The Rev. Dr. Austin Leininger
Sermon of Proper 10
6th Sunday After Pentecost
16 July 2017
Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14
This Sunday we take a break from Abraham’s ongoing family-history, with the birth of Isaac and Rebecca’s twins, Esau and Jacob in this morning’s alternate reading, to do a little environmental science check-in with Isaiah’s prophetic vision of the divine water table, our Psalmist’s review of the solvent properties of water on soils, Matthew’s review of soil composition and growth ratios amongst sown seed samples, and Paul’s reminder of the existential tension between competing demands of flesh and spirit—which on the surface doesn’t seem to tie in with the environmental- sciences theme, but will all make sense by the time we’re done.
As academically thrilling as it might be to hone in on the sciences of water, soil, seeds, and the regional variability of ambient nutrient concentrations in the middle east between 500 BCE and 30 CE, the spiritual connection between all of our readings today is the use of large-scale environmental analogy by which each variously serves as a personal and spiritual metaphor of God’s abundance and call, our ability and willingness to hear and follow that call, and the tensions between our desire to live as agents of God’s abundance and the instinct to draw back and close in on ourselves when the world is unreceptive to Love’s demands.
I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two weeks talking with various groups and people about the social relevance of Christianity and Church in the larger scale of today’s world, and how we might plan and envision our response in our local communities. Wednesday before last Sunday I made a presentation and led discussion on this subject in the Progressive Christian Forum here in Santa Cruz. Like Calvary, many of the progressive Christian denominations are struggling for precisely the kind of social relevance that keeps them making enough difference to the broader community to spark growth. I spoke again with COPA on the subject this past Monday, as well as with my Tuesday text study group about the same subject in relation to the Sower in today’s gospel. Still again this past Wednesday, in response to the conversation I had with the children and youth committee at Calvary, I initiated a conversation with clergy in Scotts Valley, Ben Lomond, Aptos, and Watsonville about missional possibilities in group ministry to a broader segment of tweens and teens in our region—which I then spoke with Canon Jesus Reyes about in Salinas Wednesday afternoon in preparation to meet with him on July 20th to discuss grant writing to kick-start our family ministry program for the fall. Responding to similar conversations with a few other individuals, pet projects in landscaping and building improvement have been sparked to increase the curb appeal of Calvary as we strive to show our downtown neighbors that we are not simply here, but thriving and, as our pride flags and welcoming statement on our website, Facebook page, newsletter and bulletins proclaim, we are ready to welcome, radically and openly, any child of God curious enough to step across our threshold to encounter God’s love alive and thriving in this community.
As Steed Davidson commented in response to today’s reading from Isaiah, any clear vision of the future starts with hope. Pentecost, and this long green growing season beyond, is a story about that hope, and, as Isaiah captures in his prophecy to a people languishing in exile, the season of God’s abundance is perpetually coming. It is as the snows and spring rains that re- water and nourish the ground to spring forth again with the doubly rich abundance for both bread to nourish us in the here and now as well as seed enough to re-sow for the future. It is the hope that sends us out in joy and brings us back again in peace. God’s word, as Isaiah asserts in parallel to the waters that nourish the earth, bringing forth the abundance of sustaining and regenerative fauna, consists not merely in speech, but in results, impacts, outcomes, and transformations. “God’s word is a word that does things. When God speaks, something comes about,”1 and our Psalmist echoes the hope and exultation of the hills and trees singing and clapping their hands with praise for God’s abundance, providence, and love for all of creation.
Where this ties in with today’s Gospel is marvelously thematic, but Paul’s discussion in Romans requires a bit more time to unearth.
In the elaborate rhetorical structuring of the letter to the Romans, Paul first sets up the Jewish Christians of this community to think themselves better than the Gentile Christians. He calls to mind all of the Gentile practices that Jews found to be dirty and dishonorable to the body and purity and which would offend the piety of the Jewish Christians in this mixed community. And then, just when they are feeling smugly superior, Paul turns the tables on them and says, but YOU are no better. You who had the law, and who have revered it and gloried in it, yet have not kept it are just as impure and dirty and offensive as you have historically found these gentile practices to be. Turning to the side of the Gentile Christians, Paul continues to fault the Jewish Christians calling to mind the ways in which they have been hypocrites of the law, and stating that their physical circumcision has become the un-circumcision of their hearts, whereas the Gentile Christians, like Abraham, whose faith was accounted to him as righteousness, were already circumcised in their hearts despite being un-circumcised in the flesh. He’ll go on to turn the tables on the Gentile Christian community as well, ending up with the exhortation that neither side has any position from which to judge the other, at which point he’ll go into his final exposition on what a Christian community ought to be doing rather than arguing about who is the best Christian, and how the blessing of a mixed community offers witness to a broader audience in their many overlapping communities outside the church. Where today’s reading lands, Paul, in the midst of talking up the Gentile part of the community, is teaching from the difference between what he refers to as being in the flesh and being in Christ or in the Spirit. The state of being in the flesh is the state of alienation we impose on ourselves when we turn in on ourselves and focus only inward. It is a state of insecurity, a place of scarcity, a place of grabbing and holding onto whatever resources we can. It may be in response to being hurt, it may be out of fear, it may be out of selfishness, or any number of other self-preserving or self-aggrandizing motivations. Whatever the cause, it is the antithesis of opening ourselves to God and to the world around us, seeking to serve and to share God’s abundance in a worldview that affirms that abundance and call to relationship, to newness of life, and to love heedless of the consequences. This latter is what Paul refers to as being in Christ or in the Spirit—a state of relational openness in which we live as Christ’s hands and heart as a part of the living, breathing, body of Christ that awakens the world around us to the abundance of God’s reign right here and right now. By Paul’s reckoning, Christ came that those walls and barriers we’ve erected between ourselves and God might be shattered for all time. When Paul states, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God,” he taps into the human experience of alienation we experience when we curl up into a spiritual and emotional ball and shut out the world around us, or on a larger scale, when we as a society focus only on economic prosperity and consumer success rather than the kind of environmental and social balance that marks the true abundance of God’s reign. This state of mind is hostile to God precisely because it shuts God out and keeps us separated from God’s love, forgiveness, healing, and balance—which is the root of God’s law as simplified by Christ—love of God, and love of neighbor as ourselves. Paul reminds all in this mixed community in Rome, that despite curling up in their protective balls, despite sometimes being mired in a mindset of the flesh, this is not who we are nor is it who we are called to be. The reminder at the beginning of this passage is that our own condemnation of ourselves and each other is not God’s condemnation. Rather in God’s love, in Christ, in the Spirit, where our hearts and minds once again find wholeness, healing, forgiveness, balance, and love, there is no condemnation.
