The Third Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 6 - 17 June 2012

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14
II Corinthians 5:6-17
St. Mark 4:26-34

Background:  Agriculture in Palestine
The readings for today give us a glimpse into the agricultural life at the time of Jesus and before.  Indeed, if we look at the story of Cain and Abel, we can get a glimpse of the agricultural politics that forms the basis for much of the religious and legal life of Israel.  Cain was a farmer, and Abel was a sheepherder.  In the story God rejects the offering of Cain (wheat) and accepts the offering of Abel (a lamb).  The enmity of the farmer and the rancher, that forms a great deal of Western American history, is really quite ancient, and reflects the insinuation of the wandering Hebrews into the life of the more urban Canaanites.  The lowlands of Canaan were ideal for farming, and the highlands, where Israel was most prevalent, was better suited to sheep and goats.  In time, as the Israelites move into cities and small farming villages, other commodities, such as olives, vegetables, fruit, and grapes take on a greater role in the daily and ritual life of Israel.  The customs of sacrifice, their required offerings of both animals and products of the field, are informed by the settling of the people in Palestine. 

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Thus says the Lord GOD:
I myself will take a sprig
from the lofty top of a cedar;
I will set it out.
I will break off a tender one
from the topmost of its young twigs;
I myself will plant it
on a high and lofty mountain.
On the mountain height of Israel
I will plant it,
in order that it may produce boughs and bear fruit,
and become a noble cedar.
Under it every kind of bird will live;
in the shade of its branches will nest
winged creatures of every kind.
All the trees of the field shall know
that I am the LORD.
I bring low the high tree,
I make high the low tree;
I dry up the green tree
and make the dry tree flourish.
I the LORD have spoken;
I will accomplish it.

Cedar of Lebanon
To understand Ezekiel’s oracle to Israel here, we need to go back and look at the preceding section (Ezekiel 17:1-21).  It is here that he sets up the historical situation that serves as a contrast to his poem of promise to Israel.  In the initial verses he wrestles with the problem of whether the people of Israel can exist in a strange land (Babylon) or be ruled by a faithless ruler (a Davidid ruler appointed by the Babylonian king).  In the verses of the reading, Ezekiel envisions a similar transplanting, and this time the actor is YHWH who picks a tender planting of cedar (a faithful and true descendent of David), transplanting in on a high mountain (Zion).  This, however, is a new planting or kingdom, and it realizes all the hopes and new thought that results from the interaction of Israel and Babylon during the period of bondage and exile.  Productivity and fecundity are restored to Israel.  Even more, however, Israel welcomes “every kind of bird” and “winged creatures of every kind”, a reflection of the growing universalism that is to be seen also in Jeremiah and Isaiah, as well as Ezekiel.  The true son of David will rule a wiser and more faithful Israel.  It is not only Ezekiel’s vision, but it is the Lord’s promise – “I will accomplish it.”

Breaking open Ezekiel:
  1. How effective are Ezekiel’s images for you?
  2. Why is the image of David so powerful?
  3. How do Christians look at this text?

Psalm 92:1-4,11-14 Bonum est confiteri

It is a good thing to give thanks to the LORD, *
and to sing praises to your Name, O Most High;

To tell of your loving-kindness early in the morning *
and of your faithfulness in the night season;

On the psaltery, and on the lyre, *
and to the melody of the harp.

For you have made me glad by your acts, O LORD; *
and I shout for joy because of the works of your hands.

The righteous shall flourish like a palm tree, *
and shall spread abroad like a cedar of Lebanon.

Those who are planted in the house of the LORD *
shall flourish in the courts of our God;

They shall still bear fruit in old age; *
they shall be green and succulent;

That they may show how upright the LORD is, *
my Rock, in whom there is no fault.

This psalm has both similar images and almost a similar purpose to that of the passages from Ezekiel (First Reading).  The opening verses are comments on the community’s responsibility to both pray and praise, and offer up the reasons for such worship (“I shout for joy because of the works of your hands”).  The final verses describe the people who are the beneficiaries of God’s good graces, and use similar images of planting and growth.  The righteous are compared to palm trees and cedars.  In a way, the psalm is a vision that results from Ezekiel’s oracle.

Breaking open Psalm 92
  1. Why do you feel the need to sing God’s praises?
  2. What acts of God have made you glad?
  3. What kind of fruit do you bear in your life?

2 Corinthians 5:6-17
We are always confident; even though we know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord-- for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we do have confidence, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For all of us must appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil.

Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others; but we ourselves are well known to God, and I hope that we are also well known to your consciences. We are not commending ourselves to you again, but giving you an opportunity to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast in outward appearance and not in the heart. For if we are beside ourselves, it is for God; if we are in our right mind, it is for you. For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!
Jean Cocteau
During Ordinary Time we are treated to a continuing reading for both the Second Lesson (we begin with IInd Corinthians) and the Gospel (Mark).  Here St. Paul is continuing an argument about which reality we ought to be guided by.  Seeing our reliance on our earthly bodies as a distraction from our vision of God, Paul urges us to rather have confidence in our relationship with God and with the heavenly.  It is a question of focus.  Do we rely on outward shows of spirituality, or do we center ourselves on Christ?  The perceptions of the Christian are so altered as to not only view Christ from an earthly (human) point of view; no one is viewed from that point of view.  Paul sees creation as a totally new thing, recreated and new. 

Breaking open II Corinthians
  1. How do you view the world, and those around you as a human being?
  2. Does your faith change that point of view at all?
  3. Has your image of Christ changed?

Mark 4:26-34
Jesus 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."

He also said, "With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable will we use for it? 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."

With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; he did not speak to them except in parables, but he explained everything in private to his disciples.

In a series of parable, Jesus teaches the disciples and then the general public about the core of his revelation – the Kingdom of God.  In this reading we have two parables, both involving seed and planting.  The first is a recasting of the parable of the sower, this time focusing on the seed and how it sprouts.  It is a mystery (“he does not know how.”) by it is evident to any who would observe.  The Kingdom of God is not about the sower, but rather about the result of the sower’s sowing.  There are two important images, “ripeness” and “the harvest”.  These images encapsulate Jesus’ expectations about the kingdom.  It will be a time fulfilled in its ripeness, and it will result in a great intake of people, as in the harvest.

The second parable is about contrasts.  What are contrasted are the mustard seed and the luxuriant bush that results.  From seemingly meager beginnings (the seed) come abundant results.  It is Jesus’ answer to Ezekiel’s expectations about the eschaton (the End Time).  Like Ezekiel, Jesus expects an abundant harvest of the righteous, the new Israel.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. How “ripe” are you in your faith?
  2. What have you sown that brought forth a great good for someone else?
  3. What did they do as a response?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Keep, O Lord, your household the Church in your steadfast faith and love, that through your grace we may proclaim your truth with boldness, and minister your justice with compassion; for the sake of our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.


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