Sunday, July 20, 2008

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
Isaiah 44:6-8 or Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19
Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Oh turn unto me, and have mercy upon me; Give thy strength unto thy servant, And save the son of thy handmaid.

I’m not very good with flowers. As a matter of fact, I am pretty good at planning a garden and putting the flowers in the ground, but then I don’t give them the attention they need. Poor Bruce ends up taking care of the garden by watering and weeding for me. I don’t mind getting my hands dirty, but I usually end up forgetting about the garden when the temperatures get too hot for outdoor activities.

Our latest attempt at a flower bed includes a small pond. We covered the bed with rocks and put a few pots with flowers. This gives us lovely color, but we do not need to use so much water to keep the flowers beautiful. We have to pull a weed out of the bed once in awhile as seeds fall between the rocks and sprout, but otherwise it takes very little work to keep it up. I am much more likely to go out and trim the plants or pull the weeds with this bed because it is not overwhelming.

We will eventually include fish in the pond, but first we have to establish the pond to make it a safe and healthy home for the fish. The intense sun and hot temperatures are not good for the fish, so it is important to include plants in the pond that will give the fish a place to escape the sun. I did some research on the internet and found a place I could purchase the right kinds of plants for our pond and our plans. I bought two types, one for spawning habitat and the other for shade.

It wasn’t as easy to find the perfect plants as I expected it to be. I went to a local garden center that has a large selection of pond plants, but they did not carry the type I wanted to purchase. The expert told me that the type of plant was illegal in Texas. I found that some plants were illegal, but not this particular one. The expert told me that even though that particular plant is fine, they did not want to carry anything that might be invasive. I bought some from a website and discovered that it was not the best choice. I cleaned it out of the pond and decided to purchase a different kind of plant.

Invasive plants cause problems because they are detrimental to crops, livestock and the environment. These plants take over the good soil and steal the nutrients necessary for good farming. They are difficult to remove, with deep roots that continue to grow even when they have been destroyed. They spread quickly from one place to another and crowd out the native plants, ruining the environment. There is a Federal list of plants that are considered noxious and most states have their own lists. Seed companies will not sell seeds and good environmental stewards will not plant or propagate those plants. We might think that it doesn’t matter, after all, they are just weeds.

However, some of these plants are wildflowers, loved by enthusiasts and gardeners. Queen Anne’s lace is one of my favorite wildflowers. It is also called Wild Carrot because the foliage looks like carrot leaves. We used to pick Queen Anne’s lace and put it into colored water. As the flower drank the water, the delicate white petals changed to whatever color was in the water. It is a lovely flower, but is found on the noxious weed lists of some states. Apparently to some, Queen Anne’s lace is an invasive plant.

Sometimes it is difficult to know what to do with a plant. There are so many beautiful wildflowers that I would hate to remove something that would enhance the garden even though it would be considered a weed. I find it ironic that we will drive an hour to a meadow to enjoy the wildflowers in bloom, but we are likely to cut down those very same flowers when they pop up in our manicured lawns. They say weeds are just wildflowers that are growing in the wrong place, and this is very often true.

In this week’s lesson, Jesus tells us about a farmer who planted a field. During the night an enemy planted weeds in that farmer’s field. It was not until later that the farmer’s workers realized that there were weeds in the midst of the plants. They wondered if they should remove the weeds. Weeds take important nutrients and steal the water necessary for good growth. Weeds also tend to grow larger than the crops, taking away valuable sunshine. But, it is easy to confuse a weed and a good plant in the early days of growth, they look so much alike. It is not until the crops grow tall that even the most knowledgeable farmer can tell the difference. By then the roots of the weeds are intertwined with the wheat. It is impossible to pull the weed without damaging the crops.

Sometimes the weeds are beneficial to the fields in which they are found growing. Wildflowers serve to give character to fruit like grapes. Vineyards produce grapes that take on the identity of the plants that are grown around them. If you taste wine carefully, you may be able to identify flavors such as mushroom and lavender in the wine. Some plants become stronger because they send their roots deeper into the soil seeking water and nourishment. A landowner knows the plants, the risks and the benefits and is careful to do what is best for his fields.

Jesus later explains to the disciples that He is the landowner who planted the seed and the evil one is the one who planted the weeds. The field is the world in which we live. We learn through this parable that the children of God will be living side by side with the children of the evil one. We may want to do some weeding ourselves; however we are reminded that we do not know what God knows.

