Texts: Isaiah 55:10-13 ; Psalm 65:9-13 ; Romans 8:1-11 ; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
In the name Jesus – God word, God’s water and God’s seed. Amen.
I was gone last week, as many of you know, having traveled to San Francisco for the biennial Lutherans Concerned assembly and then a couple days of vacation. I’m always a little surprised by how lush the vegetation is out there, until I remember that they’re basically living in a cloud half the time. There is so much moisture in the air that the ground leeches it out of the sky and plants grow like they’ve all been planted in peat moss.
We’re not having much trouble with moisture here either. When I got back to the office this last Thursday the first thing I saw was the landscapers out in front of the parish house checking on the gardens. They had their hoses out and were giving both plots a deep watering. Not even two hours had passed after they left before the skies opened up and it started to storm. Our gardens have been getting plenty of water and you can see how eager everything is to grow. Even the gutters and the cracks in the sidewalk are sprouting with new life – demonstrating that all that’s needed for growth is seed, sun and rain.
One of my favorite theologians, a 20th century American mystic named Howard Thurman, comments on life’s innate direction toward growth in the following way. He writes,
“In your own household you know that your cat, or dog, or canary, or rosebush are alive. You know that your child, or husband, or wife, or friend, are alive as you relate to them within a living context. This is obvious. We are so conscious of the fact of each individual expression of life about us that the simplest and most wonderful fact of all is passed by. And what is that? The fact that life itself is alive, has the persistent trait of living – that any and all living things continue to survive as long as that essential vitality is available to them.[i]”
He goes on to point out the difficulties in defining what, precisely, the state of being alive means – quoting biologists who find exceptions to every rule we might come up with for the word life. We have biologists in our congregation, so I’ll say less here to avoid embarrassing myself, but the main point has been made and proven with our own eyes as we walked in the door this morning. Life is alive and it’s constantly reaching for itself. Life reaches for life.
This simple truth is the melody running through all of our readings for this morning. The prophet Isaiah, the psalm, Jesus’ parable about the sower and the seeds… even Paul’s arcane letter to the Romans, they’re all full of talk about living things, and the things that are necessary for life.
Let’s start with the hardest one – Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul, who had all the training of a lawyer and was more than comfortable with rhetoric, is trying to talk about life’s reaching for itself and so he uses the metaphor that he’s most comfortable with – he talks about laws. He contrasts “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” with “the law of sin and of death.” Both are at work in our bodies, which is to say that both are at work in our lives, but the two are not equal and that is perhaps the most important point. Because Paul’s language is so full of words like law and sin and death, it can be easy to misinterpret what Paul is trying to communicate.
When I hear words like law and sin, I am immediately drawn to think about myself – what laws I may have broken, what sins I may have committed. That is a demoralizing project, because it doesn’t take me very long to recognize how far short of the mark I often fall. When I conjure up my ideal self, the me I’m trying to be – the me I want others to see, and I compare that person against my actual self – the person I am, the person you all see, my weaknesses and failings are always in front of me. And, no matter how hard I may try to pull myself up by my bootstraps, or improve myself, or heal myself – I lack the grace I need for life to be worth living. I remain my harshest critic and I find no satisfaction in life. My life is limited by my own flesh, or put another way, my life is limited by my own self, my ego.
This is the state of being Paul is referring to when he says “to set the mind on the flesh is death.” He’s not talking about a preoccupation with bodies or pleasure or any of the other clichés that come up when we think about “sins of the flesh.” He’s more like a biologist trying to describe reality. To set the mind on the flesh is like trying to live life without oxygen or water. Think about that for a moment. When we think about our lives as beginning and ending where our skin meets the air – if we think that we are the sum of everything inside our skin, and the world is everything outside our skin, then we are just flesh. But flesh without air – without inspiration – begins to rot within moments. We are not self-sufficient. We are utterly reliant on our environment. We are completely dependent on creation.
