount to much. Your neighbors may be having one of those days or times in their life, and you may be called to look out for them and support them.
Mustard plants were considered to be noxious weeds in Jesus’ time. There were laws about where you could plant them because they were considered invasive plants. They reproduced quickly and spread all over. They could take over a garden. Yet, this is the plant Jesus chooses for his parable. He might as well have chosen dandelions in our time.
But, Jesus chooses a plant that people think they don’t want around. Jesus chooses a plant that you could even say is coming into your garden illegally. Jesus says the Reign of God is like a Mustard seed. Jesus blesses these seeds, these children of this illegal plant.
Today, Jesus tells you that even when you are being treated like a weed or a shrub, God has plans for you. Today, Jesus says you are part of the Reign of God.
So even if you don’t feel like a lofty cedar, even if you are being treated like you are unwanted, God has plans for you. God wants you to grow. God wants you to be tall and strong. God wants you to have a home and God wants you to help provide a home for others.
We can learn a lot from trees. Trees have always been very important to God. From the very beginning, God put trees in the garden for food. Even when we ate from the wrong one and brought sin into the world, even when we cut down a tree and tried to use it to destroy God’s own Son, God used that tree to change everything. God uses the tree of the cross to save us and everyone else.
And when that final day comes, God will bring us all back home. We will all eat from the Tree of Life, and live forever.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
13 But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—"I believed, and so I spoke"—we also believe, and so we speak, 14 because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence. 15 Yes, everything is for your sake, so that grace, as it extends to more and more people, may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. 16 So we do not lose heart. Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day. 17 For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all measure, 18 because we look not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is eternal. 5:1 For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.
The Holy Gospel according to Mark, the third chapter.
Glory to you, O Lord.
and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. 21 When his family heard it, they went out to restrain him, for people were saying, "He has gone out of his mind." 22 And the scribes who came down from Jerusalem said, "He has Beelzebul, and by the ruler of the demons he casts out demons." 23 And he called them to him, and spoke to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but his end has come. 27 But no one can enter a strong man's house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered. 28 "Truly I tell you, people will be forgiven for their sins and whatever blasphemies they utter; 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit can never have forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin"-- 30 for they had said, "He has an unclean spirit." 31 Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. 32 A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you." 33 And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34 And looking at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
"I believed, and so I spoke—we also believe, and so we speak...”
It is the tradition at seminary for students to choose bible verse when you officially become a doctoral candidate. This is my verse from last summer, so I am preaching on our second lesson today.
When I was young, I loved going camping. I went to church camp or Girl Scout camp every summer when I was a kid. We slept on those old canvas army cots in tents on wooden platforms. When I was a child I thought that was great.
I know lots of you enjoy camping as much as I always did. In our second reading today, Paul talks about this earthly life and compares it to living in a tent. I think it’s a great comparison. Tents are fun for camping, but they are really only meant as temporary shelters.
I was a leader for my daughter’s Girl Scout troop and took the girls camping at least once or twice a year. After the girls were older, one of our service projects every year was to go to the camp in August and take down the tents. We had to untie all the knots that had been tightened by the rain all summer. I had an old metal crochet hook that I used just to loosen those knots and the girls would spend a long time trying to untangle them. After all that work, several girls would carefully hold the lines while a couple of us lowered the wooden tent poles.
We all know our earthly life is only temporary. It’s like living in a tent. Our bodies are not meant to last forever. The other things in our life, actually the whole rest of our life, is not meant to last forever either. Our canvas gets frayed. Sometimes the rain leaks in. Stuff gets ruined and can’t be fixed. The knots in our guidelines get tighter and tangled and harder to undo.
It’s not just the canvas of our human bodies that gets frayed. Our relationships can get frayed and torn up. Not just on an individual level either. Relationships between and among whole groups of people get frayed. Partly, this happens, because, let’s face it, life is unfair and some of us have nicer camping gear than others to begin with.
Some countries are wealthier than others. Some have more natural resources. Some people have inherited wealth, while others work hard every day for years and still don’t even own a house or a car. Sometimes these inequalities cause our personal and international relationships to get so tied up in knots that not even the most skillful scout could get them undone.
