United Church of Christ

Sermon Seeds June 17, 2018

Fourth Sunday after Pentecost Year B
Eleventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 6

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Lectionary citations:
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 with Psalm 20 or
Ezekiel 17:22-24 with Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 or 2 Corinthians 5:6-17
Mark 4:26-34

Worship resources for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost Year B, 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Proper 6 are at Worship Ways


Sermon Seeds

Focus Scripture:
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 and Mark 4:26-34

Weekly Theme:
God's Role for Me

Reflection:
by Kathryn Matthews

God's ways are mysterious, it's true, and two of the readings for this Sunday inspire a sense of wonder in narrative and parable illustrations of God's power to take small things and make them great. In the Old Testament story of David's anointing by Samuel, tension builds as God (mysteriously) instructs the prophet not to anoint the obvious choices, the ones the political consultants or pundits would choose today (the ones with the best numbers in the polls or the best faces for television), the ones who somehow appear most qualified or capable because they are older or stronger or simply more impressive.

"Surely the Lord's anointed is now before the Lord," Samuel thinks as he looks upon the fine elder son Eliab in verse 6. In some mysterious way, however, Samuel understands that God is concerned with the unseen, the heart, of the person, the very center and core of the one to be anointed. Bring in the little one, the one left out, the one not considered or included; bring in David, the shepherd, and make him a shepherd-king, anointed by God to lead the people and to live on throughout their history as the greatest of kings, the hope of the people, a vision for the future.

Mysterious and hidden things

Ironically, as John C. Holbert observes, our text actually dwells a bit on the very thing that we are warned against emphasizing--David's good looks, on the outside; Holbert notes that those good looks will cause problems for David later on (The Lectionary Commentary: Old Testament and Acts). The little boy is a shepherd, and it's not unreasonable for us to think that he was a good one, which suggests he'll be a good king as well for Israel, who used that image for its rulers, according to Ronald J. Allen and Clark M. Williamson: "Shepherds stayed with the sheep, led them to food and water, protected them from animals and thieves, tended their injuries, and disciplined them."

We also notice with Allen and Williamson that Samuel, on God's command, is visiting the home of "Jesse, grandchild of Ruth." Ruth is one of those biblical characters of great importance despite her own "smallness" in the larger biblical narrative: a short book of the Bible that still teaches large lessons about the great love of God, modeled by an impoverished foreigner (an immigrant), a pagan widow, toward her cranky, embittered mother-in-law.

Allen and Williamson make another important--perhaps key--point about God at work in this story: "that the anointing of David takes place while Saul is still on the throne suggests that God is often providentially active even before others are aware of need" (Preaching the Old Testament). That claim leads us to look on the story of our lives, and the life of our community, and see God's hand at work in ways just as surprising, just as unlikely, as it was in the story of David and the kings of Israel who followed him. Whose need might God be addressing, through us?

Seeing the character within

Indeed, our theme for this reflection, "God's Role for Me," suggests that we have reason to ask about our own calling as well, the way in which God has anointed us and others for work in this world that God loves. James Newsome reminds us that the people were always in need of leaders, and "God raised up generation after generation of divinely endowed persons, women and men who became the active embodiment of Yahweh's saving presence in Israel's life"; David was simply "another in the long line of God's specially gifted representatives" (Texts for Preaching Year B).

And so, we might ask two questions: who are the leaders who have been kept from exercising their God-given gifts for leadership because they didn't "look" the way we expect a leader to look? We are told that we should not look with our eyes at outward appearances, but to see, as God does, the heart of the person. However, Newsome writes: "The various ways in which men and women in our and every age are tempted to do just the opposite can be documented in our racism, our sexism, and our various forms of idolatry (love of money, clothing, glitzy automobiles, and the like)" (Texts for Preaching Year B). How can we see beyond "characteristics" to the character within a person?

What is our role today?

