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July 26, 2020


A Word from the Pastor: 


By the end of July, the bounty of a backyard summer garden finally starts to really produce. The earlier, "lighter" crops — peas, lettuces, baby carrots — give way to the rich ripe produce of high summer. Tomatoes, cucumbers, cherries, blueberries, raspberries, corn on the cob, string beans, radishes, spinach — all the stuff that makes for great "sides" at every summer barbecue. Backyard farmers revel in their "crops" because every vegetable is grown with TLC. Yet with the cost of plants, containers, potting soils, fertilizers, pest control supplies, not to mention water — every veggie probably costs at least four times as much as its "Mega-Mart" cousin.

It does not matter. Back yard gardeners are focused on the entire process, on the whole life-cycle of the various vegetables they are growing. The "bottom line," the "cost" of the crop, is NOT the "bottom line." It is hard for a culture bottoming out on the "bottom line" to get this. For a gardener the ultimate reward is the home grown, home harvested, nurtured-from-a-seedling-to-a-first-course experience. And that is beyond any calculable "bottom line. That event is "priceless."

Jesus offered example after example of "the kingdom of God." Our Scripture reading this morning offers a few samples. "The kingdom of heaven is like . . . ." In piling "like" upon "like" Jesus stacked story upon story in showcasing how "priceless" this new possibility was for persons who could grasp its truth. Jesus communicated to the people at the most basic level he could. Hence these "similitudes."

Jesus may have made his way in this world by working with his father Joseph who was a "builder" or "craftsman" (tekton). But in his heart Jesus was a "gardener." Jesus was the "Last Adam," the re-boot God sent to earth to undo the damage done by the "First Adam" and all Adam's descendants. But both "Adams" were first and foremost gardeners. The first Adam was given life from the rich soil in the Garden of Eden. Jesus, the Second Adam, the one sent by God to undue the curse of death the first Adam had incurred, found his purview and power in the images of growing, living things. Most of Jesus' images and illustrations involved the natural world plants and animals not the world of tools and trade.

At his moment of ultimate agony on the cross, Jesus granted the one repentant thief with whom he shared that Golgotha hilltop this promise: "Today you will be with me in the Garden" (Luke 23:41). That word, normally translated as "paradise," is the same word in Greek, Hebrew, and Persian and may best be translated as "garden." For Jesus, the Last Adam, paradise, heaven, the Kingdom of God, was indeed God's "garden." Inviting others into that "garden" was one of Jesus' very last human acts.

In this week's gospel text from Matthew we read a series, a list, exemplifying what "the kingdom of heaven is like." Last week Jesus likened the Kingdom to a field sowed with both wheat and weeds. This week he compares the Kingdom of God to the tiny mustard seed, which has the ability to grow into a huge shrub, capable of housing all sorts of wild life. In Matthew 13:44 Jesus extols the "richness" that might be found in ordinary soil. In v.45 he draws our attention to the richness, the "pearl of great price," that might be found in ordinary seawater.

But it is not just unexpected bounty to which Jesus likens the Kingdom of God. There is a whole other dimension that those who follow him must bear and embrace. Repeating the lesson of the "weeds and the wheat," Jesus this week offers the parable of the net cast into the sea, the net that catches "fish of every kind." The strict laws of "kashrut," ordering observant Jews to only consume those "fish" that had both scales and fins (so sorry — no lobster, crabs, scallops, clams, shrimp). Those bottom-feeding "fish" that were not "kosher" were simply thrown back into the sea. Like the "wheat and the weeds," they were gathered up together, without any preliminary exclusion credentials.

For both farmers of the land and farmers of the sea, the cardinal rule is to feed the soil not the plants, feed the water not the water's creatures. It is by adding to that richness of the growing, nurturing environment, whether soil or sea, which creates the harvest that is hoped for by the gardener. Organic farmers are all about returning nutrients to the soil through the use of organic, natural composting materials — stuff that decomposes and enriches the soil, giving the next generation of plants the best possible "launching pad" they could hope for. The fishermen in this week's gospel text are participating in the same exercise, but with a waterier start. The fishermen are winnowing out the "clean" from the "unclean" fish. Although they had no knowledge of marine ecology, by returning all the "unclean" bottom-feeders to the sea, the Jewish fishermen were helping create a better environment for the "fins and scales" fish they were interested in harvesting.

But Jesus' message was not about "who we should judge." Jesus' parables were not judgment stories, whether about tiny mustard seeds being left to grow into huge shrubs or secret treasures in abandoned fields or big hauls of fish that needed to be divided into "kosher" and "non-kosher." Jesus' message was about recognizing differences, and then letting God be the judge.

