Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
1st Reading: Isaiah 55:10-132nd Reading: Romans 8:1-11
While I was on vacation, my neighbor watered my garden. I just noticed Thursday morning that I had 2 volunteer tomato plants growing in the bed devoted to kale, where I grew tomatoes last year. One is almost 5 inches high and the other is just a little thing at about 3 inches. Now I have a debate going on with myself about whether to pull them out or let them continue, even though they probably won’t have time before the weather cools down to make tomatoes or at least to make red tomatoes. So many gardeners have such trouble “thinning” their plants. We begin to have empathy for that little runt of a plant, that little tenacious, rebellious little tomato, smelling so good, looking so confident. But if you leave everything in there, that’s not going to be good for the garden, either. How many of you think I should pull them out? Oh but that plant is so beautiful and full of life right now! It worked so hard to get where it is! How many of you think I should let it grow and give it a chance? Oh, but what good is that to me and what good does it do that plant? It will never produce fruit in time and it will take nutrients from my other plants.
Last month at the Council meeting, in light of the tree donation, I asked the council members if they were a tree, what kind of tree would you be. We got some pretty interesting answers! Maybe some of you think that’s silly, but sometimes we separate ourselves so much from nature, that we forget that we are part of it. We are God’s good creation, too, just as the trees are, and the frogs, and slugs, etc. Apart from all of them, we wouldn’t exist. Yes, there are some key differences between us and the other creatures. We have a bigger brain, but I’m not sure if we could be considered smarter. We have a lot of power. The truth is, we are part of God’s good creation, not separate, and the whole of creation was made to work together. And there is a lot we can learn from the rest of God’s creation.
For instance, in Isaiah, rain and snow teach us about how God’s word is distributed. The earth is watered by the rain and snow, and if you’re in Oregon, the drizzle, the downpour, the hail, and the liquid sunshine. It evaporates into clouds that dump the rain or snow on the mountains, which then flows down streams, creeks, and rivers, to the sea. And along the way evaporating again to take the journey again.
We can learn from this passage that just as rain is life-giving, so is God’s word. Just as rain is distributed over the whole earth, so is God’s word. God’s life-giving word brings peace and joy. It isn’t meant to be pooled all in one place, but shared and cared for and passed along to the next living thing that is as much in need of it as we are.
In Isaiah, too, we learn to praise God as the rest of Creation does, by doing what each does best, what each was created to do. The mountains and hills shall burst into song, and the trees will clap their hands! These are clearly not Lutheran—too exuberant! What holds us back from truly praising God and giving thanks with all our being?! How did we get so self-conscious?
We can learn from the plants in the Gospel reading, too. Maybe they can help us understand why some people don’t receive God’s word and others do. But then we put ourselves in the place of God and start sorting people into categories, which doesn’t do us or them any good.
More than that, this parable can challenge us to be good soil. If we don’t understand, like the seed that fell on the path, do we sit passively by, or do we do something more to understand? Do we do some personal devotions, or take part in a discussion group to help us understand? Do we take some time to ponder difficult passages? Do we take time in prayer for God to open our hearts to understand?
Are we like the seed that fell on the rocky ground? Are we immediately excited and full of joy, but when the hard times come, do we become disillusioned and go away or give up? Do we just blame the kind of soil we fell on and move on, or do we work on developing a thicker skin? Do we practice going to someone who has hurt us and talking it out, or do we let it fester? Do we find role-models in our faith community and learn from them, how they got such deep roots and learn what we can do to be steadfast and strong?
Are we like the seed that fell among the thorns? Do we let the lies of this world choke out our faith? Do we value what the world values, thing like things, fancy things, shiny things, money? Are we selfish? Do we need to be important? How can we change our values? Can we set aside time for God? Can we spend some time volunteering? Can we do some random acts of kindness for someone in need in secret? Can we do without that new thing and instead invest in some weed-whackers for those darned thorns?
The reading from Romans doesn’t use any symbols from nature to teach us how to live, however Paul lets us know that something that sets us apart from the rest of nature is that we are not governed only by our instincts, but that we have responsibility, choices, free-will. Maybe it is because we have a conscience, or because we have so much power and the choice of how to use it, and we know the consequences of our actions, how they impact everyone and everything around us. Paul is saying we can live one of two ways. We can live as a hostage to corruption, under the rule of sin, in the flesh, selfishly, hurting the rest of the community of Creation, or we can deny this death-dealing way, and live in the new reality God is handing us, live in the Spirit, under the rule of God, with a new set of priorities, a new focus on the whole, with the big picture in mind, sharing life in community and peace.
Sometimes all I see in myself are rocks, thorns, and hard compacted soil like that on the path! There are so many ways to go wrong! Sometimes it seems like life in the flesh is all I can focus on. But there’s Good News! Are you ready for it? God’s word is going out in every direction. It is full of life. It is freely distributed! It is abundant! It is guaranteed to be fruitful! It is a free gift of God’s grace! Remember the passage from the Gospel of John, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” That’s what Jesus did for us, he died and the seed is sprouting in the community and in the world, and we can learn from him, that it isn’t about us as individuals, but it is about us as the community of Creation in Jesus Christ. We need each other for the thriving of abundant life. Because of Jesus’ love for us, we have the free gift of God’s grace and a place in God’s family. The Kingdom of God is near!
Do you want to participate in it? Then go ahead. The seed is good, the soil is prepared, and God is the one who provides the sun and rain, all we need for growth.
Whether you participate in it or not, it is happening! God will produce a harvest, beyond any of our expectations or hopes. With or without us, there will be joy and peace. There will be thriving life, eternal life for all God’s creatures. In fact, it is happening even now! 100 new trees are growing in our neighborhood because of God’s generosity! 9 kids know the story of Noah’s ark and are on the lookout for rainbows reminding them how much God loves them and all of Creation. 57 Families are enjoying meals they received at this location, with the help of 5 partner churches and many community members. Through Metropolitan Alliance for Common Good, people from this church are telling our County Commissioners what we need to help the homeless in a zoning change that could allow tiny houses on some properties. Who knows if they are going to listen to us, they might be rocky soil, they might be thorny soil, or the seed may lie for some time before sprouting, but it isn’t going to keep God from sewing the seed.
The point is, it is God’s work. And God’s work is assured. So let’s take our focus off our distractions and fears, and look around us at this beautiful world we live in. Let’s praise God for it! Let’s learn from it. Let’s go out in joy and come back in peace. Let’s be part of something that matters and lasts and is life-giving.
If I look at the whole of my garden, the big picture, I think the little tomato plant has got to go. It will give its life so that others might have abundant life. May the others take root and grow and produce fruit, and may we learn from the story of the sewer how to receive God’s grace and respond in joy.