Secondly, while we are not David, not destined to be rulers, we still ask that important question: What is my role, in God's eyes? And how will I be able to do what God calls me to do? Don't we begin, as always, with trust in God, who holds us, who holds our lives, close to God's heart? Doesn't God look at us as a parent does, whose heart is full of tender love and surprising confidence (great dreams, even) for each child of grace, each child of promise? Don't we trust in God's spirit, which fills each one of us?

Eugene Peterson reminds us of that "spirit of the Lord" which we often hear "comes upon" people in the Bible (let's remember Jesus in Luke 4, quoting Isaiah before him), and I believe that if God gave that spirit to people throughout history, whenever it was needed, then God will fill us as well. Just as "God [was] working in David's life--God at work in David's muscles and mind," God will be at work in our muscles and minds when people need to hear good news, when the downtrodden need a word of hope, a hand to help and encourage them, when we and others need courage to speak out and step up on behalf of all of God's children, whenever and however we are called to do so.

What can we possibly do?

Because this "spirit," this "breath" or "wind" is "the invisible that moves the visible," Peterson wisely encourages us to open our eyes, our hearts, our minds, "to the working of the God whom we cannot see in the people and events we do see" (First and Second Samuel, Westminster Bible Companion). I was talking with a friend the other day about the 50th anniversary of Bobby Kennedy's assassination, and wondered aloud how the world might have been different if leaders like him and Dr. King had lived longer. Having lived through all those assassinations during my formative teenage years, I may rely too much on the notion of "great leaders" while missing the tremendous impact individuals (we "small" ones) can and do have on the world.

I thought of this reading, this theme, and wondered then, what is the role each one of us is to play in the healing of the world? No matter how "small" and powerless we may feel, no matter how unlikely or unqualified we may seem to others, we can still feel the power of God's spirit at work in us, and dream the dream that God has for this world. We look around and see the influence and effects of others (for good or ill), and we realize that we too can be a blessing in our individual lives, and in (and through) the life of our communities.

Hidden and mysterious truths

Who would have thought it, that day, as the older, taller, finer sons were brought forward as obvious choices but were then rejected? Who knew what potential lay in the youngest, the smallest of all? Who knew what power God would give to the power-less?

Seeds are small, too, and often buried or overlooked, but what power lies within them! Jesus offers parables in the Gospel reading from Mark that compare the reign of God with the mysterious, hidden way of a seed's growth, a process that fascinates us even today, in spite of our technological progress and the "wonders" it produces. It's like that, Jesus says, the kingdom of God is like that: hidden and mysterious, and a very real wonder all the same.

Using the power of story

These two seed stories illustrate the way Jesus taught, using parables (the familiar parable of the sower is the first in this series of three, although not included in today's lectionary passage; the "hidden power of the seed" parable is found only in Mark). For a teacher who sat on a hillside and taught crowds of learned and unlearned, rich and poor, downtrodden and powerful, using the power of story was an effective way to preach something as hard to describe, let alone define, as the kingdom of God.

Henry Brinton shares the novelist Reynolds Price's observation that "next to food and drink, our most basic human need is story." Jesus used parables, Brinton says, "to satisfy the spiritual hunger of the people who crowded around him, aching for insight and inspiration" (New Proclamation Year B 2009). Today, the power of story is evident, of course, in the response of many people to spiritual themes in film and novels. (I can almost hear a 21st-century Jesus saying, "The reign of God is like that last scene in the movie, Places in the Heart...") Perhaps we need to nurture our ability to tell great stories in person, and to listen to them with open hearts and minds for hidden but powerful truths.

More than just a good story

Parables, however, are more than just a good story, or a simple and useful illustration to make things clearer. If anything, they may have made things more obscure to the hard-hearted and the close-minded. Parables make us think, and think hard. It's been said that as soon as you think you understand what a parable means, you probably don't.

I once heard a preacher from a very different culture interpret a familiar parable from that very different perspective, and I remembered that parables continue to yield fresh challenges in every setting. However, we can still wrestle with these two little stories of Jesus and come out at the end, perhaps, having drawn a bit closer to that great mystery of the kingdom of God.

