Good Seeds. Good Soil: Sermon for October 30, 2016

Note: This is the second installment of a sermon series on stewardship. For last week’s please read:

I know nothing about gardening. Years ago when I was moving from Atlanta my mentor gave me a plant that she had kept alive in her office for years. It was a really beautiful Easter lily that I had watched bloom year after year, and she wanted me to have it.

And so, I took it, and I remember holding it and thinking, “you are beautiful…and I am going to kill you.”

I did. Not maliciously. I did what I thought I was supposed to do. I watered it. I put it in a window where it got sunlight. But I was in graduate school and working and I was barely home, so I kept forgetting to water it, and one day I looked and it was clear that there was just no way life was coming back from the now-dusty soil.

My ancestors were farmers, and I’m sure they would probably be mortified to know I share their genes. And even now people give me plants and they say “oh, these are so easy to take care of…you’ll be fine” and I’m like “you have no idea what I’m capable of”.

So, when it comes to gardening, farming, or planting, I have very little real world experience and even less success. But it’s the language of seeds, and soil, and growing that Jesus often uses when he’s teaching his disciples.

That’s not surprising. He was speaking the language of his time. The people listening depended on the land for their food and survival, and they were more intimately connected to it than those of us who can just walk into the grocery store and fill our shopping carts.

And so he told them two stories that they would appreciate. The first was about a farmer who went out to plant. He took seeds and scattered them. Some of the seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it before it could even take root. And other seeds ended up in the rocks, but still managed to bloom. The only problem was that the soil was too rocky for the plants to get rooted, and so they withered and died. And other seed was thrown into the weeds, and so as soon as it grew the weeds choked it and it died.

But some seed…some…fell on good soil. This was rich, well-cultivated, nourishing soil. And it put down good roots, and it blossomed and thrived. In fact, Jesus said it grew to over 100 times its size.

So what’s the message? If you try to plant something that you want to grow and flourish, you have to put it in good soil. You don’t put the seed in with rocks, or weeds, or dusty roads…you save it for the good earth that will nourish it. That way it will thrive. Even I, in all of my gardening ineptitude, can understand that.

That’s the first part of the story. Later in the same teaching Jesus tells another story, also involving seeds. Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed”. Now, a mustard seed is a tiny little seed that you wouldn’t think much of. You wouldn’t think it could grow into anything. But when you plant it, it becomes a thriving plant. Jesus says it’s so big that even birds come and nest in it. It’s amazing that something so inconsequential could grow into something so mighty.

So, if the first story was about the power of good soil, this one is about the power of good seeds. And Jesus is telling us that if we have good soil, and we have good seeds, we can grow incredible things.

This is the second week of our stewardship sermon series and, like I told you last week, this isn’t about why you should give to the church. I made my case about that last week. But I wanted to preach this series because I believe stewardship is the greatest outward manifestation of our faith.

I’m not just talking about how we use our money there, though that’s part of it. Instead I’m talking about stewardship like I explained it last week, which is about how we use, how we manage, every good gift that has been given to us. That can be money, but it’s also about our time, our abilities, our presence, and more.

All of these things are limited. None of us is given an unlimited supply of money, or hours, or talents. And so every choice we make in life about how we use these precious resources is an act of stewardship. Every single choice.

To put it another way, God has given each of us packets of seeds that only we get to choose how we plant. And these seeds may not look like much on their own. Maybe they’re no bigger than mustard seeds. But when we choose to plant them in good, rich soil, they can grow into something incredible.

But, how do we decide where to plant? And what if we doubt that our seeds can really grow into something worth planting?

About a year ago Heidi and I decided to look at our giving in a deliberate way. We both feel incredibly grateful for certain people and places that have changed our lives in real ways through the years. And I believe gratitude is one of the most life-changing attitudes we can adopt. It can completely transform your life. And part of being grateful is learning to say thank you.

I wanted to say thank you to the places that had shaped me, particularly when I was younger. And so I decided that I would make small monthly gifts to my college, and my seminary. We also wanted to support other things we loved, like public radio, and Star Island, and so we set up monthly automatic giving for that.

Lastly, I wanted to show gratitude to that mentor I had in my twenties, ironically the same one who gave me that plant. Don’t worry…my thank you did not involve any living thing. Instead, I make a small monthly gift to the non-profit where she works, one whose work she believes in deeply.

Sometimes I look at my bank account, and I feel badly that I can’t give more. I look at those monthly gifts and I think “that really won’t buy them much…maybe some copier paper…maybe a book.” It’s easy to ask, “What’s the point?”

But then I remember the mustard seed, and how something so small can grow and flourish. And I think about how my seeds are just a few scattered with so many others. And I give thanks for all the planters who have found this good place, and chosen to commit what they have been given to the soil. Together we are growing something great.

