God, the Extravagant Gardener

July 9, 2017 Sermon by the The Rev. Jacqueline C. Thomson

PROPER 10A-3

Isaiah 55:1-5, 10-13; Psalm 65:9-14; Romans 8:9-17; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

How does your garden grow?  We’re nearly midway through the summer – hard as that is for me to believe – and it’s time for our gardens to be bearing fruit.  It’s time for all our hard work to be paying some dividends.  We used to be vegetable gardeners – or, more accurately, Barney was the vegetable gardener and I was the flower gardener.  We reached a point with the vegetables a few years ago when we realized we were feeding the local wild life and that very little of the produce was making it to our table.  So sadly, we’ve given up on vegetable gardening.  When I visited my daughter in Indiana about this time last year, her garden was producing an abundant harvest.  We had radishes and carrots and kale – all fresh picked – and wonderful fresh herbs.  She had the kind of zucchini people like Garrison Keillor make jokes about .  All Kerry’s hard work of preparing the soil, planting the seeds with care in just the right place at just the right time, feeding them with fertilizer, keeping them watered and weeded was paying great dividends in her abundant harvest.

As she drove me back to the airport, we passed field after field of corn.  The stalks were about up to my shoulders, I would guess.  “Knee high by the Fourth of July,” Kerry quipped.  It is an expression I hadn’t heard before, one they use in corn country.  “If the corn has reached a height of at least knee level by the Fourth of July,” Kerry explained, “the farmers are pretty sure they will have a good harvest that year.”  Every year the farmers follow the same good farming practices of planting the seeds in the properly prepared field at the right time and giving the seeds all they need to produce a good harvest.   Some years the harvest is abundant; other years the crop fails.  It’s a reminder that despite our best efforts, the growth is ultimately God’s.  We are not in control.

My garden is having a so-so season.  While the only edibles are a few herbs, I consider the flowers to be food for my soul.  Earlier this spring my husband prepared the soil.  I carefully selected the plants I like, the plants that have worked well in the past, plants that are in keeping with my pink, white, and blue color scheme.  At the right time – not before Mother’s Day – I planted them in just the right places – shade-loving plants in the shade and sun-loving plants in the sun. As I labored in the garden that week in May, I did so with the hope that the plants would grow into their full potential.  I have continued to water them, fertilize them, and keep the weeds from choking their growth.  And I have been vigilant about keeping up with that putrid smelling spray that supposedly keeps the deer and rabbits from feasting on them.  But this hasn’t been the best year.  There are lots of very tame deer, a lot of heat, and periods without enough rain.

I must confess to being a frugal gardener.  I want every plant to count and am disappointed when one dies.  I don’t like spending money on plants that don’t bear fruit – or flowers.  And I don’t like spending time and energy on a garden that isn’t going to produce beautiful flowers.  I have discovered a new variety of petunia called supertunia.  True to its name, each plant produces a super amount of flowers.  I especially like those.  And then there are the flowers called cleome, also known as cat’s whiskers.  They pop up everywhere, sprouting from seeds scattered indiscriminately by last summer’s plants.  They grow in sun and in shade, in gardens that have been prepared, in rocky ground, and even in cracks in the sidewalks.  The frugal gardener in me really likes these; I have spent neither money nor labor on them, and they, too, produce an abundance of flowers – and in my color scheme!  There is a two-legged pruner who comes into my garden, hardly deterred by the spray, whose goal is to remove these free-growing plants, claiming they look like marijuana.  I wouldn’t know. I just know I like them.  And I like their hundred-fold harvest.

Like the vegetables in my daughter’s garden, like the corn in the Indiana fields, my flowers, too, are dependent on God for their growth.  I can plant them, I can tend them, but in the end I can’t make them grow.

If I were to ask you to describe your image of God, I wonder what descriptors, what metaphors you would use.  Many of you, I am guessing, would use the metaphor of God as parent.  Some of you might describe God as your friend, your companion.  Others would say you imagine God as a judge.  I wonder how many of us would offer the image of God as a gardener.  It’s not the first – or even the second or the third – metaphor that comes to mind for me, so I am grateful to this Parable of the Sower for offering that image of God.  If I stop to think about it, the image of God as gardener makes perfect sense.  And God is not a frugal gardener.  God is an extravagant gardener.  Recalling the very beginning of our Biblical story, we see God as the gardener, present in the beautiful Garden of Eden.  After creating the garden with the greatest care and then providing everything the people would ever need, God stayed in the garden, keeping company with the people.  We recall, too, that towards the end of Matthew’s Gospel when Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb that first Easter morning she doesn’t recognize her risen Lord at first, mistaking him for the gardener.  There is good ground, solid ground, for thinking of God as a gardener.  I like this image of God as a gardener investing love and labor in us.  As God did with Adam and Eve, God has placed us in this garden we call earth and has given us everything we need to grow.   As all gardeners do, God hopes we will grow to our full potential.  God wants to keep company with us, to nurture us into the full potential – if we will just take the time to keep company with God.

