(Sunday sermons, talks, and teaching)
Preacher: Mother Janet Yabsley
Ezekiel 17:22-24 | Mark 4:26- 34
‘Such a large crowd gathered around Jesus that he got into a boat and began to teach them, using many parables.’ (Mark. 4:26)
In recent years - and more particularly in the last few months - there have been many occasions on which people have gathered together in large crowds for the specific purpose of demanding change. The nature of these gatherings, and the kinds of change looked for, are variable - yet increasing in frequency. They are happening around the globe. They are usually a plea, in essence, for a more equal, just and participatory society for all, in one way or another.
More than five years ago people gathered in great numbers to hear Malala Yousafzai deliver her now-famous speech, ‘One child, one teacher, one book, one pen - can change the world!’ a demand for education for girls in her own region, and in many other countries.* Just a few days ago the ‘silent march’ of people affected by the Grenfell fire tragedy focussed on very many different needs that require urgent attention - all highlighted in a single incident; but one with such far-reaching consequences. Without protest, radical change rarely happens.
The prophets recorded in Bible history were the protesters of their day. Everywhere they looked they witnessed injustice and oppression weighing heavily upon the people. In visions and in divine revelations they received warning messages from God. These were their mandate to seek change at the highest level. The word of the Lord - delivered by the prophets to the king - should result in positive action. In today’s Old Testament reading we heard one of Ezekiel’s earliest prophesies. He found it hard to believe that he had been chosen to proclaim the word of God, but through him God’s plans to bring messages of hope to the people of Israel were extremely effective.
Speaking at the time of impending conflict with Babylon, Ezekiel foretold the time when all nations would come together under God’s rule of justice and mercy - a kind of looking forward in hope. He painted an imaginative picture as a way of revealing God’s plan:- All manner of birds of many different species would flock to the tallest, most majestic tree in the land - the mighty Cedar. They would all find a place to rest in its branches. Just so, God’s kingdom of truth and righteousness is stronger than anything else in existence. All nations of peoples would find a home within this kingdom and live together in peace.
In contrast, Jesus’ parable of the Mustard Tree proclaims a crisis of the first magnitude!
God’s kingdom, heralded most recently by John the Baptist, is now actually here! It has come with the arrival of Jesus the Messiah. The tree, which began life as a tiny seed, has been growing since the beginning of the age, largely unnoticed. It has come to full stature whilst we have been blind to its presence. Out of something small and insignificant, something truly great has emerged. The message about it is urgent! It concerns the here and now. It cannot wait. For in the Kingdom, God’s sovereign power is effective in all human experience. When it pleases God to establish his kingly rule there will be judgment upon all the wrong that is in the world; victory over all the powers of evil; and (for those who have accepted God’s sovereignty) deliverance, and life in communion with Him. To seek the Kingdom of God is to make the doing of God’s will the supreme aim. And all this has echoes in the prayer, ‘Thy Kingdom come…’
Again in contrast to Ezekiel, Jesus does not use the mighty Cedar as his symbol for the Kingdom, but a small shrub, the Mustard. A member of the Brassica family, the Black Mustard flourished profusely in the wild around the shores of the Sea of Galilee, but was cultivated on a large scale for the oil from its tiny seeds. This was used mainly for medication and healing. Whilst fruiting the plant was quite succulent, low to the ground, and not strong enough to support birds in its branches. But at the end of the season after harvesting, the branches dried out in the fierce heat of the climate, and became brittle - rigid enough to support the many and diverse birds feeding on the multitude of insects to which it was host.
Just so, Jesus’ power was in his weakness, reflected here in a parable that uses the symbolism of a tiny seed. He was not afraid to speak of his own vulnerability. But that is not an attractive idea to many who would prefer to see power in images of towering strength. The king of the heavenly Kingdom, however, is the Prince of Peace; full of mercy and loving-kindness; seeking the lost; friend of the outcast; servant of all. Within this framework, previously unquestioned popular notions of the ways of God are turned upside-down… ‘whoever does not receive the Kingdom as a little child will never enter it.’
One thing is clear - both Jesus and the prophets-of-old understood God’s Kingdom not as ‘Utopia’ - something unattainable, but as present reality. They also understood that it cannot come to fulfilment without the determination of those who seek it to draw closer to God in prayer. That is why Jesus made the crowds sit down and rest… ‘“Come away to a lonely place, and rest a while” …for they had no time, even to eat!’
