Sunday, July 10, 2011

Lectionary 15A
Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Instead of the thorn shall come up the fir-tree; and instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle-tree: and it shall be to Jehovah for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

I once read a report that claimed that biologically our brains are wired for faith. In other words, the ability to believe in some sort of higher being is inborn. From a lay personís standpoint, I have no doubt that it is true. I believe God created us with everything we need to believe in Him. The problem, which goes way back to the beginning of time in the Garden of Eden, is that we tend to make up our own ideas about that divine being and we miss the reality.

Take, for instance, our tendency to assume everything is either a punishment or reward. We may not think of it in such blunt terms, but we all do it. Which of us hasnít said at some point, ďShe must be in heaven because she was such a good person?Ē Or, ďHe deserved to suffer because of what he did.Ē Blessedness is seen as reward and suffering as punishment. They did it in the Old Testament, they did it in the New Testament and they do it today.

As a matter of fact, Iíve even heard some suggest that the recent unsettled weather is a sign from God that we have sinned, and that we will continue to receive floods, droughts, tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, blizzards and other extreme weather if we do not turn to God and beg for His mercy. We might have reason to turn to God and beg for mercy, but God isnít sending those weather situations to punish anyone for unfaithfulness. There may be things we can do to help create a safer, more life-giving situation, but the rain that will eventually come on our parched earth will not be a reward for anything we will do.

If this is what the divine spark in human beings leads us toóthis idea of reward and punishmentóit is no wonder that the atheist and agnostic does not believe. I think, perhaps, this Ďlack of faithí is an intellectual refusal to accept that some higher power is sitting in an unreachable place meeting out rewards and punishments. It makes sense, if you accept that this is the way God works. And in many religious, it is the way they believe the gods work. After all, if you recall the ancient understanding of the gods, youíll see that the human tendency is to put the burden of divine blessing on human shoulders. According to those ancient beliefs, the right worship, the right sacrifices, the right actions will receive blessings. It is no wonder that some people decide to reject God altogether than accept that every move we make will be punished or rewarded according to some unknown beingís will.

This point of view is not what we believe from a Christian standpoint. Unfortunately, many Christians still tend toward this understanding. During our Sunday morning discussion on these texts, someone told us that there had been a member of our church who claimed the dry weather in Texas was a direct result of the city allowing Sea World to build a park here. Iím not sure her thinking, except that she saw the drought as a punishment for the acceptance of something she thought was sinful.

So, we ask ourselves what weíve done wrong to deserve the pain we experience and we receive the blessings as if they are deserved. But God tells us that the rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike. We canít assume that anything we experience is because of anything we have done or that our blessedness is based on our goodness.

As we discussed the texts for this week in Sundayís class, we couldnít help but think about the drought we are experiencing in Texas. The recurring theme of rain watering the earth is hard to take when the grass has turned to dust and the trees are dying. I even heard a report that birds are decapitating other birds in their quest to quench their thirst. Since I found a decapitated bird on the ground one day, I believe the report.

But we go forward with the hope, or more than hope, that the weather will turn some day. When I wrote about these scriptures three years ago, we were at the end of another period of drought. The pounding storms brought much needed moisture to the ground, although for a time the rain came in such quantities that we suffered flash floods. I suspect that when the rain begins at the end of this drought, weíll have the same experience. If so, then are we blessed when it rains even if it floods? Thatís why the whole idea that God rewards and punishes us with nature is ridiculous.

The text from Isaiah is familiar to us. The chapter begins with the call for those who are thirsty to seek God for what He has He offers freely and abundantly. In todayís passage, we are reminded that everything that comes from God is fruitful. It is productive. God is actively involved in His creation, and He is faithful to His promises. His will shall be done, and He will make certain it is. Isaiah tells us in this passage of promise that instead of thorns, the earth will bear cypress and instead of briers the earth will bear myrtles. In other words, instead of those plants that are useless and even damaging, God will make the world productive and useful again.

It is interesting that Isaiah talks of the thorns and so does Jesus. In todayís Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a parable about a farmer sowing seed. Some of his seed lands on the pathway, some on the rocky ground, some in the thorns and some in the good earth. Jesus explains to the disciples that the seed sown on those places will not survive. Those seeds will fail because the seeds are either snatched away or scorched or choked. Only the seeds that fall in the good soil will survive, and not only will they survive but they will produce a hundred, sixty or thirty fold more.

Now, I usually look at this text from the point of view that it doesnít do us any good to throw seeds on bad soil. We should, as we are sharing Godís Good News, prepare the soil that is receiving it. We can help people hear the Word by meeting their physical and emotional needs as well as their spiritual needs. As many have said, a man canít hear the Gospel if his belly is grumbling in hunger. So, it does us well to consider how we share the Gospel message so that they will truly hear it and it will be received in hearts that are good soil.

And yet, as I have been considering the text this year, I canít help but notice that we really have little to do with making good soil. It isnít by our power or our actions that people will hear the Gospel. We are like that farmer scattering seed and we do not know where it will land. God does the work of making it grow and of preparing the fields. We simply go forth in faith knowing that Godís Word is like the rain that waters the earth, it is productive. It never fails.

