Tuesday, July 12, 2005

The Revolution Is Being Broadcast (sermon for Proper 10A)

A sermon preached at St. Paul's Episcopal Church,
St. Joseph, Michigan
on July 10, 2005
by the Rev. Jason A. Fout

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

One of the joys of living here for the last four years has been learning to garden. Ironically, when we lived in the Chicago area, we had a larger yard – but I couldn’t have cared less about the lawn and the garden. But once we arrived here, for some reason I warmed up to the task of trying to coax life out of the sandy soil.

And so in late winter, I would go out and dutifully purchase seeds. Longing for spring, I would nourish them with a grow light in my basement until the tender shoots arose and turned their faces to the light. Soon after, inevitably, they died. After all, I said I enjoyed gardening, not that I was good at it. I’m not a green thumb: I’m all thumbs. And so I would dutifully troop out again and then buy seedlings: tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, strawberries: whatever caught my fancy.

Although there is a certain generosity of spirit to gardening, to giving life to something, I also learned that there are certain guidelines you must follow to have even a modicum of success. With seeds, you plant a bunch but then thin them out: it’s easy to have too many. Each kind of plant needs a certain amount of room around it in the garden. Learn to recognize weeds. And use the right kind of soil. These are the virtues of a good gardener.

At the heart of these gardeners’ virtues is a certain kind of prudent caution: be careful with your resources. There are only so many seeds, only so much of the right kind of soil, only so much water and fertilizer to go around, only so much space. And so you want to be wise in how you use these resources. All of which leads me to believe, in light of the gospel reading this morning, that God is a pretty foolish gardener.*

Jesus told a parable about a sower, and what happened to the seed after it had been planted. It would be easy to turn this into a simple morality tale: make sure that you live your lives as good soil so that you can receive the word of God. And I guess we do want to be open to God, but this interpretation misses the true point of the story.

Biblical scholars tend to agree that the main character in a parable is the first one who is mentioned: in this case, it’s the sower. So then the true focus here is the one who is scattering seeds all over: this isn’t really a story about different kinds of soil, but about a goofy gardener, who is none other than God.

This gardener is not willing to be so cautious as to only plant in the right place. He doesn’t carefully parcel out just enough seeds for each plot of land. He doesn’t calculate how much water and fertilizer he has. God scatters this seed, which Jesus interprets as the word of God’s kingdom, on the path, on the rocky ground, among thorns. It seems that he loves the land enough to sow seed everywhere with joyful abandon. Who knows what unlikely place it will crop up next? In next week’s gospel reading, we will even hear that God isn’t too concerned to keep this motley garden properly weeded.

Before we thought in terms of radio and television, “broadcast” was a word reserved for farmers. In planting, if you broadcast seed, it means that you scatter it all over the ground in broad, sweeping motions. So in this parable of the sower, we see God at work broadcasting the word of his Kingdom all over the world, rather than in just a few choice locations. 47 years ago, Black musician Gil Scott Heron declared: “The revolution will not be broadcast, the revolution will be live.” But I think in this context, talking of God’s inbreaking Kingdom through Jesus, we may confidently say that the revolution is being broadcast, and that revolution brings life.

This might raise a question in our minds, then. If God is so lovingly generous that he’s flinging seed everywhere, then why does Jesus say this in a parable? It’s only later, on the down low, that he explains this parable to his disciples. Wouldn’t it be better if, say, he scaled the pinnacle of the Temple in Jerusalem, or a high mountain where he could survey the kingdoms of the world and openly declare God’s shoddy gardening?

As I mentioned in a previous sermon, we ought to understand Jesus’ movement as one of several Jewish political factions focused on the liberation of Israel from the oppression of the Roman Empire. There’s more to it, of course, but that will be sufficient for our purposes this morning. So part of the reason that Jesus seems so cryptic is that what he is saying is subversive. In fact, when he ends his parable saying “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!” it is equivalent to a wink and a nod, a sign that he is saying something important but that would be dangerous to proclaim openly.**

But what could be so dangerous and subversive about this? Well, for one, part of Jesus’ message was that God is Lord, not merely the creator but the master of all there is. And this means that Caesar, the Roman Empire, or even the modern nation-state, is not. This radically de-centers and upsets our notions about such things as power and politics and sacrifice. If Jesus was right, and God is so wanton as to cast his seed so broadly, not merely in the backwater that was first century Israel, but across the Roman Empire, indeed all across the world, then that meant that the Empire’s pretensions of being universal or eternal or its claim of people’s ultimate allegiance or its power over life and death: all of this was called starkly into question. You can see why Jesus spoke in code.

What Jesus’ message did for his day, it does for ours too. It certainly calls into question our own contemporary Empires which claim our allegiances. If Jesus Christ is Lord then that means there is a whole host of other pretenders which aren’t.

But more than that, I suspect that the great prodigal generosity of God might be quite a challenge to us. That’s not to say that we aren’t quite generous with our resources, personally, but that we live in a system which positively thrives on scarcity. Our entire economic system revolves around scarce resources: that’s how things are valued. Many fortunes have been made on this basis. And as much as we have already, there are people employed to persuade us that we still don’t have enough.

As an example, let me return to gardening for just one moment. I have been amazed at hybrid plants. When I was just starting to garden, a friend informed me that hybrid plants are designed to not reproduce. The reason was because if such plants reproduced on their own, then people wouldn’t have to buy new ones every year. Well, at least other people wouldn’t – I’d probably find some new and creative way to harm them. There might well be other biological factors at work that I don’t fully understand, but at least one thing is certain: Apparently, only God was willing to make a plant for free.

But if it’s true that the revolution is being broadcast, that the Word of God’s Kingdom is being scattered all over the world with a loving carelessness, then maybe there’s hope. Hope that our imaginations might be changed from seeing everything in terms of scarcity to seeing God’s abundance. Hope that we might not be as attached to those things we do have – or do they have us? – and grow in generosity and contentment. Hope that, renewed and refocused, we might make a start at addressing, creatively and cooperatively, the debt and poverty of Third World nations. Hope that we might learn through the triune God, to be foolish gardeners, too.

Friends, the revolution is being broadcast: if anyone has ears to hear, let him hear. Amen.

* Although I am not directly borrowing this phrase from her, Sarah Dylan Breuer used a similar phrase, “God is a foolish farmer”, in the text of a Proper 10A farewell sermon on her blog: http://www.sarahlaughed.net/lectionary/2005/07/proper_10_year_.html
**I am indebted to N.T. Wright for this point.

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