Proper 10a, Sunday, July 13, 2014

July 14, 2014

Spiritual Horticulture
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

13:1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 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. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!” 18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 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. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 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. 22 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. 23 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.”

My recent bicycle trip has really messed me up – I’ve had a hard time readjusting to normal life. I sort of ducked-out of reality for two weeks, and I’m still recovering from that. The problem is that the most difficult moments of that trip were relatively light-weight troubles, and now, even the smallest obstacles get me all tangled up.

I really did take a break from actual problems during my trip. For two weeks I didn’t open any bills or other weighty paper epistles, nor did I check my email. I had some kind of automatic notice saying I was unavailable, and I just never checked it. I normally feel sort of bad if I don’t check it every few hours, but I didn’t open it for two weeks. I spoke to Sharla regularly on the phone and I had a few other phone conversations and text messages during that time, but I basically checked out for two weeks. Of course nothing did collapse. The world didn’t fall apart. The church stayed intact. My fantasy baseball team didn’t even fall to last place.

And I didn’t really plan to do this, but I decided not to watch any television while I was on my trip. I took a break from CNN and every other station in the world that wanted to get me to surrender my mind for a little while. I didn’t even listen to NPR.

I’m telling you, I entered a very different world for two weeks. It was a lovely experience, but reentry has been painful. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not all bad. I love being back with my family and friends. I like watching television and listening to the radio again. I’m happy to have lost my daily compulsion to eat convenience store fried chicken wings. And I’m grateful to have a job that enabled me to go ride my bicycle for two weeks, but honestly, that trip sort of ruined me.

I was reminded of how good I am at playing. I’m not a lazy person, but I’m good at pouring a lot of energy and effort in to things that don’t really matter. And real things can get me all wound up.

I don’t know about you, but there’s something in today’s scripture that I need to hear. I’m particularly sensitive to what I hear Jesus saying about the cares of this world. What I hear is that there are some of us who’s souls are particularly vulnerable to the concerns of this world. What I know about myself is that it’s hard for me to be properly responsive to the demands of this world without letting them choke the life out of me. And while taking a significant break from the regular responsibilities of life isn’t a bad thing to do, I don’t think escape from reality is the avenue that produces the abundant yields that Jesus spoke of.

It’s not easy for some of us to sort out the essentials from the incidentals, and it’s easy for me to feel like I’m living in the Little Shop of Horrors with all of life’s little tentacles wanting to swallow me up. Jesus was well aware of this problem, and this parable contains a clear warning to not let our lives be invaded by the thorns of worldly concerns. Keeping the demands of this world in perspective is much like the process of weeding a garden, and it’s probably a skill we can learn to develop.

When I was a child I didn’t know the difference between poison ivy and any other plant growing in the woods, but I didn’t have to have more than one horrible case of poison ivy before I learned what it looked like. I’ve had many outbreaks through the years, but I try to watch out for it and to stay out of it. Likewise, I think I probably recognize the difference between those opportunities in life that will feed my soul and help my neighbor and those that just feed my own flesh and ego, but I’m just not as quick to protect my soul as I am to provide comfort for my body.

These figurative weeds that keep us all tangled, twisted, distressed, and distracted are what you might call first world problems. These are the kinds of problems that come with a relative degree of affluence. When we give an overabundance of our time and attention to preserving and expanding our comfort, security and entertainment – we are allowing the weeds to take over the garden. When we become overly concerned about non-essential matters we are allowing the most valuable plant to wither. Jesus was very clear about this possibility. I believe this is a huge problem for many of us who orbit around our various devices and who feel the need to respond to every little piece of information that comes our way.

But there are these other obstacles to becoming well-rooted in the garden of God. Jesus spoke of the possibility of being gobbled up by birds or parched on arid rocks. We have an explanation of the parable in our scripture, but I find some additional meaning behind this image. I’m thinking that the seeds that fall on the path that never even have a chance to germinate are much like the people who hardly have a chance to take root in life. There are people who never have to deal with the weeds of life because they don’t get a chance to grow.

