Sunday, October 21, 2012

Respect for the Body

1 Corinthians 6:19, 20
Preached at Newberg Friends Church, October 21, 2012

When a person dies, we can tell that something crucial is gone that we had counted on being there.  The body looks just like the person we know but the animating spirit is gone.  In physical terms, all the electrical energy that circulated through the nerves and brain and kept the lungs breathing and kept the heart pumping simply stops. Though the body is not equal to the person, yet without the body, we would never know each other.  Our bodies are not all we are, but through them we relate to each other and to God and it matters to God what we do in and with our bodies.

Our mind and spirit, we are pretty sure, depend on our bodies for their beginnings.  One of my daughters asked me when she was 2 or 3 where she had been before she was born.  I wasn’t sure which answer to give, so I gave the philosophical Idealist answer: “You were in the mind of God,” I said.  She took that in and then some time later came up with this comment about the dog: “When Dusty was in the minda God…” (I will have to add that my other daughter told me that when she was in heaven before she was born, she picked our family out as the one she wanted to come to.  This is sweet, but it creates more questions than it answers.)

Though God has known us from before time, we have not known ourselves without our bodies. But we do start to know our bodies very early, and one of the joys of grandparenting and parenting is watching babies learn to live into their bodies and their minds. And somewhere, we watch babies act in ways contrary to their best interest and contrary to what their parents tell them to do, and they learn they have their own separate will.

I may be making this too simple, but the entire rest of human life is learning to use that separate will.  And we exercise our will in how we use our bodies.

The Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being….Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” …So the Lord God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man and he slept; then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the Lord God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man….And the man and the woman were both naked, and were not ashamed.

The story of sin’s entry into human experience is in part a story of becoming ashamed of being human, and particularly ashamed of the body.  The exact form of the temptation to disobey was to become like God.  Adam and Eve rejected their status and limitations as human beings. After Adam and Eve disobeyed the one rule God gave them, their eyes were opened and they knew they were naked,  They knew as God knows just how far from being godlike they were.  Therefore, they covered themselves with clothing made of leaves because they were ashamed and afraid of being human.

However, Jesus never depicts the body as despicable or its vulnerabilities or imperfections as shameful. Remember the many times Jesus touched the sick and disabled, the lepers and the other unclean.  Remember that Jesus said that the man born blind was not born that way because of sin, either his own (from before birth!) or his parents’ sin.  Instead, he was born blind so that the glory of God could show up in him. I think the glory of God is not the healing, but the condition of his heart which was ready to meet Jesus. His good heart is revealed by the healing and he stands up for Jesus the son of God.  (In contrast, the man by the pool turns Jesus in to the religious leaders after he figures out who he is.)

God wants us to live fully into our humanity. And Jesus came to show us how to live fully into our humanity: namely, to live in mindful listening and consistent obedience to God.

Personally, I have persisted in a course of action that in my gut (note the body’s usefulness) I knew was unwise or downright wrong.  I ignored the warning signs from my body—the physical symptoms of heartburn, stomach ache, tight muscles, headache, and so on.  Our bodies are one of the ways God talks to us:  you’re putting yourself in danger, our stomachs tell us; you’re still angry, insomnia tells us; you’re making your job too important, our ulcers remark. One way we misuse our will is to ignore the truth we can learn from our bodies.

The body has its own wisdom, instinctive, intuitive.  We need to listen to what it says.  The listening is done with our minds, of course, our imaginations, but the attitude we preserve is one of respect.  Otherwise, we can pervert our common sense, logic, all kinds of useful thinking skills to justify a course of action that our intuition, based more than we like to admit on the body, rebels against.

Jesus calls us to account for our tendency to blame our sin on the body in Matthew 5:29-30. Jesus knows that the source of sin is the will, not the body.  People sin because they choose to. To those who blame the body because they lust, Jesus said, “Cut off whatever causes you to sin.” Just how much of the body will one have to remove in order to quit lusting after what God does not will for us to have? My opinion is that cutting off parts of my body to prevent my sinning will work only if I cut off my head.

C. S. Lewis said in his spiritual autobiography Surprised by Joy that his body never led him very far astray by itself.  It was his imagination that got him into serious trouble.  By imagination, he meant the whole human capability of imagining circumstances different from reality and choosing to prefer that illusion.  The first illusion depicted in Genesis is imagining being like God, or being God.  When we place our will in the place of God’s will, what we want is more important than what God wants.  This, put simply, is idolatry. 

