Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 17th, 2018
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
One of the things I love about serving this church is the beauty of our sanctuary. We have these beautiful picture windows that look out into these magnificent trees. These windows have been especially fun lately because we have seen how those trees provide a home for other creatures, especially deer. We’ve had a record number of fawns out there this year, and this batch seems to enjoy blessing us with their presence by frolicking outside these windows during worship. People have also spotted birds and bunnies and butterflies and racoons this spring. Sometimes I feel like I’m preaching in the middle of a Disney movie up here.
I remember a couple of years ago when we had to clear out some of the trees out there. Many were dead or dying and needed to be removed. I remember the anxiety. Would it look the same? I remember the passion so many of you had. In no time we had a team out there replanting seedlings to replenish our little forest. We had people stopping by throughout the week, tromping out into the woods to water those seedlings. And in time it really paid off. Many of those seedlings have taken root. Those woods are as full of trees as ever, and those trees have provided a home for all kinds of creatures.
But what about what’s happening on this side of the glass? What about what’s happening inside of the sanctuary? Wouldn’t we love to see as much life and vitality happening in here as we have been seeing out there? Wouldn’t we love to see a growing number of young children frolicking here inside the sanctuary? Wouldn’t we love to see a growing number of new people showing up here on Sunday morning to grow in their faith in Jesus? Wouldn’t we love to see people’s faith growing ever taller and stronger, like the cedars of Lebanon? And how do we make that happen?
We need to be careful about our language here, because we don’t “make” that happen at all. God makes it happen. That is clear from the parable Jesus tells this morning. Jesus says the kingdom of God is like someone who scatters seed on the ground and then goes to sleep! The seed then sprouts and grows, he knows not how! The earth produces of itself, and then there is a harvest. One clear point of the parable is that the kingdom of God grows by God’s initiative. God makes it happen!
But there’s another point which is equally important, and it is that God uses means to grow his kingdom. God uses seed – the Word of God. God uses seed-sowers, people who share the gospel with others. God makes the kingdom grow, but it doesn’t happen in a vacuum. God uses down-to-earth means to get that kingdom seeded. He uses his Word. He uses his people. He uses us!
Our reading from Second Corinthians is a helpful supporting text in this regard. In this passage Paul describes the Christian life. He says we are confident. The promises of God give us a confidence in this life – not a confidence in ourselves or a confidence in the world around us, but a confidence that God’s good and gracious will will be done. Paul says we walk by faith and not by sight. We can’t always see God’s promises being fulfilled right before our eyes, but we trust that they will be. We walk by faith, by trust – not by evidence or proofs. Paul says we make it our aim to please God in the way we live in this world. And then Paul says that, knowing the fear of the Lord, we try to persuade others. We witness. We invite. We proclaim. We share the faith that is in us. We scatter seed. The love of Christ urges us on, Paul writes. Christ died for all, and so we share the gospel so all might live for him.
We should be careful in how we do this, of course. My family and I went to the Mariners game on my birthday last month and there was a guy out front of Safeco Field with a bullhorn literally yelling the gospel at people. This wasn’t a hate-monger like you sometimes see. The content of what he was saying wasn’t that much different than many Lenten sermons I’ve given. It was the way he was delivering it. It was loud. It was rude. It was aggressive. He wasn’t scattering seed, he was shooting it out of a cannon! And it was doing about as much damage as a cannon.
We need to be careful about how we share the gospel. We should be gentle and kind and respectful and loving – always loving. We shouldn’t be loud – but neither should we be silent. We are called to invite, to proclaim, to witness, to persuade. We are called to scatter the seed!
I think the issue for us much of the time isn’t that we’re sharing the gospel too loudly, too aggressively, it is that we aren’t sharing it at all. Former ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson used to cite a survey that said that the average Lutheran invites someone to worship once every twenty-seven years. I doubt that number has improved much. As Lutheran Christians we have so emphasized the fact that God makes the kingdom grows that we have forgotten that he uses us to scatter the seed.
The point of the parable is not that God does it all so we can just forget about growing the kingdom. I cannot believe that Jesus told this parable so that people would clam up and only invite people to church once every twenty-seven years. This parable it intended to do the opposite of this. Jesus assures us that God will grow the kingdom so that we will be motivated to scatter the seed! Jesus assures us that God will indeed bring a harvest so that we will be emboldened to share the faith that is in us! Jesus tells this parable so that we will have the kind of confidence that St. Paul talks about. There will be a harvest, Jesus says. God will bring it! So scatter that seed, share the good news!
Those seeds may not always grow in ways we expect. It might not always look like much. In the second parable we hear today Jesus says the kingdom of God is like a mustard seed that grows into a mustard bush, which he calls “the greatest of all shrubs.” I have to think of this as a joke. Because you see, in the Hebrew Bible – what we call the Old Testament – the image of choice to describe God’s kingdom is the great cedars of Lebanon, those towering, fragrant, magnificent trees. That’s what we heard in the first reading today. The prophet Ezekiel describes God’s kingdom as being like a noble cedar planted on the top of a high and lofty mountain, where every kind of bird will live in the shade of its branches.
Jesus could have drawn on this cedar imagery, which was well-known to his hearers. But instead he uses the example of a common, unremarkable, scraggly bush. Yes, it is big shrub – “the greatest of all shrubs!” But it is no cedar! The kingdom of God, Jesus seems to be saying, might not look like much. It might not be as majestic as you’re expecting. It might be more down-to-earth and common than you think, like that shrub in your back yard that starts from a small seed and grows into a big, scraggly bush. It doesn’t have to be a cedar. Even the mustard bush is a place where the birds find shade, and a home.
Our little forest out back is not a perfectly manicured park setting. It’s a little scraggly in places. And yet we can see how it has become a home to so many wonderful creatures. In the same way, our congregation isn’t perfect. We might be a little scraggly in some ways, but God has made this place a home for us, so that we might rest in the shade of God’s great love for us.
Those who planted those seedlings out back did so because they love that forest and want to see it continue to grow. In the same way, our love for Christ’s church sends us out to plant seeds of faith in others, so that our congregation might grow. This place isn’t just for us, it is for those who aren’t here yet too! It is a place for them to call home as well! God will give the growth, but God uses us to scatter the seeds. Christ’s love urges us on in this calling.
Those who planted those trees will not see the full impact of their planting – the trees that were planted can continue to grow for more than 150 years, when all of us will be worshipping in the Church Triumphant rather than here in this sanctuary. In the same way, we won’t always see the impact our seed-scattering is having. God’s growing season is much longer than ours! And so sometimes it will look to us like the seeds didn’t take. Sometimes it will look to us like the seeds have died. Sometimes it will look to us like nothing is growing at all. But we don’t scatter seeds because we see results. We live by faith, not by sight. We scatter seeds because God has promised that while we are sleeping – content, confident, at peace, trusting – he will make those seeds grow. We scatter seed because God has promised there will be a harvest.
Over the past few Sundays we have seen all kinds of new life abounding outside of our sanctuary windows. God is giving us new life on this side of the glass too as he plants his Word in our hearts, as he renews us in his promises, as he urges us on through the love of Christ to invite, to proclaim, to persuade, to scatter the seed of the gospel.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church