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the sermon for

the Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

23 July 2017

Matthew 13:24-30 , Matthew 13:36-43
The church is rooted only in the grace and mercy of Christ!

by Gretchen Shults, deaconess

07232017"Jesus told another parable about the kingdom of heaven: 'Wheat was planted in the field, but then someone else also planted weeds. What must be done with all these weeds?' Jesus said, 'Wait! Don't pull the weeds! Let both wheat and weeds grow together. At harvest I will take care of it.'"

Parables are meant to pull us in. Think of this parable as drawing us into the workings of the kingdom of heaven. The phrase 'kingdom o heaven' can be misleading. For some, it means a place where God lives or where people go when they die. In scripture, that phrase is not a place, but the way God rules with mercy – God's mercy management for the here and now!

I was reading what others wrote about this text. One person said, "I don't know how to preach this parable in the Lutheran Church! Help!" When some hear this parable, they zero in on "bundles to be burned" and "throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth." Then they race to the end times and panic sets in! Lutherans don't talk much about the modern obsession that others have with heaven, hell, and the end times! Like Paul, "We have decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." [1st Corinthians 2.2]

Surprisingly, the bible only drops hints about heaven and hell. Jesus seldom spoke of hell. And Paul wasn't too concerned. He was at peace with the unity he had with Christ. We would do well to limit our wildest speculations. Much of our current popular beliefs are shaped by our movies, songs, and books. We don't have to figure out God's every saving move. We know "Christ has triumphed! He is living!" [ELW # 367] The one who spoke this parable gave his life over to death on the cross so 65ht God's mercy for all people would be proclaimed! By God's grace alone Christ has snatched us from the jaws of evil and "The gates of hell will not prevail against us!" [Matthew 16 . 18] Nor will the weeds overtake us!

Our parable, today, is from the gospel of Matthew. It has bookends. Matthew begins his story with, "She will bear a son and you will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins..." [Matthew 1 . 21] "They shall name him Emmanuel which means 'God with us.'" [Matthew 1 . 23} Matthew, then, closes his gospel with Jesus' words, "Remember, I am with you always to the end of the age." [Matthew 28 . 20] Matthew wants us to hear that God is present in the person of Jesus – he is the messiah! But in the middle of the gospel, there are many dos and don'ts for carrying out the kingdom work. The struggle between the Davidic Messiah versus the Mosaic Law is seen throughout.

Matthew himself and the base of his community were, certainly, Jewish. They carried the heavy baggage of the Old Testament Law. Matthew's gospel is both the most Jewish of our Gospels and the most inter-Jewish. The church was in transition. During this time, many problems plagued the early church... hence, the wheat and the weeds! A lot of rule keeping was enforced. God's people were comfortable in the Law. They thought they were right with God by what they did, practicing many rules. They, also, protected themselves by excluding the outcasts.

However, Jesus stood opposed to that kind of faith. He turned everything upside-down. Christ came with steadfast love and abundant mercy for all! The biblical story tells us that those living on the margins of society mattered most to Jesus. Jesus interacted with tax collectors and sinners. He always found room at the table for thieves and, even, for those who denied him. Jesus chose mercy! "Don't pull weeds," he said, "Let them grow together with the wheat! Move away from apocalyptic fury to grace and mercy!"

We, too, need God's grace and forgiveness! Religious people are often obsessive rule keepers. Most of us have spent more than a little time worrying whether we measure up. I know I have. We are tempted to ask, "Am I wheat or a weed?" It's dangerous to judge who is headed for heaven or hell. We can easily be pulled into believing that on the basis of our own achievements, God determines who is 'in' and who is 'out.' We need not strive to earn our way by being nice people! We don't have to look inward to tally up our "wheat-points!" Christ, our redeemer, is the only remedy that will undo the ugly stubbornness of our deep-sown sin of trying to free ourselves!