Matthew 15:10-20
Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles….Do you not see that whatever a person eats enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? But what a person says arises from the mind, the will, the character of that person, and this is what pollutes a person. As a result, out of the inner self come evil or distorted thoughts and arguments, murder, adultery, illicit sexual intercourse, theft, false witness, speech that destroys another’s reputation or misrepresents God. These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.” The sin that pollutes us starts in the will, not in the body.

Jesus said to Nicodemus that a human must be born again in order to enter the Kingdom of God.  That new birth includes both spirit (the same word as breath) and body.  We may be entirely wrong to think that spirit exists separate from body.

In a letter to an early church, Paul calls the body “a temple of the Holy Spirit” (I Cor. 6:19-20).  Christians talk about God living in their hearts, which is clearly a metaphor; but what if this temple phrase is literally true?  What if God dwells in our bodies?  That makes them holy places, inside and outside.  We can’t put God out of our minds and do irresponsible or wicked things with our bodies or with the bodies of other people.  I think of this when I worry about how workers in other countries or even in our own are treated.  I don’t want my wardrobe to be made by mistreated factory workers.  I think about the body’s holiness when I evaluate addictions.  I don’t want to destroy my body by using food, exercise, or chemicals that excite or soothe my mind at the expense of my body.  I think about the body’s holiness when I am confronted with abusiveness.  Violating another person’s body is violating a holy dwelling where God lives. (As an acquaintance once said about the practice of female circumcision, “I can’t make moral space for that.”) God comes with us wherever we go and whatever we do, and God inhabits those we meet as well. 

Romans 12 helps us recognize that because of what Jesus has already accomplished through identifying with our humanity, our sin, and our death, and through prefiguring the resurrection we all hope for, we are free to offer our whole selves, body and spirit, to the service of God. We don’t have to be pawns of the forces that dominate our social world. As we obey God with our bodies, we worship God in spirit and in truth. God renews our minds so we can see clearly the good, acceptable, complete actions that are the will of God for us.

Jesus consistently locates sin in the will and diagnoses a sinful will by looking at what people do with their bodies.  Matthew 25:31-46
I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. Just as you did it to one of the least of these members of my family, you did it to me. My Father blesses you. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

Just as you did not do it unto one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment. In John 5:28, 29, Jesus adds that when the dead hear his voice they will come out and those who have done good will be resurrected into life.  So it really does matter how we treat other people, how we treat other people’s bodies.

Jesus rewards kindness to other human beings in their bodies. Kindness has in its heart the recognition that others are the same kind as we; and the Golden Rule and the law of love pertain.  How do we want to be treated when we are hungry, thirsty, homeless, defenseless against the elements, sick, imprisoned?  What can we do by means of our own bodies to make another’s life more bearable?

So if I were to modify the Northwest Yearly Meeting Faith and Practice statement about respect for the body in any way, I would add to it the emphasis that we respect the bodies of others as temples of God, also.

In Genesis, God breathed into human bodies the breath of life. When Jesus appeared to the disciples in his resurrected body, he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit of God now lives inside our bodies, as intimately as the air we breathe.  

Christians live in a mystery; we do not earn the grace of God by being good or by doing good deeds.  Rather, by believing what Jesus has taught us about God by Jesus’s own life, death, and resurrection, and by trusting that Jesus has brought us through death into new life, we are free to live as Jesus did, in complete confidence that God is good and loving toward us.  The Holy Spirit breathes in us and guides us daily into knowing and doing good. 

Paul teaches what Jesus teaches:  food is for the belly, the belly is for food, both will come to an end in death; however, the body is for the Lord and the Lord for the body.  We are the limbs of Jesus, the members of His body.  Therefore, what we do with our bodies makes a difference.  In John 9, Jesus says, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” And in Matthew 5, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world; let your light shine before others so they may see your good works and glorify our Father in heaven.” 

Paul refers to the body as a tent (II Cor. 4:18-5:1, 4). Thinking of it as a tent, we recognize its temporary status.  We are always camping out in it. We can repair it, we can take good care of it, but we can’t keep it from wearing out, blowing away in a storm, or collapsing.  Gravity holds it on the earth, but it also drags it down, given enough time. Practically, this means that we have to do maintenance—reasonable exercise, healthy diet, occasional patching (I heard a woman once say that after forty, it’s patch, patch, patch), but it also means we don’t expect it to look new forever.  Christians believe that the tent is not finally transcended in death; instead, it is replaced by a more permanent house, a new body.