I like this image of God as a gardener investing love and labor in us.  As God did with Adam and Eve, God has placed us in this garden we call earth and has given us everything we need to grow.   As all gardeners do, God hopes we will grow to our full potential.  God wants to keep company with us, to nurture us into the full potential – if we will just take the time to keep company with God.

We encounter in this morning’s Gospel the first of the parables in Matthew.  Up to this point in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus has been using logic, scriptural proofs, sayings, analogies and stories as he has taught.  Now Jesus begins teaching through parables.  The word parable means “to throw alongside.”  A parable uses figurative language to draw analogies from everyday life as it holds one thing alongside another.  Jesus makes use of the comparison to explain, to clarify something or to reveal a new truth.  While a parable may appear to be quite simple, a closer look usually shows it is anything but simple.  When Jesus teaches by parable he chooses something familiar, something from everyday life and casts it beside something else, often in new and unexpected ways.  He does this to open the listeners’ hearts to new truths.

We are cautioned against reading parables as allegory, assigning one meaning to each character or object in the parable.  Such an interpretation of the parable limits its depth and its richness.  It’s not unusual for a parable to hold different meanings for different people, to hold different meanings for the same person at different times.  The Parable of the Sower is unusual in that Jesus does explain it to his disciples – at their request.  He does tell them what each thing mentioned in the parable stands for.  Mark and Luke also record this parable – and Jesus’ interpretation of it.  Perhaps Jesus offered his explanation because it was the first time he was teaching his disciples in the parable method.  Perhaps he offers an interpretation because the disciples – in the verses we skip over this morning – ask him why he teaches in parables.  He wants to be sure those who will carry on his work understand.  And so, he tells them that God is the lavish gardener, sowing the seeds with abandon, without regard to where they land.  The seed, he says, is the Word of the kingdom, the Word of God, the love of God.  The seeds will fall on different soils.  This Parable is sometimes called the Parable of the Soils, and, in Jesus’ explanation, the soils represent the different types of people in whom the seed is sown.  The hearts of those who are not at all open to receiving the word are likened to the path where the birds – or the evil one – snatch the seed away before it has any chance to sprout.   Those whose hearts are like the rocky ground that allows the seed to sprout quickly but not to put down roots, leaving it vulnerable when conditions are unfavorable, are those who readily accept God’s love but who fail to develop any depth of commitment to it.  When distractions or hard times come, they lack the roots to hang on.  But the good soil, the well prepared soil, the well tended soil, receives God’s word, allows it to sprout, and nurtures it to maturity.  The parable, with Jesus’ interpretation, clearly invites us to explore ourselves as the soil, to wonder which soil we are and how we might improve the soil we are in order to produce a better harvest.

While Jesus gave his disciples a very good interpretation of the Parable of the Sower, and while that explanation offers us much food for thought, I don’t think he wanted to limit its potential to just that.  I would encourage us to think of ourselves as the seed as well as the soil.  Each of us contains the potential to sprout and to grow into our full potential.  God, the loving gardener, will nurture our growth.  We might think of ourselves as the seed that is watered at baptism, fertilized (or fed) through Holy Eucharist, nurtured by community, and encouraged all along the way by God, the faithful and loving gardener.

I also find in this parable a call to think of ourselves not just as the soil, not just as the seed, but also as the sower.  We are created in the image of God, and that means we are to live into that image.  If God, our Creator sows seeds, then so must we.  What seeds might I be able to sow?  What seeds might you be called to sow?  And will we have the courage – and the generosity – to sow them with abandon, willing to risk scattering them in places and in people who seem to us to have little potential of producing a decent harvest?  Have you ever wondered who Albert Einstein’s math teacher was?  Have you ever wondered who Billy Graham’s Sunday school teacher was?  Who was Babe Ruth’s baseball coach?  I wonder whether they knew about the harvest that came from their labor.

Who knows what the yield might be when we dare to scatter seeds?  When reporters interviewed Boris Yeltsin, they asked him what gave him the courage to stand firm during the fall of communism in the former USSR.  Surprisingly, he credited an electrician from Poland named Lech Walesa who started the fall of communism in his country.  When Walesa was interviewed and asked what inspired him, he said it was the civil rights movement in the United States led by Martin Luther King, Jr.  When King was asked what inspired him, he said it was the courage of one woman – Rosa Parks – who refused to give up her seat and move to the back of the bus.  Would it be too much of a stretch to say that it was the courage of one small woman in the South that brought down communism?  Seeds are like that.  They can be very tiny, but they can grow incredibly large.

Thomas Merton cautions us that the Parable of the Sower is not about the occasional moment when God or a faithful Christian sows a seed about God.  Rather, everything at every moment of every part of our lives is a seed suffused with life-giving, spirited import.   How does your garden grow?  What kind of gardeners are you?  Amen.

 

The Rev. Jacqueline C. Thomson

St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church, Herndon, VA

July 9, 2017