Those of you with nicer things work hard to protect what you have. Those of you who are poorer struggle to understand why sharing is so hard, because you work hard, too. Our neighbors who are moving back into tents at camp hope are wondering with us why there isn’t a more permanent solution for them yet.
Life between and among Christians can even get frayed. One of my Doctor of Ministry classmates wrote with sadness this week that the Presbyterian church of Ireland, the church he grew up in, voted to excommunicate all gay and lesbian members, and now also refuses to baptize their children. My friend left that denomination a few years ago and has been a pastor in the United Reform church in Ireland and Scotland for a number of years. Even though he is no longer a member, he is heartbroken to be excommunicated by the church he grew up in, the church he still loves.
It’s true, the earthly tent we are living in is torn and frayed and wasting away. This is the bad news. But, you already know there’s bad news. You came here to hear something hopeful, some good news. And there is indeed some good news today.
Paul says, “But just as we have the same spirit of faith that is in accordance with scripture—"I believed, and so I spoke"—we also believe, and so we speak, because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus, and will bring us with you into his presence.”
I believed, and so I spoke. God knows that our earthly bodies, our entire earthly existence is temporary. God knows that life here for us sometimes feels like we are living in a tent. God knows that some of our neighbors are living in actual tents on the edge of town. God knows that sometimes we feel like our tent canvas is pretty frayed and the ropes are tangled up with too many knots.
God knows, because God came in person to do something about it. God came to dwell with us. In the original languages of the Bible, “dwell with us” literally means that God came and pitched a tent in the middle of our campsite.
God came to us in person, in earthly form, became an earthling like us. Jesus pitched a tent in the middle of our campsite and lived among us. He gives us a different view of the world and shows us a better way to live.
Paul reminds us that it is all about how you look at things. He says, “Don’t just look at what you can see on the outside. Look deeper. Look for the things that you can’t see directly.” Because the things we can see are only temporary. Yes, the earthly tent is fraying, wearing out, flapping in the wind. The things we cannot see directly are eternal. Because the whole time these earthly things are happening, God is busy renewing our inner nature.
Sometimes camping is fun. Life is good. But, sometimes the tent is worn out. The canvas is frayed and you get rained on. Sometimes the ropes are so knotted and tangled that you can’t do anything about it.
But, God is renewing us. God is preparing us for a different future. We are not meant to live in tents forever. You see, God has build you a house. That’s right, in heaven we don’t live in a temporary structure like a tent. We will have a house, a house build by God. A house meant to last forever.
The One who raised Jesus will also raise us. God has built you a house. It’s an amazing house in the best neighborhood. You will live right next door to Jesus.
In the meantime, Jesus has pitched a tent in the middle of our campsite. He is hosting a meal. You are invited.
"I believed, and so I spoke—we also believe, and so we speak..”
The Holy Gospel according to Mark, the second and third chapters.
Glory to you, O Lord.
One sabbath Jesus was going through the grainfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. 24 The Pharisees said to him, “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” 25 And he said to them, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? 26 He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.” 27 Then he said to them, “The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; 28 so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.” 3:1 Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. 2 They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. 3 And he said to the man who had the withered hand, “Come forward.” 4 Then he said to them, “Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?” But they were silent. 5 He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. 6 The Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.
The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Creator and our Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.
Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. I think this can be a hard commandment to keep.
We all learned the third commandment when we were in Sunday school and confirmation class. You may also remember what Luther tells us in his explanation: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not despise preaching or God’s word, but instead keep that word holy and gladly hear and learn it.” That’s not the hard part of the commandment for me. I love preaching and Bible study. But, that’s not the whole of the commandment. That’s the part that Luther wanted to emphasize because of the things that were going on in his church in his time. People were not attending worship and receiving the sacrament regularly.
Jesus reminds us today what a great gift the sabbath is to us. He reminds us that the sabbath is God’s gift to humankind. That’s the hard part for me, seeing the gift of resting from work one day a week. Trusting that God will take care of things without me. Perhaps that’s hard for you, too. Do you take your responsibility too seriously? Do you think it all depends on you?
Pastor and Professor Marva Dawn has written a book called “Keeping the Sabbath Wholly.” It’s all about the rhythm of life and honoring God and the ways God made us to be in the world.
She divides keeping the sabbath into four categories.
