Matthew 13.31-33, 44-52
+ Occasionally, we need to step outside our usual Sunday morning routines. Occasionally, we need to step back and take a good look around. I do this for you on occasion when I say, “Let’s take a trip back in time.” Because we are today. We’re going back in time. We’re gonna take the time machine back.
Are your ready? We’re not going back to a time I really want to visit. We’re not going back to quiet, staid 1950s.
No, we’re going back to a much more tumultuous time. We’re going back 40 years. We’re going back to 1974. July 29, 1974. In 1974, July 29 was a Monday.
The top news in the country on Monday, July 29, was that the House Judiciary Committee voted a second time in its recommends to impeach President Richard Nixon. A third and final vote on July 30, would actually cement the impeachment process for President Nixon in the Watergate cover-up. On August 9, of course, he would resign in disgrace.
On July 29, 1974 the Great Mama Cass Elliott of the Mamas and Papas would die of a heart attack in her hotel room in London.
The number one song in the country on that day was “Annie’s Song” John Denver.
The top TV shows at this time were “All in the Family” and “Hawaii 5-0.”
Here, at St. Stephen’s, on the day before, Sunday, July 28, some of you here this morning were probably here that morning. Fr. Sandy Walsch was the priest and the Episcopal Church was in the midst of experimenting with new liturgy. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer was slowly being phased out. On that Sunday morning, I believe St. Stephen’ was using the so-called Zebra Book, which had been introduced the previous year. Most people who came to services that morning probably had no idea that on the next day, the Episcopal Church would be shaken to its very core.
On Monday, July 29, 1974 in the Church of the Advocate in Philadelphia, 11 women, Merrill Bittner, Alla Bozarth-Campbell, Alison Cheek, Emily Hewitt, Carter Heyward, Suzanne Hiatt, Marie Moorefield, Jeannette Piccard (from Minnesota), Betty Bone Schiess, Katrina Swanson and Nancy Wittig—were ordained priests in the Episcopal Church, the first women to be ordained as such. They were so-called “Philadelphia 11.”
Now why, you might ask, would this be so controversial? Well, although it was not necessarily against church laws at that time, there were also no laws allowing such a thing. As a result their ordination was termed “irregular.” Of course, in 1976, at the General Convention of the Episcopal Church in Minneapolis, the same one at which the current Prayer Book was approved, women were approved for ordination to the priesthood. But because these 11 were irregularly ordained, they were left out in the cold, so to speak.
Now depending on where you stood on that hot Monday in 1974, this ordination was either a blessing or a curse upon the Episcopal Church. And while many rejoiced, some lamenting and raged. The Church splintered. Many people left in droves. And for those who lived through the debate, they heard those who people who opposed this move speak from their anger, and most importantly from their fear.
An example: the following summer, in June, 1975, Bishop Iveson Noland, the bishop of Louisiana, was killed along with about 100 people in a plane crash at New York’s JFK airport during a thunderstorm. He was headed to special meeting of bishops to discuss the issue of women’s ordination. After the crash, one bishop was heard to say that they blamed Bishop Noland’s death directly on those Philadelphia 11, because if they had not done what they did, Bishop Nolan would not have been on that flight that day.
While some people who opposed the ordination of women saw the “irregular” ordination of these 11 women as (using imagery from last week’s Gospel) some kind of bad seed sown in the field, the real bad seed sown came actually from the fear and anger of those how opposed this ordination, in my opinion. I think it’s appropriate on this Sunday before the 40th anniversary of the ordination the first women in the Episcopal Church, we get the Gospel reading he do.
In our Gospel, we heard the Kingdom being compared to several things: mustard, yeast, treasure, pearls and fish. The gist of these parables is that something small can make a difference. Something small can actually be worth much.
As I pondered this these last few days, I realized that Jesus really is right on this. When we do a it of good—like planting a bitty mustard seed—a lot of good can com forth. But, as I preached last week, we also realize that a little bit of bad can also do much bad. For us, we a little bit of bad comes in many forms.
Fear is a great example. A little bit of fear can grow into something out of control. Fear of the future. Fear of change. These can be crippling. We sow the small seeds of fear that grow into larger ugly plants of fear when we are afraid that everything we once knew and found so comfortable is now being viewed as out-of-date or somewhat archaic.
One of the greatest small seeds of fear we all experience in parish ministry is when people say things like:
“We can’t do that. We have never done that before.”
Saying things like that and being stuck in that mentality is certainly not joy in finding a treasure, as we hear in today’s Gospel. As scribes of the Kingdom, we bring what is new and what is old out of the treasury. Yes, we need to have a healthy respect for our history and our past. We can never forget where we have come from and what has been done in the past. We can bring forth the treasures of our past. But when we let fear reign, when we let it run roughshod through our lives, we see a situation happen very much like it happened forty years ago.
It took the Church years to recover not from the new thing—the ordination of women--but from the old thing—the fear and anger that followed those ordinations. Here we are, forty years down the road, and the ordination women is not even a remote issue for most of anymore. And if it is an issue for anyone, I’m sorry to say: the Church has been made richer and better for the presence of women priests among us.
The Holy Spirit moved. And how do we know the Holy Spirit moves? We know the work of the Holy Spirit, by the Spirit’s fruits. And those fruits are bountiful in our Church because of women priests.
But when we resist the Spirit, when we resist the movement of God in the Church, we find ourselves trapped—in fear, in bitterness, in anger. We can never be stuck in that past. And, despite our little trip on the time machine travel earlier in our sermon, we really can’t step back in time.
Yes, we can bring forth the best of the old. But, we cannot let what we’ve done in the past prevent us from doing the work that needs to be done now and in the future. When we get stuck, that is when we hinder the Kingdom. It prevents the harvest from happening. It prevents growth from happening. It makes the church not a vital, living place proclaiming God’s loving and living Presence, but it preserves it as a musty museum for our own personal comfort.
The flourishing of the kingdom can be frightening. Like the mustard seed, it can be overwhelming. Because when the Kingdom flourishes, it flourishes beyond our control. We can’t control that flourishing. All we can do is plant the seeds and tend the growth as best we can.
Rooting our endeavors in Christ is a sure guarantee that what is planted will flourish. Because rooting our endeavors in Christ means we are rooting our endeavors in a living, vital Presence. We are rooting them in a wild Christ who knows no bounds, who knows no limits and who cannot be controlled by us. Rooting our endeavors in Christ means that our job is simply to go with Christ and the growth that Christ brings about wherever and however that growth may happen.
So, let us help the Kingdom flourish! To be righteous does not mean being good and sweet and nice all the time. To be righteous one simply needs to further the harvest of the Kingdom by doing what those of us who follow Jesus do. It means to plant the good small seeds. And in those instances when we fail, we must allow the mustard seed of the Kingdom to flourish. And when we do strive to do good and to further the kingdom of God, then will we being doing what Jesus commands us to do.
The Kingdom will flourish and we can take some joy in knowing that we helped, working with God, to make it flourish. And, in that wonderful, holy moment, we will know the fruits of our efforts. And we—like the kingdom of which we are citizens—will also truly flourish!