Let God be the judge. Now there's a big topic in and of itself. We are told not to judge, so that we may escape judgment. But how many of us like to be looked up to so we can look down on others? The "Gangster of Love" captures the essence of a culture in which judgment is applied lavishly even under the guise of responding lovingly:

"What's wrong with just saying, 'No thanks?' These days you ask somebody if they want a cup of coffee and they say, 'No thanks, I don't drink coffee.' You wanna grab a hot dog? 'No thanks. Don't you know they're made out of recycled newspapers taken from the bottoms of kennel cages?' Wanna wash your hair in my sink? 'No thanks, I'd just as soon use Psst, the dry shampoo for the bedridden, before I'd set foot in your bathroom.'" ("Dear Gangster . . ." Advice for the Lonelyhearted from The Gangster of Love (New York: Penguin Books, 1996), 18.)

As one who was called first and foremost to be a "gardener," Jesus, the Second Adam, was all focused on nurturing the next crop, not on judging the one that just showed up. Jesus saw himself in his first coming, not as a judge dispensing justice, but as a physician dispensing healing (see Matthew 9:9 13).

Currently there are two schools of new crop propagation. Big time industrial growers focus on the plants. They spend all their time, money, and "chemical control" efforts upon protecting the plants that they are trying to raise to maturation — whether they be wheat stalks, or corn cobs, or cotton balls, or soybeans. The focus of their propagation is on producing a plant.

Alternatively, the focus of more organic gardening is not upon producing a plant, but is on creating fertile soil that is able to nurture and grow healthy plants. The industrial model depletes the natural nutrients in the soil as it sprays extra "goodies" on the plants. The organic model enriches the soil, while letting the plants naturally feed on what they have offered to them.

Jesus, the Master Gardener, offers parable after parable that portrays our role as harvesters of the land and the sea. The "Kingdom of God" is "like" all these roles we play in our lives. The Kingdom of God stories Jesus tells us are revelatory images of a whole new reality, but which are based upon on real world experiences.

The "Kingdom of God is like..." The new, reborn reality God offers to us is truly not "like" anything we have encountered or imagined in our lives. Jesus offered gardening images, growing, living, changing, adapting, organic templates, just to give us a small foothold into the new world that we are being welcomed into through the power of God's gift of forgiveness and grace.

Perhaps one of the biggest transformations Jesus is trying to transmit through all these parables is the difference between "preserving" and "conserving." Those who are focused on simply "preserving" what they have are those who worry about the infestation of weeds into their wheat crop, or those who find the smallness of the mustard seed worthless, or those who cannot rejoice over a large net of fish because they are fretting over how they may separate the "good" from the "bad" fish. God did not put the First Adam here to "preserve" the garden, but to "tend and till the garden," or more precisely, to conserve the garden and to conceive from it. When you preserve something, you pickle it. God did not design a pickled planet, or a pickled garden. God designed a garden that its caretakers conserve and then participate with God in conceiving out of its bounty.

Jesus' parables, all of them, are all about embracing God's continual presence in this world. None of Jesus parables are about defending any human drawn lines we can see.

When Jesus says "The Kingdom of God is like," he is in effect saying "God loves you like . . ." The "Kingdom of God" is Jesus' password for telling all people what it is God wants to do for us. The "Kingdom of God" is the gift of divine blessing and love that God wants to give to us so much that he sent his Son Jesus to be the ultimate delivery person to bring us this special message. God loved us so much that he allowed his Special Delivery Messenger, his only Son, to pay the ultimate price for the message of this love and forgiveness to be delivered to us.

But Jesus is not only a bearer of a message. He is himself that Message. Jesus summons all people to his banquet, to feast with him on the Story of God, the only story that truly nourishes our hearts and minds and souls. Not just to feast with him, but to feast on him as "The Living Bread." Ezekiel 34 had prophesied that a time would come when God would feed his people himself. Jesus went even better than that. In Jesus the Christ God would feed his people on himself.

Jesus of Nazareth is the Story become incarnate, the Word become flesh. Because he is The Story, we live our life-stories from his life and from his story.

Some of Jesus' followers were scandalized at the direction Jesus was going. That's why they left and stopped going with him. It was one thing to be their prophet king. But a prophet servant giving his flesh and blood, his very being, for the life of the world? That was too much.

Is it too much for us today? Or will we "feast on Him in our hearts with thanksgiving" this week? How does your garden grow?

 

 

Amen.


      Pastor Jim


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