We need to pay the right kind of attention to the body, our own and others’. We neither worship the body nor dismiss it.  We recognize that the body is how we stay connected with this planet and other people. God’s presence in each human being gives each body eternal value. We take appropriate care of the body, both our own and others’, preserving the body’s wholeness and holiness, and we listen to the body when it helps us recognize truth.   We use our bodies now to obey the Holy Spirit of God who lives in us, and we look forward to joining Jesus in the resurrection.

Monday, October 8, 2012

God the Gardener, IV: Pruning and Weeding

John 15
Every branch that bears fruit he prunes so that it will bear more fruit.

The Word I have spoken to you                  Pruning branches
                                                                                    Cut off fruitless
Cut back fruitful

The pruning instrument in the parable is the Word Jesus spoke to his disciples.  What this means to me is that Jesus and his teachings are how we understand what God wants from us, how God views us, and how we are to view God.  I think of how translators of the Bible tend to start with a Gospel, often Mark, believing that Jesus is in fact the central story and interpretive principle for those becoming Christians and all who are Christian already.  When we allow what Jesus said to reshape our actions and hearts, we will be ready to interpret the rest of the Bible well.

These next parables are from the Old Testament. They suggest that when God stops pruning, God is ready to turn the vines over to natural forces and consequences.  So we’re glad for pruning that helps us become useful and healthful producers of fruit for the good of other people—just dealings and right actions toward others.

Isaiah 5:3-6
You who live in Jerusalem, you members of Judah, judge now between me and my vineyard. What more could I have done to my vineyard than I did?  Why, when I looked for grapes, did it produce only stinkberries? Now listen; I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove the hedge around it and animals will eat it up; I will break down the wall around it and animals will walk over it; and I will destroy it. I will not prune the vines, nor dig around them.  I will let briers and thorns grow up in it.  I will also command the clouds not to rain on it.  For my vineyard, the vineyard of the Lord of hosts, is the house of Israel; the members of Judah were my pleasant plant.  I looked to them for just dealings and I found bloodshed and oppression; I looked for justice and right actions and found cries of distress.

Joel 1:12
The vine is dried up, and the fig tree droops; the pomegranate, the palm, the apple, all the trees of the field are withered, because joy has dried up among the children of Adam.

Joel 2:12-13, 22
Therefore also now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, fasting, weeping, mourning; tear your hearts and not your clothes, and return to the Lord your God, who is gracious, merciful, slow to anger, greatly kind, who himself laments the harm done…Do not be afraid, animals of the field; the grasslands do spring, the tree bears fruit, the fig tree and the vine contribute their plenty. 

What can we learn from these pruning parables? 

The pruner is God.  The pruning is done because of God’s love for us and desire for our good. And refusing to be pruned has negative natural consequences.

Therefore, we can ask ourselves these questions: What makes an event in our lives a “pruning” event? It’s hard to imagine a pruning event that doesn’t have some sense of an avenue of behavior or thought cut off.  We won’t or can’t do something we might otherwise have done.  What makes this pruning rather than vandalism in our lives, I think, lies in our attitude toward the event. 

How can we lean into God’s intention for us in these events? I think turning toward God and moving in closer to God is the first step.  Even if we are angry about the pruning, communicating honestly and frequently with God keeps us close.  I remember clearly a time when I was deeply disappointed and angry with God. I sat in church with my head down, reminding God of how angry I was and how unfair God was.  I felt in my heart (and it was nearly audible) God saying, “Lift up your head and look at me.” I wouldn’t do it, just like an angry child.  I felt that God lifted my chin, and said, “Look in my eyes. What do you see there?”  I could see only love.  “I see only love,” I said. This changed everything in my attitude and heart to this day.  I want everyone to have the same experience of God—look into God’s eyes and you will see love.

How will we know the pruning has been helpful? My observation is that pruning is helpful when we end up trusting God more, listening to God and others more before acting, and doing the good God tells us to do more readily.

Here’s another parable, this one about weeding.

