Sunday, July 10, 2005

Eighth Sunday of Pentecost
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:{1-8} 9-14
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

…it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it.

We spent the last few weeks on vacation and enjoyed the chance to rest, relax and recuperate from the hustle and bustle of our every day life. It was a long, exhausting trip. We put 4400 miles on the car, spent time (sometimes very briefly) in fourteen different states. We enjoyed family reunions, a theme park, a historic site, the beach, a magnificent estate and the French Quarter in New Orleans. We ate some of our favorite foods and tried some new ones. We played, shopped and enjoyed the company of people we love. Most of all, we were able to spend time together as a family, away from the computer and the responsibilities of the work we do in this world.

I could probably use this entire space sharing with you all some of our adventures, telling you about the things we saw and did during the past few weeks. That could be fun, but would it really serve to accomplish what Midweek Oasis sets out to do? Probably not, though it is through our every day existence that we really and truly share God. It was amazing how many times, though not planned or expected, the Gospel made its way into the conversations we had.

There are those who are gifted and ordained by God's grace to be evangelists and preachers. They are trained and sent into the world to specifically share the Gospel in a manner that will bring many people to Christ. However, that is rarely the first exposure people have to Christ. It is the kindness of neighbors, in the help of the strangers that Christ is manifested to the world. Every time something is done in the name of Jesus, a seed is planted. It is often not visible to the planter or to the world that something has happened. Seeds, but their very nature, are small, dead and useless. Unless, of course, they are put into the earth, watered and given light.

One of the places we visited this week was the incredible Vanderbilt mansion in Asheville, North Carolina called Biltmore. Visiting this home was almost like returning to the magnificent castles and palaces we enjoyed so much in England. Biltmore, which was created by George Vanderbilt, designed by Richard Morris Hunt and landscaped by Frederick Law Olmsted. Several aspects of the house surprised me, but as we wandered around the grounds I was in awe of the detail and the technological advances that were included in the house.

Every detail was considered, including how to cover up the evidence of the building program. This meant very careful planning for the movement of dirt to create the magnificent gardens that surround the mansion. I really enjoyed the gardens. There were examples of the different type of gardens prized by the wealthy all over the world. One area has formal fish ponds with lily pads and Italian marble statues. Another area was set aside for games like tennis. Yet another is filled with azaleas. There is a woodland trail, a lush, green lawn and a bass pond.

Even the drive into the estate was gorgeous. It was difficult to decide if the growth was natural or planned. It seemed almost haphazard, the way a forest naturally grows in the wild, and yet there was something almost organized about the stands of trees and thickets of brush. We later learned that every inch of the estate was planned, every piece of vegetation was planted. As you look at the formal walled garden, you expect to see every plant in its place. The geometric shapes and formal design requires attention to detail. However, as you wander through the woodlands, it is hard to believe that it too was designed to the very last detail by the hand of the landscape architect.

As we look at the world in which we live, we often find it difficult to believe that God has His hand in the day to day events that affect us all. After all, much of what is happening seems to be chaotic and out of control. We see war, natural disaster, failing relationships and every sort of sin perpetrated. How could this be in the design of the Master?

Frederick Olmsted designed the approach road to Biltmore Estate a century ago. While so much of His work is still quite visible, the years have also brought changes to the design which gives it a wild appearance. Trees send out new shoots, birds bring seeds from foreign plants into the forest. What was once a stand of rhododendrons now is home to animals and other plants. Though these changes have occurred in the last hundred years, it is still possible to see the intent of the designer, who wanted the viewer to experience a "…sensation of passing through the remote depths of a natural forest" while anticipating the mystery of what was to come.

Isn't that the way it is with the world? That which God created is good, but over the many generations of human existence foreign matter – sin – has become part of life. Sin brings death and chaos. It seems as though the world is out of control. Yet, we can't help but see God's hand in the world, as love, grace and mercy manifest in the daily experiences of those same humans. Somehow, underneath all the confusion there is a plan, designed by the great Architect Himself. We don't always understand or recognize the direction which He is sending us, or what He will do with us when we arrive. However, we go forth in faith in the hope that He will bring goodness out of our failing.

Our Gospel lesson for this day, as well as the other scriptures, talks about planting seeds. Jesus told the people a parable about the farmer who planted a field and what happened to the seed. It is good to realize that the way a farmer would plant a wheat field is different than the way Frederick Olmsted planted the gardens of Biltmore. The farmer does not take the time to propogate the plants before putting them into the ground. He does not start with seedlings or plant each seed individually. He takes the seed and throws in to the ground. He scatters it with his hand or with a simple machine.

