Gardening Thoughts

(sermon 7/12/20)

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

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This past week, I was sitting outside and starting to work on today’s sermon. It was just that part of the day where our little backyard was baking in direct, 90+ degree sun, so I’d pulled a chair and a little table to prop my feet up on into the only spot that was in shade – the narrow little eight-foot wide side space between our house and the neighbor’s, a spot that we’re slowly transforming from ugly leftover space into a little “magic garden” leading from the front to the back of the house. Sitting there in the nice natural breeze that gets funneled through the space, I noticed where some bird seed had gotten knocked down out of a hanging bird feeder, and it had gotten watched into a tiny crack between the concrete paving and the foundation wall, and the seed had germinated and was growing. After my initial thought of grumbling that it was just another spot to week, and then thinking that at least it would be easy enough since there really wasn’t enough dirt for it to have taken any real root, I realized that maybe I was sitting in a pretty appropriate place to be thinking about this particular parable from Jesus.

When we hear this parable, and Jesus’ explanation of it, we understand that we represent the different kinds of environment and soil. Going beyond that, we then usually imagine the parable illustrates how we, as individuals, should respond to the good news of the kingdom of God that Jesus was proclaiming. Taken that way, the parable becomes an evangelistic plea, a warning, that we’d better be the good soil, so the seed – the Word of God – will develop and grow within us. I guess that’s fair enough, as far as it goes, but I don’t think that’s the only way we can hear the parable, and I really don’t think that’s the primary message Jesus had in mind when he told it.

What I mean by that is this. Jesus calls this the Parable of the Sower, not the Parable of the Soil. In other words, the parable is meant to teach us something about God, not us. In the story, a sower, God, sows the seed – the Word of God, the good news of God’s kingdom – pretty much everywhere – abundantly, extravagantly, you might even say wastefully by today’s precise farming methods, but that’s just the way God wants to do it, and where God wants the seed to go – and God, the sower, does this completely by themselves, without anyone else’s particular help. The seed, the Word, is already everywhere.

And it’s pretty clear that when Jesus described the good soil, it was to show what the kingdom of God could be like – growing strong, with deep roots, and bearing much fruit – when it was able to be understood, and received, and nurtured, without being stopped or hindered by environmental constraints.

But what if Jesus’s point in this parable wasn’t so much to condemn the less-than-ideal soil, but rather, to recognize and acknowledge the realities of that, given the world’s conditions, and to make it clear that actually, *all* of us fit into those circumstances in one way or another – circumstances that make it very hard, or even impossible, to have God’s Word really be understood and accepted, to take root in people’s lives? Maybe this parable is a message to all of us that we need to play the role of a good gardener – collecting up the stones from the soil and getting rid of them, or maybe using them as a decorative element in the garden. Working to enrich and improve the soil, and getting rid of the weeds that would smother out the good seed. Improving the drainage, or whatever else it might take to make the whole garden a better, more receptive place for the seed to take root and grow.

Our world is full of things that make people’s lives hard, and that can make it hard, or even impossible, for God’s Word to take root within us. It’s hard to think about the higher, deeper, more lofty, spiritual things of life when you’re too busy having to work two or three low-paying jobs and still having difficulty paying the rent and the rest of the monthly bills. It’s hard to accept that God’s love for you is immense and unending, that in fact, God *is* love, when you can’t access some life-saving medical care for your child because none of those three jobs offer you health insurance. It’s hard to focus on the idea that God is good, and that Christ is ushering in a new world, when the water coming out of your tap is poisoned with lead and other contaminants, and has been for years and still no one has done anything to fix it. It’s hard to accept that you’re in God’s loving arms, and that goodness triumphs over evil, when you’ve lost multiple family members to gun violence. It’s hard to accept that you really are precious in God’s sight when you can’t sleep at night because you’re stressed out over terrible problems and crisis situations within your family, or within yourself. The examples of the kinds of things in this life that can make it hard or even impossible for all of us, in some way or another, to hear, to understand, and to accept God’s message  – the things in this life that make us unreceptive soil – could go on and on.

So maybe Jesus’ message here isn’t so much a warning for us on an individual basis to be good soil – maybe it isn’t meant to be a criticism, a shaming of us, or a calling out as some moral failing that these constraints exist that keep the seed from taking root, as much as it is a call to compassion – a call for us all to do what it takes for one another – all of us, all kinds of soil – to help one another be a receptive place for God’s good news to be able to take root and flourish.

Maybe Jesus was looking at this parable less from the standpoint of it being a call to personal piety, and more as a call to collective compassion and communal support – and a call for the church, the communal body of Christ, to be involved in that as a primary mission.

