Who are you in the Garden of God?
A sermon on Matthew 13
Hear ye, hear ye! I'm baa-aack! I've just come back to work after being gone for seven weeks. I was on a sabbatical, a gift churches periodically give to their clergy, for a time of deep spiritual renewal. Sabbaticals are something like a combination of rest and study, somewhere between vacation and continuing education, only deeper. Deep, spiritual renewal is what I was supposed to take away from my experience, and deep spiritual renewal is just what I got. In case you didn't know, each week I wrote about my sabbatical experience on my blog, which you can locate by looking at the back page of today's bulletin.
During that time away I traveled more than 5,000 miles, visiting lots of folks. I saw my brother and met his new wife. I saw my sisters. I spent a good bit of time with my father, who is doing quite well after the death of my mother six months ago. I shared some good time with great friends. And I got to hang out a lot with my best friend, my wife, both at her church and away from it all.
One of the last things I did on my way back home to Maryland was to stop in Cincinnati and visit the church of my childhood, where I was confirmed fifty years ago. The interim rector there is an old friend of mine, and it was great to have dinner with him and catch up. I asked him, "What's the best thing that's happened since you've been here?" And he told me a story that makes me think of the one Jesus told the crowd and his disciples in today's Gospel account.
My priest friend had to search for a new music director at that Ohio church. When the final three candidates came in for their interviews, he asked the young man who got the job, "If music were a garden, what plant would you be?" The musician thought for a moment and said, "Do I have to be a plant?" "No," my friend said, "you can be anything you want to be in that garden." "Then, I'm the soil," said the young musician, quickly. "I want to be rich, fertile soil for all those who want to make music and worship God in this place."
Jesus spoke in parables, a special kind of story, all the time. There are eight parables in this thirteenth chapter of Matthew's gospel. Jesus spoke to the people of his day - and especially to his disciples - in these parables about God. Actually, Jesus' parables are about the kingdom of God, or what some of us have come to call God's kin-dom. We are all spiritual sisters and brothers. All of us are "kin" in the kin-dom of God. And just like Jesus and the people of his day, just like those first disciples, we all have places in the parables of God's kin-dom.
Jesus almost always started his parables with the phrase: "The kingdom of God" or "the kingdom of heaven is like..." The kingdom of God - as opposed to kingdoms people have tried to create ever since we began to inhabit this planet - the kin-dom of God is so complex, so rich, so wonderful, that it "is like" something. God's kin-dom is not 100%-exactly-equal to something, like pi = 3.1417...or E = mc2. God's kin-dom is not just about math. It's also about music.
And it's about seed, soil and a sower. Now you may be asking yourself, "Who is what in this parable?" Ever since Jesus first told this parable - and it's pretty clear he actually DID tell this story, since it shows up in Mark's and Luke's versions of the Gospel, too - ever since Jesus told this story, countless hours have been spent and ink has been spilled, trying to allegorize it, to figure it all out. But there are things about parables that are un-figure-out-able. The parables of Jesus aren't about mathematical figures. They're about figures of speech. Once upon a time, when I taught my son how to toss a ball back and forth to me, I said, "Now, John, keep your eye on the ball!" And he picked the ball up and put it right on his eye. After a big LOL moment, I said, "John...that's a figure of speech."
"The kingdom of God is like... People have trouble from time to time with these figures of speech and parables, paradox and metaphor - especially when it invites us to change the way we live our lives. "Hear ye, hear ye!" town criers used to say. Today, it would be, "Yo! Dude! Listen up!" Jesus simply said, "Listen!" Jesus said, "Listen!" because he wanted his followers to keep their eyes on the ball of his story. Jesus wanted them to sharpen their ears on the words of this parable, to hear what he had to say - because it meant changing their lives.
But the people crowded onto that beach probably didn't want to change their lives the way Jesus was asking them to do. Neither did the disciples, that group of guys sometimes called "The Knucklehead Club." Neither - probably, honestly - do we. We probably keep trying to figure it all out, in our own, special way, and just not talk about it. Is that why the people who made our lectionary omitted ten verses in the middle of today's Gospel? Did you notice? What's THAT about? Here are the verses, in contemporary style. Listen to this:
The disciples came up and asked (Jesus), "Why do you tell stories?" He replied, "You've been given insight into God's Kingdom. You know how it works." Not everybody has this gift, this insight....Whenever someone has a ready heart for this, the insights and understandings flow freely. But if there is no readiness, any trace of receptivity disappears. That's why I tell stories: to create readiness, to nudge the people toward receptive insight. In their present state they can stare until doomsday and not see it, listen till they're blue in the face and not get it. I don't want Isaiah's forecast repeated all over again:
Your ears are open but you don't hear a thing.
Your eyes are awake but you don't see a thing.
The people are blockheads!
They stick their fingers in their ears
So they won't have to listen;
They screw their eyes shut, so they won't have to look,
So they won't have to deal with me face-to-face
And let me heal them.
But you, Jesus said to his disciples, have...God-blessed ears - ears that hear!...
A lot of people...would have given anything to see what you are seeing, to hear what you are hearing, but they never had the chance" (Matthew 13:10-17, The Message).
Friends, this is our chance. How about it? Are you listening? God is speaking to God's people, to US, through this parable of Jesus. But what is God saying? Here's what one preacher says about Jesus and this parable: "Jesus does not just tell this parable. He lives it" (Talitha Arnold, Feasting On The Word, p. 238). From the hard path, on the road from Nazareth to Calvary; with rocky friends, like Peter; while fighting off people like the Pharisees, who tried to choke him from speaking in parables about God's kin-dom. But Jesus and his parables live on. The parables live on...in you. The parables live on in me.
It's not about how many people attend worship or summer camp. It's not about how many people participate in Outreach programs or pledge. It's not about whether All Saints' makes its Capital Campaign goal. It's NOT about "other people." And it's not about who's telling the story. It's about who is living the Good News of God. It's about you. It's about me.
Who are you in the garden of God? A potted plant or good soil? If you are a seed, are you germinating? Are you the hard path, the rocky road, the thorny weeds? Does all of that really matter, when it comes to God's kin-dom?
Isn't THIS what matters? God is the sower. God is the sower - not you, not me. And God the sower keeps on sowing seed. There's no end to the seed of God. There's no scarcity, just abundance. OUR problem is one of distribution. That's what Jesus says God's kin-dom is like. Isn't that Good News? Isn't that a great end to God's story? Don't you want to BE in that story?