A sermon preached by the reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
At St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 13 June 2021 [Proper 6]:
Ezekiel 17:22-24;2 Corinthians 5:6-17; Mark 4:26-34
June in New England: It is the time when the fruitfulness of our region truly bursts forth. After what is inevitably a long winter, with great beauty June unabashedly announces the reality of life’s amazing fertility. For instance, June marks the first cutting of the pasture lands’ lush green grass for hay. The sweet smell of the cut lingers over the generous fields. Trees that in winter revealed their bare secrets now cast their verdant umbrellas to the sky. Songbirds, hidden by the cover of these heavy tree leaves, now sing out with joyful abandon, only to be identified by the careful listener. And the flowers… The flowers in June repaint the lonely landscapes with an array of life’s dazzling color, from the rolling meadows to the neatly confined picket fences.
Yes, June in New England propels its people and its land to breathe deeply once more. No more hunkering down, bundled up and bracing against the shivering air. It is as if June in New England takes our collective chins in its tender hands and lifts our faces up into the warm sun, the clean air, the palpable taste and smell of new life. And it doesn’t matter if one week we light fires to break the unexpected chill, then only to gasp a few days later at the equally unexpected heat and mugginess. June in New England is worth it all.
So it is that our New England June and this morning’s gospel lesson from Mark overlap with the promised reality of life in bloom.
In Mark’s account Jesus continues his public ministry of proclaiming God’s life and rule through his teaching and through his acts of healing. The Twelve have been chosen, and even at this early stage of his career, the resistance is already surfacing in reaction to the transforming imminence of what the Lord is all about. As we heard last week, even his family (Mary and Jesus’ siblings) worry about Jesus’ well-being because of the hard and threatening things that are being said about him. Nonetheless, the Jesus movement continues with today’s reading occurring on the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
As is increasingly the case, significant crowds flock to Jesus, especially when he teaches. On the occasion depicted in today’s reading, the crowds gathered in such numbers that Jesus was forced to slip into a nearby fishing boat and push out a bit into the water in order to continue his teaching. I have read that there is a natural amphitheater formed by the small hills that nestle this part of the Galilean shoreline so that a person can actually speak in a normal tone of voice and be heard clearly by those filling the natural bowl. As usual, Jesus’ teaching followed his pattern of using parables with today’s offering using the imagery of seeding and germination, a theme and a process that June in New England also contains. And I want to link some of this parable’s imagery to our own lives, especially as it applies to this part of God’s garden we call St. Philip’s.
Life on God’s terms, the God-life in our midst is very much like seeding a garden. Specifically, the botany of a seed’s life is about the process of germination. Science has told us that the germination of a seed entails five stages. (You need not concern yourselves with taking notes on this, as these specifics will not be on a test!) But the point is that the process of a seed coming to life is just that: a process. Moreover, it is well-known that in order to sprout a seed requires water, light, oxygen, and nutrients (all encased in good soil) Germination as a life-giving process is a wonderful mystery that reflects what life with God is like. This is to say that we know about germination; we simply don’t control it. (The bare spots in my re-seeded lawn attest to this!). As Jesus says, “the kingdom of God is as if [someone] should scatter seed upon the ground, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should sprout and grow, [but no one] knows how [this all happens]. The earth produces of itself, first the blade, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear. But when the grain is ripe, at once the [farmer] puts in the sickle, because the harvest has come.” [4:26-29]
There is a process to the God-life, and that process reflects the abundant, mysterious nature of God our Creator. Yet, part of the God-life’s process also involves us. While we don’t control the growing process, we are, nonetheless, called upon to sow the seed and tend the garden with vision, steadfastness, and faith’s hope. It is a slow process – at times painfully slow. To compound the demands of seeding’s faith and sense of timing, not all seed works out. Not all seed germinates – for whatever reason.
So, I want to ask how our parish seeding is going? It’s June. What’s blooming in our midst? What is promising in our garden as a parish church? Now that it seems that the worst of the pandemic is behind us, what do you think? How’s it going? What lies ahead? What’s your part?
First, let’s be clear that there is a good deal of our garden (that is, of our life and ministry as a parish church) that has not germinated; and while this fact must be taken seriously, it is not a cause for blame. Blame is not productive or faithful, but we do need to learn from our “bare spots” and adjust what we do. The fact is that it has been convenient for us as members of St. Philip’s to overlook what has been a matter of not only ungerminated seeding but also of our timidity in seeding at all.
As I say this is a subject that we easily choose to avoid, even on a Vestry level; but I have asked the Vestry to bite the bullet and to address how we might foster the seeding of the God-life at St. Philip’s. We will read a book that our Presiding Bishop’s Canon for Evangelism, Reconciliation, and Creation has written precisely about this time in the church’s life and what we might do about seeding new life in our midst. You will be hearing more about this book and what it surfaces among your leadership, with an eye to dedicating an extended coffee hour for all of us to discuss the germination process at St. Philip’s. But for now, I want to acknowledge the seeding that has occurred at St. Philip’s and point to the reality of God’s new life emerging in us and through us and with us.
