Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, June 17, 2018 Lectionary B, Proper 6
ELIZABETH OF HUNGARY IN RICHMOND HILL, GEORGIA
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Rector Scripture: Mark 4:26-34
Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
What’s growing in you?
Let us pray. Heavenly Father, send now the Holy Spirit to grow that seed of the kingdom you have planted in us through Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit one God for ever and ever. Amen.
In the summer of 1868, Mark Twain visited Elmira, New York, and instantly fell madly in love with Olivia (Livy) Langdon. Turned down because of his brashness, brusqueness, and unbelief, he immediately turned over a new leaf for the sake of love. He began reading the Bible, even the epistles of St. Paul, and immersed himself in a book of sermons by the great “pulpit prince” Henry Ward Beecher. He started attending church socials, and turned his life around until Livy could not help but notice his transformation.
Whenever she didn’t show interest, Twain backslid into sin. When she gave him some encouragement, Twain doubled his quota of sermons and churchgoing. As he wrote to her: “I don’t drink anything, now, dear, and so your darling noble old heart has been troubling itself all for nothing! But please don’t let my motive distress you, Livy. You know the child must crawl before it walks. I must do right for love of you while I am in the infancy of Christianity; and then I can do right for love of the Savior when I shall have gotten my growth. And especially don’t give this instance any importance, for it is no sacrifice, because I have not now, and never had, any love for any kind of liquors, and not even a passable liking for any but champagne and ale, and only for these at intervals. (Mark Twain’s Letters, ed. Harriet Elinor Smith and Richard Bucci. Berkeley, University of California Press, 1990: 2:354.)
Perhaps, we all have had the experience of some scene or image from a movie sticking with us, haunting us even now. My brother, Lister, once told me that there is a scene from the first Aliens movie, starring Sigourney Weaver. Maybe, it got to you as well. If you saw the movie, you may recall one character in the movie played by the British actor, John Hurt. Hurt encounters an alien pod, which attaches something over/on his face. The ship’s crew tries to remove the organism, but to no avail until it removes itself.
Hurt appears no worse for the experience, returning to consciousness with a hearty appetite. The crew is seated around a table enjoying a meal when Hurt begins to complain of acute pain in his stomach. The discomfort becomes overwhelming. The crew huddles around him. Suddenly this horrid, slimy creature burst from his chest, killing him in the process. It is a nightmare perversion, a sick parallel to a woman giving birth. This, though, has been no child. Unbeknownst to him or anyone else this thing had been growing inside of him.
So, what’s growing in you or me? It is a question that might cause us some discomfort for various reasons. What’s growing in us might be any number of possibilities. If we are a young woman, a child might be growing in us. Perhaps, what’s growing in us is a need, relentlessness, or boredom. Maybe, it is the fruit of the Spirit, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” as identified by St. Paul in Galatians 5:22, 23. On the other hand, might it be the opposite of the fruit growing in us—fear, depression, anxiety, addiction, or anger. Maybe, what’s growing in us is a little more observable—our waist line for example. Is there some medical condition, harming our health, that is growing in us? The list might be long, but a few include high blood pressure, high blood sugar, high cholesterol, or cancer. Maybe though, maybe what is growing is us is something more akin to what Mark Twain was experiencing. No, I am not referring to his love for a beautiful young woman, but rather his growing love of the saviour.
In today’s gospel from St. Mark Jesus again explains that curious mystery, called the Kingdom of God with parables, using agricultural, farming imagery. In the first of two parables the seed is scattered on the ground by some unknown person. Mysteriously, the seed sprouts and grows, but how? These are not beans, corn, or tomatoes that Jesus is talking about. He is speaking of the kingdom of God. Seeds of the kingdom, we might say, have been planted. As a result, amazingly and inexplicably the kingdom of God has grown and borne fruit.
