Sunday, 6 October 2013

Planting in our hearts the seeds of
reverence for all that God gives us

‘World’s Smallest Seed,’ 40”x30” oil/canvas, by James B. Janknegt

Patrick Comerford

Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin,

Sunday 6 October 2013,

11 a.m.: Cathedral Eucharist, Harvest Thanksgiving

Habakkuk 1: 1-4, 2: 1-4; Psalm 37: 1-9; II Timothy 1: 1-14; Luke 17: 5-10.

May I speak to you in the name + of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

I think it’s safe to say, I do not have green fingers.

Until recently, I had no interest in the garden. I like sitting in the garden, reading in the sunshine, listening to the sound of the small fountain, enjoying the shade of the trees, and in summertime, eating out in the open.

So, it’s not that I don’t enjoy the garden; it’s just that I have always felt I would be no good at it.

It’s an attitude that may have been nurtured and cultured from heavy hay-fever in early childhood, and hay-fever that comes back to haunt me persistently at the beginning of summer.

We once bought a willow tree, put it in the back of the car, and drove back across the city, with me holding on to it, in a small Mini in the early 1980s. By the time we got home, I was covered in rashes, and my eyes, ears and nose were in a deep state of irritation.

So, just for that reason alone, you could not call me a “tree hugger.” But don’t get me wrong … I really do like trees.

I spent some time this summer in the vast, expansive olive groves that stretch for miles and miles up along the mountainsides in Crete, and last year in a vineyard in Italy where the olive groves protect the vines.

But I can’t be trusted with trees. I was given a present of a miniature orange tree … and it died within weeks. I have been given presents of not one, but two olive trees. One, sadly, died. The other is still growing, but it’s a tiny little thing.

Perhaps if I had just a little faith in my ability to help trees to grow, they would survive and mature.

Olive groves in Crete … why did Jesus talk about mustard plants and mulberry trees and not about olive trees? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2013)

You may wonder this morning why Jesus had decided to talk about a mustard seed and a mulberry tree, rather than, say, an olive tree. After all, as he was talking, he must have been surrounded by grove after grove of olive trees.

But, I can imagine, Jesus is watching to see if those who are listening have switched off their humour mode, had withdrawn their sense of humour. He is talking here with a great sense of humour. He is using hyperbole to underline his point.

We all know a tiny grain of mustard is incapable of growing to a big tree. So what Is Jesus talking about here? Because, he not only caught the disciples off-guard with his hyperbole and sense of humour … he even wrong-footed some of the Reformers and many Bible translators.

So, what sort of trees are referred to in this morning’s reading?

Why did Jesus refer to a mustard seed and a mulberry or sycamine tree, and not, say, an oak tree or an olive tree?

Jesus first uses the example of a tiny, miniscule kernel or seed (κόκκος, kokkos), from which the small mustard plant (σίναπι, sinapi) grows. But mustard is an herb, not a tree. Not much of a miracle, you might say, tiny seed, tiny plant.

But he then mixes his metaphors and refers to another plant. Martin Luther, in his translation of the Bible, turned the tree in verse 6 into a mulberry tree. The mulberry tree – both the black mulberry and the white mulberry – is from the same family as the fig tree.

As small children, perhaps, some of us sang or played to the nursery rhyme or song, Here we go round the mulberry bush. Another version is Here we go gathering nuts in May. The same tune is used for the American rhyme Pop goes the weasel and for the Epiphany carol, I saw three ships.

TS Eliot uses the nursery rhyme in his poem The Hollow Men, replacing the mulberry bush with a prickly pear and “on a cold and frosty morning” with “at five o’clock in the morning.”

Of course, mulberries do not grow on bushes, and they do not grow nuts that are gathered in May. Nor is the mulberry a very tall tree – it grows from tiny seeds but only reaches the height of an adult person.

It’s not a very big tree at all; it’s more like a bush than a tree – and easy to uproot too.

However, the tree Jesus names (Greek συκάμινος, sikámeenos) is the sycamine tree, which has the shape and leaves of a mulberry tree but fruit that tastes like the fig, or the sycamore fig (συκόμορος, Ficus Sycomorus).

We shall come across this tree again in a few weeks’ time in the Gospel reading on 3 November (the Fourth Sunday before Advent). There it is a big tree and little Zacchaeus the tax collector in Jericho climbs it in order to see Jesus (see Luke 19: 4).

The sycamine tree is not naturally pollinated. The pollination process is initiated only when a wasp sticks its stinger right into the heart of the fruit. In other words, the tree and its fruit have to be stung in order to reproduce. There is a direct connection between suffering and growth, but also a lesson that everything in creation, including the wasp, has its place in the intricate balance of nature.

Whether it is a small seed like the mustard seed, a small, seemingly useless and annoying creature like the wasp, or a small and despised figure of fun like Zacchaeus, each has value in God’s eyes, each has a role in the great harvest of gathering in for God’s Kingdom.