The first part of keeping the Sabbath is something Dawn calls, “Ceasing.” The most obvious thing to cease doing on the sabbath is working. It’s always been hard for me to let go of the work I need to do even after I get home. It seems to live in my head like an endless list of things I need to remember. It’s even harder now that we have so much technology available to us.
Remember when we didn’t have cell phones, much less smart phones, and we were not instantly available for questions? Don’t get me wrong, I love technology, and I appreciate how I can save time tomorrow, by answering a text message today, but our constant availability through technology makes it harder for us to cease working on the Sabbath.
In addition to ceasing work, keeping the sabbath calls us to cease our possessiveness. When we give up our possessiveness we are reminded that we are only stewards of the things we have. We no long focus on accumulating stuff. The sabbath helps us remember that it all belongs to God.
Dawn says that keeping the sabbath means ceasing enculturation. That means not giving in to what the culture and society tell you that you must do. Society tells you that you must always be busy and productive.
For the Jews, keeping the sabbath was the hallmark of being a member of the Jewish community and faith. It was what separated them from the gentile community. Paul considered sabbath-keeping to be one of the non-negotiable marks of a believer. Keeping the sabbath makes you different and it’s one of the things that non-believers will notice about you.
Keeping the sabbath is all about giving up the illusion of control. That means that we cease trying to be God. When we give up trying to control our future we trust that God will provide for us. We don’t worry or get anxious about things. This doesn’t mean that we don’t ever have any responsibility or that we don’t ever need to work. It means that one day each week is God’s gift to remind us that God is God and we don’t have to be.
Ceasing to work means that we have time for rest. Resting is the second part of keeping the Sabbath. Physical rest is obviously important to us. Resting means that we have strength to work the other days of the week.
Spiritual, emotional, and intellectual rest are important as well. We can’t rest our bodies if our spirits are struggling. Spiritual rest is part of God’s gift of faith. We trust that God will provide for us and we leave our concerns with God. We trust that God is working in us and will work through us.
The greatest result of Sabbath resting is the peace that comes from knowing the presence of God. Happiness is fleeting, but the peace and joy of knowing that God is with us are what carry us through the sorrows and tragedies in this life.
Keeping the Sabbath isn’t just about not doing things we usually do. It isn’t just about Ceasing and Resting. The third part of keeping the Sabbath is “Embracing.” We embrace the values of the Sabbath. We embrace the intentionality and deliberateness of those who keep the sabbath.
When we keep the Sabbath, we embrace the joy of being part of the Christian community. We embrace the opportunity to be with our family and friends. We embrace the people we love and delight in their company without the pressure of concern about the work we need to do.
We embrace God’s instructions to live in grace and love. We embrace the pleasure of giving rather than getting.
There are many Jewish folktales that talk about how the sabbath is celebrated in heaven by the angels. The point of these stories is to remind us that when we embrace the sabbath, we are imitating the angels. We are singing and celebrating with the angels.
When we make music, when we sing together, when we enjoy the beautiful praise music of the worshipping community, we are celebrating the Sabbath with the angels.
Feasting is the final part of remembering the Sabbath. This is the feast of the victory for our God. What a wonderful privilege to celebrate this gift! Our sabbath is not jus a time of ceasing and resting and embracing. It is a feast.
We come together every week, not just to remember that God gave us a day of rest every week, but to remember and celebrate all that Christ has done for us.
Christ, himself, is the host of our feast. He is present with us in the meal. He brings the food and the gifts for the celebration. He invites everybody! You are invited. Your friends are invited. Your families are invited. All the people you like are invited. Even the grumpy and disagreeable people are invited.
We celebrate the sabbath feast with the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven when we sing and make music together. The sabbath is made for us.
Psalm 92 is a song for the sabbath day. I would like to close by sharing the first and last stanzas.
ELW Psalm 92
1It is a good thing to give thanks to the Lord,
to sing praise to your name, O Most High;
2to herald your love in the morning
and your faithfulness at night;
3on the psaltery, and on the lyre,
and to the melody of the harp.
4For you have made me glad by your acts, O Lord;
and I shout for joy because of the works of your hands.
12The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree,
and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.
13Those who are planted in the house of the Lord
shall flourish in the courts of our God;
14they shall still bear fruit in old age;
they shall be green and succulent;
15that they may show how upright the Lord is,
my rock, in whom there is no injustice.