Sunday, October 20, 2019

Sermon: "Of Saints and Seedlings", Jeremiah 31:27-34/2 Timothy 3:14-4:5 (October 20, 2019)


Okay; don’t tell anyone, but I have a problem with scripture.

Well, that’s not entirely accurate. What I actually have a problem with is a particular scripture-related metaphor. In Luke 8, Jesus tells the parable of the sower (which our kids presented beautifully a couple of weeks ago) and then, in a rare move, he explains what the parable means so that there can be no confusion: the seeds that the farmer sows represent the Word of God, and the different types of soil that they land in represent our potential attitudes when we hear the Gospel. In other words, how we receive the Good News determines whether or not it’s able to take root in our hearts.

Now, I’ll admit that this is a decent metaphor, especially for an agriculturally-based people. Anyone can see that a seed planted in rocky soil won’t be able to take root or that a seed planted in thorny soil will eventually be choked to death. But here’s the beef I have with this image: generally speaking, rocky soil will always be rocky soil. Thorny soil will always be thorny. So where does that leave us, if the soil is supposed to represent our attitude? It seems to imply that we’re unchanging receptacles for God’s Word. While this predestination-y understanding of humanity might make John Calvin proud, it doesn’t seem to reflect God’s actual expectations of repentance and reconciliation as expressed through Scripture. It also implies that once the Word takes root within us, we just sit back and passively let it do its thing. But as James 2:17 tells us, faith without works is dead. So while this is a lovely metaphor in some ways, it’s far from perfect.

If we’re going with seed-based metaphors, I personally prefer Jeremiah’s. At the very beginning of today’s reading, God says, “I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans…” Did you catch the difference? In this analogy, instead of being described as passive receptacles, WE are the seeds! WE’RE what’s being planted, what’s expected to take root and grow. WE’RE the thing that will bear fruit. I love this image. It tells us that God’s Kingdom isn’t just a museum of abstract ideas that we get to admire; it’s a beautiful garden—a new Eden—made up of US, God’s beloved. This kingdom isn’t for preserving God’s already-omnipotent will, but for allowing us time and room to grow into who God truly intends for us to be.

We can take this metaphor even deeper, because while we may no longer be a primarily agricultural society, we do have many more years of scientific understanding at our disposal, so it’s fair to say that we have more insight into seed biology than Jeremiah’s original audience did. For example, we now know that in general, the majority of a seed (more than 80%)[1] is actually a starchy food source that will help the tiny baby plant begin its life. We also know that seeds are coated by a protective shell that guards the potential sprout and its food. Less than 5% of a seed’s weight is actually made up of the biological material that will eventually grow into a plant.1 Now, I’m no scientist, so this is an extremely simplified description, based solely on my memories of 3rd grade science class and a quick Google search. But if my research is correct, this mere 5% contains both the very earliest form of the plant as well as the DNA instructions that will tell it how to develop and grow.

As someone who relishes the opportunity to beat a metaphor to death, I’m all over this. If we keep reading Jeremiah 31, we find that God has promised to put God’s “Torah” within us—the seeds—and to seal it with a new covenant. The NRSV translates “Torah” as “law”, but that’s not a perfect translation. God’s “Torah” isn’t law in the modern sense (a list of rules for us to obey); it’s more a set of critical guiding principles and teachings. An essential way of being, rather than a checklist to follow. A better translation for “Torah” might be “instruction”: God promises to write God’s “instruction” on our very being. If we extend Jeremiah’s initial metaphor to include our modern knowledge of plant biology, it seems pretty obvious to me what part of the seed the “Torah” is meant to be: its DNA.

I absolutely think this is the coolest possible way to understand God’s Torah. It’s not something external that we learn and do our best to follow. The Torah is a part of us; the VERY THING THAT MAKES US WHO WE’RE MEANT TO BE. These DNA instructions were given to us by God before we were born and affirmed in our baptism, telling us everything we need to know about how to learn and grow and bring about God’s Garden-Kingdom. We are the seeds that God has created to build a better, more beautiful world, and the instructions for how to do it are ALREADY WITHIN US. And not only that, but God seals these instructions with a covenant, protecting them with a divine promise just like the protective coat protects a seed. I seriously cannot express to you how beautiful this idea is to me. Marvelous are God’s works, indeed!