A few years ago, Readers Digest magazine conducted a survey to determine the three most-read chapters in the Bible. The winners were Matthew 5 , 6, and 7! The Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, and the Golden Rule! In the United States, this material is not just Scripture, but part of our cultural heritage! As American as The Bill of Rights! But I was sad when I read that. Where is Jesus? Where is the cross? Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7 may be good words, but they won't save us! They tell us what we must do and not do. But the problem, of course, is that none of us can, possibly, succeed in doing all that we should! We never do enough to earn God's love. "Lord, save us by your grace!" Jesus is our hope and security amid the chaos and confusion in our world, today!

God's mercy and God's grace have been given to you! You have been marked with the cross of Christ, forever! In his death and resurrection, he has defeated everything that would crush, worry, or demean you! His everlasting love will never abandon you! You are not alone! You are a beloved, adopted child of god, bundled in his care and keeping and "made a joint heir with Christ!" [Romans 8 . 17] Christ has triumphed... for you! He is living... for you!

Together, we have been planted in this small congregation in West Texas to grow! Together! The congregation where I grew up was large and everyone was from the same place – Columbus, Nebraska! There was not another person from anther state! Not one! But here at Midland Lutheran, we have people from many states! Texas! Oregon! Pennsylvania! California! Kansas! Oklahoma! Minnesota! Ohio! Illinois! Arizona! Louisiana! Michigan! Montana! Nebraska! North Dakota! Arkansas! Isn't that amazing! Though we come from different places, we are very much the same! Each one of us, at the same time, is both wheat and weed! Saint and sinner, growing together! Because we are free from pulling weeds, we spring up together! Loving one another! Loving god's world!

Today's Old Testament reading says: "Do not fear or be afraid... You are my witnesses!" [Isaiah 44 . 8] I like the fourth verse of our Tanzanian Hymn that sais it like this: "Rise, then to spread abroad God's mighty word! Jesus risen will bring in the kingdom!" {ELW # 491] We are here to be part of God's mercy-management in the world, rooted together in the overflowing gift of Christ's love and grace!

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the sermon for

the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost

16 July 2017

Matthew 13:1-9 , Matthew 13:18-23
The church exists to love... and to love... and to love...

07162017I have to tell you, as I was reading through the gospel, again, this week, it felt just like meeting an old friend after a long, long absence! Some of you might remember... it was this particular handful of verses that provided the foundation for our transformation, our renewal, as a congregation, nearly a decade-and-a-half ago. Sowing the Seeds of a New Creation! That became our mission statement, of sorts. That and those three ears of wheat. For an entire year we ruminated together on this parable. For council devotions. In sermonitos, as we called children's sermons. Monthly reflections in the newsletter. We, even, planted a patch of wheat our by the well house and watched it grow. Then, we harvested it. Just outside the front doors, we threshed it! And for the next year or so, we used it to make bread for communion. And the reason was rooted right here... in the thirteenth chapter of Matthew.

The lesson we learned, after all was said and done... Faith – church – isn't something we construct or manufacture. It's something that's cultivated, grown! We learned a lot that year. I learned a lot. And what we learned still inspires us. And after all this time, here we are, again...

A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

The gospel of the Lord! Praise to you, O Christ! And naturally, Matthew makes it all about us! Our hearing! Our understanding! Our receiving! Our enduring! Our falling away! What the seed yields, what the field produces, is, ultimately, up to us! And the parable becomes more a fable and the moral at the end of the story is simple: Be the good soil! Be the good soil! But this time through, the thing that came to mind is that sometimes, sometimes not even good soil bears fruit! Not even thirtyfold!

Now I know that Midland and Odessa are oil towns! Here, petroleum is king! But there's enough farming going on around us that we should know by now... Some years, the harvest is good! Other years not so much! Sure, there are paths! And yes, there's rocky soil. But there are years when the good soil just isn't much better! Just think about the drought we went through. Only now are we beginning to turn green, again. There were a few years when the fields were empty and the gins went silent. Farmers planted! Sowers went our to sow! But nothing! The good soil brought forth little if anything! Years with no rain! Years when it rained too much! Years when it rained at the wrong time! Add to that hail! Weevils! And each time, every time, when something like that happened, there was only one alternative... Plant, again, next year! Plant, again, next year and hope that, this time, the harvest came!