Using our right brains more?

In the age of science, we tend to think in logical and rational ways, perhaps using the left side of our brain more than the right. It seems that parables exercise our right brains more, and it wouldn't surprise us if the reign of God has much more to do with the right brain than we have understood. Dianne Bergant describes the way that parables "engage two very different realities and use one to throw light on the deeper meaning of the other," challenging our imaginations and our ability to see "connections" we might otherwise miss (Preaching the New Lectionary Year B).

I suspect, then, that parables are not very good bedtime stories, because they stimulate and unsettle our brains rather than soothe or settle them. Megan McKenna's image of parables as "a trapdoor into another world" is dramatic, as we may not find that other world a place we want to inhabit. (Are we ready for the cost of discipleship?) Still, McKenna writes, "Mark reminds his church that this isn't just a story: it is the truth of their own lives" (Reading Mark in the Shadow of the Cross).

How can we describe God?

Even so, this truth isn't easy to grasp intellectually. John Pilch cautions us against easy conclusions that pin things down or make things too simple and clear, because even the most powerful parable cannot adequately describe the reality of God. We can use the language of analogy, to say what God is "like," realizing all the while that nothing truly compares to God (The Cultural World of Jesus Year B).

Of course, while words--and stories--cannot describe God fully, Fred Craddock observes that the meaning of parables is more readily grasped by those who have a personal investment in Jesus and in the reign of God: "Parables, then, have a revealing/concealing quality, creating their own hearers and non-hearers" (Preaching through the Christian Year B).

Something quite small

Listen to Eugene Peterson's eloquent version of the mustard seed parable, using an image that's a bit more familiar to us: "'What kind of story can we use? It's like a pine nut. When it lands on the ground it is quite small as seeds go, yet once it is planted it grows into a huge pine tree with thick branches. Eagles nest in it.' With many stories like these, he presented his message to them, fitting the stories to their experience and maturity. He was never without a story when he spoke. When he was alone with his disciples, he went over everything, sorting out the tangles, untying the knots" (The Message).

The parables, like everything Jesus said, are about God, not, John Pilch writes, "a place (kingdom) but rather a person (God)" (The Cultural World of Jesus Year B). In fact, Fred Craddock calls Jesus himself "a parable of God….the presence of God" (Preaching through the Christian Year B). That might explain why these stories were and are so provocative, coming from One who mysteriously and powerfully conveyed "who" God is.

The underdog of seeds

The little mustard seed in today's Gospel reading might seem like a sweet little image, as if it's the little underdog, the good seed that survives against the odds and flourishes, triumphant over the "big seeds." (There are all sorts of places to take this, including the life of a congregation and the odds it faces.)

However, it seems that mustard is not only not a "sweet little" image, it's not even a "neutral image," according to Richard Swanson. Jesus' hearers would have been offended by the reference to a "ritual weed" that they would never be caught planting.

An invasive, chaotic weed

One thinks of kudzu in the southeastern United States, where years ago I was told that a small but invasive vine had grown into the thick green covering on trees and signs and even buildings. No one could control it or get rid of it, they told me, and I was reminded of that when I read Swanson's description of the mustard plant as "uncontrollable and disorderly," embodying "an offense against Torah observance in a chaotic world." In the midst of such disorder, Swanson continues, a stable and orderly community that loved God would illustrate that life is about more than power, and in its faithfulness to God's law, it would offer "real hope" for those coming out of chaos (Provoking the Gospel of Mark).

Also, the "shrub" (rather than tree) that grows from this seed may have reminded Jesus' listeners of the great cedars of Lebanon in the Hebrew Scriptures: Ezekiel 17:22-24 speaks so beautifully of God taking a "sprig" from a mighty cedar, "a tender one from the topmost of its young twigs," planting it high on a mountain so that it can produce fruit and become "a noble cedar" that, like the mustard plant in Jesus' parable, provides rest in its branches for "winged creatures of every kind."

