The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 6), 17 June

May 15, 2018 | by Nathan Mattox

Reading 1 Reading 2 Reading 3 Reading 4 Reading 1 Alt Reading 2 Alt
Ezekiel 17:22-24 Psalm 94:1-4, 12-15 2 Corinthians 5:6-17 Mark 4:26-34

Ezekiel 17: 22-24
The Ezekiel passage is perfectly paired with the Gospel selection this week, as it totally sets the table for the humorous comparison that Jesus makes with the mustard seed.

I preached from this pair of texts this week at Restore Hope, a ministry for people who need assistance. The contrast between seeing the Holy in the high, stately Cedar and corresponding contexts like stained glass light drenched sanctuaries and the commonplace, pervasive mustard shrub places like fluorescent light drenched waiting rooms for case workers at such places like Restore Hope seemed to resonate with the patrons there.

But, to take the parable offered by Ezekiel on its own, it is intended to give confidence to exiles. It is a symbol of hope contrasted with cedar sprigs being carried away to a “land of merchants” by “A great eagle with powerful wings, long feathers and full plumage of varied colors came to Lebanon.” (17:3).  This cedar only grows up to be a vine, with low boughs barely resembling the Cedars of Lebanon. By contrast, God offers a vision to the exiles to remember who they are. God will transplant us back once again to where we belong, in the mountains, and there we will again grow tall and provide shelter for the abundance of God’s creation. I write this on a spring day on my back porch under the shade of two massive oak trees listening to the multitude of birds that make them their home. Sometimes I like to lie on our trampoline and look up through 70 feet of branches and the world that exists above me. They almost drown out the sound of the constant tractor-trailer traffic zooming down I44 running through the middle of Tulsa, OK, certainly a “land of merchants.”

I think of trees throughout my life being fond memories: the beautifully radiant maple tree that was the crown jewel of trees in Morris, Oklahoma (my previous home) in which I used to get the playset ladder and climb in with my young son and daughter, the huge old pin oak tree in the Claremont botanical garden I used to sit under and study while studying in seminary, the magnificent Sequoia trees in California I visited, the willow tree that hung over the pond I used to fish at as a boy in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Trees are an anchor for memories, and evidently Ezekiel thought so too since he alluded to their power and presence as a symbol for an exiled people.

From a Process perspective, I would speak about this Cedar tree as a lure of Creative/responsive love toward hope, stability, and freedom.

Psalm 94: 1-4, 12-15
This Sunday is one for the arborists. There are a lot of great comparisons we can make between trees and faith life, but if you’d like to simply focus on the mystery and grandeur of trees themselves, I’d highly recommend an episode of the Radiolab podcast called “From Tree to Shining Tree.” Give it a listen, because there are abundant resources there for the Process Preacher. 

The righteous flourishing like the palm tree and growing tall like the cedars of Lebanon is a good image for the Process Preacher. “Flourishing” is a good stand in for the word used for the primary objective of the Divine and in all things in the thought of A.N. Whitehead: enjoyment. Palm trees maximize their potential for height before putting forth any branches, which all cluster at the top of the tree. I think that is a good metaphor for righteousness flourishing—we strive toward our best potential, lured to our height by the nourishing presence of the light. Putting forth foliage at the “top” of ourselves might be a good metaphor for reaching for the best possible outcome toward which we are lured by the life-giving Sun.

Another image in this Psalm is that of the evergreen quality of those who are following the lure toward righteousness being life the everlasting green of the Cedar and Palm. They are “planted in the house of the Lord,” and “showing that Lord is upright and righteous. The Sabbath has been theme in the texts this month, and it is notable that the 92nd is the only Psalm dedicated to the Sabbath. There is a connection between celebration and praise in the first part of the Psalm and righteousness in the second part of the Psalm.

2 Corinthians 5: 6-17
The lectionary puts verses 11-13 in parentheses, which would seemingly encourage us to excise the judgmental tone associated with “what we have done in the body,” if we so choose. Much of this text seems to support a body/soul dichotomy that Process theology wouldn’t affirm, but nonetheless, the theme of exile from the Ezekiel passage is here internalized. “For if we are at home in the body, we are far away from God.” Perhaps a good way for a Process Preacher to rephrase this is to acknowledge the many possibilities that distract us from attending to the Divine Lure of creative responsive love. God’s power is persuasive, but leaves open the freedom of all things to choose otherwise.  The main thrust of this text though is the notion of bodily exile from our spiritual home. The physical body is compared to a tent that we “groan” in while our heavenly home is resplendent and waiting for us. Much like Ezekiel comforted the afflicted in exile, Paul seeks to comfort those who are being physically abused for their faith in God. Exile is a theme that resonates with many who are suffering with ailments, addictions, anxiety, and apathy. Not feeling close to God is something we Process preachers must face and hold out the good news of a persuasive God beckoning us to the “home” of enjoyment and “flourishing.”

Mark 4: 26-34
As I mentioned in the commentary on Ezekiel, these two texts express what is often missed in our reading of the Gospels—Jesus’ sense of humor. Whereas the Ezekiel passage paints a regal picture of a stately cedar high on a mountain, Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a hardscrabble shrub. I would like to imagine it is with a wink and a smile that he throws in the “so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade” (vs. 32) to make explicit the reference to Ezekiel’s “Under it every kind of bird will live; in the shade of its branches will nest winged creatures of every kind” in the humorous comparison.

Like Ezekiel, Jesus’ parable holds out hope to a people who aren’t exiled, but under the thumb of the Romans, who have made them exiles in their own land. Unlike the stately cedars of Lebanon, the mustard shrub was a pervasive, common plant in Jesus’ context. It wouldn’t have been noticeable as a sign of God’s majesty, like the regal Cedar trees that had been used to make the Temple. Jesus chooses it not only because the mustard seed is small, but because the mustard shrub was pervasive. His comparison of it to the Kingdom of God is not only humorous, it is subversive. The Kingdom of God grows even under the watchful eye of the Romans. It, too, can be a sign of God’s faithfulness and presence. It too, can give shelter to God’s creatures.

Unlike the first parable in Ezekiel, when Babylonian and Assyrian eagles swoop in and tear off a sprig from the Cedar and then plant them in foreign places, and then God shows them all up by taking the cedar sprig and planting it where it belongs, the Divine Kingdom of God in Jesus’ parable is cast around like a seed and then awakens to find plants springing up wherever they have put down roots. In his parable, the seed-sower “doesn’t know how” this is accomplished. This is a Process image of God in a nutshell (or a mustard seed shell as it were). God lures the universe into being without any assurance of what will and what won’t respond to that creative-responsive love. Instead, “the earth produces of itself.” God works with the summation of what is to lure into being what the next best possible outcome might be. God works like a seed-sower, as Jesus clearly states. That seed might just righteously flourish pervasively like the shrubs that dot the landscape. God can only hope, and dream, and provide the light that nourishes them.

Rev. M. Nathan Mattox graduated with an MDiv from Claremont School of Theology in 2005, and has since served United Methodist congregations in Arkansas and Oklahoma, most recently University United Methodist Church in Tulsa since 2011. A fellow of the Fund for Theological Education, National Council of Churches Ecological Justice Young Adult fellowship, Collegeville Writer’s Workshop, and the Hendix Institute for Clergy Civic Engagement, he also started the University Church Network, a collaborative resource for churches on or adjacent to university campuses. Nathan has been blending a family since July of 2017 with his wife Myranda, and enjoys the company of four children, a dog and a cat.