Sunday, July 10, 2005

4th Sermon, July 10

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23 and Romans 8: 1-11

Dirt. When it comes down to it, we’re made of dirt, and we’ll return to dirt. And in the meantime, we can help God’s kingdom depending on what kind of dirt we are. God’s vision for us is like a seed. God doesn’t make us do one thing or another, God simply plants a seed in us and waits for us to help bring that seed to fruition. What is this seed? In the book of Genesis at the creation story, God took that human made out of clay and dirt and blew into its nostrils the Breath of Life. The mud human was animated then with a soul, a spirit, and became an instrument of the Living God. The Breath of Life is another name for the Holy Spirit. So in a very real way, the seed that is sown is life itself.
Now hold on a minute preacher, you may say. Jesus tells us what the sower is sowing right there in the explanation to the parable--It says right there that the seeds represent the “Word of the Kingdom.” This is true—but I’d like to lift up something a little more basic today. What is that word carried on? What does it take to annunciate the Word of the Kingdom? When we are speaking, we move our breath out of our lungs and through our voice box, and then we shape it with our tongue and lips. We create a voice with the vital, life-giving Breath. In the same way, the Word of the Kingdom is carried on the Holy Spirit, the Holy Breath or Life Breath. If you translate into Trinitarian doctrine, you wind up with the classical notion that the Creator creates with the Word and the Breath, because it takes the Breath to give the Word any life. What is the Word of the Kingdom? Well, John tells us that the Word of God is made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ; therefore, the Word of God must have something to do with what Jesus was saying. I don’t think it is one word, but it has a certain sound to it-- LIVE! LOVE! GIVE! MOVE! The Word of the Kingdom is the word of Life. It is that which makes our lives meaningful—it is a “living Word!”
We’re going to be hearing much about the Kingdom in the next few weeks as the lectionary takes us through the “Kingdom Parables” of Matthew’s gospel. In fact, if we had the church paraments, you’d see that the liturgical color right now is green. We call this season of the church calendar “Kingdomtide.” The green represents the living quality of the Church. As all around us is green and vibrant, the Church in God’s Kingdom is fresh and living.
Let me tell you something I believe about the Kingdom of God. It is not coming with signs that can be observed. No one will say, Look here it comes, or, oops there it goes. Instead, it is right here in our midst, and we must open our eyes to it! It is like a seed, and we’re like the soil. It can’t sprout without our nourishment, and we can’t sprout anything worthwhile without its presence. When the Kingdom does sprout in the rich soil of an open heart and mind, it produces quite a bumper crop!
Yes, the Spirit of Life pulls us towards life abundant. Notice the extravagance of the seed’s production in the parable. 60 fold, 30 fold, 100 fold! Our translation today simplified this to “beyond the gardener’s wildest dreams.” Can you imagine planting a tomato plant and it yielding 100 tomatoes?
This is the only part of the parable that might have upset the expectations of Jesus' original hearers, and we need to pay attention to it because the upsetting of expectations is what the parables are all about. As Jesus told them, they were not just charming little stories to illustrate a point. They were rhetorical tools he used, in the way a builder might use a wrecking ball or a bulldozer, to level his hearers' expectations and clear the ground for the new understanding he wanted to put in place.

A good example is the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector from the Gospel of Luke. When Jesus told his hearers that two men went up to the temple to pray and that one of them was a Pharisee and the other a tax collector, they knew from the beginning how the story was going to turn out. God didn't hear the prayers of sinners, they believed, which meant he definitely wasn't going to hear the prayer of this tax collector-they were no more popular then than they are now. But the tax collector prays a very unusual prayer. Unlike that of the Pharisee, his is simple and direct-a prayer in which he confesses his sins and asks forgiveness. In the end, says Jesus, it was the tax collector who went home justified and not the Pharisee.