Unexpected places and people

We don't hear Jesus' words with the same filters that pick up these meanings, and they add another layer of questions for us to ask about the reign of God which, it seems, may be found in unlikely and unexpected and "unworthy" people and places after all. Could the parable suggest, Barbara Reid wonders, that the "pesky" plant resembles "the tenacious faith" of the lowliest among us, those who "don't count" in the eyes of the world? (The Lectionary Commentary: The Gospels).

Just as a parable surprises and baffles us, so do God's ways, mysterious and deep and bringing something great out of something very, very small, and the wonder, and the power of it all. Swanson quotes Martin Luther: "If you truly understood a single grain of wheat, you would die of wonder" (Provoking the Gospel of Mark). From Ezekiel, and from Jesus, we learn that this wonder comes from God's work, not from our own efforts.

Littleness and mystery

Thus, a passage with two mysterious little stories about littleness and mystery suggest a number of possibilities for reflection. What if Jesus is reassuring his audience that God is in control, no matter how things appear, and no matter what we do or don't do? Charles Cousar recalls the interpretation of classical liberalism which would have read in this text "the inevitability of growth, the progressive development of the reign of God" that "reflected the optimistic mood of the times."

While we are perhaps not so optimistic in our present age, we can still trust in what is happening behind the scenes and beneath the surface, and the One who is making it happen. The question we might ask is, "What are we hoping for? What occupies our thoughts, and of what do we dare dream?"

Cousar cautions that God's "promise does not have to do with the immediate success of the church (membership, budgets, and so on) or with the prosperity of individual believers, but with the ultimate triumph of the reign of God….That reign is always shrouded in mystery, not sketched as a blueprint for the course of history but talked about in stories" (Texts for Preaching Year B).

The antidote to anxiety

Barbara Brown Taylor appropriately titles her sermon on this passage, "The Automatic Earth," as the Greek is best translated in its gift of "agricultural grace." She focuses on our anxiety amid the uncertainty here, living "between the planting and the harvest." Her sermon exposes some of the symptoms of our anxiety, including perfectionism, drivenness, moral outrage, restlessness, dread of being alone, and estrangement from God.

She calls anxiety "an occupational hazard of being a finite creature in a universe of infinite possibilities" (now there's an unnerving thought!) and suggests that we might repent of our conviction that we must work out our own salvation, on the one hand, and that, on the other hand, we are doomed to fail. "What is absent when anxiety is present," she writes, "is faith…that God will be God, that the automatic earth will yield its fruit, that life can be trusted." The antidote to anxiety, then, is courage, chosen "over and over again, every day that you live, if real living is what you are after….Then," she writes, "scatter your seeds" (Mixed Blessings). It's a beautiful interpretation of the text.

Looking around us

There's so much around us today, as there always has been, that may press us down in spirit. We see war and hatred, prejudice and injustice, hunger and violence, the everyday grind of so many lives, the apparent hopelessness and intractability of some problems and conditions. It's difficult indeed to know the ways of God, so often hidden from view or not detected (or noticed) by us.

Nevertheless, God is at work always and everywhere, bringing about God's will in unexpected and marvelous ways, like the amazing things that can grow from the tiniest of seeds. I am reminded of Henry David Thoreau's words, "I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders."

Small epiphanies and large hopes

There is, of course, much more to the story. We live not so much in optimism that thinks we can fix everything but out of the hope born of confidence that God is in charge of everything, and we are simply called to participate in what God is doing in the world. That is why we find flashes of brilliant hope and the promise of a greater day to come. They may only be flashes, but they are powerful epiphanies nevertheless.