Contemplation, adoration, thanksgiving; these things are the path towards trust in the true and living God; the only foundation upon which we can grow and continue to grow; and take our place in a more just, equal and participatory society for all**.
* Malala Yousafzai - speech at her award ceremony Nobel Prize for Peace.
** A participatory society includes every person within the availability of its freedoms, rights, opportunities and protections, under a just system of law.
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
As we have the same spirit of faith that is mentioned in scripture – I believed, and therefore I spoke – we too believe and therefore we too speak. (2 Corinthians 4:13)
The passage of 2Corinthians we read this morning opens with an explanation of why St Paul is compelled to speak about faith and about the Lord Jesus in the way he does; faith is so embedded in him and it is such a powerful force that he cannot but write, speak, preach, and labour in every possible way to explain it to others and to bring Jesus to everyone he meets. Paul quotes psalm 116 in its Greek text as his justification – I believed, and therefore I spoke – but he quickly starts to use the plural form to include on just himself, but also every Christian in Corinth, and in turn, to include every Christian soul throughout the ages. We believe, and therefore we speak should be our own justification too for talking about faith and the Lord Jesus to others.
It’s easy for someone in a dog-collar to say that we should talk about faith, especially when people expect you to do so, or half-imagine you to be a God-botherer. Sayings such as “Religion should be kept private” and “One shouldn’t talk about politics or religion at the dinner table” are deeply engrained in our society and in the way we do things. So, I know who awkward that might seem for many people in the pews. But the truth of the matter doesn’t change, We believe, and therefore we should speak. And Paul gives a simple and practical pattern for the way everyone should learn to talk about faith. For example, when he speaks about hardships of the body, he is not doing so from a lofty height. He is talking from personal experience. Physically, Paul was not a very healthy person to start with, and even putting aside the persecutions he endured for the faith, the constant travelling, his daily work, and his ministry for the Church, must have frayed his body and tested his endurance to the limit. Yet, he says, that out of personal sufferings comes the knowledge that the Father, who raised Jesus from the dead, is at work within us. And it is out of this vulnerability and frailty we can speak all the more clearly and convincingly about faith. Later on, when Paul compares the human body to a tent fit for our earthly dwelling, he does so from the point of view of a serious traveller and – most of all – as a tent-maker…
we know that when the tent in which we live on earth is folded up, there is a house built by God for us… in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1).
The Apostle is able to draw links between what he does for a living (which in itself isn’t particularly Christian or newsworthy) and his faith; his daily life informs the way he believes and the way he can articulate his faith to others. Then we too could learn from Paul. How does our experience of testing or difficult times can shape the way we talk about faith? how can it encourage others in their trials? and how can our work or various activities ground the faith in our daily lives?
But I should say more about today’s readings. Some years ago a priest friend of mine wandered into his central London church only to find that the vestry had been broken into and a few items had been stolen from it. After the usual phone calls to the police and churchwardens he robed and went to the altar to celebrate a midweek Mass only to find, to his complete surprise, that the gospel reading appointed for that day was, ‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths …destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven …where thieves do not break in and steal.’ (Matthew 6:19-20)
As Alanis Morissette would say, ‘Isn’t it ironic?’ Even from personal experience I can testify that such coincidences or clashes between what goes on around us and the lectionary are very common indeed. We could say that they are just mere coincidences, or be grateful to God for pointing us towards his Word at the times when perhaps we most need guidance and consolation.
I believe that this is also what is happening today with our readings. Not even a fortnight since Jill’s funeral, the past week has brought fresh sorrows to our church family as Father Colin passed away, but as we come to church to celebrate Mass and to begin a new week together our readings remind us of our faith in the final victory of God over death. In the eyes of the world Jesus looked crushed, broken, and condemned to an undignified death, but through the testimony of the Scriptures and through the eyes of faith we know that his rising from the dead is what gives us hope for the future. Human experience has been radically altered by this. We are given a new, final end for our earthly journeying; that is, as our second reading says, to be “raised and put at the side of the Lord Jesus with the saints” (Cf. 2Cor 4:14).
Like St Paul, we may feel the strain of sorrow and the weight of sufferings that we (or our loved ones) have to endure, but we ought to place our faith in and be comforted by the One who ultimately will see that things are made right. So …we know that when the tent in which we live on earth is folded up, there is a house built by God for us… in the heavens (2 Corinthians 5:1).