We can’t tell the difference between those who are true of faith and those whose faith is false. We can’t read their hearts. Like the weeds in a wheat field, the truth will eventually come to light. We might be tempted to uproot those we see has coming from the evil one, but in doing so we do not always know the damage we might do to someone who is weak in faith. We do not know how they may actually help us to mature and grow strong in courage and faith. God knows what He needs to do. We are simply called to live as God has called us to live, trusting that our God is just and that He will take care of the wheat and deal with the tares. We may just find that what we thought was a tare is actually someone with whom God has not yet to finish His work. We might just find that we are made better by being in their presence. In the end all will be right, because God is faithful.

One of the most difficult aspects of Christian faith for a non-believer to accept is the idea found in today’s epistle lesson. Paul writes that we are joint heirs with Christ—something we like very much. We like the idea that we have been adopted as children of God, that He is our Abba, Daddy. However, Paul also writes that as joint heirs in the promise we share in every aspect of Christ’s reign, including His suffering. He writes, “…if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified with him.” People don’t want to worship a God that calls His people into a life of suffering, because for most people suffering equals pain. Yet, it is in our suffering that we find strength, courage and God’s grace. God is not a masochist who seeks to cause His people to be harmed. But to save the world He came in a manner by which He shared in our suffering and by the blood of Christ we are brought through that suffering to something greater.

We want immediate gratification. We want immediate answers and solutions. Yet, sometimes it is better to be patient and wait. Sometimes it is better to let the wheat stand alongside the weeds. Our hope rests in the fulfillment of the promises and we can be assured that those promises will be fulfilled because God is faithful. We do not know everything about the journey. We only know what God promises and we live in that hope. What good is a hope that is already received?

Would it be better for it to be finished today? Perhaps, but is there not so much more life we can live, so much more we can do to change the lives of those who have not yet heard the gospel? It might hurt a bit at times to be a child of God. We will face persecution and pain for our faith. And yet, as we live in the Spirit which we have received from God, we’ll wait expectantly along with all of God’s creation for that moment when He finally finishes the work He began in Christ Jesus. For now, we are the first fruits of that work, holy and dedicated to God so that others might see God’s grace in our faith and come to believe.

“King of the Hill” is a fun game. One kid climbs to the top of hill and the object is for the other kids to push them off. The one who gets to the top of the hill, knocking the “king” to the bottom gets to be “king” until someone else makes it to the top. It is a fun game because kids end up rolling down the hill, sometimes more from laughter than from knocking each other around.

I’m not so sure we stop playing “King of the Hill” when we grow up. Our games don’t take place on hillsides, however. They take place in boardrooms and offices. Sometimes we see those who are on the hilltops above us and do whatever it takes to knock them down so we can move up. This is not the best way to get ahead in our careers, but unfortunately it has worked since the beginning of time. All too often throughout history people really became king by getting rid of the ruler through violence, deceit and manipulation. In today’s world, the “king” is knocked down through less violent, though no less dangerous means. It doesn’t take much to destroy a person’s status, position, finances or reputation. Just like the childhood game, for some the object of life is to get to the top of the hill and stay there by any means.

I thought of this game when I was reading and rereading this week’s Old Testament lesson. Doesn’t God sound like the big guy who has made it to the top of the hill and is calling out for everyone else to try to knock Him off? For many, this is a bothersome image of God, particularly because we see those bullies grow up to be corporate bullies that can destroy lives with their ambition. However, God is not some bully playing a game. He is God. Who is there that can knock Him off the top of the hill?

Unfortunately, we let a great many things knock God off the top of our hill. We put so many things first—our jobs, our families, our romances, our education, our hobbies, our interests. We set God aside to take care of the business of living. Anything that we put ahead of God becomes our god. Though He is the One and only, we make gods of so many things. As He asks, however, “Who is like Him?” Can money stand up against God? Can our wishes and dreams? Can our opinions really be greater than God? What about our truth? Are our gods reliable? Can they declare their greatness ahead of God? There is nothing that can knock God off the top of the hill, but we get confused and look to so many things as if they are our gods. We believe them above God and rely on them above God.

