Saturday, July 12, 2008

How does your garden grow?

Proper 10A July 12, 2008

I asked that the whole of the passage from Isaiah be read this morning rather just the verses appointed not only because this in one of my favorite passages in scripture but also because it helps us understand what Isaiah is trying to say.
“The people of Judah and Jerusalem have been in exile. They had been violently removed from their homeland by the Babylonians 40 years earlier. The prophet brings a word of hope of return. This hope is a fulfillment of God’s promise to the people. Earlier the prophet sought to comfort them with the message that their servitude was over. But people who have suffered badly do not embrace hope easily.
The opening of Isaiah Chapter 55 has reminded some of the invitations of the water sellers in the town square, like when we provide water for CROP walkers, but what is offered far exceeds that image. The thirsty and the poor are invited to drink. Neither one’s need nor one’s ability to pay will stifle this gift. Far more than water is on offer – wine and milk, delightful things are for the taking and at no cost.
Normally, to have access to these one had to be a landowner, with vineyards and herds or flocks, or have money to purchase them. Not so here. Nothing is required of the “purchaser” in this deal and nothing is demanded by the giver. The point may not be simply to chasten those who spend frivolously, or to admonish those who fear running out, but to say that nothing we could afford through wealth or effort will satisfy. What matters is listening and responding. That is the key to life.”
Isaiah is reminding the people of God that their purpose is to be the Light to the Nations—the people of a single god in a polytheistic world. They cannot fulfill their purpose in life if they remain in captivity in Babylon. They are to return to Judah and Jerusalem to live out what God has called them to be and who they had covenanted to be. And for the people who were content with their lives in Babylon, it was easier to live in the exile that it was to do the hard work of transformation by returning to Zion.
From the standpoint of a preacher this passage reminds me that God’s word goes out and does not return to God without doing what it was sent for. It reminds me that I don’t always know to whom I am preaching, or for that matter what I am preaching. God is going to do something with what I say if I but remain faithful. God does not depend upon the goodness of God’s servants to work God’s goodness. This theological principle of “ex operae operato”—that the sacraments are effective and made holy not because the pastor or the minister who performs them but because God is holy is an ancient principle in Christianity. I must admit that this sense that God completes what God does despite ineptitude or personal sinfulness is a great relief to those of us who are ordained.
What we hear in this reading is how generous God is. God gives no matter what. It does not matter if there is enough, or if we have the money to pay for it. It doesn’t matter if the people giving or receiving them are worthy or not. God’s generosity says that there will be enough. What we hear in these words is that if we are but faithful, God will provide. If the people of Israel will return to Jerusalem, their purpose will be fulfilled. If we are willing to listen and respond, our purpose will be worked out. It is not our purpose in live that is imporftant—it is God’s purpose for our lives that is important.
In the Gospel we hear of a farmer who is so generous that he flings seed all over the place. Unlike out good upstate NY farmers who are very careful about planting seed only in the fields that have been properly tilled, the sower who is God in Jesus’ parable sows with abandon. He sows in the good soil but he also flings it upon rocky land so that the birds may eat. He slings it among the briars or the bushes or even on the sun-baked clay that won’t receive the seed. It means that grain grows where it will. And for those that harvest, it takes some effort to glean it.
Jesus’ parable is about preparing our patch so God’s word can be fruitful. But paired with the Isaiah reading, it is also about God’s generosity that it matters not where the seed falls, God’s work is going to be realized. God is generous beyond all measure and we are called to participate in that generosity.
Every so often I watch the Televangelists and listen to how God wants them to enjoy the work of Creation. And I agree with that. I do believe that God wants us to know happiness beyond measure. For me that is what Christian hope is about. But all too often that wealth that God promises is seen as material. I don’t believe that God wants me to own a Mercedes-Benz in order to understand God’s generosity. I don’t begrudge others who might have a Mercedes-Benz—I just know that I don’t have to have one in order to be happy. God does work out God’s purpose without a need for THINGINESS. God’s purpose is for us to live in love with God and one another. God’s purpose is that we know what it means to be joyful. And we know that joy in the light of the Cross. We know that joy in the light of God made human so that we might know how to live with one another.
Like the people of Israel who could not live out God’s purpose in captivity, neither can we. We need to live in the liberty of God’s generosity without coveting what others have. There are many Christians who do not know that they are called to joy as Christians. I am not saying that there isn’t heartache in the life of a Christian. Just as Jesus had to deal with pain and suffering, so must we. But I do believe that at the heart of the Christian message is the call to happiness. And the message of a generous God is that ALL are called to that happiness—that our happiness is not at the expense of others.
I am not talking about some “Don’t worry-Be happy” kind of mindlessness. I am talking about that sense of purpose- giving joy that knowing that we are saved by God’s over-arching desire that we be one in Spirit. The Christian life can be lived in life-transforming joy when we put God first. It means that sharing what we have is part of that joy. It means that yes, we must deny ourselves so that others can know joy. It means that practicing our faith is more important that proclaiming what we believe. It means when we cannot be generous, we must recognize that we are being convicted by God’s love so that we may be transformed. God’s purpose is being acted out in our lives so that we may grow, so that we may be changed, so that we may share more profoundly in God’s generosity.
Friday, Judy and I were both off and we made one of our necessary pilgrimages to Barnes and Noble. We don’t always go to buy books; we often go to see what people are saying in the world. We look at the new titles and then we spend a good bit of time at the sale tables seeing what has been said. This time Judy found a book “Black in Selma” written by someone she knew in Selma back during the Civil Rights struggles of the ‘60’s. You would think that the amount of pain and suffering that that event provided her, she would not want to read about it. But she reads such things with joy. It is a touch with the time when God was sowing generosity in her heart. It was when she was most alive and knew that she was doing God’s will. I think God sowed perennials because those issues keep coming up year after year for her. Some of those perennials have been transplanted in me because of her. That is part of the way we propagate the faith.
Periodically we need to tend the garden that God has sown in us. We need to touch again the purpose that God is working out in us. Perhaps we need to plow again some portion of our purpose and allow God to reseed. Perhaps we need to water our gardens, or do a bit of weeding. Sometimes we need to do some transplanting so that God’s generosity can be seen in a broader context. But whatever the condition of our faith gardens we must always be willing to embrace God’s generosity. We must be willing to see it as God’s purpose, not our own. We must be willing to recognize that when we are stingy with our hearts we are giving God short shrift. Our gardens are not plots we guard in our captivity—they are ones that are boundless just as God’s love for us is boundless.
Today I would invite you to ask yourselves how your gardens grow. I would bid you to know the freedom of God’s extravagance but I would also hope for you to know the purpose that God is working out in your lives with Divine generosity. Do you need to tend your garden? AMEN.

1 comment:

Katie Z. said...

"Our gardens are not plots we guard in our captivity—they are ones that are boundless just as God’s love for us is boundless."

I love this line in your sermon... it is like the clincher for me. I'm not using the Isaiah text, but the boundlessness of God's generosity, tied in with the gospel passage speaks volumes... and then that one line goes back to the "what do we do with it now" question. I love it! (and I also love the freedom with which you talk about all of our humanity as pastors/preachers - but the faith that God uses us anyways!)