Sermon preached in St. Michael’s-Litchfield by Fr. E. Walton Zelley, Jr., Pentecost 3 (Proper 6) June 17, 2012
Text: Mark 4:26-29 (Jesus) also said, “The Kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow; he does not know how. The earth produces of itself, first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head. But when the grain is ripe, at once he goes in with his sickle, because the harvest has come.”
“On the one hundredth anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth,” writes the Methodist preacher and theologian Gerald Kennedy, in his commentary on this parable, “John T. McCutcheon drew a famous cartoon. He showed two Kentucky backwoodsmen standing at the edge of a wood in the winter. The snow was on the ground and the trees were bare. One of these backwoodsmen asks the other, “Anything new?” The other man replies, “Nothing much. Oh, there’s a new baby over at Tom Lincoln’s, but that’s about it. Nothing much happens around here.”
“Anything new?” a citizen of Bethlehem who has been out of town for a few weeks asks his neighbor. “Nothing much,” the neighbor replies. “Some woman had a baby in the stable behind the Bethlehem Inn last night, but that’s about it. Nothing much ever happens around here.”
“Anything new?” the Mayor of Capernaum asks one the town councilmen. “Nothing much,” the councilman replies. “Zebedee’s two sons, James and John, left home yesterday to follow some itinerant rabbi named Jesus, leaving the whole family fishing fleet in the hands of their feeble, elderly father. But other than that, nothing much ever happens around here.”
“Anything new?” one of the Passover pilgrims to Jerusalem asks another pilgrim who had arrived the previous day. “Nothing much,” the other pilgrim replies. “Yesterday those sadistic Roman soldiers crucified three guys on crosses just next to the town garbage dump, but what’s new about that? These Roman Centurions have their own curious version of crowd control when Jerusalem is crowded with visiting pilgrims – erecting crosses lining the roads into the city, from which the dead bodies of men thought by the Romans to be disturbers of the peace give silent warning to others who might want to lead a revolt. ‘Don’t even think about it! This could be you!’ But other than that, nothing much ever happens around here.”
But fast-forward now to June 17, 2012 and to St. Michael’s-Litchfield where a couple of our parish sunbirds have just returned from their annual sojourn in Florida and have met some of their fellow parishioners in the church parking lot, inquiring, “Anything new at St. Michael’s while we’ve been away?” “Their friends reply, “Nothing much. As you know, we’ve been searching for a Priest in Charge who could provide the kind of full-time ministry our supply priest, Walt Zelley, is unable to, and we thought we had found the perfect candidate who, we were all but certain, was about to accept our call starting August 12th. A few days ago, however, she informed our Wardens that she had accepted a call to an important staff position in another diocese. I guess we were all a bit ‘bummed out’ by that unexpected turn of events, but that’s about it for life at St. Michael’s. We say our prayers, we gather for worship, we try to do good, but nothing all that dramatic seems to happen around here.”
But looking back through the eyes of faith, we know, do we not, that Mary’s giving birth to Jesus in a stable behind Bethlehem’s Inn was no ordinary birthing? For a seed had been planted in Mary’s heart. It had been planted by an angelic message which Mary had the spiritual sensitivity, receptivity and obedience to hear. “Mary, you are blessed, and the fruit of your womb is blessed, and the child you are bearing will be called the Son of God.”
James and John’s departure from the family fishing fleet was no ordinary teenage rebellion against a family’s traditional religious and family values, for a seed had been planted in their hearts and in their imaginations when they heard a voice of supernatural authority calling out to them: “Follow me!”
The execution of three men on that hill of Golgotha was no ordinary execution, because there was planted in the center of that tableau of suffering a divine seed which broke through the bonds of death, and burst forth as the first fruit of new resurrected life.
And now, looking through the same eyes of faith, can we not see that our candidate for priest in charge turning down our invitation in favor of another she thought might better utilize her particular gifts and skills in ministry, was not simply a disappointing turn of events which can happen in any search process, and a setback in the timing of when a new priest will be in place, providing full-time leadership.