I don’t believe any of us are ever out of the reach of the Holy Spirit, and because of that I think abundant life is within reach of any of us, but I also have a hard time seeing how a person can ever mature and flourish when they grow up and live in the midst of nightmarish circumstances. I don’t worry about the eternal soul of a person who simply never has a chance in this world, but I believe God wills for us all to have daily bread and nurturing relationships.

I believe all of us who have been well nourished have a responsibility to help improve the conditions for those who are born in to hostile environments, and I believe this is a clear avenue for spiritual development.

I went on a tour last Thursday of the nearby non-profit organization called Our House, and I was hugely impressed by what they do there. I’ve known about Our House for years, but I had never actually been through the facility. Basically it functions as a homeless shelter for people who are trying to find work, but it’s much more than a place to spend the night – it’s more of a home for homeless people. They have services that help unemployed people become more employable, and they have programming for the children of the men and women who find themselves without homes. I love what they do there, and I want us to be a good neighbor to them. Like every other institution that’s operated by human beings I’m sure they fail in some ways to meet their high objectives, but it’s so good that there are places such as this that are trying to help uprooted families and individuals sink some roots and find new lives.

And of course, that’s hard work. And I think it’s the hard-work aspect of spiritual development that Jesus was talking about when he spoke of the seeds that fall on rocky ground. Such seeds sprout fast, but die quickly because they aren’t able to put down any roots. A seed that falls on rocky ground doesn’t really have a chance to put down roots, but Jesus wasn’t talking about the problem of people who never have a chance to sink roots. What Jesus was talking about here is the problem of people drifting away from living lives of faith because it’s hard.

And it is hard to be a person of faith. I know last week I talked about how easy it is to follow Jesus, but that was last week. I was just hoping to get you to come back this week, and this week I’m telling you the truth. Actually, what I believe is that following Jesus is easy when you find the path and you know you are on it – but that path is narrow, and it’s not easy to find.

Faith is hard because it requires us to work with our imperfect selves and our imperfect neighbors in our imperfect world. It’s hard to know how to manage our own lives and resources, and it’s hard to know how to help other people who are dealing with seemingly insurmountable problems, but we are to do all we can to love our neighbors as ourselves. It’s hard and it’s not full of immediate gratification.

Sometimes serving God means serving on a committee in the church and having to wrestle with roof-leaks and budget issues – which is about the last thing most people ever want to do. I don’t think anyone has ever joined a church in hope of becoming involved in church administration, but I do know there are people who leave the church when it gets hard and mundane, and while that isn’t always a bad reason – it’s not necessarily a good reason.

Unfortunately we don’t really get to choose what it is that makes our spiritual journeys difficult. It wouldn’t be so hard if we got to choose, but we don’t. In the parable, some seeds are said to have landed on fertile ground and took root without trouble, but I don’t think the point of this parable is to say that some people automatically develop rich spiritual lives. I believe what Jesus wanted us to know is that it’s a relatively small group of people who are able to navigate the perils of this world and to bountifully produce the grain of true life.

I don’t know, but I’m hoping the real problem my bicycle trip produced for me is not just the realization that I like to play more than I like to work. What I like to think is that it gave me a small taste of a more bountiful way of living, and I’m not content to go back on a diet of plain old life. I don’t want to get all wound up in bad weeds and vines, and I believe Jesus is the one who can help me find that fertile ground.

So many people came out to hear what Jesus had to say he had to go out on a boat to address all of them. People have always been hungry to hear what he had to say. It’s not always easy to hear what he’s saying, but he wants us all to sink deep roots in the richest soil there is. We are not to be ruled by our computers, our televisions, our finances, our animal instincts, or our political persuasions – we are called to abide in the Kingdom of God. It’s God who calls us, and it’s God who will enable us to find our way, but we won’t get there without putting out some effort – more effort than we think we can bear, but there’s more opportunity than we can even imagine.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be a short-lived sprout or a weed infested garden. I want some of those deep roots. I want to bloom and flower and produce. And I hope you do too! Amen.


One Response to “Proper 10a, Sunday, July 13, 2014”

  1. Lois G. Russell Says:

    You bring Scripture to life in a very interesting and and real way. Thank you.

    Sent from my iPad

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