With this technique, the farmer has little control over the placement of the seeds. It matters little since the wheat grows tall and slender. There is no need for geometric patterns or fancy rows. However, this technique also ensures some failure. Some of the seed will not fall on the good dirt. It falls on the path, in the rocks and where there are thorns. Some of the seed will not yield fruit.

Jesus explains to the disciples that sometimes the seeds they plant will not fall on good soil. The seed, which is the Gospel, is not always understood. Satan swoops in and easily steals the seed that falls on the path. The seeds that fall in rocky areas grow for a time but die because there is nothing to hold the roots. Some of the seeds will be chocked by the weeds.

The same is true of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Some of the seeds we scatter, through our daily lives of living in God's world, will land on the path, the rocks or in the weeds. The people who hear the message we bring will not understand and the grace will be stolen, wither or choke. Unfortunately, what we see is mostly the fruit of our failure. We see those who are stolen, who wither or who are choked and we feel helpless. We rarely see the good fruit that comes from our labor, which is thirty, sixty or a hundred times what we have planted.

How many pastors give a sermon and walk out of the church Sunday afternoon thinking that he didn't reach even one heart? And yet, what he does not see is that the message of God is planted in the hearts of his flock. They may not say anything after the service, but later in the week they share something they learned with their friends at lunch. The seed of grace is then passed on to all those with whom it was shared. One seed might bear fruit in hundreds of lives. Some of the seeds might land on the path, the rocks and in the weeds. But God can multiply even one seed a hundred fold.

It can be frustrating to share the word of God over and over again and never see the fruits of our labors, but perhaps that's why we don't often see it. When we have successes in our work, we tend to take credit for the work that has been done. All too many people keep track of the number of people they have led to Christ. All to many people boast about the seeds they have planted for God. Yet, they forget that the growth is due not to their own abilities or their work, but rather it is thanks to God's hand. He gives the seed, causes the sower to plant, brings the water, the nourishment and the light. We might plant the seed, but someone else will water and someone else will harvest. All we can really do is go forth in faith, abiding in God's mercy and His grace and sharing the love of Christ with all we see. In this way God will be manifest in the midst of the death and chaos that seems to rule the world. We can trust in His faithfulness.

In the Old Testament lesson, Isaiah tells us, " For as the rain cometh down and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, and giveth seed to the sower and bread to the eater; so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it." Even in the midst of our failings, God's Word will be accomplished. He is faithful.

Those of us who are not gardeners have more difficulty understanding the example of the seeds. Seeds are basically dead, but they have within them the possibility of life. The seed can not do it themselves. They need to be planted, watered and given sunshine. They need the nourishment of the elements and the tender loving care of the gardener. If the seed stays in a packet, it will not grow. It needs to be buried and transformed before it can produce fruit.

The same is true of us. We are sinners, dead in our flesh and unable to do anything on our own. However, God plants us into Himself and transforms us into something new – something living. By grace we are made into new creation that will bear fruit. In Romans, Paul's words are rather harsh to our old man. We think we can live on our own and do good works. But we can't do anything, we can't share the kingdom of God or the Gospel message without His Spirit. " For the mind of the flesh is death; but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace: because the mind of the flesh is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can it be: and they that are in the flesh cannot please God."

But now that we have received the seed, planted in the good soil of our hearts that God has prepared, we are made new and different. "But ye are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you." We have life because His Spirit dwells within, guiding us forward toward the promise, creating and recreating the world in which we live by His Word.

Isaiah's message to the Israelites included a promise. "For ye shall go out with joy, and be led forth with peace: the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you into singing; and all the trees of the fields shall clap their hands." The exiles were preparing to go home, but the world which they remembered was chaotic, having been destroyed by war and occupation. However, God promised that He would transform the darkness into light. The thorn and brier would be replaced with the fir and myrtle. The same is true for us. As we journey in this world, scattering what seeds we are able to toss into the wind, God goes forth ahead of us, preparing the land on which they will land. He will provide the water and the sun and then send the harvester.

We simply follow along, planting the seeds and singing His praise, trusting that His Word is true. "Thou visitest the earth, and waterest it, Thou greatly enrichest it; The river of God is full of water: Thou providest them grain, when thou hast so prepared the earth. Thou waterest its furrows abundantly; Thou settlest the ridges thereof: Thou makest it soft with showers; Thou blessest the springing thereof." He will bring life out of death because He has promised it would be so. We need not worry about the seed that falls on the path, in the rocks or in the weeds. We need only scatter the seed He Has given us. He will take care of the rest as He goes ahead of us preparing the fields. Thanks be to God.

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