You may be thinking that in my excitement about this clearly superior agricultural analogy, I’ve accidentally forgotten a critical part of the seed. But don’t worry; I would never abandon any aspect of a perfectly good extended metaphor. In addition to its DNA (the Torah) and its protective coating (God’s covenant), a vital part of what makes up a seed is its food source. And that brings us to our reading from 2 Timothy.

See, even with instructions and protection, a seed can’t survive germination without a source of nourishment. Neither can we grow into beautiful flowers of God’s Kingdom without the nourishment of scripture. That’s what the author of this letter to Timothy is trying to say: not that “all scripture should be applied literally” or “all scripture is equal”, but that all scripture has value in helping us grow. And although different parts of it may sustain us to different degrees and in different ways, since it all comes from God, we can trust that all of it together will nourish us in a holistic and healthy way. And when we allow ourselves to be fed by its teaching, correction, and training, we have all that we need to grow in God until we blossom and bear divine fruit.

The problem, of course, arises when seeds go rogue (as only human seeds can). God gives us everything we need—this shouldn’t be difficult—yet somehow in our sin we manage make it so. We pick and choose the messages that we hear in scripture, twisting our God-given nourishment into junk food. We break the covenant, rejecting our protective layer. We fight against the instructions in our very DNA, insisting on growing in a way that we were never intended to. Thanks to our sin, it’s become more natural for us to resist who we were created to be than to allow God’s intentions to shape our lives.

Can you imagine a seedling trying to draw nourishment from cheeseburgers or pizza instead of the food readily and generously available to it? Can you imagine it rejecting its protective coat in the face of ravenous animals and harsh conditions? Can you imagine it refusing to grow towards the light as it’s meant to, stubbornly burrowing down into the soil instead? Of course not. And yet, we do these very things ourselves. 2 Timothy 4:3 says, “There will come a time when people will not tolerate sound teaching. They will collect teachers who say what they want to hear because they’re self-centered.” Friends, that time is now.

We human beings are actively working against the Kingdom of God by refusing to grow the way God intends. We’re rejecting the gifts that God has so freely given to us: the Torah, the Covenant, and the Scriptures. When we use them to justify our own desires, our own greed, our own agendas, we’re no longer those same seeds that God had planted. We’ve made ourselves into the very weeds and thorns that choke seedlings and prevent God’s Garden-Kingdom from flourishing. When we selectively apply the Torah to benefit ourselves, when we use the covenant to “prove” our own superiority, when we manipulate scripture to diminish another’s worth, we’re tearing down the Garden-Kingdom one beloved seed at a time.

But we don’t have to accept the presence of weeds in God’s garden as a given. At any point, we can repent and seek the life of a holy seedling that God has planned for us. We can return to our source and begin growing again the way we were intended to. Part of the covenant’s protection is that it will always be there for us, no matter how many times we abandon it. Scripture will always be ready to nourish us if we have ears to hear. And the Torah is still a part of our DNA, whether we like it or not. We have everything we need for new life. We were meant to be the seeds of saints, and saints we shall be.

What’s more, remember that a full-grown, mature plant produces fruit, which in turn produces…more seeds. When we return to our divine “roots” (get it?) not only can we become strong, confident spiritual beings ourselves, but we can help grow God’s Kingdom-Garden. We can help others to accept the protection of God’s covenant, embody the Torah, and find nourishment in scripture. That’s what God, the Great Gardener, asks of us seeds—we are divinely equipped, through our nature and God’s care, to help the Garden grow, one seed at a time.

We are all God’s beloved children, borne of the Torah, the Covenant, and the Word as a flower is borne of a seed. And just as surely, the seeds of countless saints can be borne from the fruit of our own growth. So I charge you to grow with abandon, seeds of God, being always nourished, protected, and instructed by God’s gifts. With your persistence, love, and ministry to others, the blossoming of God’s Garden is assured. May we always seek to be seeds for the Kingdom. Thanks be to God! Amen.



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