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Every Flower Reaches for the Sun

(a sermon for June 17, the 4th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Ezekiel 17:22-24 and Mark 4:26-31)

I’m not sure if it was a wedding present, or if it was for Christmas or a birthday, but once when Lisa and I were first married, we received a gift of…wait for it (!)… a can of seeds!

Thinking back, it was actually kind of neat; this was literally a coffee can sized container of wildflower seeds – direct from L.L. Bean, don’tcha know (!) – from which, when properly planted and nurtured, would grow a variety of flowers both annual and perennial.  Even now I still remember what an amazing thing that was: first of all, how despite the fact that all these seeds, at least to my untrained eye, looked pretty much the same, what we ended up with all that first summer and for many more to come were these immensely beautiful, fragrant flowers of every size and shape and color you can name.  I’ve lived in New England just about all of my life, but I’ll confess that I didn’t know we even had that many flowers in this part of the world; but that was the wonder – and the fun – of that particular gift!

But the other thing I remember about those flowers is how utterly relentless they were!  Like I said, there were quite a number of perennials included in that wildflower mix, which means that even given a modicum of care they should continue to grow year after year.  But here’s the thing:  after a couple of years we were shocked to discover that no matter what we did or didn’t do as regards those flowers, or how they may have been – however unintentionally (!) – used, abused or at the least disrupted, despite our best (or worst) efforts not only did they just keep on growing, sometimes they downright flourished!

I mean, inevitably every summer that garden plot where we’d sown those seeds had faced alternate bouts of drought and flooding; every winter it got snowplowed into oblivion; and this is to say nothing of what happened once we had little kids running around!   Understand, it’s not like we set out to ruin this gift or to destroy these wonders of God’s creation, but looking back, in all honesty given everything they went through they really shouldn’t have stood a chance at all! But such was the strong nature of these wildflowers; they seemed determined to grow sunward and to triumph over whatever nature (or humanity!) set in their way!  And because of this, every summer that we lived in that house we were not only treated to the utter beauty of nature as only a wildflower garden can provide, we were reminded in glorious fashion of the resiliency of all that which God has provided!

To put this another way, it’s in the DNA of a seed to grow, isn’t it; it is the seed’s design for the life that’s placed within it to take root and sprout up through the soil, prevailing over whatever hardship it encounters, so to fulfill its purpose as part of the circle of life.  What we’re talking about here is basic botany, and truly, “nature’s way;” but having said that, I’d also have to say that such an explanation says nothing about what ultimately comes from the seed as it makes its way sunward; nor does it really express any one of a multitude of ways that every flower that “reaches for the sun” will end up serving God’s purposes!

Which, come to think of it, is not entirely unlike our lives, yours and mine… after all, you and I might be able to say something about how we live and grow in this life; but that can’t possibly express in fullness what that life is for!

This is wonderfully expressed in a song written by Noel Paul Stookey, the “Paul” of “Peter, Paul and Mary:”

Every flower’s reaching for the sun
Every petal opens when the day has just begun
Even in the city where they grow up through the street
Every blossom needs the sunshine to makes its life complete.
Some are torn out by the roots and cast aside
And some might be arranged and brought inside
A flower’s just a seed when it’s young
And every flower’s reaching for the sun.

Some are bent by fears they cannot see
And some are touched by Love and set free
A flower’s just a seed when it’s young
And every flower’s reaching
Oh every flower’s reaching
Every flower’s reaching for the sun.

 – “Every Flower,” written by Noel Stookey, Bob Milstein and Peter Yarrow

In our gospel reading for this morning, Jesus offers up a parable about how the Kingdom of God “is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground… and the seed would sprout and grow,” despite the fact that the sower of said seed “has no idea how it happens.” [The Message]  It’s a reminder both agricultural and theological, that “just as seeds grow without our effort, so also will God bring about God’s reign.” [David Lose]  If Lisa and I learned anything from our long ago “mystery garden” of wildflowers, it was that ultimately its growth wasn’t up to us; we didn’t make it happen and whatever else we did or did not do to it (!), we couldn’t prevent it from happening either!  Seeds grow of their own accord, you see, and every flower reaches for the sun; and so it is with the Kingdom of God.