On another note, I also look at what fields need more seeds, and which are already well-seeded. I’ll give you an example. I absolutely love my college. I am so grateful for what I learned there and who I am because of it. So I show that gratitude with my monthly gift. But here’s the catch…my college has a $6.6 billion endowment. It’s one of the largest in the country. I’m happy to give what I can, but I know they’re going to be okay no matter what.

My seminary, on the other hand, does not have a multi-billion dollar endowment. They do okay, but they depend on individual alums and others to give generously in a way that my college doesn’t. And so, though I value both schools equally, I feel like giving a little more to my seminary is the right thing to do. Both schools have good soil, but one is already heavily planted and the other needs good seeds. And so, I feel like I can make a real impact.

I’ve been talking about money here, but this is about more than just our financial gifts. This is also about where we plant the other seeds we’ve been given too. Where do we invest our time? Where do we put our talents to good use? Where do we plant our very hearts?

The places where we plant these things, these good seeds that we have been given, they say more about us than we know. The soil we choose to work in tells the world what we value, and who we are. And most of all, it says that we believe in the potential of every good thing that God has given to us, no matter how small, to grow into something incredible.

About a week ago I was given a visible reminder of how true this can be. I was standing in the parsonage driveway, looking at the large chestnut trees that hang over it. Tootie Cole, who holds a lot of institutional memory of this place, happened just then to walk up. And she said to me “these are George Booth’s chestnut trees”.

George Booth was the pastor of this church from 1956-1967. And sometime in his tenure, 50 or 60 years ago now, he planted some small chestnut trees at the parsonage. Today they are tall, and strong, and every fall they drop their chestnuts onto the cars of the pastors who now serve here.

George Booth is gone now, but this church remains. And so do his trees, which still bear good fruit. He planted other good seeds here too. But that’s not just true of pastors. That’s true of every person who in the past 378 years has passed through the doors of this church, opened their hands to reveal the good seeds God has given to them, and then decided this was worthy soil in which to plant. What they sowed, we harvest. And what we sow will be enjoyed not just by us, but by generations untold.

That’s true for this good soil, and it’s true of every other place that your life touches. And so, look at the seeds that God has given to you. Give thanks for each one. And then, find places that are worthy of them, and, with hope and faith, plant your seeds and your heart in that good soil. Amen?

God Will Pay for the Broken Windows: Mustard Seeds, David, and Dads – A sermon for June 17, 2012

I’ve never given a lot of thought, one way or another, to mustard. I can sort of take it or leave it. Usually I pass by it at picnics. And I’ve never thought much about where it comes from, or how it’s made. So when Jesus uses the example of a mustard seed in today’s passage, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.