Put more simply, it is quality and not quantity that matters.

Pay attention to the quality of our faith, our commitment, our hope, our love, and you will be surprised by the results.

Perhaps I should be paying more attention to that small olive tree on my patio.

Faith in God is powerful enough to face all our fears and all impossibilities. Even if our germ of faith is tiny, if it is genuine there can be real growth beyond what we can see in ourselves, beyond what others can see in us.

A small example of this is the link between this Cathedral and the Mendicity Institution, just a short distance west of the cathedral.

On Sunday afternoons, a small outreach group from this cathedral is involved in the kitchen there. Those who are fed come with needs created by many causes made worse by the present economic climate: homeless immigrants who have lost their jobs since the Celtic Tiger got pneumonia and died; young couples, embarrassed they can no longer adequately feed their tiny children; victims of drug abuse, alcoholism, domestic violence, discrimination or vindictive landlords.

Nobody asks why anyone comes there for soup, sandwiches and succour. Nobody embarrasses them further or shames them. But the programme has moved on from feeding, to (for example) trying to help some people return home, others recover some personal dignity through the recognition of their humanity and their needs that restores their hope.

Since last year, a Polish charity, Barka, has been working from the premises on Island Street, helping homeless and destitute East European migrant workers.

The present economic climate has created a new phenomenon of the working poor. It could be, it may be, you or me, for many of us are only one pay cheque away from poverty. If the banks continue with their present strategies, urged on by government and the Central Bank, more mortgages will be called in, and more families will be made homeless, without a safety net to catch them.

Those of us who think we are still many steps away from that abyss still need to pray fervently in the words of our Harvest Post-Communion Prayer this morning that we may have planted in our hearts the seeds of reverence for all that God gives us so that we may become wise stewards of the good things we enjoy.

The Mendicity Institution was founded almost 200 years ago, in 1818, by people from this cathedral congregation who knew they were blessed yet only stewards of what they had. They worked with a tiny, little seed of faith, hope and love and over the past two centuries it has grown into a mighty tree. Instead of working itself out of existence through society becoming more enlightened and more prosperous, its work has never been so important, never so needed, than it is today.

The bidding prayer for peace this morning tells us that the harvest of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (see Galatians 5: 2, 24).

None of the work in the Menidicity Institution is done for profit, none of this is in pursuit of the sort of growth that we pursued when the Celtic Tiger stalked and haunted this land. The only growth that is sought is growth in Faith, growth in Hope, growth in Love.

And the greatest of these is Love. And it is in the growth that we find the seeds of hope for the growth of the Kingdom of God.

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise, honour and glory of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor, Trinity College Dublin. This sermon was preached at the Harvest Festival Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, on Sunday 6 October 2013.

Luke 17: 5-10

5 Καὶ εἶπαν οἱ ἀπόστολοι τῷ κυρίῳ, Πρόσθες ἡμῖν πίστιν. 6 εἶπεν δὲ ὁ κύριος, Εἰ ἔχετε πίστιν ὡς κόκκον σινάπεως, ἐλέγετε ἂν τῇ συκαμίνῳ [ταύτῃ], Ἐκριζώθητι καὶ φυτεύθητι ἐν τῇ θαλάσσῃ: καὶ ὑπήκουσεν ἂν ὑμῖν.

7 Τίς δὲ ἐξ ὑμῶν δοῦλον ἔχων ἀροτριῶντα ἢ ποιμαίνοντα, ὃς εἰσελθόντι ἐκ τοῦ ἀγροῦ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Εὐθέως παρελθὼν ἀνάπεσε, 8 ἀλλ' οὐχὶ ἐρεῖ αὐτῷ, Ἑτοίμασον τί δειπνήσω, καὶ περιζωσάμενος διακόνει μοι ἕως φάγω καὶ πίω, καὶ μετὰ ταῦτα φάγεσαι καὶ πίεσαι σύ; 9 μὴ ἔχει χάριν τῷ δούλῳ ὅτι ἐποίησεν τὰ διαταχθέντα; 10 οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς, ὅταν ποιήσητε πάντα τὰ διαταχθέντα ὑμῖν, λέγετε ὅτι Δοῦλοι ἀχρεῖοί ἐσμεν, ὃ ὠφείλομεν ποιῆσαι πεποιήκαμεν.

5 The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’ 6 The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.

7 ‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? 8 Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? 9 Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”.’

A Collect for Harvest Thanksgiving:

Eternal God,
you crown the year with your goodness
and give us the fruits of the earth in their season:
grant that we may use them to your glory,
for the relief of those in need
and for our own well-being;
through Jesus Christ our
Lord. Amen.

Post-Communion Prayer:

Lord of the harvest,
with joy we have offered our thanksgiving for your love shown in creation
and have shared in the bread and the wine of the kingdom:
By your grace plant within us such reverence
for all that you give us
that will make us wise stewards of the good things we enjoy;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

No comments: