Topic: Biblical Verse: Ezekiel 17:22–17:24, Mark 4:26–4:34
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost[i]
St. John's Lutheran Church, Alexandria, VA
Ezekiel 17:22-24; Mark 4:26-34
God is a master gardener. I, on the other hand, am definitely not. I can do well enough with plants in a small herb garden, requiring only minimal care and tending. I haven’t been particularly interested in growing a larger garden, or planting shrubs and trees. I enjoy the idea of gardens and scenic landscapes, but having to nurture and care for those plants over an entire growing season or more? I know people that are far more horticulturally experienced than I, and I thank God for them. Here at St. John’s, we have one of the best cared-for church grounds that I’ve seen in among congregations, and I get a sense of how much effort goes in to the beautification of this campus, so that all might enjoy the beauty of God’s creation. The patience required to make a garden happen, I think, is also a gift from God.
Growing a tree takes time, no matter its size. Bonsai seem to take that to another level. People sculpt these small trees into specific shapes, often in a tray or other container, usually with a vision in mind for what the bonsai should look like over time. It’s almost as if the tiny tree is a scale model for a larger one. Recently, I learned of “money tree” bonsai, which often have their trunks braided together so that the they grow together as one. It’s no small feat, and there’s a definite purpose behind it.
Most of our scripture readings today carry the imagery of God as one who makes things happen in the garden. In Ezekiel, God takes the tender little spring from the top of the high cedar, transplanting it to the mountaintop to make it into a great, new tree. In Psalm 1, God is again the one who takes a tree and transplants it to an irrigated location so that it might grow flourish. In Mark 4, God works in ways hidden to man to bring forth grain from the ground. And God takes the smallest of household seeds and transforms it into the largest of the garden plants, so large that it might provide a home for birds. I suppose it shouldn’t surprise us that God, who created everything by the power of His word, is the ultimate gardener. For most of us, though, all this gardening stuff might not make as much sense as it did for the people who first heard these messages of God’s Word.
God’s message through Ezekiel was given to the people of Israel while they were in exile, far from that land flowing with milk and honey that they had once called home. God’s hadn’t forgotten them, you see. He still had a promise for them. He would bring them home, and He would do a great thing through them. In one sense, that little spring from the heights of the cedar, the one that God would transplant back to the mountain height of Israel, that would be the remnant of the Hebrew people in exile. That sprig would grow – and the Messiah would come out from it. The Savior of the nations would bring high the low tree and welcome people from all the world to find their rest in his arms.
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus tells these parables about the Kingdom of God, how God’s reigning and rule break into our world and into our lives. The second parable we heard today, that of the mustard seed, might be one of the most familiar-sounding of Jesus’ parables, even if you only know mustard as the condiment that goes on hot dogs. The mustard seed is tiny, maybe a millimeter or so in diameter. But once the mustard seed has been planted, it can grow from that humble beginning to become a bush that’s ten feet tall. So it is with the kingdom of God. In the context of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, you have this unknown rabbi calling fishermen from Nazareth – how could that compare to the prestigious religious leaders in Jerusalem? And yet God’s reigning and rule is breaking in to the world. It does not rush in; it grows over time. Like the master gardener, God the Father knows what this small seed will become. His vision for this planting will be fulfilled as it grows and grows into a mighty tree that welcomes the people of the nations back to Him.
God plants, and God transplants.
You and I have been transplanted. The Holy Spirit has moved us from life outside of God and brought us into the branches of His Church. Christ gave his life and rose from death so that the Church would have life, growing as that great and mighty tree. He has planted you where you need to be, in a place like this congregation, where he feeds and nurtures you with his gifts. You have the flowing water of God’s Word given you, that you might grow like that tree in Psalm 1, even in a world that would try to dry you out and leave you a lifeless husk.
God’s kingdom calls people into community. We have something here, something that the world outside of the Church desperately needs. We have the message of God’s love for them in Jesus. In a time and a culture when people are increasingly tribal and isolated, the great tree of Christ’s Church, rooted in grace, stands to welcome all the birds of the air. We have to be on guard lest our attitudes and actions give the message that this tree is ours and meant for no one else. The Church is not a social club or an ideological center. It is a lifeboat. It is a hospital. It is a shelter. And it is for all.
God, who is the master gardener, welcomes you and all people back to Himself through Jesus. On this Father’s Day weekend, let’s remember and celebrate that God is Father of and for all people. He has transplanted us into this fellowship, He nourishes us here, and the fruit that we bear is for the good of all. We have a Father who is patient with us, even when we are not. We have a Father who is gracious to us, even when we are not. We have a Father who cares for us, even when we fail to care for others. This is the good news that we get to share with our neighbor as God blesses them through us.
Starting Monday, I will be away from St. John’s for two-and-a-half months on sabbatical leave. This time away from the congregation will, by God’s grace, be a time of growth in His Word and a time of renewal. I hope to better understand how we can speak the good news of Jesus and His Church for all people in the time and culture where God has planted us. While I’m away, I’ll be reading, participating in continuing education, and visiting other congregations, seeing how God is at work in other branches of the great tree of God’s (trans)planting that is the Church.
Growing a tree takes time. God takes that time with us. God takes that time with you. He is the master gardener who cares for you and nourishes you, and He has planted you where you need to be.
[i] This week’s memory passage:
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” – Mark 4:30-32 (ESV)