And the reason that it is not simply either of these things is that in the whole process leading to the call of that very competent and inspired priest who had excited all who had a chance to dialogue with her about the exciting opportunities for mutual ministry and parish revitalization in this place, lots and lots of fertile seeds had been planted – seeds of the changes which must be implemented lest we die; seeds of the exciting possibilities for mutual ministry where it is clear that priest and parishioners are in this together because in our baptisms we were all ordained to ministry; seeds of the factors that lead to church growth and what it means to offer a ministry of hospitality; seeds of the need for surrender of control if we are to give God room to work through us in the furtherance of his kingdom on this earth, rather than believing that it is all up to us; seeds of true reconciliation among those of conflicting loyalties, in which we all come to believe that God does not expect that we are all going to see things the same way, but does expect that we will be committed to looking together in the same direction. And whether or not our candidate for priest in charge was ultimately able to accept our call or not, those seeds have been sown. And once those seeds have been sown, a process has been set in motion in St. Michael’s that will never allow us to say again, “Nothing much ever happens around here.”
And when Mary said, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord, be it unto me according to your word,” she demonstrated her faith that through this radical act of obedience, she had teamed herself up with a divine power which was unfolding in this world – that in her act of obedient participation in a process of divine and human cooperation she had become the co-creator with God of a New Creation. Mary could do nothing more than say “Yes” to God, sow the seed of her obedience and let that seed germinate in the receptive soil of faith and serenity, God doing through her and with her greater things than she could ever begin to imagine. And even though Mary “knew not how” the seed she sowed burst through the soil of human existence, reached its branches to the far parts of the earth, and created a source of divine transformation the fruits of which have created a rich harvest of new, resurrection life that still feeds the deepest hungers of the human heart.
When James and John dropped their nets and followed Jesus, they demonstrated their faith that obedience to a divine calling had put them in touch with a power that they, in themselves, did not possess. They knew that God had not called them because they were fit, but they believed with all their hearts that God would fit them because he had called them. In following Jesus, they believed that something was happening around that Galilean lake. They believed that they were stepping into a divine drama in which the world was being transformed through the workings of God, even though they “knew not how” into his Kingdom on this earth as it is in heaven.
When Jesus offered up his life on Calvary’s Hill, he did not do so as an act of masochistic suicide. Jesus died on that cross believing that his act of unconditional loving, and total obedience to his heavenly father’s will, would make him a vehicle through which the Power of Divine Love would burst forth on this earth. He believed that through a divine dynamic, “he knew not how” his seemingly senseless death would be transformed into new life. He believed that something of importance was happening on Calvary’s Hill. He believed that if he were indeed “lifted up from the earth” he would draw all people to himself and become for each one of us “the resurrection and the life.”
And because Mary, James, John and Jesus believed the things they did about obedience, receptivity and sowing the seeds of divine-human cooperation; because they believed that God was silently but inexorably at work in their lives and in the life of the world, even though they never knew just exactly how; because they believed that much was happening in their lives even though they were not in control of it, they did not spent a lot of time fretting about things. They did not spend long hours experiencing anxiety about the future. They did not get hung up on their own inadequacies. They did not spend all their time mourning their failure to control events. Having sowed their seed, they slept and rose night and day knowing that the “seed would sprout and grow even if they knew not how.” And if we as a parish family can follow their example, we will fear not for a minute that we have come to some kind of dead end at St. Michael’s in our search for a priest in charge, but rather will believe with all our hearts that we are standing at the brink of an exciting God-grown future harvest for the church we love.
God has given us the privilege of sharing our vision for this parish with a priest who has shown herself to be a very creative and seed sower, but has now gone on to work in another field. Now God is silently but surely giving us growth to those seeds, we know not how, asking only that we do our part by continuing the search process. But, boy, just wait and see the harvester that God has in mind to lead this parish into a whole new day. When that day comes, someone is going to ask us here in St. Michael’s, “Anything new?” And our joyful response will be, “Everything, just everything! Come and see what’s happening around here!”