Matthew 13:24-30
Jesus told them another parable (right after Sower)

The Kingdom of heaven is like this:
A man sowed good seed in his field. One night, while everyone was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and then went away. When the plants grew and the heads and grain began to form, then the weeds showed up. The man’s servants came to him and said, “Sir, it was good seed you sowed in your field; where did the weeds come from?”

“It was some enemy who did this,” he answered.

“Do you want us to go pull up the weeds?” they asked him.

“No,” he answered, “because as you gather the weeds you might pull up some of the wheat along with them. Let the weeds and the wheat both grow together until harvest. Then I will tell the harvest workers to pull up the weeds first, and then to gather in the wheat and put it in my barn.”

Matthew 13:36-43
When Jesus had left the crowd and gone indoors, his disciples came to him and said, “Tell us what the parable about the weeds in the field means.” Jesus answered:

“Good sower=Son of Man (Jesus)
Good seed= people who belong to the Kingdom
Weeds=people who belong to the evil one
Bad sower=devil
Harvest=end of age

“The Son of Man will send out his angels to gather up out of his Kingdom all those who cause people to sin and all others who do evil things. Then God’s people will shine like the sun.”

The Old Testament provides a context for this parable in Leviticus 19:19: You shall keep my statutes. You shall not sow your field with two kinds of seed.

These are part of the purity laws for the ancient Israelites; many believe one purpose of these laws was to separate the Israelites from all other peoples who did not follow Israel’s God. If the Israelites were concerned to be pure, they must have spent a lot of time removing weeds.  It would indeed be seen as the act of an enemy to deliberately sow another kind of seeds in a field meant to be pure. 

So the Levitical context explains their energy to remove the weeds in the parable, the “mingled” seeds, but the owner says no, let it wait until later.

What we can learn about the Kingdom of God from this parable is that Jesus is not a worrier. He does what God says to do, and he knows there will be a time to set all things right.  In the mean time, we can let people grow and see how they turn out.

For the Jews, this was likely a warning similar to the new wine in new wineskins—that the Kingdom of God was not a continuation of the system of Judaism but a fulfilling and completing of the law, which Jesus summed up as loving God wholly and loving our neighbors as ourselves.  The day of the Kingdom dawned with the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Another possibility is that Jesus is not surprised or stymied by the messiness of the church, universal or particular.  Jesus knows that weeds are also growing, that within the church community are those who do not bear fruit, do not do the things Jesus said and says to do.  Jesus gives them time and reminds us to let Jesus do the judging.  My own denomination has frequently disowned folks who were “weedy” in the denomination’s perspective—people who performed music, people who joined the military, people who married non-Quakers.  It’s not one of our best sides, and it reflects the zeal for purity that uproots the good with the bad. Clearly, we need to tell people who harm others (or themselves) to stop it, and we need to take steps to protect the vulnerable.  However, it takes time to see whether people are moving toward God or away from God, and telling people to stop harmful behavior is not the same as judging the condition of their hearts with regard to God.

Personally, I have thought that I often don’t even know what needs to be weeded or pruned. Some of the aspects of myself that I think of as liabilities may in fact be seen differently by God; same with what I think of as my strengths. It is a great comfort to have Jesus in charge of these things.  My main energy can be spent listening and doing what I’m told.  When I do this, I lean into Jesus, follow close behind him, and he can help me become who he wants.

Matthew 6:28-34, Luke 12:27-31
And why worry about what you will wear?  Look how the wild flowers grow. They do not work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that not even King Solomon with all his wealth had clothes as beautiful as one of these flowers.  It is God who clothes the wild grass—grass that is here today and gone tomorrow, burned up in the oven.  Won’t he be all the more sure to clothe you?  What little faith you have! So do not worry…Instead, be concerned above everything else with the Kingdom of God and with what God requires of you, and God will provide you with all these other things.

Matthew 24:32-35, Mark 13:28-31
Let the fig tree teach you a lesson. When its branches become green and tender and it starts putting out leaves, you know summer is near.  In the same way, when you see all these things, you will know that the time is near, ready to begin—you will know that the Kingdom of heaven is about to come.

The Kingdom of Heaven is where God is King.  God’s will is to bring reconciliation between the whole earth, including humanity, and God’s own self.  Jesus came to make this clear to us and to show us how it looks to live in harmony with God our Father.  God gives us the beauty of flowers, the clothes that show we are in the right place in our spirits.  So we do not need to worry, we need not to worry.  Live into the promise here that Jesus gives—small beginnings signal great awakenings.