And maybe there’s something else, an additional, secondary communal message in this regarding the very nature, the logistics, the workings of the church, too.

There’s no question that now, the church is undergoing real change right now – serious change that’s forced us to think about what’s essential about church and what isn’t. What does the church really need in ordered to be, and do, what it’s supposed to? What traditional aspects of being church might still be essential, but need to be done, need to be nurtured, differently? And what things just might not be relevant or workable or constructive now, as the sun rises on the seed in the Covid era and beyond, that might need to be left behind?

It wasn’t that long ago – just a few months, really – that we had someone who wanted to become a member of the church, but who would have real physical difficulty being present here to join, and we wrestled with how, or whether, we could find a way to set up the technology in order to have them join remotely, online. Now, just a few months later, our worship is entirely virtual, online, and we’ll receive new members virtually without batting an eyelash.

Just those few months ago, we talked about the possibility of maybe doing live-stream worship, and there was question whether it would be worth the trouble or helpful to us at all. Now, we see that it’s an essential aspect of our congregational ministry, and outreach to the community, and it will be long after the Covid lockdown.

In the same way, just a few months ago, we talked about the possibility of maybe having an online giving option, and we wondered if it was necessary. Now, we have it and we know we need it now and into the future.

And just a few months ago, it was hard to consider whether it might be a good idea for our sanctuary space to have more physical flexibility. Now, after going through these Sunday morning live streaming exercises, we know that making the sanctuary more flexible, to be more responsive to actual current and future worship needs; it’s essential  to our ministry to ourselves, and in our outreach to the community at large.

Soil changes.

What used to be a good, fertile environment for the nurture of the Word of God, for the church’s ministry and mission one year, might become depleted, inadequate soil the next. And likewise, what was once considered a place where nothing would grow, and where nothing needed to grow one year, might become the most productive and important soil the next.

Soil changes.

Maybe the good news in this text for us is that this parable isn’t really an altar call, meant to scare us and make us afraid of going to hell if we aren’t somehow perfect, receptive soil; but rather, it’s an assurance that God knows, and through Christ, understands and has experienced the things of this world that make it hard – the things that make it difficult or even impossible for us to hear and accept and thrive in the good news of God’s kingdom; and that no matter what kind of soil we might be, that God, the sower, is still with us.

And maybe the parable is also a call to mutual, communal uplift and compassion, keeping an eye on the amazing possibility of abundant life with the Word of God thriving in every life, in every condition, in every kind of soil.

And maybe that message, the idea of seed taking root differently in different environments, does also have an important secondary message for the church in these times, too; a message of how we need to think about how changing “soil”conditions require us to rethink how we’re trying to live out, and share, God’s good news in the world. I don’t know. Maybe. Or maybe I was just sitting there in the magic garden, looking around and thinking too much about all the gardening work I needed to get done. I’ll let you decide.

Thanks be to God.

Dancing to the Tune

sermon 7/5/20

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus said, “But to what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’ For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon’; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds.”

At that time Jesus said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

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When you’re reading written words, it’s important to try to get underneath them – to get a sense for the actual emotion and intention behind them, to hear the emotional rhythm in the words, to really understand them – whether it’s a text message, an email, a Facebook post, a letter in the mail – and especially when it’s a passage of scripture.

When I try to hear and feel those rhythms in today’s gospel text, in Jesus’ words, it’s pretty clear that he’s upset as these words start out. He’s tired, fed up, frustrated, done with trying to break through to the people he’s talking to, and getting them to understand the kingdom of God. In his frustration, Jesus makes that comment – “We played the flute for you, and you wouldn’t dance; we wailed and you didn’t mourn.” He explains what he means by saying the John the Baptist came, trying to get them to see the truths of the kingdom of God while being stern, and austere, and separating himself out away from the people; and the respected people all discounted his message – saying he was too dour and rigid; his attitude was unconstructive; he needed to lighten up so more people would listen to him. But then Jesus arrived and tried a different approach to get them to open their eyes and understand. He was, for the most part, congenial, pleasant, always mixing with people in the synagogues and streets and weddings and out and about in public, laughing, eating, drinking. And despite what they’d said about John, the respected people rejected Jesus, too – saying he was too loose, not serious enough, too flippant, and his message wasn’t taken seriously because of the disreputable people he hung out with.

And in this passage, I think Jesus had just had it with them, and in a state of exasperation he was saying “there’s just no satisfying you people” – that their rejection of the message of the kingdom of God obviously didn’t have anything to do with the delivery method; they just didn’t want to hear and accept the truth. It was discomforting to them, so they’d found a convenient excuse to justify their rejecting of it.

