St. Paul’s – 6th Sunday after Pentecost – July 12, 2020
One of my favorite American philosophers was the catcher for the New York Yankees. Yogi Berra once famously said, When you come to a fork in the road – take it! He was encouraging people to act; like my grandfather said, Don’t just sit there, do something.
But the problem is, which road we take matters. Really matters. It is not something to be settled by tossing a coin.Paul, in verse 2 our Romans text, draws a pretty stark line between two laws; the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus, and the law of sin and death. These are the two roads in life, and sometimes it’s really hard to tell them apart
C.S. Lewis said that every day of our life we are moving toward our eternal destination; that each step we take, each act we make, is a move toward either heaven or hell. That’s enough to make a person decide to sit down in the road and think about it a while before moving. After all, one would not want to move in the wrong direction.
Another great American philosopher, Bob Dylan wrote a song that said, You gotta serve somebody. It might be the Devil, it might be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.
Now most of us do not willingly sign up to serve the devil, but we have to admit that, even when we have the best of intentions, the things we do often end up helping making things worse instead of better.
The key to understanding all this comes in something Paul says in verse 6, The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. (Common English Bible)
Most of the time, most of us think of selfishness in terms of greedy little children hogging all the candy (even when those little children are grownups and the candy is both much more expensive and much more dangerous.) Or perhaps we think of someone who absent-mindedly assumes that the world revolves around him and his wants and his desires.
All of that is certainly true, but Paul is getting at something much more profound and dangerous and widespread. When Paul speaks of flesh he is talking about the larger narrative of how sins happen in the world. He is not trying to create a paradigm of leave your body and just become a spirit or anything of the body is bad…. which would contradict God who after creating our bodies said it was very good. Paul is talking about the basic orientation of our lives. He is asking us to look at the question, What is the center of your life? What does your world revolve around?
And there are only two possible answers. One is that your world is centered on life in Christ Jesus, and the other is, your life is centered on the flesh. For Paul, those are your choices; that is the fork in the road, that is what direction you intend to head when you put your foot down.
Augustine of Hippo called sin and selfishness being bent in on oneself. Martin Luther said that our nature is so deeply curved in on itself that we bend, or twist, the best gifts of God into a shape that serves us rather than serving God. And, we are so bent that we are not even aware that we are doing it.
As Paul points out, life centered on the self, bent in on the self, is a dead end street. The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, There is not future in it, at least not a future with God. For, when one is bent in, curved in, twisted in, on the self, one can see nothing else and has time for nothing else.
It would be a misunderstanding of Paul to think that what he is telling us in this text is that we should straighten up and fly right and quit being so selfish. This is not an exhortation to be a sharing, caring good person. Paul is not seeking to give us an attitude adjustment through the means of a good, stern talking to.
Paul is answering the question….How to redeem the flesh? Paul is reminding us that there is a way for us to get unbent, but it is a way that comes from outside ourselves. It is not something we can decide to do; we have such a natural inclination toward self-regard and self-involvement that we are incapable of fixing this.
Verse 2 reads: The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. Has set you free is past tense. It is already done, we are free from the chains of self-regard that have bound us; and unless we know we are free, we stay bent, we remain twisted, we continue to dwell on self and not on the love of God in Christ.
What we all need is to be told and reminded that we are free from this addiction to ourselves. Thus in verse 9 Paul says, But, you aren’t self-centered…you aren’t in the flesh. Instead you are in the Spirit. . . .
There is a beautiful image for this in the “Hymn to Joy” we sang this morning: Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of love; Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee, opening to the sun above.
Flowers drooping, sagging, the petals tightly compacted in the cool and wet of early dawn. Then the sun comes up and warms up the world and you can see flowers straighten and turn toward the sun; unfolding as the hymn says.
The sun of God, the bright and warm glow of God’s love for us in Christ, unfolds us, straightens us up, turns us toward the light. It is not something we do, it is something God has done for us. And because of it, we are no longer turned in but instead we are able to face out to the world; like a flower reflecting the bright love of God into the world and helping God melt hearts and straighten out lives.
Which brings us to the Sower in this mornings gospel.
Consider again the actions of the sower as Jesus describes them: The sower goes out to sow, and as she sows, the seeds fall everywhere. Everywhere. Imagine it — a sower blissfully walking across the fields and meadows, the back alleys and sidewalks, the playgrounds and parking lots of this world, fistfuls of seed in her quick-to-open hands. There is no way to contain that much seed. No way to sort or save it. Of course it will spill over. Of course it will fall through her fingers and cover the ground. Of course it will scatter in every direction. How can it not?
