Sunday, February 13, 2022
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Sixth Sunday after Epiphany
watch this service online (readings start around 13:35; sermon starts around 18:45)
One of the things that I love about this congregation is that nearly all of you share a passion for gardening and growing things. It’s something we talk a lot about in council, from the lawn care at the parsonage to what kind of tree we should plant out front of the church here. I know there are lots of green thumbs here in this room! As for myself, I love the idea of gardening, but anyone who has been to my house will probably tell you that it’s where plants go to die. Even as we speak, there’s a couple of dead succulents on the counter in the kitchen and a neglected spider plant hanging in one corner, barely clinging to life, haha.
So I want to start off this morning by picking your brains: Whenever you go to plant something, what are all the factors that you take into consideration?
Composition of the soil?
Size of full grown plant?
Needs lots of watering?
Potential to become invasive?
Grows well w/other nearby plants?
Seed vs seedling/transplant?
Length of growing season?
There are SO many factors to take into consideration when planting something. And it’s important to consider these things because we want what we planted to grow! We want to give it the best shot we possibly can to put down good roots, to grow and thrive – to produce beautiful flowers, or shade, or a harvest of good fruits, or whatever else we may have planted it for. You can have the finest seeds in the world, but if you don’t have good growing conditions, good soil, you’re just never going to get the results that you want. The whole art of gardening, or farming, is to create the optimal conditions for growth – to take good seeds and plant them wisely in good soil.
You may have noticed in our readings for this morning that there are actually a fair number of verses that could be considered “gardening” advice, after a fashion. Our scripture writers are talking more about what we do with our hearts than about literal seeds and soil, but the advice is pretty similar – it still basically boils down to the fact that good seeds need good soil, good growing conditions, in order to grow.
In our first reading, Jeremiah writes:
Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD. They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land. Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD. They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.Jeremiah 17:5-8
And then in Psalm 1, the psalmist writes:
Happy are they who have not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor lingered in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seats of the scornful!Psalm 1:1-4
Their delight is in the law of the Lord, and they meditate on God’s teaching day and night.
They are like trees planted by streams of water, bearing fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither; everything they do shall prosper.
It is not so with the wicked; they are like chaff which the wind blows away.
What do you notice in these verses? What gardening advice do you hear Jeremiah and the psalmist giving for our hearts?
The good soil that our hearts need in order to root themselves deeply and grow is God. It’s to trust in the Lord, to meditate on God’s teachings, to take delight in God’s word. And the image these writers both use is pretty striking. If you think about the terrain of Israel, a lot of that land is wilderness and desert, rocky and dry. If you’re going to plant a tree over there and expect it to grow, you’d better find some water to plant it by, otherwise that tree’s just not gonna last! That’s just a fact.
It can be easy to get thrown off by the language of “cursed be” or “wickedness” in these passages. But neither Jeremiah nor the psalmist is actually cursing anyone. This is wisdom. They’re just telling the truth, telling it like it is. Those who trust in God, who root their hearts deeply in God’s word – they thrive. They grow and flourish and produce good fruit. God gives them strength to persevere in times of drought and difficulty. In God, we find good soil that nourishes us for eternal life.
But those who put their trust elsewhere will inevitably struggle – that often includes us! Without even consciously realizing it, little by little we put our trust in our bank accounts, in the labor of our hands, in the stuff we own, in the people we love. These things are good things, and they can sustain us for a while – but sooner or later, when storms or droughts come, when illness or death come, they will fail us. Our material wealth especially is shallow soil to try to root ourselves in – it’s just not enough to really nourish us for abundant life. To be wise gardeners – in the spiritual sense – we need to take as much care to plant our hearts in good soil as we would with a seed.
This is a helpful perspective for understanding our gospel reading a little better. In this reading, we have the familiar, but difficult, words of the beatitudes. This teaching from Jesus is meant to challenge us, to pull us up short and make us consider our attitudes toward our own wealth and toward those who have less than we do.
But it’s also fundamentally getting at this same question of where our hearts are rooted – of what kind of soil we’ve planted ourselves in and how well we’ve set ourselves up to grow. Jesus is painting this contrast between those who are rich and well-fed and comfortable and confident in their wealth on the one hand, and on the other hand those who really don’t have anything else to trust in but God.
Jesus says “blessed are the poor” – but it’s not that poverty or hunger or marginalization are blessings; they’re not. However, it is easier to root ourselves in God without the distraction of wealth. The allure of wealth is tempting – the notion that we’re self-sufficient, that we don’t need to rely on anyone but ourselves – and it pulls at our hearts. But so does the call of God. And this is a tension that is central to the gospel witness, especially in the gospel of Luke – the tension between God and mammon, God and wealth, that is played out in our hearts.
So what does this mean for us? Does it mean that we should all sell our stuff and become poor and hungry ourselves? I mean, maybe! For some of us, it might take something that extreme for us to truly root ourselves in God. To go back to our gardening image, if you’re one of those folks who do a lot of gardening, you can probably think of a time that you had a plant that just needed to be all the way uprooted and planted in different soil. It’s similar to what we talked about last Sunday: sometimes we only realize our need for God in those moments when our lives get turned upside down, when we lose the things or relationships we depended on.
But it’s not that God wants or causes us to suffer. Just like with our first reading and our psalm, the language Jesus uses here of blessings and woes is descriptive – it’s wisdom, not cursing or commanding. It’s more gardening advice from the one who knows best how our hearts can bloom and grow.
Because, at the end of the day, it isn’t that God desires that some people be poor and others be rich, or that some be happy while others suffer. Humans have decided that that’s a fine way for things to be, but that’s not at all what God wants for humanity. God wants for all humanity, for all creation, to flourish. God wants us to enjoy and share the wealth of creation. God blesses the whole earth with abundance and goodness, so that everyone everywhere may have enough to grow and thrive, to bear good fruit for eternal life.
God is the good soil in which our hearts grow best. So let’s sink our thirsty roots down deep and really let ourselves grow.