Whether we understand that the one who scattered the seed is God or Jesus, the scattered seed grew, ripened, and was ready to be harvested. What then is this seed of the kingdom of God of which Jesus speaks? Can it be identified? What does it look like? Is it in us? Is this seed from the kingdom of God growing in us? If so, where is the fruit of it? Do you or I look more like a Christian today than when we first started? Are you or I more loving, compassionate, or patient than we were a year ago, five years ago, or ten years ago? Have you thought about that? What has been your answer? Kind of hard to tell isn’t it?
If we are into measuring our spiritual growth like some kid standing tall in the doorway, the answer as to our progress might be discouraging. Recently, I was asked about my patience. Was I more or less patient? When I thought about it, I wasn’t so sure. Maybe certain things just did not matter to me as much as they used to. You know what I mean. There is a theological term for spiritual growth, called sanctification, meaning to increase in holiness. I have always liked that term. It seems to give us some slack. We don’t have to be the perfect Christian overnight. Then again, I don’t really believe there is such an individual except for one. Spiritual growth, like anything else, takes time.
In today’s reading from the Book of Samuel in the Old Testament we heard that the Lord sent the prophet Samuel to Jesse the Bethlehemite, because said the Lord, “I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” One after another, after another, after another of Jesse’s sons was brought before Samuel, as the possible new king. It wasn’t, however, until the youngest and the least of the sons, David, that the Lord God said to Samuel, “‘Rise and anoint him; for this is the one.’ Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”
It sounds like a fait d’accompli. David was now the king, yet, it would be 15 years and much struggle after Samuel anointed him before David finally ascended to the throne of Judah and another 7years before he became king of all Israel. Is there a king or queen growing in us? Growth can be slow and full of obstacles. It is worth pondering God’s timing. Obviously, He works at a different pace (faster or slower) than we find comfortable. Nevertheless, our expectations need not be small just because the fruit is a long time coming.
In the second of Jesus’ kingdom parables, perhaps the best known, we heard him ask, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God? It is like a mustard seed, which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet when it is sown it, grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
You know, we listen to this parable and maybe we say to ourselves, “Well, isn’t that catchy; what profound insight, such nice, encouraging pearls of wisdom that Jesus offers. Jesus, though, did not just talk about it. He did it. The parable of the mustard seed is a good example. From a few fish and loaves of bread He fed five thousand. Surely, that was a mustard seed growing into something much larger. What about water into wine? What about all the healings? What about raising Lazarus from the dead? Jesus took what was so little, if at all in the case of Lazarus, and grew them—all mustards seeds grown into the greatest of scrubs. Yes, those healings were instantaneous, but how long had the suffering individual been waiting for relief?
There is a story that I shared with St. Elizabeth’s search committee when I was being interviewed to be your rector almost thirteen years ago. It was a story that the Rev. Michael Breen had shared from his own life and ministry. Breen was serving a parish in England. He determined that he needed to go away by himself to ask the Lord what He wanted him and his parish to do. He left on a Wednesday afternoon by himself for three nights to spend time listening to the Lord. He stayed at a country cottage—just by himself.
On the first day, Breen quieted himself before the Lord—listening in silence, listening. After some time, he though he understood the Lord to be telling him to take up the cross. “Sure,” thought Breen, “as a Christians we all are supposed to take up the cross.” He saw this as a throw away notion—nothing new about it. Any Christian might have gotten that impression or word from the Lord. So, Breen did not take to heart, taking up the cross, as what the Lord wanted him and his parish to do. So, the next day and the next day he listened for the Lord. Nothing, he got nothing—not a word, just frustration.
Time had runout and Breen had to get back to his parish. Sunday was approaching. Feeling terribly disappointed, he got into his car to head back when suddenly it hit him. God wasn’t just telling him to take up the cross as a matter of Christian duty and purpose. God literally wanted Breen to take up the cross—a real wooden cross. Come Sunday morning he climbed up into the pulpit and proceeded to tell his congregation what the Lord had told him and what was to be done. Come Monday morning Breen would build a wooden cross and would love to have members of the congregation assist him. They would then carry the cross through their urban neighborhood. This was no suburb.