What Jesus is wanting his disciples and us to know through this little parable is that the Kingdom is indeed coming as surely as will come a harvest of grain, but rest assured that it comes apart from our efforts.  To quote David Lose, “We can’t bring God’s reign of redemptive and surprising love and grace, but neither can we control it, moderate it, or domesticate it.  And we definitely can’t stop it.”  God is on the move, you see; God is at work – in our life, in our community, in our world – and that work will be done in God’s way and in God’s good time. Whether or not you and I actually see or even know what’s going on; the fact remains that by God’s full intent and grace, his kingdom is coming to us in ways and with an intensity that we can’t even predict.  In fact, as Jesus points out in the second little parable he shares in our gospel text for this morning, the kingdom might well be “like a mustard seed,” the source material for what can be described as “an out of control weed [that] grows and spreads and can hardly be contained, even if you’re not sure [at that particular moment] you want it.” I mean, it’s definitely not the lofty, noble cedar we heard about from the Ezekiel reading; it’s a mustard plant!  But there’s no denying that the end result of its growth into “the greatest of all shrubs” fulfills its purpose: to be that one place where every possible bird of the air can find a place to rest and to “make nests in its shade.”

Seeds grow; and every flower (even every weed) reaches for the sun!

So what do we say to this?  How do you and I deal with this utterly relentless God who promises us that in due course his rule and his will will be enacted among us?

Well, to begin with, we let that prayer we repeat each and every Sunday morning become real for us:  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)  More than merely another piece of worship liturgy, these words serve as our acknowledgment that God is at work as surely as seeds sprout and grow in the soil and “the earth produces of itself.”  And we also need to be patient about the way that happens and how long it takes; for the world as we know it and live in it most often tends to live in steadfast opposition to God’s plan and purpose for it (all the more reason to pray, again and again, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done…”).

But mostly, what you and I always need to be doing is to simply be about the work of that kingdom until it comes in its fullness, to “enact God’s reign wherever we are,” living out of our confidence that God’s promises are true and that the kingdom will come in its fullness.  What that means is that you and I become the flowers reaching for the sun; doing that which we’ve been fashioned for from the very moment of our creation: to align ourselves with God’s will and way; to seek to love and nurture others in the same manner that we have been loved and nurtured; to let our hopes and dreams, our talents and skills, our opportunities and challenges, our joys and even our sorrows become intermingled with our ongoing call to be Christ’s disciples.  At best, what that means is that every piece of our lives – and every fiber of our being – becomes centered on how God has always intended for his creation to be; filled with hope and love, and the joy of living in a close relationship with the Creator.  And by the same token, and once again I’m quoting David Lose here, “when life is hard, when we meet resistance, or when we fail or fall far short of our hopes… we can take refuge in the promise that God is still at work and has not given up on us or the world.”

Because seeds grow; and every flower – and yes, that even includes you and me – every flower reaches for sun.

I think I’ve shared with you before Lisa’s and my other great gardening story, also from early on in our marriage: the year that we grew a bumper crop of beautiful butternut squash… which was amazing, because we never actually planted any butternut squash!  Moreover (and I’m a tad embarrassed to even admit this!), there wasn’t a single crop we planted in that particular garden than managed to make it to harvest or at least past some hungry raccoons!  As we came to understand it, it turns out that there were a fair number of squash seeds in the soil of that garden plot; the remnant of the previous growing season before we’d lived at that house or ever had attempted to plant our pitiful little vegetable garden.  So something else – dare I say, someone else? – was at work.  And the good news was that at the end of it all we had squash enough to last us well into the fall; and trust me, that was truly something!

I kind of like to think of the Kingdom of God that way, beloved.  Because as much as we try to make it happen, and even think we might succeed in it by our own efforts, in the end what grows in our spiritual garden comes about because of what God is doing just beyond our sight with a firm and steadfast resolve.  There’s an old saying, you know, that seems applicable here:  that we should “work like it’s up to us, and then pray like it’s all up to God.”  In other words, plant those seeds of faith and love; tend that garden of righteous living; and do whatever it takes to keep growing up through the soil and to rise up ever sunward, in the great hope and expectation that you’ll become exactly what you’re meant to be.  But know that if that doesn’t work (and despite your best efforts, it might not, because who can predict what happens in a growing season), you’re still meant to blossom; because at the end of the day, what makes a garden strong and beautiful and purposeful is the work that God puts into it.  Beloved, no work done in love is ever lost, especially when that work is done by God; and God, in time and with care, will draw all things together for good so that the harvest can come.

