Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pentecost 3B, 2012: Sermon by Kheresa Harmon

Lectionary for Proper 6: Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14; 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17; Mark 4:26-34

A Tree Grows in Lower Manhattan

When the nose of the first jet punched the face of the North tower, the inhabitants of the Bradford pear tree spread their wings and flew – far, far away.

Only the insatiably busy worms, grubs, and insects remained sheltered under the velvety green canopy that separated them from the world of steel and glass. A pungent organic odor filled the air as the leaves and limbs of the sheltering tree were scorched by balls of fire. Large shards of glass and chunks of falling cement severed limbs. Layers of thick, choking ash soon blanketed the charred remains of the skeletal stump of the tree.

Weeks passed. Workers who were sifting through the remains of the twin towers unearthed the seemingly lifeless 8 foot stump of a tree. From the looks of it, there was little hope for life.

The 17th chapter of Ezekiel drops us knee-deep into the miserable muck of the exiled Jewish community. The fledgling kingdom of Judah had rebelled against Babylon. King Nebuchadnezzar responded by deporting King Jechoiachin, the aristocratic religious leaders – including the young priest Ezekiel, and most of the residents of the kingdom. To make matters worse, Zedekiah had become a Babylonian vassal, and he had begun conspiring with Egypt to break the grip of Nebuchadnezzar. Gone were the days of the Davidic monarchy. The exilic community now found itself struggling to eke out some semblance of a life – as prisoners of war. From the looks of it, there was little hope for a real life.

The exilic community was mired down in miserable muck, but muck is more than it seems. It is rich with nutrients – the stuff that nourishes new life.

God was moving quietly within the muck of misery to create a new life for God’s people. God revealed God’s plans for God’s people to Ezekiel, “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. 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 the winged creatures of every kind. All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord. I bring low the high tree; I dry up the green tree and make the dry tree flourish. I the LORD have spoken; I will accomplish it.” Salvation was beginning in the muck of exile.

Jesus was well-versed in the Hebrew Scriptures, and it is likely that he had this passage from Ezekiel in mind as he taught his disciples and the crowds by the sea. When we encounter Jesus in the fourth chapter of Mark, we discover that the locus of Jesus’ teaching ministry has changed. After healing the man with a withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath, Jesus departs from the institution and begins teaching in the open – on hillsides, on houses, wherever the crowds congregate. The face of Jesus’ audience has changed, too. The crowds that congregate around him are no longer limited to his disciples and other Jews. The time is right for Jesus’ message to be shared in the open with anyone who has ears to hear.

In the tradition of the rabbis, Jesus sat down, this time on a boat, and began to teach his followers that God was doing something new in the midst of them.

Jesus employs a series of three seed parables, or picture puzzles (as defined by Dr. Robert Funk), to teach his followers that Kingdom of God has come near. But, the new kingdom would not be what they might expect.

Jesus’ audience would have understood the concept of a kingdom as the area ruled by a king, by the scope of the area ruled, by the number of years ruled by a king, and by the wealth and military force of the king. The Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus was the antithesis to this. It was the reign of God. It was where God is at work in the world. It was in Jesus himself. Jesus’ listeners, including his inner circle of the Twelve, did not understand him and could not see the Kingdom of God easily.

Jesus’ response to the misunderstanding was a promise in the form of two parables, the parable of the seed and the parable of the mustard seed. Take heart, he seems to say. God is at work in your midst right now. God is present in me. If you do not see that, do not fret. Think of the seed.

The farmer sows seed. The farmer lives his life from night to day. The farmer will work alongside the seed, but the seed itself will grow as God created it to grow. The soil will seem to yield nothing, yet the seed that has been planted is growing underground. Suddenly, when the time is right, a green shoot will push up through the soil, and the ground will be blanketed with new green growth. The growth will be abundant, and one day the harvest will be ready. New creation will come about.

The scorched stump of the Bradford pear tree seemed dead. To the workers who unearthed it, the stump was the only hope that life might begin again. The wounded 8 foot stump was removed and transported to the Arthur Ross Nursery in the Bronx, where it was painstakingly pruned and fertilized. Waiting began. From the looks of it, there was little hope for life.