Come Monday morning Breen was in the church yard with hammer, saw, and wood. No one from his congregation showed up. He banged away and soon the cross was completed. Laying the cross over his shoulder, he sheepishly proceeded down the street. He heard windows being thrown open as amazed citizens gawked. He heard a woman’s voice in astonishment proclaim, “It’s the vicar!” Breen didn’t say so, but we can imagine his face reddening. The next day the youth minister deigned to walk with him. His company boosted Breen’s confidence. The people on the street seemed less astonished and instead curious. Come the next day a few of Breen’s parishioners joined the youth minister and him as they again marched the cross through the streets.
Now, people were beginning to walk up to them, asking questions. Come the next day, more of Breen’s parishioners had joined the march of the cross. People now came up to them not to ask questions but to share their problems. Right there on the street corner Breen and his parishioners suddenly found a place for their prayer ministry. Pausing in their march with the cross, they stopped to pray for individuals as they articulated their needs. It was powerful scene. This seed of taking up the cross was really beginning to bear fruit.
Marching the cross through the neighborhood became a regular occurrence. Relationships were being established with the community. Soon Breen’s people were going door to door to minister to the various needs of the people. The mustard seed had indeed grown into a great scrub, putting forth large branches, so that the birds of the air could make nests in its shade.
One night as Breen and his wife were preparing to go to bed, he sensed the Lord telling him to take up the cross right then and there in the dead of night and walk through the neighborhood. He asked his wife if she would like to join him. The neighborhood in which they lived was not particularly safe. In fact someone had been shot and killed near their house just days before they moved in. Breen’s wife declined his invitation.
Breen slipped into the night, cross over his shoulder. It wasn’t long before he caught the attention of two Bobbies, British police. “What have you got there?” one asked Breen, though it was quite obvious. “It’s a cross,” Breen replied. “So, it is,” said the Bobbie. “Well, just don’t hurt anyone with it.” Breen completed the night tour, wondering about God’s purpose in this nocturnal mission. Could anyone besides those Bobbies actually see him and what he was doing?
The next day Breen’s parishioners were again out the in the neighborhood, getting to know the people and ministering to their needs. At the end of the day, one parishioner came to Breen to share an encounter. He was visiting with an elderly Jewish man, who, as it turned out, was excited to see him. He told this parishioner how on the night before he had been praying to God, asking Him to show him the messiah. Completing his prayers, the elderly Jew went over to his window. What should he see, but a man caring a cross. Though he would only live for another year, the old man subsequently completed his faith and became a Christian in the following weeks.
What’s in a kingdom of God mustard seed? The Rev. Michael Breen had heard only four words, words he first doubted—“Take up the cross,” said the Lord. From that mustard seed, well, you heard the story and saw the fruit and its harvest. Recall how small, almost negligible it was when first planted in Breen’s mind. He almost dismissed it. Before long it grew, not only in him, not only in his youth minister, not only in his parishioners, but within the community at large. That mustard seed really had become the greatest of all shrubs—amazing.
A kingdom of God mustard seed has been planted in everyone us, but, but we have to share it, don’t we? It cannot grow if it is kept in the dark. It cannot grow if it does not see the light of day. It cannot grow without the fresh air of fellowship. It cannot. Jesus is growing inside each of us. He is waiting to burst out of us, not like some horrid alien monster, but lovingly, encouragingly to us and to those whom God sends our way. Who knows what size shrub is in you or me or us here at St. Elizabeth’s?
The kingdom of God invites us on a journey. We do not create the kingdom, but the kingdom creates us. Even though it appears to be insignificant at first, the essence of greatness and the confidence of success lie within it. We are on the winning side in the battles of life with the kingdom of God growing in us.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.