Sunday, July 13, 2014

Understanding Mystery

Understanding Mystery from Joseph Taber on Vimeo.

Isaiah 55:10-13

10For 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,
11So shall my word be that goes 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.

12For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;
The mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song,
And all the trees of field will clap their hands.
13Instead of the thorn shall come the cypress;
Instead of the briar shall come the myrtle;
And it shall be to the LORD a memorial,
For an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.

The Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. 2Such crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the crowds stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!’

18 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

My Dad spent many of his days off working in our yard, doing landscaping to make it feel more like home to him. I think he also did it so that he could spend a day working and see the results at the end of the day. Seeing the results of work in a church is a rare gift for a minister. Whenever I could, I helped him in the yard.

The soil in Burke County, where I grew up, is mostly red clay. When it's wet it turns into the heaviest mud you've ever seen and when it dries back out it turns into brick. Not a lot of good soil for planting and growing.

So Dad would order truckloads of topsoil and build up raised beds around our yard, breaking up the uniformity of the grade and adding some texture to our yard. We planted mostly flowers and shrubs. We went to the local hardware store and carefully select which little plastic tray had the best looking plants, then individually popping them out and placing them in a carefully measured hole in the high-quality topsoil we had purchased for the raised bed. We'd diligently mold the soil around the roots, top it off with a little mulch, and repeat the process until the project was complete. Then we'd carefully water the whole bed so that our little shrubs could properly thrive.

At the end of the day we'd sit on the porch with a glass of cool water or iced tea and survey the work we had done, enjoying how pretty and inviting the flowerbed already looked. Some days, instead of a raised flower bed, we'd work with potted plants to spruce up the porch or the driveway, transplanting plants into larger pots as needed, carefully cultivating our time and money to bring about the best possible result.

While I'm sure that God the son would be pleased to see a father and son team working side-by-side, Jesus tells a parable of a different style of planting. Rather than transplanting from pots and trays to a carefully prepared bed, he begins with, "A sower went out to sow."

The New Testament is full of parables, stories that are layered with meaning. They're kind of like an Advanced Placement version of discipleship. We've been unpacking them for hundreds of years, and they still have something to teach us. Jesus spins tales that invite curiosity and encourage us to explore what God is saying to us with each revisit to the story.

The parable of the sower is probably familiar to each of us. A farmer goes out to plant his crop, and he tosses out his seed, and it lands on several different kinds of ground, and each type results in a different kind of growth. Some dies before it can sprout, others sprout quickly and then wither, but some lands on good ground and provides a huge return on the farmer's investment.

Our human understanding would then suggest that we find more good soil, and only plant there, saving the seeds for the ground that will yield the most produce. We could carefully cultivate a garden with what God is doing, and find ways to maximize the gospel in that way, sort of a theological "best practice," as though the purpose of the church were efficiency, rather than faithfulness.

But the problem with that plan of action is that we only have a partial understanding of what's going on. God is often active in ways which we cannot see in this lifetime. Sometimes, we have to understand God's mystery through faith, rather than rthrough our own insight.

And that means spreading the word abundantly. We do not know which patches of soil God has elected as good, so the word must by spread with hope for all.

The farmer in our parable this morning is not setting up a greenhouse full of potted plants. His livelyhood is wholly in God's hands, and he is tossing out his seeds with reckless abandon, nowing that God's hgood harvest is assured, but not knowing where the best yield will come up.

So he casts his seed about, into the weeds, onto the road, in the shallow soil, and in the good soil.

There's no indication that he's aiming for any one particular place. He's just tossing out some seed, trusting God to produce whatever yield God chooses. Whether that be a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or thirtyfold. The usual yield for a field of planting was three or four time as much return as one had invested. But the sower in Jesus's parable throws out the seed anyway, not in carefully prepared potted plants, but recklessly thrown wherever the seed might land.

The sower and cultivation of seeds is probably an image that came readily to mind in the farming culture of first century Palestine. But in 21st century America, most of us don't plant in the same way. We carefully set the boundaries of our gardens and raised flower beds, we choose the best bag of grass seed for the shaded parts of our yard and another kind altogether for the parts of the yard that get full sun. With very few exceptions, we're not relying on our yardwork to pay our bills for the year.

So what does it look like for us, if the recklessly faithful sower is not an image with which we can easily connect? If Jesus were shedding light on God's mysteries among us today, what image would he use to reveal this truth to us? An investment banker choosing stocks at random? A tech company developing whatever computer programs crossed their desk on a particular day?

I don't know how Jesus would tell it now, but I've seen some seeds planted this week at Workcamp.

