Monday, February 16, 2015

A New Kingdom - Fruitfulness

Preached on Sunday, February 15, 2015

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 4:1-4; Matthew 13:1-23

I did most of my growing up in a small farming town. I went to school with a number of farm kids, and I did some farm work when I was young. That was all about orchards.
Pictures Around Sutter Buttes
Near Live Oak CA: February 2014
I didn’t really know much, but I knew enough about it to know what I would grow, if I were a farmer; and I had an idea, looking around me, what farms were better than others. Some were good because they were fancy. Some were good because they were big. Some were good because they were well kept and carefully managed. You could sort of tell by looking at them.
I didn’t get to know anything about wheat farming until I was an adult. I got that knowledge from being a pastor in wheat country. I learned that wheat farmers had a pretty accurate notion of how good, or not so good, their neighbors’ farms were. I got to the point where I could look at a field, and size-up one or two things about it.
So I can size up the farms and the farmers in Matthew chapter 13. I don’t think they were very good farmers. They were sloppy, and wasteful, and a little bit crazy. Even in ancient times, good farmers were smarter this.
The farming parables are dangerous as sources of agricultural advice. Jesus must have known this and he must have meant it that way. Jesus was pretty good at shaking people up, when he wanted to, and this is what he is doing here. The first farmer is a sloppy farmer, who wastes good seed in stupid places.
My first harvest in wheat country taught me about this. I was invited to spend a day riding with a farmer in his combine, while he harvested his fields in the Sky Rocket Hills near Waitsburg. They are called the Sky Rocket Hills because they seem to shoot straight up into the sky. But they have good soil and they produce well.
We stopped at midday and the farmer’s wife came out with their young kids with lunch. We ate in the shade under the wheat truck. The kids laughed and played in the pile of wheat that the combine had dumped in the bed of the truck.
When we were done eating, it was time for the kids to go home. The farmer reminded his kids to empty the wheat out of their shoes and back into the truck. The lesson was this: you don’t waste wheat. You don’t waste seed.
The farmer in the parable is wasteful, because he seeds the path. This is not unavoidable. You carry your bag of seed tied around your shoulder and you reach in and toss out the seed in a kind of waving motion. There were paths between the fields. You could walk in the path and toss the seed out away from the path, into the field.
Families owned their fields for generations. Good farmers would be proactive in weedy areas, and they would weed again after the grain started to grow.
If the ground was solid rock, with only a thin layer of topsoil you would take your chances, or your grandfather would have planted something else in the worst spots long ago. Sometimes you do just take your chances, because there is only one sure thing in farming: you won’t have a harvest if you don’t sow the seed.
In the farm of the kingdom of God the farmer is God. The farmer is also Jesus, who is God come down to earth as a human.
On God’s side of this story there is a promise that God makes to us. The promise is solemnly serious and full of laughter. The seed of the kingdom of God goes everywhere and it is meant for absolutely everyone: the hard, the tough, the shallow, the barren, the prickly, the messy, the interfering, the noxious, the jungle-hearted and weed infested: whatever any of this means, the seed goes everywhere for everyone, with no exceptions.
Everyone listening to Jesus knew something about farming. They were all shocked by this story, or at least they were all surprised that God would work this way: that God would be essentially wasteful.
This is what grace is. Grace is a love so free and extravagant that it is beautiful: like a graceful dancer. Grace is a love that is ridiculously full of mercy and forgiveness, and it is absurdly patient: as if it refused to have any conditions or strings attached.
Each piece of ground in the story represents a person. But none of them is specific enough for us to claim that we know some people who simply don’t fit the categories. Whatever you may find to be wrong with someone, whatever way you try to draw a circle to exclude anyone as a target for God’s kingdom and God’s grace, the intent of this story is to silence you and make you stop. The story tells you to willingly become an extravagant seeder because that is what the kingdom of God is like.
In Jesus we see the face of a wastefully gracious God. Jesus never excluded anyone from his time and energy. People interrupted him and his work all the time, and Jesus always stopped to give them his attention.
He denounced the Pharisees and the self-righteous hypocrites eloquently; but he never told them to go away and leave him alone, and they never did. The disciples tried to make people go away, and Jesus always stopped them from doing that.
I don’t think we should ever see anyone as a waste of our time and effort. This is also true of our time and effort as a church, as a mission of Jesus. I believe there is always a kind and loving way to do every thing that really and truly and deeply needs to be done.
We do need to address what truly needs to be done. We do also need to think about whom it might be that we have left on the outside of our own wasteful grace.