But here’s the surprising part of the story: the sower doesn’t mind. She doesn’t mind one bit. There is in her a confident realism, a sense that what needs to flourish will flourish. Maybe not all at once. Maybe not everywhere. But that’s okay. In other words, the sower in Jesus’s parable is wholly unconcerned about where the seed falls or lands or settles — all she chooses to do is keep sowing. Keep flinging. Keep opening his hands. Why? Because there’s enough seed to go around. There’s enough seed to accomplish the sower’s purposes. There’s enough seed to waste. That is the Spirit speaking.
The fleshy view of Paul in response to this parable is this: I don’t tend to believe that there’s enough Good News to go around. I don’t begin with the generous assumption that every kind of soil can benefit from the seed. I don’t have confidence that God’s Word will go out from God’s mouth and accomplish what God purposes for it, no matter where it lands. I don’t trust in God’s endless ability to soften hard ground, clear away rocks, and cut through the most stubborn of thorns to make way for a harvest. I don’t care about the birds as much as God does. That is what Paul’s fleshy response would be to the Sower.
In short, I forget that all the terrain — all the terrain — is finally God’s, under God’s provision and sustained by God’s love. Who am I to tell God, the Creator of the earth and all that is in it, what “good soil” looks like? Who am I to decide who is worthy and who is not of the sower’s generosity? Who am I to hoard what I have been so freely and lavishly given? Who am I to look at God’s profligate blessing and call it waste?
The church, living in the Spirit would across the ages, across all cultures, denominations, and circumstances — would be known for its absurd generosity. The church, living in the Spirit would be like the Sower, going out in joy, scattering seed before and behind us in the widest arcs our arms can make. People, living in the Spirit could see a quiet, gentle confidence in us when we tend to the hard, rocky, thorny places in our communities, instead of finding us abrasive, judgmental, exacting, and insular. The church, living in the Spirit would sow seeds of love, mercy, justice, humility, honor, and truthfulness…. These seeds would fall through our fingers in such appalling quantities that even the birds, the rocks, the thorns, and the shallow, sun-scorched corners of the world would burst into colorful, riotous, joyous life.
In this time of sickness, scarcity, anxiety, suffering, and loss, what does the world need more than a Sower who is lavish? A Sower who errs on the side of wastefulness? A Sower who’d rather lose a bunch of seeds to inhospitable terrain than withhold a single one?
The thing about this parable is that at some deep, intuitive level, we recognize its wisdom. Whether we want to admit it or not, we know that Jesus is telling us the truth in this parable. Out here in the desert, we’ve seen how new life can spring from the environment we live in….How the deadest, most shriveled places in our lives — places we’ve given up on, places we assumed were hardened beyond hope can be transformed. We’ve witnessed inhospitable environments being altered by love. We know that joy follows from selflessness and generosity, not from caution and miserliness.
In the end, the problem is not our ignorance in the face of this Gospel; the problem is our unwillingness to follow in the footsteps of the extravagant Sower. Her carefree generosity worries us. Her seeming wastefulness offends us. Why won’t she discriminate? Why won’t she wait and withhold — at least a little bit? Why won’t she privilege the terrain that’s more deserving?
Because that’s not the kind of Sower she is. Look at her, tossing seeds to the wind with a daring and delighted smile on her face, inviting us to toss our own handfuls across the earth and share her joy. Will we?
I hope so….because as we strive to live in the Spirit, we are no longer turned in but instead we are able to face out to the world; like a flower reflecting the bright love of God into the world and helping God melt hearts and straighten out lives.
Yes, we are not of the flesh, we are in the Spirit, we are in Christ, we are in God’s love, we are on the right road, we are serving the Lord, we are moving in the right direction. AMEN+
Offertory / Invitation to Give
Many gifts have been sewn into our lives, the seeds of God’s generosity and love for the world. We are stewards of them, and are called by the gospel of Christ to spread them abroad, trusting in God’s care to nurture and bring forth the harvest of righteousness. Let us bring forth the fruits of God’s creative, loving care from the gardens of our lives.
Prayer of Dedication/Offertory
What we offer may not seem significant in a world of so much, Caring God, but we pray they may become seeds of hope, of grace, of change, of life to all those around us. Amen.
As God’s people.
May we sow seeds of love and joy in the world.
As Christ’s true friends.
May we sow seeds of justice and hope in oppression-strewn paths.
As the Spirit’s love.
May we sow seeds of peace and reconciliation in every corner of creation.