Jesus is teaching the disciples and he talking about creating the kingdom of God. And he compares it to a mustard seed. Now, I didn’t know much about mustard seeds, but it turns out that when you plant them they are only about 1-2mm big. That’s tiny. But the seeds, when they take hold in good ground, grow into these huge bushes that are almost more like tress. They can be 20 feet tall.
Jesus use the example of that mustard seed to talk about growing the kingdom of God. Even the smallest things become great over time.
That’s reassuring to me. Have you ever heard the phrase “faith as big as a mustard seed?” It’s sometimes taken to mean that even the tiniest bit of faith can yield great things. I think that’s true. We sometimes believe that the only way to be a good Christian, and to live a great spiritual  life, is to have this solid,unshakeable, grand faith that never doubts.
But for most people, everyday is not like that. I’ve talked a lot about faith and doubt and how they’re not necessarily opposed before. I think that has something to do with this mustard seed. It is tiny, the way our faith feels sometimes, and yet it has all of the potential in it to grow into something great. Sometimes our faith feels tiny, and yet it too can grow, and yield great things. All it takes for that mustard seed to grow is little light, a little soil, a little rain. All it takes for us is the light of God, the soil of good community, and the waters of baptism.
I wish we in the church talked about the mustard seed a little more. It makes a for good story. It’s tenacious, it grabs hold and grows where it’s planted. It creates abundance where there was none. And what is most incredible is how unexpected it look at that tiny seed and you think, “How can anything great come from this?”
It’s a lot like that first story that Kenny read today. Now, I don’t usually preach on mor that one text. It was drilled into our heads in seminary not to do that. But you can’t read these two texts that the lectionary gives us today without seeing some resemblance. The tiniest seed. And the smallest son.
Samuel is called by God to find a new king of Israel. And God tells Samuel that king will be one of the sons of Jesse. So Samuel goes to Jesse’s town and asks Jesse to bring his sons. And the first one comes. And he’s the oldest and probably this big, strapping guy. He probably looks like a young king. And Samuel says to himself, “Ah, this must be him.”
But God says, “no…that’s not him.”
So Jesse gets his other sons. Samuel sees the second and third and fourth born sons and each time he thinks he must have found the guy. But God says no. Finally he gets through all seven sons and realizes the king isn’t there. And he asks Jesse, “Are all or your sons here?”
And Jesse says no. There’s another. The youngest. But he’s out in the fields tending the sheep.
That youngest was smaller than his brothers. The runt of the litter. He probably had held down the bunch all his life while he watched his brothers play in every game. They got to do everything. So much so that when the prophet came to town looking for a new king, they didn’t even bother bringing him in from the fields. It was just David, very one thought. Why would the important visitor want to see him?
But David was the chosen son. He was the mustard seed that unexpectedly grew into something great. The runt of the litter, the mustard seed, becomes a tree of life that extend generations down the line to Jesus himself. And he becomes king.
I’ll bet everyone was astonished that day. The father. The brothers. The folks in town. But I’ll bet no one was near as shocked as David. I’ll bet that after a life of being told his place was out in the fields he couldn’t believe that now he belonged on a throne.
But that’s okay. Because God did believe it. And God use that youngest son, that mustard seed, in the most unexpected way.
That’s worth remembering in our own lives. How many times have we felt about as small and insignificant as a mustard seed? How many times have we felt powerless in the face of a big, overwhelming world? How many times have we found ourselves on again sending out in the fields, counted out and feeling like the last in line?
For most of us, when it comes to the spiritual life, our greatest problem is not that we are not enough. For most of us it’s that we do not see the potential that God has already placed inside of us. Like the tiny mustard seed. Like the youngest son. We may not look like much. But God thinks otherwise.
But that doesn’t mean it always happens. Because sometimes we become so tied up in the thoughts of what we cannot do, that we fail to ever do the things we can. We are so caught up in how small and insignificant we feel, that we don’t plant ourselves in the sun and grow towards the light. We don’t take in the things that nourish us. And we don’t put down roots. We get lost in how unlikely it is that a little seed like us might turn out to be something great.
Likewise, when a new opportunity comes to town we might stay out there in the fields with the sheep while everyone else we think is more qualified or more prepared goes running. We might be so caught up in our identity as the last in line that we may never even know what God has prepared for us.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever been so caught up in what you think you can’t do that you haven’t let God do the things that God can? Have you felt a tugging in your soul that only comes from God, and yet you’ve turned away for fear of failing?
We all have at some time. In our own lives, and even in our lives together. But how do we get beyond our fears and move forward?
The other day in deacons we were talking about a new idea for this church. We’ve kicked it around before but this time we were really trying to make it happen. We want to offer, once a month, a free meal for the community here at the church. Nothing major. Soup or chili with sandwiches and cookies, maybe.
There are a lot of reasons why. We want to introduce people to our church community. We want to provide a service for our neighbors who might be having trouble making ends meet right now. And, we want to provide fellowship for all of our community, no matter their economic situation. There are many reasons to do this, none of them bad.
But, be honest, how many of you are thinking that it sounds like a lot of work? How many are thinking already of the logistics. The cost of food. The coordination of volunteers. The right recipe for the chili. And where are we going to find enough tablecloths?
I get it. But I also know this. God blesses the mustard seed, and makes it grow. We’ve already seen that in our lives together. In the past two years, this church has grown by fifty percent. While other churches in communities like ours are shrinking and struggling to keep the doors open, we are going the other way. We have undertaken new programs and missions. We have gone through a flood and a merger and we have come out stronger. If we need any reassurance that God chooses the unexpected and makes it grow, look no further,
But that doesn’t mean we can rest. God is not growing us so that we can pay our bills and take care of ourselves. God is growing us for something. God is growing us for service. And we can do this. Whether it’s this new mission or something else entirely, we can do this.
And whether it’s something here in our life together, or something that only you are facing, you can do this too. The only trick is to not be so afraid, so overwhelmed, that you never claim God’s promise.
I’ll close with this. Today is, of course, Father’s Day. I was thinking of a story about my own dad. When I was about nine we were golfing. And we came to a hole that faced a group of houses. And as you teed off you hit right towards the houses. I became convinced that I was going to hit those houses with my first shot and break all the windows.
Now, they were 400 yards away. There was no way in the world I was going to hit those houses, but my dad couldn’t convince me of that. I said, “Dad im going to hit the house.”
He said, “no you’re not.”
I said, “It’s too close.”
He said, “Emily, hit the ball.”
I still didn’t want to, so finally he said this. “Swing away. Hit that ball as hard and as far as you can. And if you break the windows, I’ll pay for them.”
Scripture calls God our parent and at times calls God both a father and a mother. And there are times when I think of God like that. Because sometimes we are so afraid of whats never going to happen that we don’t even want to tee up. And I think of God as the father who just wants us to draw back, put our fears aside, and just give it our best shot. All of us David’s. All of us mustard seeds. God is calling us to the tee. It’s our shot. And we don’t have to be afraid. Because I’m pretty sure that so long as we take that shot, God will always pay for the broken windows. Amen.