Seeds grow, you see; and every flower reaches for the son.

And for this, and so much more, thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on June 17, 2018 in Faith, Jesus, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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Ready at the Right Time

(a sermon for November 12, 2017, the 23rd Sunday After Pentecost, based on Matthew 25:1-13)

I would suspect that most, if not all of us in this room can vouch for this particular undeniable truth of life: that there are consequences for being unprepared!

I learned this truth back in school; although admittedly it took me quite a while!  After all, you can’t not read the assigned chapters in “Moby Dick” and expect to come even close to correctly answering the teacher’s questions about Captain Ahab the next day in class; and they’re called “pop quizzes” for a reason, and so not doing your homework is almost certainly a recipe for academic disaster!

And then there were the great many “all-nighters” I pulled in college, at least until eventually I discovered that I could not wait to study for exams or write my term papers at the last minute and expect to do well.  I remember one paper in particular; it was one of the very first I ever wrote for a seminary class, in fact. All these years later, I’m still not sure it was because of the work load from all my other courses or if it were just pure procrastination on my part, but I do remember that as I cranked out the final pages of that paper – due the very next day – that new day was actually dawning (!); and also that I was convinced that what I had written was brilliant, cutting edge theology!

But a few days later, when the professor invited me to his office and graciously allowed me the chance for a rewrite (!), I realized that what I’d passed in what was basically a 20 page-long run-on sentence, pretty much lacking any of the insights that should have come from a semester’s worth of study (the professor was kind, however: “Well, Michael,” he said, “this paper does have a great deal of vitality!”  Probably more like the effects of a great deal of caffeine, but I was grateful nonetheless).

In retrospect, I could never have hoped to have been ready with that paper at the last minute, any more than I could ever do well on a final exam without first having studied for that exam!  And therein lies the undeniable truth:  that in whatever opportunity, or challenge, or crisis comes our way, most often we cannot hope to have the tools, or the skills, or, for that matter, the character to face what’s coming unless that skill or that part of our character has been previously and sufficiently nurtured over time and with concerted effort.  In the end, you see, preparedness is not about what is done at the last minute, but everything else that’s been done in anticipation of that last minute.

Our gospel reading for this morning tells us that this is especially true for that which is the most important thing of all: the coming of God’s Kingdom into the world.  Jesus actually speaks a fair amount about this in Matthew’s gospel; the gist of the message being, “you… must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” (24:44) But in order to illustrate the consequences for not being ready, Jesus goes on to tell the story of ten bridesmaids waiting with lamps burning for the arrival of the bridegroom and the beginning of a wedding feast.

It would have been a familiar scenario for those of Jesus’ time: it was customary in those days for a groom to escort his bride from her father’s house to his own home, followed by a grand procession of attendants, guests, musicians and townspeople.  Once they arrived – and sometimes this arrival would happen well into the evening, especially if the groom was bringing his bride from a neighboring village – they’d be met there by the bridesmaids waiting outside his door, the light of their lamps glowing in the night.  And then together the whole group would then go inside, so that the wedding celebration could start in earnest.  It was also a custom – and this is important – that once everyone had entered and the festivities had begun, the doors would be locked and no one admitted late.

So here, according to Jesus, according to proper wedding tradition and etiquette are these ten bridesmaids; except that Jesus also makes a point of telling us that “five of them were foolish, and five were wise.”  It’s an interesting distinction, because just like members of a wedding party today, they were probably identical in appearance and all dressed to the nines; they were certainly all friends and family of the bride; and each one of them had been invited to be there and equally desirous of celebrating this marriage!  And if we’re looking for a lack of etiquette, it wasn’t the fact that they fell asleep waiting for the bridegroom, who we’re told was delayed in his arrival; because all ten of them did that!

No, the only difference, the only thing that sets apart the foolish from the wise, turns out to be a lack of preparedness; specifically, five of the ten who did not bring along an extra flask of oil, and thus did not have enough fuel to keep their lamps burning through the night.  Asking the other bridesmaids to share their oil was no solution, since then none of them would have had enough fuel; so the only solution, they reasoned at this last minute, was to go out and buy some extra, and so off they went… and wouldn’t you know it; while they’re gone the wedding party arrives, the party begins, the doors are locked and those five bridesmaids miss it all.  And the story ends rather harshly, with the groom refusing to even recognize them, much less let them come to the reception.  But, suggests Jesus, sad as it is, it was the bridesmaids’ own fault because they weren’t ready when that crucial moment came; they were unprepared for the bridegroom’s coming!

