July 16, 2017Proper10

Proper 10 - Year A

A Sermon Preached by The Rev. Ian M.Delinger


It is very quiet on San Luis Drive, most of the day. Even in the middle of the day there’s not much traffic. It’s noisiest when gardeners are at work and on trash day. At night, it’s absolutely quiet, and I can hear the creek from my bedroom. While working on this sermon, the wind came through the neighborhood and rustled all the trees. If I would have recorded the sound of the leaves and amplified the noise, it would’ve sound like the clapping hands.

If you have ever been in a grove of trees or the forest, the sound of the wind blowing the leaves can sound like a gentle golf clap. And if you have ever seen trees in a storm, especially tall thin ones like palms or eucalyptus, they can look like arms with hands clapping, without too much stretch of the imagination.
A couple of years ago, my friend John joined me for part of my pilgrimage home from England. We rented a house in Guerneville, on the Sonoma Coast, “Where the Redwoods meet the Ocean.” John lives in Chicago, and was raised in rural Illinois. It took about 3 months of convincing him to get a place in the Sonoma Wine Country instead of spending a week in San Francisco. When he travels, he goes to cities, exclusively.

John likes the outdoors and is really into plants. When he retires, he wants to start a nursery in a small town outside of Chicago. We ventured out to Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, just a mile outside of Guerneville, basically at the end of one of the town’s streets. When John went to the Redwoods, he was overwhelmed by these trees, at their height and their density. These weren’t even the Giant Redwoods. It took me awhile to get over the attitude of, “They’re just the redwoods,” since these trees are part of my own background. And when I did get over my judge-i-ness, I got to learn about the Redwoods through fresh eyes.

The Redwoods don’t clap so much in the gentle Pacific breeze, with their needles. But you can see the seeds that they sow on the forest floor, and the saplings sprouting up everywhere. It’s a beautiful testimony to Creation and the Cycle of Life.

The forest floor in the Redwood parks is also a testimony, to some degree, to the Parable of the Sower. The seeds, which aren’t very big, fall onto incredibly fertile soil. The mist and fog from the ocean give the saplings the moisture they need. But one thing is missing: The sun.

The Sequoia Redwood Forests, unique to only Northern California and Southwest Oregon, are good at bringing together the imagery of all three readings and the Psalm:

  • “All the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress.”
  • “You visit the earth and water it abundantly; you make it very plenteous.”
  • “The Spirit gives life to your mortal bodies.”
  • “Seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”

The seeds are God’s word; Jesus makes that very clear. With the right soil, water and care, those seeds germinate into the fields of grain or the trees, and are very plenteous – we grow, but we also multiply. But think about the one element that is missing from both Jesus’ parable and the Sequoia Forests: In the Sequoias, the sun is missing at the forest floor; In Jesus’ parable, the Spirit is missing. And this is where Paul’s writing comes in. Those seeds on the forest floor are animated to life when there is sun; we are animated to a new life in Christ not only be hearing the Good News, but when we are also filled with the Holy Spirit. This mishmash of holy ecosystem metaphors cannot come to life without all of the conditions being right.

For Paul, the Spirit is the life-giving power of God Himself, and here in Chapter 8, Paul’s zealous nature insists that the Christians in Rome, and us today, get it. References to the Spirit in Romans 8 occur 29 times, but only 3 times in ch1-7. Paul wants us to understand that it’s not only the Word we need to receive, but the Spirit also. The way he put it together was, of course, different to the way I am. He was putting it in Judaic terms that would make sense to his readers. But nevertheless, today’s collections of readings illustrate that hearing God’s word and being animated into a life in Christ by the Spirit is worth rejoicing. Whether the trees are trees or we are the trees, we will rejoice and clap our hands.

From Isaiah, the rejoicing comes from freedom and liberation, recognizing the immensity of God’s work, and that God’s work is in the world and for God’s people. God’s chosen people of Judah were just set free from their captivity by the much more powerful nation of Babylon. Judah “didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell”, as the saying goes, to overthrow the power that Babylon had. But God made freedom possible. As one commentator put it, “This poetry insists that public history is not reduced to economic, political, and military power. In the end, there is another purpose, rooted in God’s fidelity and holiness, that turns history in inscrutable ways.” That is a very powerful commentary, worthy of a separate sermon and further contemplation.

Jesus is saying, in a way, “Don’t forget God. Here is God’s Word. Put it into your heart and soul, and that power of God to change history will be with you.” We are to be the fertile soil for the seeds of the Word of God. Using the sower for His imagery would have made Jesus’ parable more understandable to His audience. However, there are other layers within the parable, as always.

The Nebraska State Capitol has a central tower as its prominent feature. I can’t tell you its nickname from the pulpit, but might after the service. Atop the domed tower is The Sower. It’s a 19.5-foot art deco bronze statue of a man with a bag of seeds over the shoulder, and his right hand full of seeds behind him in the position to throw the seeds on the ground. The statue is said to represent not only agriculture, but also the “chief purpose in forming society, to sow nobler ideas of living.”

So, sure, Jesus compares us to the types of soil. What we are receiving is the Word of God. But, like the multifaceted symbolism of The Sower of the Nebraska State Capitol, both the Word of God and our lives are multifaceted and dynamic. While God is unchanging, our reception of God’s Word, or our present condition is ever-changing, which makes our reception and perception of God Word dynamic. The same seeds, that same Word of God can be sown in us time-and-time-again, but we may understand it differently each time, or find hidden layers, resulting in different qualities of crops each time – to continue the metaphor.

That is why we need the Spirit, like the Sequoia saplings need the sun. Paul is underscoring both Isaiah and Jesus by insisting that this power that we have been given, the Word of God – a Life in Christ – is animated through the Spirit. It is a new and holy ecosystem. Jesus refers to “the one who hears the word and understands it.” It is the Spirit who helps us understand God’s Word. Paul’s insistence on a life in the Spirit makes more sense when you consider what Jesus is saying about the reception of God’s Word and the reality of our complicated modern-day lives. Jesus knew nothing about genetically-modified seeds, nitrogenated soil, and drought-resistant crops. Farming is more complicated – in many places, the depleted soil is artificially stimulated in order for yet another crop to be forced upon it. Which is also a good metaphor for our lives compared to the life of a 1C Palestinian. We need the Spirit, Paul insists.

To me, what Jesuit theologian Joseph Fitzmeyer wrote about Paul’s Letter to the Romans is very accurate:

It “overwhelms the reader by the density and sublimity of the topic with which it deals, the gospel of the justification and salvation of Jew and Greek alike by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ, revealing the uprightness and love of God the Father.”

I am often overwhelmed by Paul’s enthusiasm and passion. But we need people like him in society, in the Church and as an advocate for Christ. Paul wants us to know that “the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free”, which has a spiritual significance to the same degree and power as God setting Judah free from Babylon. Judah was liberated physically; in Christ, we are liberated spiritually, liberated from death.

The Spirit, nonetheless, ties everything together and gives us the energy begin to understand God’s Word that we have received. With the Spirit, we won’t be like the sapling on the Sequoia forest floor that is missing only one key ingredient in order to flourish. When we open ourselves to both the Word and the Spirit, we flourish: we bear “fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” We become the Redwood Forest. And our response to the power of God within us and God’s power at work in the world is for us to go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

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