The Old Testament lesson is a message from God to His people about the gods from whom they sought comfort. “I am the first, and I am the last; and besides me there is no God.” This is most certainly true. There is no god but our God. However, there are lots of false gods. For the Israelites and the other nations in the days of Isaiah, there were gods for every aspect of life. But these gods could do nothing. They had no power. God asks these ‘gods’, “And who, as I, shall call, and shall declare it, and set it in order for me, since I established the ancient people? And the things are coming, and that shall come to pass, let them declare.” Did the gods create the world or establish God’s people? Can they see the future? Of course not.

Did we create the world or establish God’s people? Can we see the future? Of course not. This is why it is not our task to remove the weeds from the wheat fields. We do not know God’s entire plan. We do not know what good might come of what has been done in the field or in the world. We can only trust that God is faithful and that His promises are true. The problem of living in the world was not just a problem for the people in Isaiah’s day. Paul’s letter addresses the same difficulties. The people, though they knew the grace of God, still thought they could find comfort in the ways of the world. We are children of God and as such we are called to live by the Spirit, not by our flesh. We have been adopted by God and He is our Abba, Daddy.

Yet, we still look t ourselves, our own power, our own abilities to control our world. Our jobs, our relationships, our homes, our churches and even our own bodies, minds and hearts are like gods to us. We make them our priority and we forget to worship the LORD. But nothing human can create something out of nothing. Our human flesh can not predict tomorrow. We won’t find comfort in the things of this world. That is why we look to the Rock for all that we need.

Anne Hathaway played Princess Mia in the “Princess Diaries” movies. She was an American girl who discovered that her father was the crown prince of Genovia, a tiny fictional country in Europe. Mia’s parents were divorced, her mother returned to America and her father prepared to become king. When her father died before he could remarry and produce an heir, Mia was left as the last of the line. She became princess and eventually moved to Genovia to become queen.

In the second film, Mia discovered that it was Genovian law that a queen must be married to take the throne. Since she was a foreigner, unfamiliar with the country and its people, she was only given thirty days to find a suitable husband or else the throne would be given to another. During that month, however, even as she was preparing to marry a man she barely knew, Mia proved to her new country that she was everything they could want in a queen. In the end, Mia refused to marry and she convinced Parliament to change the law so that she might rule the country she had come to love.

There was a scene in the film that was the defining moment for Mia. Her actions proved her worthy, not only to those who loved her and to the people of the country, but also to the young man who was next in line for the throne. When he saw her, he knew she should be queen and he later renounced his claim so that there would be nothing to stand in her way.

The moment came during a parade. The queen and Princess Mia were riding down the cobblestone streets of the village when Mia noticed some children that were watching the parade. Several boys were picking on a little girl who was clearly frightened by their thoughtlessness. She was a young child, perhaps five years old, with her thumb stuck in her mouth and a security blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Mia halted the parade and got out of the car. She walked over to the children and interceded for the little girl. When she discovered that the children were orphans, she invited them to join her in the parade, choosing to walk with them rather than ride in the car. She purchased plastic tiaras for all the girls and taught them how to be princesses. The boys came along because the world can always use a few more princes. The young girl was transformed—she became a princess simply because Mia said she was a princess. She stopped sucking her thumb and walked with grace and courage.

By making the young girl a princess, even if only for a day, Princess Mia showed the bullies that they should not pick on her. Mia lifted her up, gave her confidence and hope. Mia also discovered a way she could make a very real difference in her own country, promising to change to circumstances of all the orphans by opening a new center where they could be given better care.

The fictional character of Princess Mia is certainly not God, but this story does sound much like what we hear has happened to the psalmist in today’s lesson. The Lord God Almighty teaches His ways, transforms His people. He lifts them up so that their enemies see their value in His eyes and they are put to shame. He helps us, and in this we find great comfort. We might feel like the world around us is falling apart, especially when we see those whom we think have been planted by the evil one. However, we can rest in the knowledge that God is just and true.

We aren’t God. We don’t know what God knows. We might face difficulties. We might struggle. We might suffer at the hands of another. Yet, we live in hope while we live in this world, knowing that hope is not just a wish or a dream. Hope in the promise of God is worth waiting for, waiting patiently because God is faithful. The day will come when the weeds will be destroyed. Until that day, we can rely on God to help us live side by side with the world because we have been given the Spirit of God. He will bring us through as no other god can do.

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