To sum up:  Abide in Jesus, seek first God’s kingdom, don’t fear, do what God says to do.  That’s the secret to God’s gardening.

Friday, October 5, 2012

God the Gardener, Part III: Identifying Plants by their Fruit

From the parables about fruitlessness and the sower and seed parable, we learn to ask ourselves and God’s Spirit the following questions: 

Are you saying something to me that I am missing?
Are you saying something to me that isn’t getting into my deepest soul?
Are you saying something to me that I haven’t incorporated into how I live?
What are you saying to me that I welcome eagerly, honestly, openly, and obediently?

Some clues to how we can answer the above questions show up in the parables where Jesus talks about identifying plants by their fruit.

False Prophets: Matthew 7:15-20, Luke 6:43-45

Jesus says, “And recognize those who claim to be speaking God’s truth but are themselves false. They come looking harmless but from deep inside are rapacious, hungry, thieving extortioners.  You will find them out by their actions, the results of their actions, their fruits.  Can anyone find grapes on brambles or figs on thistles? A good tree—useful, health-producing—bears lovely and strengthening fruit, but a worthless, worn out, unfit, rotten tree bears diseased fruit, causing pain and trouble. A healthy tree cannot bear diseased fruit that causes pain and trouble; neither can a rotten tree bear lovely, healthy fruit that increases strength. Every tree that does not bear lovely, healthy fruit is cut down and cast onto the bonfire. Therefore, recognize false from true prophets by their fruits.”

By inference from what characterizes false prophets we can learn what characterizes true prophets.

False prophets:                                               True prophets: (the opposites)
Rapacious (greedy, predatory)                       Generous, self-sacrificing                            
Hungry (unsatisfied)                                      Satisfied, content
Thieving (taking by guile or force)                Respecting boundaries
Extorting (forcing by fear)                             Guarding
Causing pain                                                  Bringing healing
Causing trouble                                              Bringing peace

What makes the difference?  Even if the truth is the same, what is inside the prophet makes a big difference; truth told with a bad intent beats all the lies you can invent (William Blake).

Attributing the Good Work of God’s Spirit to the Devil: Matthew 12:33-37
The context for this passage is verse 24:
When the Pharisees heard [that Jesus deprived demons of their power over people] they said, “This one does not have power over demons except with the permission of or by means of Beelzebub, the lord over evil spirits.”

Jesus disputed their accusation by saying, “If I have power over demons by the Spirit of God, the Kingdom of God has come to you.” And then he went on to say that it is impossible to send away (forgive) the slander against the Holy Ghost of attributing evil to the Holy Ghost or crediting the Devil with the good done by the Holy Ghost.  I think the impossibility is because the people who do this have such an upside down view of things that their need to repent is invisible to them. If they think God does evil and the devil does good, how can they turn to God?”

So now to our parable.

“Either make the tree good and the fruit it produces healthy and useful, or make the tree rotten and corrupt and its fruit unfit for use; thus the tree is known, understood, by its fruit.

“Children of vipers, how are you, diseased, blind, and wicked as you are, how are you able to say anything good or useful or honorable? Thus, what fills your heart shows up in what your mouth says. A good person brings valuable, precious, good things out of the good treasury of the heart, and a wicked person brings harassing, annoying, pain-causing, troublesome things out of the wicked treasury of the heart. 

“Additionally, I tell you that every lazy word, every time people speak in a way that evades the good they know to do and say, creates a debt that they will have to pay up, restore on the day of judgment. Thus out of their words comes the judgment of  innocence or guilt.”

Wow!  Just as Jesus does with the “you have heard it said do not kill” and he goes inside to “do not be filled with rage” earlier in Matthew, here he says words are as important as actions, and they reveal what is in the heart. 

This parable has several directions it can take:

First, what does it say about other people or other congregations or other denominations?

Basically, Jesus tells us to take a look at outcomes.  Do we see a swath of destruction in the wake of another person or group?  Do the leaders get rich off the followers?  Do people come away from meetings more likely to behave lovingly or more likely to behave angrily or judgmentally?  Does interpersonal abuse flourish?  Is an individual causing mistrust and division between friends?  Is an individual creating chaos rather than peace?  We are expected to be wise as serpents and harmless or innocent as doves, not children of vipers as above.  In other words, pay attention and don’t be na├»ve.