And to this Jesus says, “Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”

It turns out that this parable of Jesus is all about spiritual readiness; about the faith necessary for this and every day until God’s kingdom comes in its fullness. We’re told by biblical scholars that this particular parable was Jesus’ way of saying (and by extension, Matthew’s reminder to the early church) that the kingdom might not come immediately but it will come; so we’d best be attentively and actively waiting on it.  Jesus is telling you and me that we need to be prepared; ready for the time that is the right time.  Because it’s important to note that while those five “foolish bridesmaids” (and understand, by the way, that they could have just as easily been five foolish groomsmen; this is not gender related at all!); that this “foolish five,” shall we say, may well have had good intentions to keep their lamps well-lit, the bottom line is that they ran out of time.

There are things in life that cannot be endlessly deferred; there are opportunities that come to us that do not come again.  There are moments in this life for decision, for commitment, for pronouncing the verdict of our very lives; and what the gospel tells us today is that there will be that moment, in the eloquent words of Will Willimon, “when God arrives on tiptoes, or comes rushing in, or surprises us with light, or flirts, or speaks.”  We’d better be watching for it, and we’d better be ready.

I recognize, of course, that when we’re here in worship or engaged in some faith-related activity, or perhaps about now when we approach the “holy seasons” of advent and Christmas, and later on with Lent and Easter; perhaps then our senses are more attuned to this kind of spiritual readiness. However, if we’re being honest, that kind of expectant spirit is hard for us to sustain over time, when the need is for that spirit to imbue all the other experiences on all the other days of our lives!  I love what M. Eugene Boring of Bright Divinity School has written about this; he says that “living the life of the kingdom” can be done relatively easily for the short term. But “when the kingdom is delayed, the problems arise… being a peacemaker for a day is not as demanding as being a peacemaker year after hostile year; being merciful for an evening can be a pleasant experience, but being merciful for a lifetime requires [true] spiritual preparedness.”

My point is that it is not easy to live the Christian life day in and day out; it is rarely a smooth road to travel when our own life’s journey is defined by our walk with Jesus Christ; when we’re imitating Christ and keeping the values of Christ as our own until Christ himself returns.  But it is crucial that we stay on that journey, and always be about this work of spiritual readiness, lest the kingdom of God comes and we be found asleep and unprepared.  Simply put, we need “oil in our lamps to keep them burning, burning, burning,” (!) the kind of spiritual fuel that gives light and direction to the standards of devotion and behavior we apply to our day to day lives; to the ways we nurture relationships with one another; in how we make real in our own lives the prayers we pray for peace, for justice and an end to hatred and all manner of abuse. And friends, make no mistake; ours is a lamp that needs to burn, and brightly; for in a time and place when there’s so much to be done for the sake of God’s kingdom, we would not want to be floundering in the darkness!  We need to be ready… and now is the right time. 

I’ve always loved the writings of Bill Bryson; as you might know he’s a mid-westerner who immigrated to England for a good many years and then returned to live with his family here in New Hampshire (up near Hanover, I believe), and from that perspective he writes these marvelous essays about American life and our history.  In his book Made in America, Bryson speaks rather frankly about the Pilgrims of the first Thanksgiving, saying that as much as we revere them, they were basically ill-suited for a life in the New England wilderness!

Consider how they packed for the trip:  historical records tell us they found room on the Mayflower for “sundials and candle snuffers, a drum and a trumpet, even a complete history of the country of Turkey.  One man named William Mullins packed 126 pairs of shoes and thirteen pairs of boots.  Yet the Pilgrims failed to bring a single cow or horse, plow or fishing line.”  With the uncertain exception of Miles Standish (who, by the way, was not a Pilgrim per se but something of a soldier of fortune who got hired on for security purpose!), probably very few of these pilgrims had ever even tried to hunt a wild animal! Bryson writes that these pilgrims “were, in short, dangerously unprepared for the rigors ahead, and they demonstrated their incompetence in the most dramatic possible way:  by dying in droves.”  In fact, by the time spring arrived, only about 54 of them (nearly half of them children) remained; but these were the survivors who turned Plymouth into a self-sustaining colony and the ones who hosted the first Thanksgiving.