The story of the farmer and the soils gives us words of caution. It asks: What kind of ground are you?
The stories of Jesus give us room to play. He doesn’t tell us what the crop will be. The seed is the message of the kingdom, but that raises other questions. Is the message of the kingdom a matter of words? If we bear a larger crop than others does that mean we will do more talking about the kingdom than they do?
The kingdom of God is not primarily a matter of words. The kingdom is about what God does. It means that he rules.
He rules in Jesus because, in Jesus, he restores the world. In Jesus, God recreates people in his image, so that they resemble Jesus. People die to themselves because Jesus came to be a servant and die for them on the cross. They rise to a new life because Jesus made his dying into a new life, in the resurrection.
When Jesus told these stories, he hadn’t done all these things yet, but he had come down from heaven to do these things for everyone who heard him. The seed of the cross and the resurrection was standing right in front of them telling them these stories.
When we hear words about the story of Jesus (the good news) and when the Holy Spirit makes it come alive for us, and when we get just enough understanding to make us open our hearts to him and surrender to him, then it stops being a matter of words of someone words. The living Jesus is planted in us. The work of Jesus gets planted in us.
It is not a matter of words. But Jesus used words to communicate what he was doing. We use words to communicate what God has done for us in Christ. We use words to explain what God wants us to become. We use words so others can meet Jesus for themselves and find a surprising new life because of him. But making it all real is never just a matter of words.
The crop of the kingdom of God is surely a field as big as the whole world and as long as time and eternity. It is a field full of the living Jesus, living and speaking in everyone who has the seed in them. Jesus talks about the kingdom making us into children (Matthew18:3), into cross carriers (Matthew 16:24), into servants (Matthew 20:26-28). That is one way of describing the crop that Jesus wants to grow in us.
Look at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters five through seven. This tells us about a crop that Jesus wants to grow in us. The crop is about humility, handling grief, being meek or responsive in God’s hands. The crop is about being merciful to others and about making peace happen.
The story of Jesus about the farmer and the soils asks you and me to look at ourselves and see what kind of ground we are. What kind of ground are you?
Every seed has a tiny plant within it. God gave you the seed and the plant of the kingdom of God, without asking you if you wanted it or what you intended to do with all that extravagant seed. But, one way or another, the soils do something with the seed or they don’t do anything at all. What do you do with that?
What is it that keeps the crop small? Are you hard or trampled on like the path? Are you a mess of weeds? Are you something in between? What stands in the way, or where are you hiding from the changes and the new life of the kingdom of God?
Everybody who was listening to Jesus knew something about farming. One thing they knew was that farming takes time. Wheat has its seasons within its given year. Orchards take many years of seasons. There are signs of promise or danger in every season. At least there are signs that remind you that you have to wait and watch, and be ready for whatever the season requires of you.
There is special work to be done for every season in the piece of ground that is your life. You are a work in process. But you need to know that you have been seeded. What is your season and what is the work for that season?
I only worked in one wheat harvest. It was an old farm. The farmer told me stories about it. One was that there once were big patches of alkali salt on parts of that farm, long ago. Nothing grew on those pieces of ground. The farmer’s grandfather responded by plowing powdered lime into that ground year after year. Eighty years or so later it was good ground, as good and productive as any on the farm.
The ground of our life may have been desert ground. But the story tells us that Jesus’ seed is a powerful, miraculous seed. I have read that, in Jesus time, normal harvests around the Mediterranean would bring seven, eight, or nine times the amount of grain that was seeded.
Modern hybrid wheat might yield what Jesus said: thirty, or sixty, or maybe even a hundred times what was sown in the field. But, in Jesus’ time, such a yield would be a miracle. It would not be normal in any way.
What Jesus gives you is not normal. What Jesus gives you is the seed of some miracle. You might not even be able to imagine, yet, what that miracle is.
Jesus said (in his interpretation of the story) that understanding is the ingredient that makes a harvest possible. In this story the Greek word for understanding comes from a root word that means putting things together: like adding two plus two and finding that they equal four.
You can’t understand what Jesus wants unless you add to it Jesus himself, and what Jesus gives. Put those together and ask how you will respond.

Your life is ground in which Jesus has planted the seeds that contain what he has done for you and for the whole world. His cross and his resurrection are in the seed that is in you and they have the power to bear great fruit, if you will understand and respond.

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