Now, that would have come as a shock to people who assumed the Pharisees had God all figured out. Maybe he wasn't who they said he was after all. Maybe they would have to start thinking about him in a whole new way, which is precisely the point of the story! "Why do you speak in parables?" Jesus' disciples asked. "Because these people have become a bunch of religious know-it-alls," he answers. "They think they know everything about who God is and how he works. Their minds have become so clouded by their misperception that they can't perceive what's going on right in front of them. They have shut their eyes, stopped up their ears. I'm speaking in parables in an effort to break up the hard ground of their wrong-headed expectations, to loosen the soil for the seed of the Gospel. But you," he says, looking fondly at his disciples, "you didn't have any expectations in the first place. Your eyes and ears have been wide open to see and hear the wonderful works of God." In other words, the last people you would have expected to get it are the ones who get it-- Which says something about how we ought to go about our own ministry.
What is required for us to live as good soil? Jesus talks about two things, understanding and bearing fruit. If we don’t understand the Word right now, that doesn’t mean we should put ourselves in the “rocky path” column of seed habitat—let’s not forget about how many times the disciples of Jesus misunderstood him or just plain didn’t get it. Yet how many of us would call Peter or James or John anything but “fertile soil?” Jesus didn’t go to the philosophy schools to find disciples who could “understand” the secrets of the Kingdom. He went out to the pastures, out to the fishing villages. Understanding is not about finding some code or secret meaning of the Gospel: “Understanding” simply means recognizing the relationship we are being offered by God. This understanding is what happens when we let go of our incessant need to have God “all figured out.” God loves surprises after all—this is why the seed is sown all over the place. The gardener has no expectations about what will happen.
The epistle lesson this morning is about the same relationship. We are being asked to recognize our life as more than a life of the flesh—more than just our self-concerns. Our relationship with God is a chance to live “in the Spirit” and for the “Spirit of Christ” to live in us! It is not so much a relationship between “us and God,” it is more about claiming our identity. We are in the Spirit and the Spirit is in us! AS we recognize the reality of our place in the equation, it becomes harder to ignore our mission as Kingdom makers. It is harder because we realize that it is with us that God plans to build God’s kingdom, and it is with us that Christ seeks to minister to the world.
A mystic from the 14th century, St. Theresa of Avilla, said it best I think,
God has no hands but our hands to do his work today;
God has no feet but our feet to lead others in his way;
God has no voice but our voice to tell others how he died;
and, God has no help but our help to lead them to his side."
Life in the Spirit is a radical re-envisioning of life. It is living with the Kingdom as our primary focus. Life in the flesh is an ignorance of this real purpose of our lives. God has is here among us in the Holy Spirit—and God is actively, indiscriminately pouring the Holy Spirit into all of us just like the reckless sower in the parable tosses seeds in all directions, even on the stony path where no plant could sprout. God is seeking a good place for his Kingdom to take root, and he’s throwing seed in our direction!
Today I am incorporating a special celebration into this sermon. Our church symbol for the life in the Spirit is Baptism. Many of us have been baptized and are not physically able to remember it. I myself was baptized as an infant, and cannot remember the event. Though I do not cognitively remember my Baptism, my Soul remembers that Baptism—it is still wet from the Baptism if that Baptism is alive in my life. Some of you were no doubt baptized at a later date, and have both a cognitive and a spiritual awareness of that important celebration. Some of you have not been baptized, but nonetheless are on the path of the life of the Spirit. Today I call you to remember your baptism; by splashing some of this water in your direction-- some of the drops will hit you. As those drops of water hit you, let it be a refreshing of your memory. The waters represent the actual presence of the Holy Spirit. In the Bible, the Spirit is described as the “Wellsprings of Life,” as the “refreshing rain on the ground,” and at Jesus’ Baptism, we are told that the Spirit descended like a dove from the sky as the voice of God showered affection on his Son. You may envision the water drops as seeds that the Gardener is casting on your soil.
How does the Holy Spirit grow in your life? Do you feel that it has not taken deep root and instead has been scorched by the sun? Has the seed failed to grow in your life because you are overly concerned about the temporary things of your life and have these weeds choked out the flower that is God’s Word and Breath made manifest in you? We are baptized into the life of the Spirit of God! A life lived in the awareness of this relationship is fertile ground for the seed of God’s purpose for our lives. That seed is the waters of our Baptism. If you have not been baptized, then you should picture that seed as God’s grace and love that has been pouring into creation since the beginning of time. The baptism is a symbol of that.
God does in us with the Holy Spirit what we could have least expected. The fruit that we bear when we are fertile soil gives life to new seeds, new opportunities for the seed the Kingdom to take root in new places. Let us prepare our hearts to receive the Holy Spirit! Let us walk in the life of God! Let us nurture the roots of God’s kingdom in our lives!

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