You see, it's just not about the dirt! It's not just about the soil, the earth! It's about the rain and the sunshine and the warmth of the ground! And the magic, the miracle, is that when it all comes together, when the conditions are just right, life happens! Life happens and the seeds has the chance to do what seeds do! Sprout! And grow! And flower! And bear fruit! That's why the parable's called the parable of the sower and not the parable of the soils! What matters, what's important, is the one who plants the seeds! The sower and the seeds themselves!

Of course, Jesus' primary concern wasn't agriculture. It wasn't farming. It was faith and hope and love. Especially the love! Free, unearned, undeserved! Without limit and without measure! Love with without beginning! And love without end! But whether agriculture or love, the lesson is the same. There are times the seed doesn't have a chance to fall into the earth. And there are times when it's scorched and whither, scorched and wilt. And there are times when it's choked by the weeds. But none of that means that there's something wrong with the seed! That somehow, it's faulty, defective. Given the right time and the right place, it WILL sprout and it WILL grow and it WILL bear fruit! After all, that's what it was made to do! It's the parable of the sower! The parable of the seed! And if, for some reason, that seed doesn't do what we expect, when we expect, we'll do what farmers, what sowers, have done for millennia... we'll, simply, sow it, again, next season! We'll do it all over, again, in the certain and the sure!

Unfortunately, we're living in a time when it appears that the gospel is broken. The church is shrinking. Getting smaller. Grayer. And after a generation or two, we're starting to worry. Starting to panic. But stop and think. It's pretty naïve to think that this is the end! Pretty naïve and pretty arrogant. To think that after all this time – after two thousand years, a hundred generations – that the church has never been confronted by challenges like this! But we form praise bands. We come up with Jesus jingles. Put together PowerPoint presentations. Chase after the latest gimmicks and fads. We grab at one straw after another trying to find the solution to our problem. But what if...

What if there isn't a problem? What if this is just the way it is? An off year? For now? I learned, early on, in my time in Lubbock, that every year isn't a bumper crop of cotton. In fact, if they have a good harvest every five or six years, they're satisfied! What if it's the same for the church? What if it isn't always a hundredfold... or half of that... or half of the half... It's still a harvest! The seed does what is was always meant to do! And in spite of the outcomes, we do what we were meant to do... We sow... and we sow... and we sow... and we keep on sowing...

In the mercy of almighty God, Jesus Christ was given...

In the name of Father, Son, and Spirit...

Given and shed for you and for all...

We know god loves... always... forever... And we know that droughts never last! A couple or so years back, Lyne Brown – you might remember her – graduated from UTPB and a friend hosted a party for her. Well, there was a woman from Russia at the party. Just passing through. And when she found out I was a pastor, it piqued her curiosity. You see, she'd been born under the Soviet Union and religion was banned. So now, it intrigued her and wherever she went, she was drawn to the spirituality of a place. Anyway, on one trip, she was in Tibet and got to talk with one of the monks about Buddhism. He told her about the struggles under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution. When temples were destroyed, people were imprisoned, monks executed. He told her that when things looked bad, they knew it would never last. It never had. And he and the other monks decided that when that time came, there would be seed – good seed – to plant, again! There job was to make sure of it. And now, there's been a rebirth! A resurgence! New temples filled with both priests and worshipers! All because of the faithfulness of those few! A sower went out to sow!

It's not about us. Our commitment. Our piety. How long. How well. Sometimes, now and then, the seed just doesn't sprout. Sometimes the seed just doesn't grow. And sometimes, even if it does, it doesn't produce like we want, like we wish. But in spite of all that, be assured, the seed is good! And the seed changes the world! Just like god planned it! Maybe not all at once... Maybe in stages... in steps... But make a difference, it does!

My friends, our job is simple. To go out and sow! To sow and to sow and to sow... and just keep sowing! For despite the birds... and the rocks... and the weeds... the seed will sprout... and the seed will grow... and without doubt, the harvest will come!

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