Sunday, July 16, 2017

Sowers, Seeds, and Soil

July 16, 2017 Cathedral Church of St. Paul The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling
Let us pray: O God help us to grow! Amen.

Today I want to talk about three very simple things: sowers, seeds, and soil. As was his custom, Jesus often looked around him and used whatever was in front of him to make his point, not only to his disciples, but also to the crowds who followed him. Pushing out into the sea of Galilee, using a boat as his pulpit, Jesus pointed to the people, the landscape in front of him, and to the farmer who was sowing some seeds. It would be like me today, pointing to you and to this Cathedral community, and then telling you a story.

In a book entitled Reclaiming the Great Commission, the bishop of Texas describes the characteristics of a parish, or a diocese, which is only maintaining itself, contrasted with ones that are on God’s mission. While God may love us just as we are, God also wants us to grow, even after our death.

People and parishes who don’t want to grow will not take risks. They will focus only on themselves rather than on God, on others, and what possibilities may lay before them. People on God’s mission will not discourage honest doubt, hard questions, and challenging conversations.They will not get hung up on the drama of a situation but will remain focussed on the situation itself. Change is recognized as a constant way of life. While issues can divide us; mission minded people can unite us. We recognize that sowing God’s seeds in good soil is hard work, and we are willing to roll up our sleeves and get to it.

People and parishes that are on God’s mission want to grow in a variety of ways. They are God-centered, recognizing that God is the Creator of our Garden, that Jesus is the Master Gardener, and that the Spirit is the holy One who sows seeds of love every day. When we’re people on God’s mission, we want to offer good soil for God to plant those seeds into our minds, our hearts, and our souls. Willing to try new and different things, we know that we will make mistakes; and yet we are still willing to “try and try” again.
Paul and I lived in a farming town in Connecticut. The previous owners of our house were two professionals: a pediatrician and an elementary school music teacher. They were environmentalists who loved to create gardens and take care of them. Now, unlike them, Paul and I have a history of killing anything that grows around our house and even inside of it. When we lived in Maryland, we tried to kill the weeds on our patio and killed the azalea bushes at the same time. In Atlanta, we didn’t water the new grass seed enough and so it was scorched by the summer sun. Despite our history, when we moved into this house in Connecticut, Paul was excited to sustain the vegetable and flower gardens that had surrounded our home. I was not.

Initially, I didn’t want to become involved. I was starting a new job as the rector of a parish and had no interest in gardening, and I knew our history. When Paul asked me why I wouldn’t want to be engaged with God’s creation, I responded arrogantly, “I care for life in God’s garden all day long, and I’m too tired when I get home.” And yet, Paul responded to me gently, “But so do I,” he said.
And so, I agreed to help, albeit somewhat reluctantly, certainly not whole heartedly. Where the previous vegetable garden had once been, Paul began tilling the soil and preparing the ground. He chose young tomato, green pepper, and squash plants to start. The garden was enclosed by wire fencing, which was one of the products that Paul’s company manufactures. The young plants were supported by some of the garden products that his company makes as well. Paul was proud of his garden, the fencing, and the tomato towers that supported his vegetable plants.

I decided to start my own garden on a much smaller scale and closer to the house. I wanted the boundaries, the responsibilities, and the ownership of our gardens to be clear. I had no fence, but put my vegetables in a raised bed, on the sunny side of the house, and nearer to the water hose and the side door. I planted only green beans. Clearly, Paul and I had very different gardens.

We both made mistakes. The busyness of our jobs became the hard path on which our good seeds fell; and so nothing grew in certain spots in our gardens. While I was closer to my garden, and therefore thought I would be more attentive to watering it, I didn’t. The sun scorched my green beans. Paul found that too much shade prevented growth, and over-watering drowned the seeds.

Neither of us, in our haste, had prepared the soil well. There was too little soil in mine, and it was too old in his. Weeds, and pests, and thorny roots, not to mention New England rocks, often crowded out and strangled his new young plants. Unprotected by a fence, my green beans became a feast for rabbits and other creatures, while deer routinely crashed over Paul’s lightweight fence and destroyed his plants. I discovered that fences are important for many reasons. They not only make good neighbors, they also protect things that are precious.

