SJF • Proper 6b • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Thus says the Lord God: I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of a cedar; I will set it out; I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain, 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.
When I was a child growing up in Baltimore there was a bit of a craze for growing African violets. My grandmother and all of her sisters — all of my great aunts — all had shelves of African violets; as did the elderly landlady who rented my family a portion of her sprawling Victorian home. Perhaps calling it a craze is a bit much — as these mostly elderly women could hardly be called crazy! But they were enthusiastic about these houseplants, and every home seemed to have at least a few African violets growing in a shady corner away from direct sunlight. This species had only been discovered in Tanganyika about 70 years before this, but they had become by this time extremely popular around the world.
There are of course a number of reasons for this: they are a lovely house plant, with sweet smelling flowers that will bloom all year long if you care for them properly, and they are very easy to propagate.
And it is that propagation that I was reminded of by our reading from Ezekiel this morning. For just as the Lord promises to create a whole new cedar tree by taking a sprig from an existing tree and planting it — so too the way you propagate African violets — and let me add that the craze was so intense that I was thought this in my third-grade class — is by taking one of those fuzzy leaves with a long stem, and suspending the leaf through a hole in a piece of waxed paper bound with a rubber band over the top of the jar with water in it, the tip of the stem immersed in the water. The stem will grow roots in a few weeks, and then can be planted, and soon you will have a whole new African violet plant — though not large enough for birds to nest in the shade of its branches!
The spiritual truth behind this imagery of the cedar sprig, and of the two parables Jesus tells in this morning’s gospel passage — the seed that grows night and day, and the mustard seed — is that life springs forth out of life. Whether it is vegetative propagation, by which a new plant grows from a part of an old plant, a sprig or cutting; or whether it is growth from seed: plants don’t just come out of nowhere; the earth does not in fact produce “of itself” — there has to be seeds, or a cutting, or a sprig. Plants don’t come out of nowhere any more than money grows on trees or you can get blood from a turnip. New life comes from old life, as some part or bit of the old is remarkably transformed into something wonderfully new.
Modern science has made many breakthroughs and discoveries. We understand a great deal more about the genetic code and about the nature of living things. But life itself still remains very much a mystery. We can study how things live, but we have yet to create life. We have learned a great deal about how life works, but we still do not have all the answers, and are not much better off than the man in the parable who sowed seeds and saw them sprout and grow as he slept by night and woke by day, without knowing how they did so. The one thing that the early farmers learned was that a seed or a cutting was necessary — and they quickly learned which plants could be grown from seed and which from cuttings. And one thing was certain to them: that new life comes from old life.
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There is a slight irony in talking about African violets in this context, because as I only learned as I was working on this sermon, the scientific name for African violets is Saintpaulia. Now, they are not named for Saint Paul the apostle, but after the last name of the man who discovered the plant. But Saint Paul the Apostle new something about this spiritual botany: that new life comes from the old life. The new creation that he talks about in the Second Letter to the Corinthians — the new life of the new person born anew into Christ — is not started from scratch,
but transformed from the old self. That really is the point of salvation, isn’t it? Not that one generation will simply be wiped out, as in the days of the Noah, and a newer and better one started. Even then God did not really start from scratch, making new people out of more clay from the riverside. No, God took Noah and his sons and their wives to repopulate the world by propagation.
Similarly, the way God chooses to deal with us is to take us and remake us, to transform us with a new life like his. God starts with us as we are, but then, like a seed or a cutting, plants us where we can grow and be transformed under his watchful care. And the place we grow is in him — joined with Christ and in Christ because we are in and part of his body, the church.
For if the stem of the violet leaf isn’t reaching the water in the jar; if the seed that is scattered does not fall on good soil — no new life will spring forth. It is not enough just to be a seed or a cutting — or a human being — in order to grow into the new life, the transformed life of the new creation, you have to be planted in the right place. Then you can grow. After you are watered, of course (sometimes right here in this font!). Then, planted in the church, watered, cared for, we can all grow and become the marvel that we can be.
You know, mustard seeds do not normally grow to become plants so large that birds can nest in them. Jesus is playing here with that passage from Ezekiel: for of course a cedar sprig can grow to become a cedar tree if you plant it. And cedar trees do grow big. But for the mustard seed to do that — to grow to become a shrub with branches that the birds can nest in — that requires more than just growth. For a mustard seed to grow into a tree instead of a shrub, it requires the miraculous transformation of its very being by the power of God.
This new creation is not simply a repeat of the old — the new life is not just the same old same old. It is amazing, it is astounding, this new creation. It is exciting!
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if instead of an African violet craze we could have a gospel craze? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if everyone were to devote their energy and time to propagating the word of God, planting that good seed out in the hearts of human beings, and watering it with care, and brining them up into that new creation the new creation? Wouldn’t that be wonderful! You know, God created Adam to be a gardener in the beginning. We can join with the New Adam, Jesus Christ, by helping to cultivate our families and our friends and our co-workers, nourishing them with the word of God’s love and care. You know, this is not a bad message for Father’s Day. This church can be a seed-bed for the flowering of the new creation, a nursery for the growth of new plants to bring in a rich harvest. You and I are not just here as plants in the garden, but as gardeners. May God equip us all to do that work of cultivation and propagation, that his church on earth may grow as a cedar, as a tree that shades the earth and its creatures, under the promise of care and love of our dear and loving God, through Jesus Christ our Lord.