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Sermon 2024 06 16 Pentecost 4 B


Saint Margaret’s

Anglican Church

Budapest, Hungary

Ezekiel 17:22-24; Psalm 92:1-4,11-14;

2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17; Mark 4:26-34

“All the trees of the field shall know that I am the LORD.

What is the worst poem in the English language…? A

difficult question, I suppose, there being so much bad

poetry to choose from, from the sentimental doggerel of

holiday greeting cards to the ditties and limericks

sometimes still found scribbled on the walls of washrooms

and loos across the world. Still, if you were to poll

professors of English-language literature, a strong candidate for worst poem of all time

might well be American poet Joyce Kilmer’s short verse, Trees, written in 1913 just before

the cataclysm of World War One. You have undoubtedly heard it. If you are American, you

may even have been forced to memorise it in school.

Here it is: I think that I shall never see; A poem lovely as a tree. A tree whose hungry mouth

is prest Against the earth's sweet flowing breast; A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts

her leafy arms to pray; A tree that may in Summer wear A nest of robins in her hair; Upon

whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.

And that is about it. Twelve lines and exactly eighty words. Now, if this is one of your

favourite poems, big apologies. I am only telling you what the experts at Harvard say. And

they disapprove of what they describe as Kilmer’s sentimentality, overt religiosity,

singsong metre, predictable imagery, and, well, sugary prettiness; all qualities, I hasten to

add, which others rather like. So, you be the judge. None of which takes away of course

from the subject matter itself, trees.

A subject which we find addressed in our first reading this morning, a brief passage from

the Prophet Ezekiel, in his own way as controversial a figure as would be Joyce Kilmer

millennia later. But if Kilmer was predictable and sentimental, Ezekiel was surely the

opposite. Biblical scholars describe him by turns as psychologically unstable and

sometimes delusional; and those are the scholars who really like his Book and have

devoted their life’s work to its study. No one is quite sure what to make of Ezekiel. He was

probably active sometime in the sixth century before Christ; a time, like Kilmer’s alas, of

transition and turmoil.

If the scholars agree on anything about poor Ezekiel, it is that he unrelentingly extolled the

majesty and sublimity of God as is even reflected in the image of a tree. The Lord God, in

Ezekiel image or vision, snips a small branch, a twig really, from the top of a mighty

mountain-top cedar; and from the twig the Lord plants and grows another yet nobler tree,

sure to become home to “winged creatures of every kind,

” as the text has it. The tall tree,

concludes the Lord in Ezekiel’s writing, will be brought low; and the low tree exalted. The

green tree will dry up; and the dead branch will once again become green and bear fruit.This image of the tree has been interpreted as an allegory of Ezekiel’s era, a time when

great kings and empires rose up and fell in quick succession; a time of change and

restoration and change yet again. But the image is also at a deeper level a parable of God’s

unwavering providence and provision; of the bounty of God’s mercy and majesty. And if

there is any icon for us to set and keep before our eyes in this age of climate change and

the social disruption it brings in its wake, it must surely be that of a tree; any tree, a vision

which captures at once both the fragility and the majesty of life itself; a divine gift for as

long as we choose to preserve it.

Now, Ezekiel’s vision has messianic elements to it as well, as the Prophet looked ahead

longingly, seeking an age to come of final and lasting restoration; a time of Israel’s

vindication among the nations of the world. Little could he have imagined or guessed that

his mighty cedar would be supplanted, not, say, by a yet mightier cedar, or oak perhaps,

but by a shrub; a mustard tree, if you will. Yet that is what our Lord gives us this morning in

our Reading from the Gospel of Mark: A mustard seed smaller still than Ezekiel’s twig and

the greatest of, well, shrubs. Perhaps not much to go on.

Yet, I am not sure the contrast between mustard seed and full-grown plant or shrub, as

described in our Lord’s Parable, is much different than the contrast between any seed and

the growth which ultimately springs from it. The seed of a cedar tree, for instance, is not

much bigger than, say, a small pebble, the kind that sometimes annoyingly gets stuck in

your shoe. Yet you cannot plant a pebble and come back twenty years later and find a hill,

much less a mountain.

What is remarkable rather, what is divine, what is sublime, is the growth of anything that

lives; is the mystery of life itself, the mystery of God’s purpose revealed in the life of each

of us and in each new generation. The seed, as our Lord tells us, sprouts and grows, “we

know not how. ” What we shall never quite comprehend is the mystery of God’s love affair

with life, with us, the mystery of God’s kingdom come.

According to legend, the great sixteenth-century Reformer, Martin Luther, was once asked

by a disciple what he would do if he knew for certain that he would die tomorrow. If I knew I

would die tomorrow, Luther responded with little hesitation, if I knew that, I would go out

this afternoon and plant a tree. A challenge for each of us. Plant a tree or simply find a

tree; watch it grow; hear the birds gathered in nests in its branches, and as ancient Ezekiel

counsels us of God, “know that I am the LORD.

” That is the point of cedar twig and mustard

seed alike. After all, sermons “are made by fools like me, but only God can make a tree.”

Or a shrub…

Amen.

The Revd Canon Dr Frank Hegedűs

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