Paul had tried to prepare his garden much more faithfully than I. For weed control, he had covered the soil with black plastic. He watered his plants religiously when he was home, visited the garden faithfully, and true to form over-medicated it with fertilizer. The tomatoes were abundant, but not particularly tasty. He grew a only a few squash, and almost no green peppers. After talking with more experienced gardeners, he learned that you shouldn’t fertilize pepper plants at all.

In passive aggressive resistance, I did nothing with my own garden. Sure I planted the seeds; but I didn’t water them, weed them, or protect them. I hoped to eat the fruits of Paul’s good labors, and even the fruits of my own, but I was unwilling to put in the hard work, or the daily care that it required. Truth be told, my heart wasn’t really in it, and so my actions betrayed my words.

A good garden is not created overnight. Indeed, one summer does not a garden grow. Our Cathedral, with all its diversity and variety, has many paths, and many places, upon which God’s seeds are constantly being planted. Yes, we have some hard ground, weeds, thorns, rocks, busy paths, scorching heat, flooding basements, and all sorts of challenges that threaten the life of the seeds that grow both inside as well as outside our Cathedral. And, as co-laborers in God’s garden, we are called to provide good soil, protect the fruit of our labors, and tend this garden on a daily basis.

All creatures great and small can destroy the seeds that God has planted. Fences are important to protect our property, our fruits, our vegetables, and our flowers, to protect our building, our bodies, ourselves, and our souls. Clear boundaries are important to a healthy garden and for good relationships.

We tend our gardens daily by listening to God and to each other. Together, as a community, we offer a variety of gifts but the same Spirit. We know that we have various levels of enthusiasm, energy, and commitment; and yet we know that we each have a part to play. Individually and together, as a Cathedral Church, with God’s help, we can yield more fruit - in one case a hundredfold, in another 60, and in another 30.

We are busy, rocky, thorny, and shallow people; and so God’s seeds don’t always land on the best of our soils. At various times, we’re all tired, hurting, struggling, and less than enthusiastic about our relationships with God and our neighbors.

And so, daily, we must look to the Sower of all good seeds, to the Creator of all creation, to the Master Gardener, and to the Spirit who make things grow miraculously. When life gets too hard, the sun gets too hot, the rain seems relentless, the creatures seem dangerous, and the weeds are overpowering, it’s time for us to turn back to God. Every day is a new beginning; and no matter what path we’re on, or in which small garden we live, God will always plant new seeds of faith, hope, and love to sustain us. And for that good news, we give God thanks and praise.

Genesis 24: 19-34
Psalm 119: 105-112
Romans 8: 1-11
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Sunday, July 9, 2017

This Generation

The Cathedral Church of St. Paul The Rev. Nancy E. Gossling

“But to what will I compare this generation?” Jesus asked. Good question, I thought. So I looked at the many places in the New Testament in which the words “this generation” appeared and discovered that Jesus often describes it as a faithless and corrupt one. “To what will I compare this generation today?” I wondered. Would Jesus call us a faithless and corrupt one as well?

Jesus was talking to the religious leaders of his time, which included the Pharisees, a group of Jews who kept strict adherence to the laws of God, to the Torah - the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, and to the ten commandments.These leaders also included the scribes, who were the men who interpreted the laws, sometimes with great precision and detail.

Now, Jesus was claiming that they were a faithless and corrupt generation. He claimed that they did not obey God’s commandments, nor did they listen to the wisdom of the Torah or their prophets. Jesus called these leaders hypocrites, pointing to the inconsistencies in their words and actions. Relying upon the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of the law, they laid heavy burdens upon their own people, who were already feeling burdened by the Roman government. In one exasperated response, Jesus said, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?”

My Dad, God bless him and may he continue to rest in peace, was an imperfect and yet faithful man. Sometimes I would hear him complain about a relationship, saying “I can’t win for losing.”

This is what Jesus was saying in today’s gospel. You people are like “children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another, ‘We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.’” John the Baptist called people to repent, and yet the religious leaders called him a demon. Jesus was a friend of tax collectors and sinners, eating and drinking with others, and yet, they called him a glutton and a drunkard. As my father would say, neither John the Baptist, nor Jesus, could win for losing.