Here and there, in longed-for reconciliation within families and among friends, in healing from illness and grief, in the decisions by a community that places its most vulnerable members at the top of its agenda rather than at the bottom (imagine that!), in sharing and celebration and the release of grudges, in the end of war and the seeking of peace, in the breaking of bread and the nourishment of our souls and our bodies, in giving voice to the voiceless and lifting up the hopes of those in despair, we see the mysterious ways of God.

It may begin, or seem to persist, in smallness, in small steps and small hopes, but the path, Jesus says, leads to greatness, a greatness we cannot see or even imagine today. God can see it, and God can imagine it, and most of all, God intends it. The tiny little seed grows into the greatest of all, the mustard tree, strong and great enough to offer shelter and goodness and the stuff of life for those who need to find a home.

Smallness and might

There are so many large and powerful entities that surround us as individuals and as churches. Even our own denomination, the United Church of Christ, seems so small when compared to other organizations that attract the attention (and time, and energy) of our members. And yet, and yet. What hope lies beneath statistics and reports, what potential lies in giving voice to the smallest but persistent of witnesses, the early truth-telling of our tradition, the evangelical courage, and the extravagant hospitality that express our commitment and describe our deepest hopes not only for our church but for the world beyond its walls!

As you look at your own life and the life of your church, when were there moments along the way where you could feel God's hand at work, mysteriously, making choices and offering possibilities that no one would have predicted or thought of on their own? When were you small and perhaps feeling insignificant, and yet, in the end, chosen?

Does your church feel small in the community and the world that surrounds you? Do you see the power and strength of your church in numbers, or in the spirit that thrives within it? Can spirit be counted or measured? How can you be the mustard seed that grows and provides shelter and refuge and sustenance to God's creation, and to the people of God?

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The Rev. Kathryn M. Matthews retired in 2016 after serving as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio.

You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments below the post on our Facebook page.

A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.

For further reflection:

Brennan Manning, Souvenirs of Solitude: Finding Rest in Abba's Embrace, 20th century
"Lord, when I feel that what I'm doing is insignificant and unimportant, help me to remember that everything I do is significant and important in your eyes, because you love me and you put me here, and no one else can do what I am doing in exactly the way I do it."

Marianne Williamson, 21st century
"Each of us has a unique part to play in the healing of the world."

Oprah Winfrey, 21st century
"I believe there's a calling for all of us. I know that every human being has value and purpose. The real work of our lives is to become aware. And awakened. To answer the call."

Stephen King, 21st century
"If God gives you something you can do, why in God's name wouldn't you do it?"

Ralph Waldo Emerson, 19th century
"A great man is always willing to be little."

Anne Frank, 20th century
"Everyone has inside of [them] a piece of good news. The good news is that you don't know how great you can be! How much you can love! What you can accomplish! And what your potential is!"

Anne Lamott, 21st century
"When God is going to do something wonderful, He or She always starts with a hardship; when God is going to do something amazing, He or She starts with an impossibility."

Emil Gudmundson, 20th century
"May we have faith in life to do wise planting that the generations to come may reap even more abundantly than we. May we be bold in bringing to fruition the golden dreams of human kinship and justice. This we ask that the fields of promise become the fields of reality."

G.K. Chesterton, 20th century
"If seeds in the black earth can turn into such beautiful roses, what might not the heart of man become in its long journey toward the stars?"


Lectionary texts

1 Samuel 15:34-16:13

Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the Lord was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel.

The Lord said to Samuel, "How long will you grieve over Saul? I have rejected him from being king over Israel. Fill your horn with oil and set out; I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons." Samuel said, "How can I go? If Saul hears of it, he will kill me." And the Lord said, "Take a heifer with you, and say, 'I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.' Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do; and you shall anoint for me the one whom I name to you." Samuel did what the Lord commanded, and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling, and said, "Do you come peaceably?" He said, "Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord; sanctify yourselves and come with me to the sacrifice." And he sanctified Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, "Surely the Lord's anointed is now before the Lord." But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart." Then Jesse called Abinadab, and made him pass before Samuel. He said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Then Jesse made Shammah pass by. And he said, "Neither has the Lord chosen this one." Jesse made seven of his sons pass before Samuel, and Samuel said to Jesse, "The Lord has not chosen any of these." Samuel said to Jesse, "Are all your sons here?" And he said, "There remains yet the youngest, but he is keeping the sheep." And Samuel said to Jesse, "Send and bring him; for we will not sit down until he comes here." He sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy, and had beautiful eyes, and was handsome. The Lord said, "Rise and anoint him; for this is the one." Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the presence of his brothers; and the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. Samuel then set out and went to Ramah.

