Second Sunday after Trinity
Readings: Ezek. 17, 22-end; Ps 92, 1-4,12-15; 2 Cor. 5 6-10,14-17; Mark 4, 26-34
Hymns: Fill thou my life, Lord Jesus Christ be present now, There in God’s garden, Thou whose almighty word
Clearly those who put the lectionary readings together for this day had an interest in trees: a twig from the top of a cedar tree is planted and grows tall in its turn; the righteous flourish like a palm tree and grow like a cedar; and the mustard tree grows from a tiny seed. Analogies, metaphors and parables abound, sets of words or stories which alert listeners to a deeper meaning. Why not say it straight: ‘Do this, don’t do that!’ But how often do we remember, much less understand, the reason behind an order? Stories with a point, however, we do usually remember, or at least put into our stock of memories applicable to varied occasions in the distant future.
Let’s look at the trees with which we are presented today. Are they all useful? Yes, but variably so. The mustard tree, more a scrubby shrub ten to twelve feet tall, can shelter small birds of the air, larks, sparrows, starlings, doves, but eagles or hens might break the brittle bough. One thing about this tree though is its small seed- smaller than the mustard seed we know and plant in window-sills.
The palm tree can offer shelter and sanctuary to heavier birds and small animals, and when harvested, its fronds offer protection from sun and rain to traveller or resident alike, and its dates essential food for the traveller and income for the owner. But the cedar is our star tree today, for all can find shelter under it, and birds and climbing animals are safe on its strong boughs. Cut down, planks shaped from its strong wood support the largest building, its resins keep away moths, its dense beauty takes on whatever form the carver wants. In short, the quick growing mustard tree offers less to fewer creatures than either the palm or the cedar.
How do these trees multiply? The mustard tree from seeds, and the palm from its own fruit fallen to the ground. The cedar too in normal times grows from shiny seeds bursting out from its cones. But in Ezekiel, God is the propagator, taking a sprig, a slip or cutting, from the top and planting it on the top of a high mountain. On the face of it, thin soil or rocks is not the best place for a cutting – so this is clearly parable talk: God can do what God will do in God’s time, and we can understand his twig as that of Jesse, thus Jesus, or of prophets and indeed ordinary people more generally. The psalm firms up the imagery of trees and people, saying that ‘the righteous flourish like the palm tree and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.’ Here we hit a slight problem if we take that line alone. Those who (try to) love God and live with justice and mercy for all do not always appear to flourish, and conversely those who treat others badly can do rather well in material terms. But note where the psalmist’s trees are planted: in the house of the Lord, space on mountains, in deserts or towns designated and treated as God’s place, which we heard of last week in Eden, and ‘in the courts of our God.’ Flourishing in the long term, beyond this life, is thus a matter of being rooted in the presence of God, ready and willing to be embraced by the living God.
Just as trees must be filled with sap to live, so too must we be filled with the Word in this green time of Trinity, and with the Sacrament, week in and week out. That brings me to the final point today: time. In this increasingly time pressured age, speed seems all. Yet in saying that, implying that this age is time pressured and earlier ages were not, I feel uncomfortable. In past centuries and elsewhere now in the world, a farmer’s failure to get the harvest in quickly amid bad weather meant, and means, no food. The piece-worker of past and present times is incredibly time-pressured, as is the factory worker whose income depends on keeping up with the conveyor belt. Feeling time-pressured because we expect time to fit our wishes like some childish abracadabra, rushing from one self-imposed appointment to another, insults those for whom time-pressure is health or sickness, life or death.
Think of trees. Cedar trees take 140-150 years to reach their 130 feet, and still run with lively sap for many years more. They will not grow faster than that and retain their strength. The palm tree grows more quickly, commonly reaching full height in fifteen years. However, they are vulnerable to pests, so crumble and cease producing fruit by twenty-five. The mustard tree is fully grown in three years, but dies off soon thereafter, offering shade only for a moment.
All have their uses. Letting slow and sure friendships imitate the cedar is fine, but rather than spurn quickly-made short friendships, like the brief shelter of the mustard tree, no friendship cannot start unless we actually do talk to that person in the pew we don’t know! Paul says clearly: ‘We walk by faith, not sight,’ and that is so, for in our lives we may not see the way forward for brambles and even mustard trees. The temptation is, and this is an especial problem now, is to demand, even command, a way forward, chopping down anything in our way. But the scrubby mustard tree, the lowlier bramble, has a purpose, and that may include waiting, looking, listening and waiting again to understand both the apparent obstacles and the direction beyond. Too often, and that is an increasing strand in our faith, people treat Christianity as something they own and control, giving orders to God and indeed to Satan too: I command you Satan to leave me, I order you not to plague me, and so on.
Like the first farmer in Mark’s gospel, we do not know how seeds we plant will come up, the seeds of a kindness, a quiet listening ear, a gift of time or money, an apparently failed endeavour. But we do know, as Paul makes clear, that if we let ourselves be transplanted, we can be transformed. Not by our will, but God’s, God’s loving shelter, brief and efficient as the mustard tree, permanent as the cedar.
Revd Dr Elizabeth Koepping
Heidelberg 16th June 2015