William Barclay states that “Jesus was saddened by the sheer perversity of human nature. To him (adults) were like children playing in the village square. One group said to the other; ‘Come on and let’s play at weddings,’ and others said, ‘We don’t feel like being happy today.’ Then the first group said, ‘All right; come on and let’s play at funerals,’ and the others said, ‘We don’t feel like being sad today.’ They were what the Scots called contrary.’ No matter what was suggested, they did not want to do it; and no matter what was offered, they found a fault in it.”

Are we like this in our own generation? Do you know people, regardless of their political affiliation or national status, who behave in the same way? Think about the on-going arguments we’re having around our world, and the various tensions we have in our own relationships. Barclay claims that “The plain fact is that when people do not want to listen to the truth, they will easily enough find an excuse for not listening to it. They do not even try to be consistent in their criticisms; they will criticize the same person, and the same institution, from quite opposite grounds.”

“Or, if people are determined to make no response they will remain stubbornly unresponsive no matter what invitation is made. Grown men and women can be like spoiled children who refuse to play no matter what the game is.” Contrary people don’t want to play; they just want to push their own agendas, or exert their own power.

Jesus upheld God’s commandments, and still challenged the people in his own generation. He said, “The scribes and Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on the shoulders of others; but they themselves are unwilling to lift a finger to move them. They do all their deeds to be seen by others...and to have people call them rabbi.” (Matt 23:1-8)

We lay burdens upon ourselves and upon others with regularity. Perhaps it’s a new or old law that unfairly restricts our freedom or prevents us from getting the help that we need, or the joy that we could share. Recently the governor of New Jersey was criticized for closing the state’s beaches to the public because lawmakers were unable to agree upon a budget, and then the governor was seen vacationing with his family and friends, on the beach, at a summer beach house, owned by the government.

Perhaps there is an on-going battle in your personal relationships; you just can’t seem to see “eye to eye” or understand the perspective of another person. Or maybe you’re having a battle within yourself. One voice will say to you, “Do this” while the other voice says, “Don’t you dare.”

St. Paul writes to the Christians in Rome about these inconsistencies, saying that he is often guilty of doing things that he does not want, and even hates. We don’t always understand what we or others do or say. We are inconsistent  human beings. We are contrary people, faithless at times, even corrupt, and perverse. And while laws are good for us, for they help us to control our behaviors, they will not save us. Who will rescue us then from our very own selves? St. Paul responded, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Being faithful is both difficult and joyous; it means that there is room in our lives for both weeping and dancing, for obedience and challenge. It means that we must repeatedly repent of those things that we have done and left undone, knowing that in Christ we are forgiven and set free. It means that true personal freedom comes to us from God, no matter our circumstances or the power of others.

Jesus offered an invitation to the generation of his time as well as to ours. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Come to me,” Jesus said, “when your very own contrary selves start to get the best of you."

Jesus said that his yoke is easy and his burden is light. A yoke was “a rabbinic metaphor for the difficult but joyous task of obedience to the Torah. When Jesus claims that his yoke is “easy” he is referring to the Greek word which means “well-fitting.” According to Barclay, “In Palestine, the yoke was carefully adjusted, so that it would fit well, and not gall the neck of the patient beast. The yoke was tailor-made to fit the ox.” Are not our burdens tailor made for us? And can we not find a yoke that fits us well?

“There is a legend that Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, made the best ox-yokes in all Galilee, and that people from all over the country people came to him to buy them; (perhaps) the sign above the door of (Jesus) may have been ‘My yokes fit well.’”

Love makes even the heaviest burden light; and so Jesus gave us a new commandment, “to love ourselves and others as he loved us.” Barclay tells the story of how a man came upon a little boy, who was lame, and then carried him upon his back. ‘That’s a heavy burden for you to carry,’ said another man. ‘That’s no’ a burden,’ came the answer. ‘That’s my wee brother.’”

This generation was then, is now, and will be forever, in part a faithless, perverse, and corrupt generation. And yet we are also a faithful generation, a group of contrary people, who believe in the power of God to make all things right. “Come to me,”Jesus says. “Take my yoke.” For through Him, we shall find rest for our souls, and our burdens light. Dance then, wherever you may be, for he is the Lord of the dance, said He. And whether we are laughing or crying, playing at funerals or weddings, our hope for salvation continues to rest in the hands and the heart of God.