Something new has happened, and it is happening. The new age began with the birth of Jesus Christ. The new age continues. As persons who have been reconciled by God and to God, we are participants with God in bringing about the Kingdom of God in our world today.

Our epistle reading is a powerful reassurance that, as person redeemed and transformed by the blood of Jesus Christ, we are already experiencing the fullness of life. When we look through resurrection lenses, we see the new creation that God has begun. And, we are invited to participate in it. As persons who are in Jesus Christ, we have been given the privilege and responsibility of participating in the growth of the Kingdom of God on earth.

Grow shall the Kingdom of God! Jesus compared it to the growth of the mustard seed. The mustard seed appears in Jewish folklore as the tiniest, most fragile of all the seeds. When cultivated properly, it can grow up to 12 feet in height. Under its canopy could animals seek refuge from the wilderness sun. On its branches could birds build nests and bring forth new life. From the medicinal properties of its leaves could women and men seek healing from physical illness.

When Jesus compared the Kingdom of God to the growth of mustard seed, he must have remembered the image of the tree in Ezekiel—the new tree of life created by God from a sprig that would grow large enough to provide shelter and shade to every living creature.

It is an image of the living Kingdom of God, and we have been invited to participate in it. When we do, we can fully experience the righteousness of God, the justice of God, the mercy of God, and the peace of God. When do participate in the reign of God on earth, we can experience the healing of our minds, our bodies, and our relationships. When we do participate in the reign of God on earth, we can truly sit at God’s table. When we participate in the reign of God on earth, we can taste real reconciliation—the kind of reconciliation that is rooted in God’s love, that springs forth from God’s forgiveness, and that can happen only in community.

On June 8, 1972, canisters of napalm pelted southern Vietnam. The ferocious flames fed voraciously on a tiny village, vaporizing straw huts, chickens, women, and children. Kim Phuc was nine years old, and napalm’s burn temperature of 1200 degrees Celsius incinerated her clothes. The napalm should have burned her skin off her body; instead it charred her flesh. Kim’s face was untouched. As the hungry inferno devoured the village, Nick Ut pulled out his camera. The image he captured on film was that of nine year old Kim, running, burned and naked, through the burning village.

Kim should have died. Three days later Kim’s parents found her in the hospital morgue – alive. Seventeen surgeries mended some of visible wounds, but hatred and bitterness seethed inside her. When Kim was 19 years old, she became a Christian. Her relationship with Christ began to change her life, and Kim learned that she must learn to forgive . . . and to seek reconciliation.

A glass of coffee helped Kim learn how to forgive the men who nearly killed her. One day Kim filled a glass with black coffee, which represented her anger, hatred, bitterness, pain, and loss. She poured a little out every day. One day there was no coffee left to pour. She filled the glass with water. Every day, with intentional patience, she wrote down all of the names of people who caused her suffering and she began to pray. “The more I prayed,” she wrote, “the softer my heart became.”

Kim forgave, and Kim has dedicated her life to promoting peace and reconciliation around the world. In 1997 she founded the Kim International Foundation, a non-profit organization that assists the most innocent victims of war, the children. The Kim International Foundation provides medical and psychological assistance to millions of children around the world. And, Kim has intentionally worked to seek reconciliation with persons who nearly killed her. She is now friends with John Plummer, a pastor in Virginia, who was instrumental in coordinating the airstrike on her village. Kim participates in the reign of God on earth.

The Bradford pear tree had been ripped of its leaves and limbs. It had been scorched and reduced to a stump. But, the roots of the tree remained untouched. Life was there, and it fought to live. That’s what God designed it to do. By the spring of 2002, tiny green shoots emerged from the old wounds on the trunk of the Bradford pear tree. In December 2010 it was returned to Manhattan. It is now 30 feet tall, and its foliage canopies a portion of the memorial pool.

We must let our roots of faith run deep into resurrection soil, for the deepest roots receive the most nourishment and thrive. May it be so through Jesus Christ our Lord.

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