Further, pay attention as well to what people say and how they use words.  Do they use words to blame others?  Do they use words to evade responsibility? Do they create a deficit of love by how they speak?

Second, what does it say about me personally or us as a congregation or denomination?

Individually, we need to examine our own hearts and open them to the searchlight love of God to show us if we are operating out of greed, hunger, fear, bullying or whether we are operating out of love.  We can do better by knowing ourselves better and cutting ourselves less slack at others’ expense. We can listen to how we talk and what we are trying to do with language.  We can ask God to help us see how we are blaming others, how we are evading the responsibility we have to be loving.

We cannot know when we see a person in a limited period of time whether that person is moving toward or away from God and the law of love.  People in transition can cause harm that they are just inches away from regretting.  Or they can be just inches away from justifying the harm by blaming it on someone else.  In the first case, they will repent and can learn to make better choices; in the second case, they make it easy to do harm again. 

However, we do have a responsibility in church discipline to say to a person causing harm, “Stop it.” We don’t have to speculate about the direction of their spiritual journey and judge them as unfit for God’s Kingdom. We just have to act out of hearts of love for the person AND for the other people he or she harms. 

This is extremely hard work.  It is easier to tell someone they are doing wrong when we are angry.  But the Bible is very clear that the proper approach is humble and loving, with full awareness of our own weakness and areas of blindness.

God the Gardener, Part II: Fruitlessness and Fruitfulness

The secrets of the Kingdom of God are these:
  1. God loves who Jesus is and what Jesus does.
  2. Jesus does what our Father says to do by the Spirit’s power.
  3. Jesus calls us right now into the Kingdom that is right here.
  4. The law of the Kingdom is the law of love.  Do the good you know to do right now: no excuses.
  5. When others are following this law of love, doing good to others, recognize them as Kingdom people.
  6. Recognize that obeying Moses’s law won’t be enough; you need to understand your need for God’s help.
  7. God calls those into the Kingdom who know they need God; and God wants Kingdom people to help gather these other folks.
  8. God heals, makes clean, forgives ALL THE TIME, as does Jesus (see 1 and 2). God wants us to do these things ALL THE TIME too as we follow Jesus.  We are God’s children doing God’s will.

We also see from Part I that the parables teach that God is in charge.  God sows the seed, and God in Jesus is the seed.  Small beginnings lead to big changes, and the changes are positive.  Beginnings are natural, and they start in dirt, or in human flesh.  The beginning is a death, but immediately after is a resurrection into life, just like a seed.  Our main effort is spent staying close, pressing closer to Jesus and through Jesus growing closer and closer to our Father as we obey the Spirit of Jesus. 

These parables are about another natural phenomenon.  Some plants that ought to have fruit don’t, and some branches that ought to have fruit don’t.

Luke 13:6-9
The fruitless tree

The immediate context for this parable is the question, “Why did disaster happen to these people?” “Not,” Jesus replies, “because they were greater sinners than anyone else, but except you repent—change your way of thinking, amend your ways—you will likewise die.”

Then the parable:

A certain person had a fig tree planted in the vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it and found none.  So he said to the vineyard keeper, “Look, I’ve come three years looking for fruit on this fig tree and find none. Cut it down.  It is making the ground useless.”

And the vineyard keeper said, “Boss, let it alone this year also, and I will dig around it and fertilize it.  Then if it bears fruit, good; if not, you can cut it down.”

Then the story follows of Jesus healing a crippled woman on the Sabbath, the ruler of the synagogue protesting and Jesus responding like this.  “You let your ox or ass out of the stall and lead them to water on Sabbath. Should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, be loosed from the bonds of Satan in which she has suffered for 18 years on the Sabbath?” Then he told the story of the mustard seed/Kingdom (see Part I).

This parable evokes several Old Testament allegorical passages about planting a vine in which God complains that the vine is now producing wild grapes (or stinkberries) rather than good grapes (Isaiah 5:1-4); and God complains that he planted a noble vine that has become a degenerate plant, a strange vine (Jer 2:21).

“For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah his pleasant plant: and he looked for judgment, but behold, oppression; for righteousness, but behold a cry” (Isaiah 5:6).