By the end of the day Tuesday, I started to hear construction sounds around the neighborhoods as I drove to the houses where my crews were working. I assumed they were my crew, hard at work, and got ready to congratulate them for staying on task. When I arrived at the house, however, the crew was taking a break, sharing a devotional together, but the construction sounds continued.

As the neighborhood saw one house being repaired, they were inspired to do a little work in their own yards. They didn't have our funding, or our team of handymen guiding them, or our staff delivering supplies, but they got out their tools and tore down the old shed before it collapsed. They went ahead and added a railing to their back steps. They went ahead and pulled the nails out of the pile of scrapwood to make their yard safer.

When you scatter seed with abundance, you never know where you may find fertile soil. Perhaps in the hard ground of inner-city Petersburg a few seeds may sprout, not just in the houses where we work, but also in the neighborhoods that surround those houses. If we can take just a half a step in a week, that's worth celebrating.

Workcampers are are known in the city of Petersburg, where we have worked for twenty-six years. This year our home base, where we ate together, prayed together, played together, and collapsed from exhaustion at the end of each 16 hour day together,  posted bulletin boards covered in newspaper articles about us from the past 26 years of camp.

Two of my crews were on some of the roughest streets in the city. We sent teenagers into the area of the city where EMTs have standing orders not to enter until the Police have cleared the area. Driving up to one of these crews, I'm pretty sure I saw a couple of drug sales and I know I saw more than one handgun. We asked the police to increase their patrols in that area for the week we were there, but when our decorated vehicles and matching T-shirts rolled in, most of that activity moves away and leaves us alone. We may not have fixed their house, but we've done work on their grandfather's house, or their aunt's yard, or their sister's windows.

So by Thursday morning, all of the unsavory influences had moved away. That in itself is amazing, but what astonished me this year was when a couple of nine or ten year old boys approach one of my crews and asked if they could help paint the exterior of the house! Through their work, those two boys connected with our resident's son, a 22-year-old named Thaddeus.

Workcamp shows up for two weeks a year, we do some home repair, show the residents we love them, and maybe crime goes down or moves a short distance away for those weeks, but we're just passing through. Those 9-10 year olds found a male role model in their neighborhood who is going to be there for their day to day lives, and maybe show them a different possibility of what it means to be a man than they would have seen from the front porches in that end of town.

And if we had sought out the carefully cultivated raised beds, where we would have predicted that our seeds would grow, we never would have gone into those areas at all. It would have been easy to write them off as a lost cause, and moved on to areas that don't require as much bravery, as much faith, to enter.

"A sower went out to sow," and he tossed the seed all around, knowing that some of it would fail, just as the paint we put on the walls will eventually chip away, just as the gutters we repaired or installed will eventually leak, just as the handrails we built will eventually sag. "The work of the kingdom, like the work of the [sower], will take its share of blows, will have a series of overwhelming setbacks, but the abundant harvest is sure."

We will often not understand, in this fear-filled world, how God's abundant harvest will come, but God's will is not bound to human understanding. So the sower tosses his seeds around abundantly, know that God will provide from a place he may not have expected. The growth that comes from those who hear and understand the Word is worth the efforts that fail. God is able to pull up growth in places we did not expect, but we only get to see that happen if we throw the seeds out trusting that God will put them where they need to be.

Our scripture verse contains both a parable and an interpretation, which is pretty unusual. Jesus is content to just let most of his parables float out there without giving us much more insight. But understanding, in this parable, is highly valued. It's not enough to just hear the word. One has to be changed by the way God is working in the world, and in our lives. For Matthew, understanding is not just an intellectual exercise, it's is a commitment of being, rather than just grabbing new information.  "Such an understanding is so far beyond intellectual competence that it is regarded as God's gift." There's no way we can get to that level of understanding on our own, no stack of commentaries can change our lives, only God can bridge the gap to transform us.

God's will, however, is not bound to human understanding. God is always working in ways we cannot grasp. We are limited, God is not. So God is able to take scattered seeds and call them up out of the ground into a harvest beyond measure.

There's a lot in this world for us to fear. There are a lot of unknowns in each of our lives. But we know that our God reigns, and we know that God intervenes in the world. We also know that God's will is going to be done whether we understand it or not, and that God is working to the good of all creation.

So like the Workcampers who go to the dangerous neighborhoods to do their work, like the sower who spreads seed recklessly across all kinds of ground, "the church is called to 'waste itself,' to throw grace around like there is no tomorrow, precisely because there is a tomorrow, and it belongs to God." We know that, even if we don't understand, our future is sure, so there's no need to try and maximize things on our end by investing only in potted plants. When we have the faith to live abundantly, to share love recklessly, we know that we are finally understanding mystery.

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