This being the 4th of July weekend, it’s impossible to not recognize that it was that same sense of frustration that the American colonists felt after trying unsuccessfully to get the English crown to hear their message, their grievances, in a more civil and proper way and having their words ignored, before they changed to different tactics, tarring and feathering tax collectors, dumping barrels of tea into Boston Harbor, and so on, and finally going so far as to declare themselves independent of England, and fighting a war to make it so.

And it’s impossible to have this text to preach on this weekend, in this time, and not think about the parallel between Jesus’ words and those of Dr. King in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, as he dealt with criticism of the civil rights movement from a group of local clergymen in that city for moving beyond being polite, beyond playing the flute, as Jesus would have put it, and for moving on to wailing and offering a message harder to ignore like John the Baptist’s.

Of course that parallel applies to our own times, too – with so many of our black and brown siblings calling out for racial justice – being for the most part ignored when they try to be nice and work within the system that was deliberately stacked against them; and being criticized and rejected as going about it the wrong way when they try to get their message across in more discomforting ways, ways harder to ignore The parallel between Jesus’ experience in this story, and the exasperation and condemnation embedded within it, is real.

And it’s impossible to have this text, and this reality, to preach today, Independence Day weekend, and not point out that for all that’s good and noble and to be celebrated about our country, and there’s a lot of it, we still have a long way to go in order to live into the noble words of our founding – and to hear the music and the wailing of large numbers of our people, and to finally achieve racial and other kinds of social justice in our country, as a matter of civil society, and even more importantly for us, as a matter of our faith. It was just that understanding of the faith that led Eugene Carson Blake, the Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church, to go so far as to get arrested while taking part in a protest to try to integrate a segregated amusement park in Baltimore, 57 years ago yesterday, July 4th, and serving as a model for Presbyterian clergy, and Presbyterians in general, who would follow.

Those are big parallels. Important parallels between this gospel text and big social movements past and present. But the truth is, while our lives are shaped by movements, we experience life in the moments – the more personal experiences we all know and go through. And there are important parallels between Jesus’ words and those kinds of moments, too. Those moments when we’re trying to get a message across to someone who just won’t listen; someone who ignores us or dismisses us when we’re trying to be nice and polite, and gets offended when we have to change tactics in order to be heard. Times when we feel voiceless and powerless, like we’re hitting a stone wall with, maybe, some government bureaucrat. Or a hospital billing department. Or a bank, or a retail customer service center. Or even when we’re just trying to convey some important message to a family member, who just keeps rejecting us regardless of how we try to get through to them. It can get tiring. It can become draining and burdensome.

Whenever and however we feel that frustration, that exasperation – and we all have, at some point or another – remember this passage, and the fact that we aren’t alone. This text shows us that Jesus felt this same kind of exasperation. When we experience that frustration, in whatever setting, whenever we’re feeling ignored or rejected we can remember that through Jesus, God knows firsthand what we’re experiencing and feeling, and is standing with us, and for us – for us,  and against the ones ignoring our words, our pleas, our wailing and suffering and burdens, and is with us to give us comfort, and strength, too, in order for us, and anyone, to be able to persevere in getting their message of suffering heard by the ones causing it.

At the end of today’s gospel text, after Jesus blasts the people he’s talking to for their stubbornness and self-centeredness, he goes on to vent his frustration as he prays, criticizing those who were ignoring both John and him, and being grateful that God favors the “infants” the ones who are actually suffering at the hands of the others, and who are actually hearing his message.

And then, finally, you can feel a bit of a shift in Jesus’ mood after his prayer, moving out of anger and into tiredness, and maybe resignation, as he simply says “Come to me, all you who are weary and carrying heavy burdens, for in me you will find rest.”

So today, reading and reflecting on this passage, I have to ask myself: In my own life, which one of those am I? Am I one of the suffering? Am I one of the ones trying to speak truth, but who are being ignored or rejected? Or am I one of the supposedly “wise and intelligent,” as Jesus described them, or a “white moderate” as Dr. King described the same kind of people his Letter? Or in some way, am I both? And beyond myself, where does our society fit on that spectrum Jesus laid out? And where do we, the church, fit on that same spectrum? And what effect does that have, should that have, for us, a Matthew 25 congregation? For us, as people of the kingdom of God – people who have offered our ultimate loyalty, our lives, not to the king of England, not even to a government in Washington, but to the Prince of Peace – the one who plays the flute, and has invited us to dance to his tune?

Thanks be to God.