So one reading of this parable is this:

  • Vineyard—Israel in history
  • Fig tree—Jews at the Jesus’s present time
  • Owner—God
  • Gardener—Jesus
  • Digging and fertilizing—Jesus’ own death and burial
  • And then what? Was there fruit?  Yes, there was a huge turning to Jesus at Pentecost from the Jews of his time.

This connects up with the incident where Jesus cursed the fruitless fig tree on his way to Jerusalem right before the crucifixion.  This is a visual parable for us. But of what?

It resembles the first story, but with some significant differences. First, it is not fig season so there are no figs. Jesus is hungry and says, “Never again will this tree bear fruit,” and it dies.

So what does the fig tree represent?  The nation of Israel?  Yet there was fruit after the resurrection. The earliest church was entirely Jewish. 

The religious system of Judaism?  This is more in line with the overall teaching of Jesus, that the system set up by the religious teachers of the day was contrary to God’s Good News. 

Legalism? Thinking one can get right with God by following rules or being good?

There are other ways we can make these parables useful to us personally and corporately.

  1. Do we have fruitless areas in our lives, individually or as a congregation, or as a denomination? 
  2. Do we have a sense that the Holy Spirit is digging around our roots, fertilizing them, individually or as a congregation, or as a denomination? 
  3. What can we do to cooperate with that God’s work on our behalf, individually or as a congregation, or as a denomination?
  4. Does the fruitlessness arise out of a misunderstanding of the relationship of being good—keeping Sabbath—and doing good—setting free those who are all bound up, individually or as a congregation, or as a denomination?  Are we living by the law of love?
  5.  Are we more willing to meet the needs of animals than of human beings?

The parable of the Sower and the Seed
Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8

Here is a picture of the secret of the way God governs:

Listen up! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” . . . The sower sows the word.

What is “the word”? It can legitimately be a number of things: a story, an event, a doctrine, an instruction, an explanation; for a follower of Jesus, it is speaking what God tells that follower to speak. Remember that the Word is the instrument of pruning in the parable of the Vine.

Some don’t understand what they hear, so they instantly forget it; some receive it with joy but don’t let it go deep in their lives, so they lose interest when times are hard; some allow the cares of the world, the lure of money, the desire for other things, the desire to be important, the need for affirmation to choke out any growing they might do, so that they don’t see any results from their belief; some are open and ready and honest; these take it seriously and act on it, and they see lots of growth and results. 

I used to read it as four different kinds of people. But I came to realize that I have all four of these soils in myself.  I have the part that doesn’t understand what God is saying to me, so it slips out of my mind.  I have the part that doesn’t get into my deep soul, so it dies under pressure.  I have the part that doesn’t affect how I live because I am worrying about money or job or who did me wrong.  Thank God I also have the part that eagerly, honestly, openly welcomes God’s word and lets it affect how I think and behave by obeying it. 

So is there anything I can do about worrying, shallowness, or simple hardness of heart? I think so, and that the function of spiritual disciplines is to help us move through anxiety, shallowness, hardness to press closer to Jesus.

Jesus says to his disciples then, and to us now, pay attention to what you hear.  The more you listen to what God says and act on what you hear, the more you will hear; if you don’t act on what God tells you, you’ll lose the little ability to hear that you have.  God doesn’t whisper things to you so that you’ll keep them secret, but so you can disclose them to others.  

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

God the Gardener, part 1

“Why do you teach with parables?” the disciples asked Jesus.

He responded:
“Those who are in on the secrets of the kingdom of Heaven will get something from them, but those who are not in on these secrets will get nothing from them and the parables will even confuse them further.

“Parables separate those who look from those who see, those who listen from those who understand.”

Parable has in its root a word that has the idea of throwing something down as fodder for horses, for instance, or putting two things side by side to see how they are alike, or moving oneself somewhere or near someone; a parable is kind of like the seed thrown out to see what will grow and where.

I like all of these meanings to help understand how the parables work. They have food in them for our souls, and we must ingest them and digest them and know which parts are not digestible

They are based on comparisons, like metaphors are, and some of the comparison works and some of it doesn’t, so we are required to exercise some imagination and judgment.

Their end result is to move us closer to Jesus, more deeply into God’s kingdom.

And they are also a challenge:  as Jesus points out, you can throw hay before a horse, but you can’t make her eat.

So if we want to be insiders as regards the parables, we need to be willing to let them inside our hearts and minds, willing to do the work of chewing and digesting, imagining and judging, and willing to let them move us closer to Jesus.