Psalm 20

May God answer you
   in the day of trouble!
The name of the God of Jacob
   protect you!

May God send you help
   from the sanctuary,
and give you support
   from Zion.

May God remember
   all your offerings,
and regard with favor
   your burnt sacrifices.

May God grant you
   your heart's desire,
and fulfill all your plans.

May we shout for joy
   over your victory,
and in the name of our God
   set up our banners.
May God fulfill all your petitions.

Now I know that God will help
   God's anointed;
and will answer them
   from God's holy heaven
with mighty victories
   by God's strong hand.

Some take pride in chariots,
   and some in horses,
but our pride is in the name
   of the Sovereign our God.

They will collapse
   and fall,
but we shall rise
   and stand upright.
Give victory to the ruler,
   O God;
answer us
   when we call.

or

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.

Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15

It is good to give thanks
   to God,
to sing praises
   to your name,
O Most High;

to declare your steadfast love
   in the morning,
and your faithfulness
   by night,

to the music of the lute
   and the harp,
to the melody of the lyre.

For you, O God,
   have made me glad
by your work;

at the works of your hands
   I sing for joy.

The righteous flourish
   like the palm tree,
and grow like a cedar
   in Lebanon.

They are planted
   in the house of God;
they flourish in the courts
   of our God.

In old age
   they still produce fruit;
they are always green
   and full of sap,
showing that God is upright;

God is my rock,
   and has no unrighteousness.

2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17

So 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!

or

2 Corinthians 5:6-17

So 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!

Mark 4:26-34

He 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."

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.


Notes on the Lectionary and Liturgical Colors
by the Rev. Susan Blain, Curator for Worship and Liturgical Arts (mailto:blains@ucc.org)
Faith Formation Ministry, Local Church Ministries, United Church of Christ

(Essay based on an article by Laurence Hull Stookey: "Putting Liturgical Colors in their Place" in Calendar: Christ's Time for the Church ©1996 Abingdon Press.)  

The use of colors to differentiate liturgical seasons is a custom in use among some Western churches for hundreds of years. Although the custom of using colors is an ancient one, there has not always been agreement on what the colors should be. The Council of Trent in 1570, a Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, codified the colors for the Roman Catholic Church. When we talk about "traditional" colors today, we usually are referring to that codification. There were four basic colors in that codification: purple (penitence), red (Spirit or Martyrs memorials), green (long season after Pentecost) and white (festivals). Other colors, or no color at all, were acceptable variants in some regions.

The Reformation of course was a watershed for Christian ritual practice. Anglican and Lutheran churches often used some form of liturgical colors; however, the Reformed tradition of churches, where the UCC falls, for the most part did away with the custom of using colors, opting for much more simplicity. During the ecumenical liturgical movement of the mid-20th Century, Protestant churches began to look back at some of the ritual and colorful practices of the past with an eye toward reclaiming them to help give expression to feeling, tone, and imagery underlying the lectionary stories.  
    
Before the Reformation's iconoclasm, and Trent's code, practices varied from place to place, often depending on what was available. Indeed, in some places the custom was to organize vestments into practical categories of "best," "second best," and "everyday"--not depending on the color at all. For Christmas and Easter the "best" vestments were used, no matter the color! Other, less prominent feasts or Sundays got "second best" or "everyday."

So, here is a challenge to worship planners: Take it upon yourselves to develop and expand the "received" tradition!

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