He does this not only for those who will hear what we have to say, but He prepares our hearts, too. What burdens do we carry that make us tend toward that understanding that our lives are filled with rewards or punishment? Do we feel like we deserve the good things? Do we cry ďWhy?Ē when we are faced with bad times? Is the faith we have shallow and easy to steal, scorch or choke? How many people have faith, but live a life that is not fully immersed in the scriptures? How many attend church on Sunday and think thatís enough to keep them going? How many think that everything is either a reward or punishment for our righteousness or unrighteousness? It is no wonder that the atheist or agnostic chooses to reject God instead of accepting a faith so shallow.

In todayís Gospel passage, Jesus said, ďHe that hath ears, let him hear.Ē Any parent knows the frustration of dealing with a child who has hurt themselves. They react with intense emotions when they are hurt, and it is impossible to understand what is wrong. They scream so loud and so long that they canít say anything and they donít hear the calming assurances of those who want to help. A hurt child has ears, but they donít have ears that hear. They only know that they are hurt and they canít hear anything that might help make them feel better.

The people to whom Jesus was speaking may not have been screaming children, but they were often as deaf as a hurting child. They heard the words that Jesus spoke in His stories and sermons, but they did not really hear what He was saying. Jesus was sometimes very obvious in the message He was trying to share, giving the people very pointed and blunt information about His mission and ministry in the world. They heard those words from their own understanding and experience. When Jesus talked of the Kingdom of God, they thought He was talking about the restoration of a Jewish independence when He was talking about a different kind of Kingdom.

Thatís why Jesus used so many parables to teach the people about how to live as the people of God. Parables help us listen more deeply. We have to look at the story from a different perspective. We might know and understand the earth-bound concepts, like in this one about planting seed, but we have to think more deeply about what it means in our daily lives. What is the seed? What is growing? What are the path, the rocks and the thorns? Certainly Jesus was not giving the people farming advice. He wasnít a farmer and most of His listeners werenít farmers. He was giving them a parable to help them see Godís Kingdom in terms that they would understand. But to understand, they really had to listen to what He was saying, not just the words He said.

As we look at the world in which we live, we begin to wonder if God isnít really just playing with us. Does He really have control? Does He really care? Is He really faithful to His promises? 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? And if God is not about punishment and reward, whatís the point of being righteous?

That which God created is good, but from the beginning human nature has tended toward a misunderstanding of God. Even Adam and Eve thought they could control the mercy of God and His Will. Thatís the original sin: believing in ourselves above God. 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. We go forth in faith, knowing that God can make the soil good for planting and growth.

We witness the incredible power of God in the lives of people and His hand moving the whole of creation day by day. It should be impossible for us to not see Godís sovereignty as we look at this world. When flowers grow, it is because God sent the sun and the rain. When kittens are born, it is because God has knitted them in the wombs of their mothers. When the sky is filled with color at the close of the day, it is because God keeps the heavens moving according to their purpose as they count the days and the seasons as He designed them to do. Unfortunately, it is easy to miss seeing God in the world. Many people do. Some outright reject the idea that God even exists. Creation can take care of itself; we do not need something or someone greater than ourselves to explain the way the world works.

Yet, although they may say intellectually that they reject God because they believe that science is better at explaining the world than faith, I think they are actually rejecting a false understanding of God, that understanding that has been part of human existence from the beginning of time. But if, perhaps, they could finally hear the Gospel message of reconciliation and mercy, perhaps they would understand that it isnít about what we do, but what God does, that makes a difference.

We are sinners, dead in our flesh and unable to do anything on our own. However, God makes our hearts into good soil and plants His seeds into our hearts. He transforms us into us into something new. By grace we are made into new creation that will bear fruit. In Romans, Paul's words are rather harsh. We think we can live on our own and do good works and that it will be enough for us to deserve the blessings of God. But we can't do anything, even share the Kingdom of God, without Him. ďFor 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.Ē

God sends His rain to the earth, to water the earth. It might seem, especially to those living in a drought, that God has forgotten us. But it will rain. At times I wonder if there isnít a drought of another kind: a drought of Godís Word. But I know He will send His Word into the world and that those who have listening ears will hear. His Word will produce fruit much greater than the seed planted, bringing life to many. There are some paths to deal with, some stones to move and some thorns to eliminate, but God will make it happen. His Word is productive and it accomplishes exactly what He means it to do. He is, in every way, worthy of praise.

The key word in todayís scriptures seems to be water. Rain falls and waters the earth. Water produces a rich harvest. This is especially poignant for those of us living in Texas as we watch the earth die for lack of water. Though we do not believe the weathermen when the promise that we might have a slight chance of rain in week, we do know that God will rain down on us again.

For those of us who have wondered about the drought of Godís Word in the world, we can rest in the knowledge that God will rain on us in that way, too. He has promised and He is faithful. His Word accomplishes what He means it to do. He changes the world and makes it right. He brings life and joy and peace. He is worthy of our praise. Perhaps our sin should earn us some punishment and our works some reward, but God showers blessings on the earth as a memorial to His goodness and an everlasting sign that He is faithful.

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