The parable of the sower from Matthew can speak to this same understanding of the states of mind in which we find ourselves when God calls us. Tying all of today’s readings together, Matthew’s parable of the sower offers us an introspective opportunity to enter into the story wherever we are in our journey, and to find ourselves in relationship to sower, seed, and soil. While the exegesis of the different types of soil being different types of people, believed by many to be a later commentary on Jesus’ parable, is intended to be helpful, parables are intended to have many possible meanings. The Buddhist concept of the Bodhi Dharma describes a teaching that awakens something in the listener. It is used to describe the way the Buddha taught such that he neither spoke over the heads of those least educated nor insulted the intelligence of those most educated. Parable does just this. Its meaning may change every time we hear it, precisely because its meaning is based on where the hearer is on their own journey.
My own reading of today’s parable is not simply that each kind of soil is a different type of person who hears God’s word or God’s call, but that at different points in my life, I have been all of these types of soil. I have gotten and sometimes still do get carried away by the cares of our world. I sometimes get excited only to lose momentum. I sometimes don’t hear or understand where and how God is calling me. And sometimes on a good day for at least a couple hours, I might be that good soil that yields a miraculous harvest. But I am constantly reminded that even when I am good soil, it’s not that I perpetually remain good soil. On any given day or hour in the day, I may be rocky soil, or weeds, or packed ground, or good soil… it is part of being human, and Paul reminds us that there is no condemnation for being these kinds of soil, but that there is always a calling and invitation to be good soil no matter where we are in our lives or day.
On another level, we are also the sower of the parable, encouraged to follow the example of the prodigal sower in the story who must know which soil is good and which is the path, which has been weeded, tilled to remove rocks, and which has not, but who casts seeds everywhere anyway, and with such abundance that path, rocks, weeds, and good soil all receive the same share. So too, we are reminded that our job as a welcoming community is not merely to embrace those who are brave enough to step across our threshold, or those seeking us out, or to carefully place individual seeds where they will have the best chance to grow, but to cast the seeds of God’s abundant love wherever we are, and no matter what the soil. The yield, which may surprise us, is up to God and those individuals on whom God’s love takes root.
As noted in Feasting on the Word: Even if the harvest were only thirtyfold, this story would end with a miracle. Sevenfold meant a good year for a farmer, and tenfold meant true abundance. Thirtyfold would feed a village for a year and a hundredfold would let the farmer retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee. Bushels of abundance are where this parable leads, and bushels of abundance are where we are called to place our hopes as we cast the seeds of God’s love far and wide from this amazing Calvary community.
Finally, we might also be the seeds themselves, flung far and wide as instruments of God’s kingdom cast in all directions, to all kinds of soil by a sower who knows just how desperately this world needs to experience and find itself caught up in the abundance of God’s love.
As the conversations about social relevance come home to Calvary, this fall we’ll be meeting in small groups to discuss our visions for our future together, how we hope to make a difference in our community and in our world, how we hope to grow together as a parish community dedicated both to one another and to sharing God’s abundance with those inside and outside our doors. The seeds of growth and excitement are already finding fertile ground. We are, each of us, sower, seed, and every kind of soil, but as our Psalmist’s exultation in God’s rich providence reminds us, no matter what part we play in this parable, no matter where we are in our spiritual journey, it is God that calls to us to take part in the rich abundance at the root of all of today’s readings, and it is in relationship with God and one another that we are, in Isaiah’s words, sent out in joy to sow, to be cast as seed, and to seek as often as we can to be the good soil that allows God’s work to grow.
May the hope that sends us out in joy to accomplish God’s work in our lives and world bring us back again to a place of peace, of balance, of shalom to begin the cycle anew together, and may we find ourselves ready for bushels of abundance to sustain us into our next hundred and fifty three years together as a Calvary community!
1 Steed Davidson, in Bartlett, David L.; Taylor, Barbara Brown, Feasting on the Word: Year A, Vol 3: Pentecost and Season after Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16) (Presbyterian Publishing Corporation), Kindle Loc. 7486-7487.