Third Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6B)
Sermon by the Reverend Jo-Ann R. Murphy, D.Min.
Someone once said, “I have never seen God come through the front door.” Which is to say, look for God to appear in unexpected places and speak with an unfamiliar accent.
And scripture says, “With many such parables [Jesus] spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it.” Passage after passage, week after week, Jesus tries to teach us about the kingdom of heaven, the realm of God - - what it is like to live with God at the center of out lives. We follow and try to obey this itinerant preacher of parables. Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a seed and tells us the growth is up to God.
Seed is scattered on the ground. The seed grows on its own. Deep within the tiniest seed is the message which tells its future. The growth is a divine act rather than a human accomplishment. Jesus says, “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not now how.” The planter does nothing about this growth. It seems to happen without his effort or understanding. Within the seed is its future, but the seed cannot be coerced to grow. The Kingdom of God is like that, Jesus teaches. It is not our kingdom; is belongs to God. The harvest is also God’s. When Jesus says, “The earth produces of itself,” he is referring to the hidden power of God’s presence.
None-the-less, the disciples are a necessary part of the process – someone must prepare the soil, scatter the seed, and harvest the crop. In fact, in the Palestine of Jesus’ day Jesus’ lesson about farming might have been hard to take seriously. Before the advent of modern irrigation methods, the rocky arid earth of the Middle Eastern region did not yield crops easily. A conscientious farmer spent some part of every day clearing away stones, pulling weeds, and generally caring for the crop. It was not a free harvest. And yet, here Jesus portrays a farmer who sows his seed and does nothing more than make sure he gets plenty of rest. He calmly watches the whole operation grow into full ripeness; at which time he takes his sickle to it.
Maybe that was Jesus’ point. Remember, our Lord is giving us a lesson about what life lived in relationship with God is like - - not an agricultural lesson. Maybe the point is that in the toughest of situations, when we’re tempted to trust our own resources, when it’s hard to believe and we’re up against impossible odds and adverse conditions, maybe that is just when we most need to remember the Gospel lesson - - God’s message will be heard and God’s plan for the coming of the Kingdom depends on our trust and faith. What’s that old chestnut? Work as if it were all up to you but believe as if it were all up to God.
The parable of the seed is about the growth God gives and the parable of the mustard seed hammers the point home. From the tiniest bit of faith - - like the tiniest seed God can do great, unexpected, backdoor, gigantic things, such as grow the greatest of shrubs with branches so large that the birds of the air can make their nests in it.
A mustard seed isn’t much to look at. It isn’t very impressive; it might even seem dead to the untrained eye. But Jesus says keep hoping, keep trusting, not in your own efforts, but keep trusting in God’s grace, in the power of God to bring light from darkness, health where there once was sickness, joy when only despair existed. In our relationships, in our homes, in our careers, in our personal struggles, in whatever difficulties and misunderstandings exist in our complex lives, keep believing that God’s care and love can be transformative. And in our parish life, too.
About five years ago two startling reports were published about the changing religious landscape in America and about the decline in the Episcopal Church. The Pew Research Center’s five key findings about the changing U.S. religious landscape draws on a massive sample of more than 35,000 Americans to offer a detailed look at the current religious composition of U.S. adults. While - - no surprise - - mainline Protestants and Catholics declined, Americans who claim no religious affiliation, the so-called “none’s” (N-O-N-E-S) grew. Did you hear that? Almost 23% of Americans polled claimed no religious affiliation. 23%! Do you see the opportunity in that statistic that I see? I’m not talking about sheep stealing. I’m talking about feeding God’s sheep, which is exactly what Jesus told Peter, and us, to do.
“New Facts on Episcopal Church Growth and Decline,” published by the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (that’s the official name of the Episcopal Church in the United States) is important reading for St. Bartholomew’s as we anticipate embarking on a search for a new rector. Again, I found great good news in this exhaustive study of our denomination. Again, no surprise, spiritually alive, vital Episcopal congregations that are outwardly focused on justice are the ones that are growing. Quote, end quote. Also, “an emphasis on Sunday School and offering quality Christian Education for newcomers and their families” is important for growing churches. The report says, “Among growing congregations there is considerable effort to draw people into the life of the church and make them a part of it. Growing churches tend to have more special events and fellowship events.”
And now we have unlimited additional opportunities as we emerge from months of pandemic isolation. Folks are yearning for connection.
Jesus is calling us - - in parables, in exhaustive research studies, in the very fabric of our everyday community life - - to new challenges. Remember, God doesn’t often come through the front door. Let’s pay attention to these unfamiliar voices. Wonder with me what new seed God is planting in our soil. And wonder with me what a faithful response on the part of St. Bartholomew’s will look life.