Think of that as a parable, friends; for while we may never find ourselves in the dire straits of our Pilgrim Fathers and Mothers, we do know what it is to be unprepared for what life thrusts upon us.  We also tend to carry unnecessary baggage through our lives and then find ourselves lacking that which we really need to survive the storms of tough times and unforeseen crises.  Better in the here and now to be preparing ourselves spiritually for all that awaits us; looking to Jesus for the skills and the grace we need to embody God’s love, his forgiveness, his joy and hope in how we live and in how we relate to one another.

Better to be ready… at the right time!

For our Lord makes it clear, beloved; this… this time and place… is not all there is or will be.  We are, in fact, on the verge of a moment in which this transient life we lead will be transformed into a kingdom of feasting and celebration.  It’s coming; so let us keep awake – let’s pay attention and get ready – for that time soon, and very soon, when the bridegroom arrives… for what a celebration that will be!

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on November 12, 2017 in Discipleship, Jesus, Life, Sermon, Spiritual Truths

 

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Parables “On the Pond,” Part 3: The Rocks on the Shoreline

pondseagulls(One more attempt… for now at least (!)… at some parable creation…)

Finally, this parable “on the pond:” The kingdom of God is like the huge rocks that line the shore: for no matter what else shifts and changes around them, they stand firm and strong.

In the nearly sixty years that “the camp” has been in our family, there have been many changes to the landscape around the lake.  To begin with, many of what were once modest cottages have been transformed into year-round homes, and there’s a nearby golf course and time-share condominiums on land that not too many years ago served as cow pasture (in fact, I have vague memories from when I was very young of how those cows would occasionally wander off and end up in our driveway!); and some of what I remember as rough and questionably passable tote roads are now practically paved streets!

Moreover, as I return to camp every summer I am reminded of the many families who have come and gone over the years: the people who were our neighbors and friends “on the pond” while I was growing up.  Some passed on the legacy of “camp” to the next generations; others eventually sold their properties to others who have in turn come to create memories of their own.  From year to year there’s even a lot of change as to what you see on the lake: twenty years ago, for instance, we seemed to be almost overrun with speedboats; these days, kayaks are far more abundant.  In the end, I guess it’s true that whether one is talking about the landscape or life itself, nothing stays the same forever; which is what makes it good news indeed that the rocks…the mammoth, glacial rocks that line almost the entire circumference of the pond always stay the same year after year, generation after generation; to coin a verse from the hymn, our lake truly has a firm foundation that is from “age to age the same.”

I must admit that from the time I was very little I’ve always had great fondness for these rocks: they were, after all, what I played on and around as a child (my friends and I had special names for almost every one of them!), and they continued to stir the imaginations of my own children as they played years later.  They also often served as their own sort of island refuge for swimmer and boater alike on those frequent days when the lake water felt all too cold, rough or deep to handle; a place to rest, and breathe and plan one’s next move.  And to this very day, as evidenced by the many aging towering birches on our lake that still boldly defy gravity as they hang over the shoreline, these rocks also provide an unyielding anchor for whatever (or whoever) would cling to them!

IMAG1787In a world that is ever changing, these rocks have always symbolized for me not only what is gloriously unchanging in this world, but also that which is for us solidly held and the most important in our lives. Indeed, though the years pass and perhaps some things we have cherished along the way change or at least rearrange, nonetheless the rocks remain, standing firm and strong, come what may; which is, of course, what God does for each of us with perfect love and unending strength!

Our God blesses us with all things that are good: God gives us the peace and joy and hope and love that can fill our heart and make life and living a thing to be cherished.  But perhaps even more significantly, God also gives the courage and strength that it will take to endure the storms of that life and all of its challenges and difficulties.  In and through it all, you see, God gives us the solidity of his presence.  In fact, it could be aptly stated that the first and foremost of all blessings is the promise that nothing in life or death separates us from God’s love; the same assurance that “though the earth should change, [and] though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea… the Lord of hosts is with us; [and] the God of Jacob is our refuge.” (Psalm 46:2) This is, truly, the one absolute certainty for our lives that, as the Psalmist also proclaimed, “from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God!”  (90:2)

God is, indeed, the rock of our salvation; and so, whatever else this world brings to wreak havoc, nonetheless we stand secure, knowing that God’s promised kingdom will come!

Here ends the parable: as Jesus himself said, “Let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 13:9)

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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