Of course, offering public acknowledgments always runs the risk of missing important contributors. So, I ask in advance for your forgiveness for what I admit is (of necessity) an abbreviated listing; but my point is that it is June at St. Philip’s. The God-life is being seeded among us, and there is a good deal of fruitfulness stemming from our garden. Here are a few examples.
The parish’s historic but largely uncultivated concern over food insecurity in Easthampton and its surroundings has taken firm root and blossomed in these last years, to the extent that St. Philip’s is a reliable resource that makes a difference in providing food and care to those in need in our community.
The amazing fact is that St. Philip’s is involved in three outreach ministries that focus on community food insecurity. And beyond this important fact, our involvement in these projects is not a matter of our doing our own thing but rather of this parish’s role in creating and fostering partnerships with other churches and agencies who have the same inclination as we do. St. Philip’s has sown good seed in this regard beyond our own little garden.
The three areas of our parish’s outreach for food insecurity are the “Take and Eat” program, the financial, food and clothing support we provide for the work of the Easthampton Community Center, and the Pioneer Valley Power Pack program. I won’t explain the details of each of these outreach ministries. You can check them out on our newly designed and organized website; but for now we need to recognize the seeds that our community has helped to sow and how our folks have helped those seeds to blossom.
As for the “Take and Eat” program, Jonathan Cartledge and Elizabeth McAnulty have tended this part of the garden to feed about 100 people their Saturday and Sunday meals, times when “Meals on Wheels” does not operate. Elizabeth is the chef, planning the meals, procuring the food, as well as preparing the food with taste and care. Jonathan has been our point man from the beginning, seeing to it that this ecumenical team of three church communities works hard and very well. Seeds sown. Blossoms shared.
For years, as part of our liturgical offertory, St. Philip’s has collected food stuffs and clothing (along with some financial gifts) in neighborly support of the Easthampton Community Center. In the last years, spearheaded by Mary and Joe Bianca, St. Philip’s support has been regularized and personalized: Regularized to be an every Sunday collection in which the children in the parish often help deliver our gifts face-to-face. In good times and hard times, cold or heat, Easthampton Community Center knows that St. Philip’s is a steadfast partner in caring for our neighbors. Seeds sown. Blossoms shared.
The Pioneer Valley Power Pack program is the brainchild of Shelley March, a concerned and committed member of the Easthampton community. Similar to the “Take and Eat” program which helps fill the weekend food gap for the “Meals on Wheels” recipients, Shelley saw that a sizeable number of students who were eligible to receive a school meal at the Maple Street Elementary School were in the same need. These kids were going without on the weekends, and Shelley had a plan.
The Pioneer Valley Power Pack filled a backpack with nutritious and appealing food stuffs, and these packs were handed out by school officials Friday at the end of the school day. In conjunction with Shelley are her cohort, St. Philip’s provides space to store the PVPP’s materials in the upstairs of our parish hall. We also have a steady corps of members who carefully pack the food stuffs for distribution. Clare Boyd is our parish liaison with PVPP, and the program leadership is already planning programs for the coming year. Initially reaching out for 25-50 students, the Pioneer Valley Power Pack program now responds to several hundred kids. Seeds sown. Blossoms shared.
I could go on, but time is limited. We also have worship seeds that we plant, and that harvest is great, too. Thanks in this regard to our Minister of Music, Karen Banta for sowing so many creative and uplifting seeds in our worship garden. New seeds in an old garden are also being sown by Linda Moore, as St. Philip’s is planting a crop that we sorely need: namely, the spiritual formation of adults in our parish. Administratively, Beau Bowler has worked faithfully and with great effect during this pandemic to help create those office supports that keep our garden’s product upright and strong. And last but not least, you can’t give away what you don’t have. In this regard, we need to take care of one another in order to be in a position to reach out to others in Christ’s Name. So, with the leadership of Bonnie Katusich and newcomer Becky Taylor, we have reconvened what is called the “Pastoral Ministry Group”. This group of members helps me keep track of this flock, inviting and organizing our group to stay in touch and to celebrate our common life and ministry with calls, visitations, shared meals and events. Added to our pastoral life together is the marking of our 150th anniversary as a church in Easthampton. Junior Warden Steve Bailey is leading us in the various ways we can learn about our history, remember our parts in it, and to look forward to what is to come: all in the context of taking care of what keeps us connected and alive. Seeds sown. Blossoms shared.
The kingdom of God, Jesus tells us and fully demonstrates, is in our midst as if seeds have been sown with some germinating and sprouting. How it all happens is a mystery beyond our planning or control. Some seeds never produce, while some seeds are never sown. But in God’s economy, God’s household, God’s garden, life continues – no matter what. With faith and in hope, I ask all who claim St. Philip’s as their church home that we do our parts.
It’s June in New England. It’s June at St. Philip’s. It’s a time for seeding and for blooming. Thanks be to God. Amen.