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3/17/24 Sermon

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Isaiah 51:1-8 – Wilda C. Gafney translation

51 Listen to me, all you that pursue righteousness, all you that seek the Author of life.Look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah, who writhed-in-labor for you all; he was just one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many. For the god who saves has comforted Zion; she has comforted all her waste places. And she shall make her wilderness like Eden, her desert like the garden of the creator of all; joy and gladness will be found in her, thanksgiving and the sound of song. Listen to me, my people, and my nation, to me give heed; for a teaching shall from me go forth, and my justice for a light to the peoples. I will do so suddenly. My deliverance is near, my salvation has gone forth and my arms will govern the peoples; for me the coastlands wait, and upon my arm they await. Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth below. For the heavens like smoke will vanish, the earth like a garment will wear out, and those who live on it will die like gnats; yet my salvation will be forever, and my deliverance will never be broken. Listen to me, you who know righteousness, you people who have my teaching in your hearts; fear not the reproach of others, and when they revile you, do not be dismayed. For like a garment a moth will devour them, and like wool a worm will consume them; yet my deliverance will be forever, and my salvation to all generations.

Luke 13:18-21 – Wilda C. Gafney translation 

18 Jesus asked, “What is the realm of God like? And to what should I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed that someone took and tossed in the garden and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.”

20 Speaking again he said, “To what should I compare the realm of God? 21 It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Sometimes when getting ready for Sunday morning I open a book titled, The Five Gospels. It contains the familiar four; Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John, along with the Gospel of Thomas.  It is a book born of the desire to know the authentic words of Jesus, born of the question,  “What did Jesus really say?” The Five Gospels summarizes the work of the Jesus Seminar, the collaborative effort of 100 scholars over a six year period who painstakingly sought out surviving ancient texts and searched for the words most likely spoken by Jesus. 

In Luke’s gospel this morning we hear two parables meant to engage his listeners through the common tasks of sowing seeds and baking bread. Jesus was speaking to both men and women; traditionally speaking, the men would relate to the first, the women to the second example.

How did Jesus intend for his listeners to understand these two parables? Remember that a parable is employed to challenge us, to make us question our way of thinking, to shed light on a situation from another vantage point. 

The Gospel of Thomas (20:1-4) has what these scholars believe is this parables most authentic text. The Jesus Seminar Scholars translated the text this way: The disciples said to Jesus, “Tell us what Heaven’s imperial rule is like.” He said to them, “It’s like a mustard seed. It’s the smallest of all seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.”

Jesus and his followers were a minority, they were the marginalized poor of their time and place. They were not only living on the margins of the Roman Empire, but they were also existing on the margins of Jewish faith and culture, challenging existing norms and beliefs. 

This parable could have been intended to bring hope to those living on the brink of society. They were not, as the Roman Empire would have them believe, inconsequential and irrelevant. 

It could also have been a reminder to till the soil of their hearts, to be open to God moving in their midst. When Jesus employed the parable, as recorded in Thomas’ Gospel it was not only about the seed, the plant, and the shelter created. There was also emphasis on preparing the soil; perhaps emphasizing the need to take an active part in our relationship with God.

In addition to how Jesus intended the parable for his community, let us next look at how Luke used the parable for his community; and then how we relate to these same parables ourselves.  

Luke is “quoting” Jesus, but tailoring the parable to his community, some fifty or more years after Jesus was crucified. Somehow Luke, like Mark and Matthew, omit the need for being ready, omit Jesus’ comment about preparing the soil. 

Many Bible commentators believe that Luke wants his audience to make the connection of the mustard seed plant with the stately cedar tree of Lebanon. The cedar tree was a symbol of the mighty kingdom of Israel under Saul, David, and Solomon. The mustard seed in the parable pokes fun at that symbol by comparing God’s domain to a pesky weed. 

What about the Parable of the Leaven? To quote from The Five Gospels text: “Like the mustard seed, the parable of the leaven makes light of an established symbol. Leaven was customarily regarded as a symbol for corruption and evil. Jesus here employs it in a positive sense. That makes his use of the image striking and provocative. The mustard seed and the leaven are picture parables: they paint a simple but arresting picture that depends, for its cogency, on the juxtaposition of contrary images. To compare God’s imperial rule to leaven is to compare it to something corrupt and unholy. Just the opposite of what God’s rule is supposed to be.” 

How are they, and we, to understand this? What situation was Luke addressing? Sounds to me like certain individuals, and maybe entire houses of worship thought they were more important than God, or at the very least thought they were more important than others. That is a concern to reckon with in every age. 

What about us? These tasks of sowing seeds and baking bread are no longer as common. Some people living in our communities today have no first-hand experience with either example. How are these parables relevant? The Parable of the Mustard seed transported me this week to the prairies and woodlands of my childhood. Imagine, or remember yourself nestled in the branches of a tree, discovering the many other inhabitants crawling, hopping, flying. Imagine, or remember yourself luxuriating in the shade on a warm sunny day, watching all of this and listening to the bird song. Imagine yourself safe, held by the branches as if they are the arms of God.

Now imagine that you are the tree. Did you know that there is science that has proven how trees talk with one another, how they communicate through their root systems? Studies show that trees of the same species are communal, and will often form alliances with trees of other species. Forest trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships. 

Trees form intricate underground networks through a symbiotic relationship with fungi. These networks are called mycorrhizal networks. The mycelium, which are tiny threads from fungi, interweave with tree roots to create these networks. 

When trees are connected by mycorrhizal networks, they can exchange nutrients, water, and chemical signals. For example, a healthy tree can transfer nutrients to a neighboring tree that might be struggling or under stress. 

In essence, trees engage in a silent but essential conversation beneath the forest floor, supporting each other, warning of danger, and ensuring their collective well-being.

Trees need each other. They are stronger together. Of course, the same is true for us; for all of humanity, for all of God’s created Universe. We are stronger together. 

Our Isaiah scripture is a beautiful reminder to look and listen for God in our midst, a reminder to  look and listen and learn about the justice God desires for all of her people. The Prophet Isaiah reminds us to remember from whom we came, remember from whom we receive our strength and our source of wisdom. God, the Author of Life, is everywhere, in all times and in all places. God is there in our joy and in our sorrow. God is there in the beauty of creation and in the desolation of flood and fire. God remains a constant presence. All else is fleeting. 

We are about to emerge from the confusion of Lenten wilderness into the Easter peace that passes all understanding. But not yet. We still have the difficult road of Holy Week to travel. Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, followed by betrayal, agony, and execution. 

Especially now, as we near the end of our Lenten journey, it is imperative to remember that the wilderness and desert which are all around us, are also within us. As our seasons change, as Creation bursts into life all around us, believe the promise of Isaiah’s words: we too will be made like Eden. The realm of God is all around us, and also within us. The realm of God is out there and also in here (touch heart). Prepare to receive the joy and gladness that God offers up for all of her beloved creation. 


Rev. TJ Mack – March 17, 2024

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