(ed. note...I don't actually even mention the gospel here, just using Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Psalm 92)
“Weeds and Trees”
Well, it happened this week. I knew it was only a matter of time, with a 10 year old girl, and an 8 year old girl, and a 5 year old girl. We were headed somewhere in the car, and Freckleface, the eight year old, said to me, “How did you dress when you were a teenager, Mom?” When I told her, I pretty much dress the same way I do now, she said “I can’t imagine a teenager dressing that way!” I had to push the point, “Why not, Freckleface? Is there something wrong with the way I dress?” “You just dress so old” she told me.
Sigh. Well, actually, teenagers in the early 1980s did wear oxford shirts, and skinny jeans, and white running shoes. They also wore leggings, ripped sleeveless sweatshirts, and feathered hair, but I didn’t tell Freckleface that, mostly because I never adopted that style (well, ok, I did do the feathered hair). But it is official, I guess. I am old. My children think I dress old. I celebrated my 40th birthday a few years ago. I have friends who are my age who have children who have graduated from high school. My own three girls will all be in elementary school next year, and I don’t see any more babies coming to our house.
One of the benefits of working here at Medium City First United Methodist Church is that I am one of the younger people on the staff. And because I didn’t even start seminary until I was in my 30s, and I am still in the ordination process and have been for the past 10 years, it is easy to still think of myself as young – a young clergyperson, just starting out. And I am just starting out, and I do have a lot to learn, but by the time WisePastor was my age, he had been a pastor for 20 years already. So playing that young card only gets me so far.
What does it mean to get older? In our culture, we seem to like people to be just the right age – somewhere between 25 and 35, I think. If you are younger than that, you are too young, and beyond that, you are, well, out of touch, as my daughters made very clear to me the other day.
As WisePastor mentioned to you last week (or as you may have heard me say), for the month of June he and I have decided to focus on the Psalms in our preaching. We don’t usually read the Psalm for each week in our services, although I do try to use it in the call to worship. With four readings as a part of our revised common lectionary each Sunday, reading all of the texts during worship isn’t always easy, and frankly, I don’t usually focus on the Psalm when I preach, so leaving it out hasn’t seemed like such a bad thing.
WisePastor and I are not really alone in this practice. Peter S. Hawkins had this to say in a recent article in The Christian Century:
Most worshipers take the psalms for granted, treating them like background music that establishes a mood but has little grip on the imagination. Yes, the 23rd Psalm is brought in for comfort at funerals, and folks would miss the “green pastures” and “still waters” were they not invoked. But mostly psalms provide responsive readings no one really attends to, or offer a transition between more important scriptures.
I hope you all paid attention when Dalton (Jacob, WisePastor) led you in the reading of today’s Psalm. Because I think it has a lot to say to us, especially when we couple it with the other readings for this week.
I didn’t have (WisePastor) read all of our readings for today, or else there is no way we would have gotten done with worship before the sun went down/lunchtime/Sunday school hour was over. In addition to our reading from Ezekiel, there was also a reading from 1 Samuel in our Old Testament selections for this second Sunday after Pentecost. This passage tells the story of how David got to be king of Israel after Saul – maybe some of you are familiar with it. God sent the prophet Samuel to visit Jesse, a farmer who lives in Bethlehem. Jesse has a number of fine sons, and when Samuel shows up, Jesse obediently trots them out, one by one, for Samuel to see. Samuel is looking for some word from God that the one he sees is to be the next king of Israel. Samuel keeps expecting that the next one he sees is going to be the one God wants – as the elder sons are trotted out, one by one, for inspection. But one by one, God rejects them. Finally, no one is left, and Samuel asks Jesse, “Are all your sons here?” “Well,” Jesse admits, “there is one more, the youngest one, he is out with the sheep.” Jesse didn’t even consider David as a possibility – he didn’t fit that narrow age range he assumed God was looking for to make a good king – maybe in those days it wasn’t 25-35 but 15-25, since life spans were so much shorter.
Samuel asks to see David, and Jesse calls David in from his shepherding job. And that’s it. “Rise and anoint him” God tells Samuel – and David becomes King David, a youngster who makes some mistakes, to be sure, but the one who also leads Israel to a period of great triumph, and who becomes the ancestor of Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus.