Fortunately for us then, God is at work in creation providing us with all the inspiration we need. Even the word inspiration reminds us that God is as close to us as our breath. So Paul can say, “you are not in the flesh” – you are not a closed system, a self-sustaining creature – “you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you…if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of [God] who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, [God] who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through [the] Spirit that dwells in you.”
That’s all very heady, but I wanted to push through it a little bit because I sense that we sometimes skip over Paul’s letters reflexively because of his language and his style – and we miss the enthusiasm and joy and good news that Paul is trying to communicate. For me, and maybe it’s just because I’m more of a storyteller than a scientist, I hear that good news more clearly in Jesus’ parable.
Jesus tells a story about a sower, a farm worker, who goes out to sow seed. This was a good image to use with an audience that made their living off the land and understood both the biology and the economics of agricultural work. Jesus says that as the sower went out to sow he scattered his seed on the path where it was easy for birds to eat, and on rocky ground where the soil wasn’t as capable of sustaining life, and among thorns that choked the life out, and on good soil that brought forth grain enough to feed all the people.
When I listen to this story I move immediately to thinking about the metaphor of the soil, and I wonder what kind of soil I am. I look for evidence of seedlings breaking the surface of my life, trying to tell if they’re growing in shallow soil or being choked by thorns. I try and make the story immediately about me, which isn’t unlike trying to be a closed system, or living life in the flesh. But my grandfather, who as a farmer needed to know not only about the biology of growing things but about the economics of running a farm, might have heard this story differently – more like the audience Jesus was talking to.
What kind of farm worker wastes good seed on bad soil? Who throws seed on the path, in front of predators? Why would a laborer toss seed into a thorny patch of bramble – who’s going to want to gather the grain that grows there?
Those are the kinds of questions a sensible farmer would ask, but that is not God’s logic. Good soil and bad soil. Good people and bad people. Those are our categories, not God’s. Jesus tells a story about the goodness of God in which God throws away precio
us seed, which Jesus explains is a symbol for “the word,” and doesn’t make distinctions. Jesus, who is God’s living word, God’s inspiration, who is the sign that God is providing all that is needed for life, is scattered carelessly among us all.
This carelessness is the lavishness of God. It’s like we sang in the psalm this morning, “you visit the earth and water it abundantly; you make it very plenteous; the river of God is full of water. You prepare the grain, for so you provide for the earth.”
Or in the passage from Isaiah, which explicitly connects the ecological images of seeds and sowing with God’s word:
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isa 55:10-11)
God is carelessly, lavishly, providing everything we need for life – rain, grain, water, wind, air, inspiration. It falls on the good and on the bad – which are our categories, not God’s. In God’s eyes these goods are being provided for God’s own children – all of us – the only category that matters.
God is making promises to us, claiming us all in the promise of abundant life. If you back up to the beginning of the 55th chapter of Isaiah you hear the promise more clearly. God speaks through the prophet, saying (in one contemporary translation):
Hey there! All who are thirsty, come to the water!
Are you penniless? Come anyway – buy and eat.
Come, buy your drinks, buy wine and milk.
Buy without money – everything’s free!
Pay attention, come close now, listen carefully to my life-giving, life-nourishing words.
I’m making a lasting covenant commitment with you, the same I made with David: sure, solid, enduring love.
And now I’m doing it to you: You’ll summon nations you’ve never heard of, and nations who’ve never heard of you will come running to you.
“I don’t think the way you think. The way you work isn’t the way I work…”
And so you will go out in joy, you’ll be led into a whole and complete life.[ii]
It is as Paul has said it, “God has done what the law could not do.” God has done it – God has scattered everything needed for life at our feet. God’s lavish abundance is as close to us as our next breath. We are people of a promise, a promise made to all people, that we will be led into a whole and complete life.
[i] Thurman, Howard. Disciplines of the Spirit. Richmond: Friends United Press. 1963. p14.
[ii] Peterson, Eugene. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs: NavPress. 2002. pp. 1000-1001.