Resting in the Shade

Passage: Matthew 22:15-22
Date: June 14, 2009
Preacher: Rev Laurie M. Newman
Guest Preacher:

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Sermon

Here’s a riddle for you.  By the way, apparently, only  17% of Stanford graduates figured out this riddle, but 80% of kindergartners knew the answer.

“What is stronger than God,
more evil than the devil,
poor people have it,
rich people don’t need it,
and if you eat it, you’ll die?”
(Repeat)
    The answer is: “Nothing.”

A parable is much like a riddle.  It lays down things side by side and makes us think hard.   Jesus’ parables are usually not  simple illustrations to make things clearer.  If anything, they may make things more hidden to the hard-hearted and close-minded.   And they are more than just a good story.   They are stories that leave the listener with a responsibility.  Today, as we hear this scripture, WE are given the responsibility of figuring out just what they mean. WE need to ask, where am I in this story?

Today we have two riddles before us.  Two parables that deal with seeds and mysterious growth.  The riddle of the seed that grows  “as the earth produces of itself” and the riddle of the mustard seed.  These stories  deal with what we can see, what is apparent. And with what we can’t see; what is unapparent.

 Briefly, this spring, I flirted with the idea of using our family’s yard for some urban farming. I thought: maybe a few chickens, maybe some vegetables and herbs.  That idea didn’t last long.  My husband reminded me: “Laurie, we’re not very agricultural people.”  And he’s right.  I was brutally honest with myself and remembered that our most successful “crops” over the years have been ivy, moss and dandelions.  All of that is to say,  that I relate to what the first century Roman philosopher, Pliny, said of the mustard plant:  “It grows entirely wild and when it has been sown it is scarcely possible to get the place rid of it!”

 In Mediterranean climates, the black mustard seed is a managed weed.  Maybe something like broomweed or ivy or kudzu.

Could the riddle of this parable be that  the kingdom of God is persistent.  Mysteriously in our midst, in the here and now?  Is it compared to the kingdom of God because it is something that people try to control, but are unable to contain the wild abundance of it?

Last month, on the radio, I heard an interview with author Brian O’Dea, author of High:  Confessions of a Drug Dealer.  His book is a memoir of dealing drugs, doing time and of redemption.  During the interview, listeners phoned in with comments and questions.  One caller called to say that he wanted to break his own addiction to drugs, but that the 12 Step program didn’t work for him.  He objected to the step where you admit there is a higher power than you, and that you are powerless in the face of your addiction.  The caller insisted: “I’m not powerless.  And I don’t believe in God.”  The author answered this way: “Every time you take the drug to alter your consciousness, you are admitting there is a higher power, and that you don’t control it.  The 12-st ep program is to help you consciously admit that, so you can give it up to the higher power.”

Control and power.  That covers a lot of ground in human behavior.  What we can see in the world. And what we can’t.  What we see, now and always--that which presses us down in spirit-- is hatred, prejudice and war; injustice, violence, greed and poverty; the everyday grind of so many lives.  What is apparent seems to be the near-absurdity of hope.

What we can’t see is the higher power.  What is unapparent is the mystery.  We may see flashes of this in longed-for reconciliation within friendships and families; in healing from illness and grief; in healing of addictions; in acts of great and unexpected generosity; in the breaking of bread with others and the nourishment of body and soul.  In all of these, we sometimes see the mysterious ways of God.  It may begin in smallness, and it may persist in little steps.  But Jesus shows that the path leads to greatness, a greatness we cannot see or even imagine today.  God can see the world resting in the shade of the branches.  God can imagine it.  And God INTENDS it.  The tiny seed grows, despite human efforts to weed it out!

The first parable–the one of the seed scattered and growing--in this season, puts me in mind of the mystery and abundant potential of seeds.  As I stood at the farmers market yesterday, in the shade of the stalls of the farmers from all over the Northwest, I was  surrounded by strawberries, greens, zucchini, flowers, onions, carrots and cherries.  I imagined that ALL of it had been seeds only weeks and months ago.  Then the farmers did what farmers do: they harvested the fruit and brought it to market.  Now we are feasting on the abundance that simply did what nature does:  seeds sprouted in the darkness of the earth.  They responded to sunlight and water and good soil.

In the sixteenth century, Martin Luther said, “If you truly understood a grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.”   At the heart of this gospel; at the heart of the seed: is mystery.

“The earth produces of itself.”  The word used in the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew scriptures to indicate God’s mysterious helpfulness might be called “automatic grace.”  It flourishes on its own.   It is slowly productive.  First the stalk, then the head, then the full grain.  Both parables seem to celebrate God’s grace, which makes it all happen.  Where are we in the story?

Well, I’ll confess that I find myself living between the planting and the harvest.  Most of the time, the seeds are germinating, invisible to the eye.   In the absence of easily visible growth, I get anxious.   Don’t you?  Anxiety is expressed in so many ways:  perfectionism, driven-ness, moral outrage, escapism, restlessness and estrangement from God.

At the root of anxiety is lack of trust.  Barbara Brown Taylor, in her sermon “The Automatic Earth” wrote that “we should repent of our conviction that we must work out our own salvation, and that we are doomed.”

She says,  the antidote to anxiety, is to choose courage, every day, over and over again.  LIFE IS TO BE TRUSTED!   And real living is what we are to be after. . .

Emily Dickinson wrote: “To live is so startling, it leaves little time for anything else!”

Some of you may have seen the one-woman show by Storm Large called “Crazy Enough.”  This young woman, six-foot tall singer, writer performer, with a powerful presence tells the story of her life, including learning at a young age, that she is likely to have inherited her mother’s mental illness.  The whole show is insightful and entertaining.

One part of her life is an illustration of the power of the Unseen in her life.  She was addicted to heroin and was at her lowest point in life.  She had decided to leave her addict boyfriend, to break her addiction and to devote herself to music.  But first she had to overcome the addiction.  Listening to her tell this part was painful.  She was literally on the floor, describing the excruciating pain in her skin, the coldness of the floor and her inability to drag herself into bed.  When she finally managed to make it onto the bed, completely exhausted and near the end of her rope, she prayed.

 “I even prayed to God,” she said.  “Please God, just help me sleep. . .”  Suddenly, she felt the bed move, as though someone were sitting on the bed.  And then she felt a warmth.  A soothing, affectionate warmth, holding her.  When she struggled to turn around and see who it was, it stopped!  She prayed again, “Please, please, come back, help me sleep. . .”  And the warmth returned, nurturing, soothing.  She fell asleep feeling loved.

Life is to be trusted.  It is God’s intention for us, for our creation, to be at peace, at rest, in the shadow of the branches.

These parables  put me in mind of a favorite hymn. But it’s an Episcopalian hymn, not in our hymnal.  I’m going to sing 2 verses of it. . .The image of the glory of God in the hymn, is expressed as waters covering the sea.  As you hear it, I invite you to imagine the coolness of the shade of the branches. . .

God is working God’s purpose out
as  year succeeds to year;
God is working God’s purpose out,
and the time is drawing near;
nearer and near draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea.

All we can do is nothing worth
unless God blessed the deed;
vainly we hope for the harvest-tide
till God gives life to the seed;
yet nearer and nearer draws the time,
the time that shall surely be,
when the earth shall be filled
with the glory of God
as the waters cover the sea. 

What would the world be like if we trusted in the Unseen?  What would our lives be like if we unloaded the burdens from our own shoulders and trusted that our Loving God takes those burdens and will transform pain and suffering into new life?  What would our lives be like if we were after REAL living and each day, chose courage again and again?  What would our lives be like, then?