What happens when we tell people they are “too old” to be of any use any more, or on the flip side “too young” to know what is really going on? What happens when we dismiss people because we think we can’t learn anything new from them, or that they are somehow just not really going to add anything to our community?
Today’s Psalm addresses that issue. The Psalm begins as a pretty standard song of praise. In fact, many of the Psalms start out this way, singing praises to God. Now, before you think singing praises to God is a kind of mundane thing to do, think about what this Psalm is saying here, and who is saying it. This Psalm was likely written during the time of the Exile, when the Israelites were forced to move to Babylon, and forcibly acculturated by the Babylonians – told to act and dress and worship the same gods the Babylonians did. They were displaced from their homeland. They were forced to live on the lowest rungs of society. And yet, they sing songs of praise to God.
And that is not all. They declare here, in this Psalm, that they will not only continue to live as God’s people, even in a strange land, they will flourish. And not only the young and virile among them, but even those whom everyone else has forgotten,. Listen to these words again:
The righteous flourish like a palm tree, and grow like a cedar in Lebanon.
They are planted in the house of the Lord; they flourish in the courts of our God.
In old age they still produce fruit, they are still green and full of sap, showing that the Lord is upright, he is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in him.
Think again, Babylonians, if you think you can just throw the old Israelites away. Think again if you think there is nothing new we have to offer.
Children strong enough and wise enough to become kings. Older people still vigorous enough to sing praises and to produce fruit for God’s kingdom. Again and again, God’s word shows us how God turns our own expectations upside down. Again and again, God takes what the outside world considers too young and weak or too old and used up, and makes it into something new.
The passage from Ezekiel furthers this understanding of what God can do. We don’t get to read much from the prophet Ezekiel, except for that passage we read a couple of times a year about the dry bones in the desert coming to life. Ezekiel was a prophet during the terrible, tumultuous time in Israelite history when Jerusalem was attacked and many residents of the city, including Ezekiel himself, were deported to Babylon. Our passage for today comes in the middle of prophecies of Israel’s destruction – and yet, it is a word of hope. “From the lofty top of a cedar” the prophet says, God will take a sprig, a new shoot, and plant it in the ground.
Notice that God isn’t going to start all over again with a new tree, although, of course, God could do that if God wanted to. God is starting from something that is already there, a cedar, a strong and straight tree. And the sprig that God takes from this tree is going to grow.
I have been attending a few of the neighborhood meetings that WisePastor has been holding in some of your homes the past month or so. I love to hear what you have to say about the church – how Medium City First, the congregation of this church, has been there for you through good times and bad. How many of you have formed strong friendships in this church. And how many of you have been here for a very long time, and have raised your children here.
But I also hear some pain when you speak – because not all of your children have chosen to stay here. And you see churches around here, mostly non-denominational churches, where there seem to be a lot more cars in the parking lot on a Sunday morning. And so you ask yourselves, “do we have to be different to be God’s church today, in these times? Do we have to dress differently, act differently, have different kinds of music here in order to grow, in order for our grown children to want to come back here to worship?
I think what our scriptures are telling us today is that we still have something to offer. I think we are hearing that this old church, standing here in the center of Medium City, still has some sap running through it. Should we keep doing things exactly the same way we have been for the past 50 years? Well, first of all, we aren’t. We have changed some of the songs we sing. We have changed our liturgy – the outline of our services. And we can continue to try new things – new sprigs will keep coming up out of this strong cedar that is our church.
But God has plans for us here at Medium City First United Methodist Church. God has plans for us to continue growing strong – and to grow in new and surprising ways, ways that people might not expect from a church that has been around for so long. We have both history and potential.
So yes, we need to change. But we do not need to become anything else than what are already becoming. We can stand firm on our traditions, proud of what we have accomplished, and still be nimble, vigorously responding to new challenges and meeting the ever-changing needs of God’s people and the people of this community. We do not have to concern ourselves too much about what are not, because to be honest we are quite busy enough working on what we are becoming. And what we are, what we are becoming, and what we will be is the church, this church which serves God and brings God’s love to all of the world, right here, right now, one person at a time, all in the name of Jesus Christ.
So go out from this place to show the world that you are sprigs growing from an old cedar. Show the world that Medium City First, this strong church right here in the center of the city, is here to stay. Together, let us be the church God is calling us to be. Together, let us stand tall and straight, with the pure sap of God’s love running through us. Thanks be to God.