Mark 4: 10-12
What are the secrets of the kingdom of God? Here are the statements and deeds that precede this comment that the disciples are in on the secrets.

  • ·      “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased,” Mark 1:11.

  • ·      “It’s time. The Kingdom of God is right here. Recognize it, turn your mind to it, change your mind and purposes, and put your confidence in this Good News,” Mark 1:15.

  • ·      “Come right now, follow behind me, and I will make you fishers of human beings,” Mark 1:17.

  • ·      Jesus drives out an unclean spirit, heals the sick and possessed, heals a leper, heals a paralytic, forgives sins, heals on the Sabbath.

  • ·      “It is not the healthy , the strong, the powerful who need a doctor, but the sick, the miserable, the lost. I have not come to call, to invite, to salute by name the righteous , the law-abiding, but sinners, criminals, trespassers to change their minds and purposes,” Mark 2:17.

  • ·      “No one pours new wine into old wineskins. If he does, the wine will burst the skins, and both the wine and the wineskins will be ruined. No, he pours new wine into new wineskins,” Mark 2:22.

  • ·      “The Sabbath was made for human beings, not human beings for the Sabbath. So the Son of Man owns even the Sabbath,” Mark 2:27.

  • ·      “Which is lawful or allowed on the Sabbath: to do good, something that benefits another, or to do evil, something that harms another; to save life or to kill?” Mark 3:4.

  • ·      “Whoever speaks evil of the Holy Spirit by attributing the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan can never be released from bondage, never forgiven, but is in danger of being eternally separated from God,” Mark 3:29.

  • ·      “Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother,” Mark 3:35.

So the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven are these:

  • ·      Jesus is God’s Son, acting as prompted by God’s Holy Spirit; God loves who Jesus is and what he says and does.

  • ·      Jesus says God’s Kingdom is right next to you; turn to it and do what our Father says to do.

  • ·      God’s call is immediate: come now and follow and help gather other people to follow also.

  • ·      God says to do good to other people; there are no loopholes in this law, even if the Mosaic law appears to say otherwise.

  • ·      Refusing to do someone good is the same as doing them harm.

  • ·      God calls trespassers by name to change their minds and purposes; God has nothing to offer those who are self-sufficient in their obedience to the law.

  • ·      God heals, makes clean, forgives all the time; those who do these things are doing God’s will and are God’s children. 

So, these first Gardening parables show that the Kingdom of God grows naturally, invisibly, gradually, and hospitably.

Mark 4:26-29
Jesus said: “The kingdom of God is like this:  A farmer tosses seed onto the dirt.  The farmer sleeps each night and rises each morning, and without the farmer knowing how it happens, the seed sprouts and grows tall. Thus the dirt bears fruit with no one tending to it; first the slender grass, then the stalk and flower, then the full head of grain. And then, when the grain is ripe, immediately the farmer reaps it with the sickle, because the harvest has arrived.”

What do we learn about the kingdom of God from this? I think it is helpful to try to get at least two ways of understanding it.

So the farmer is God our Father, and the seed is the Son, tossed out into a mortal body. Time passes (sleeping/waking) and the Son grows, boy, man, Messiah, and then at the right time, our Father cuts down the mortal body of the Son in order to gather all the children of the Kingdom the Son has prepared. 

Or the farmer is Jesus, sharing the Good News of the kingdom with other human beings. The Good News rests in our human selves and new life grows in us; it grows to maturity and then reproduces more of the Good News with more human beings. 


In John 12:24, Jesus says, “This is the truth I’m telling you: Until a grain of wheat falls into the dirt and dies, it stays by itself in the same time and place; but if it dies, it produces much fruit.”

So the natural way of the Kingdom of God is that death precedes new life, and this turns out to be true in Jesus’s death and resurrection and in our own identification with his death.  Unless we take up our cross and follow him, we have no part in him.  The Good News is that embracing that death means also enjoying the resurrection and the new life of freedom from sin, freedom to obey our Father.

Mark 4:30-34, Luke 13:18-19; Matthew 13:31-32
Jesus said: “What shall we place the Kingdom of God next to, what shall we compare it to? It resembles the sand-sized seed of the salvadora persica tree [a spreading bushy tree, a tree with many medicinal benefits; for more see this website.]
[Of course, Jesus didn’t mention this website, but I do because I thought for years this meant the mustard seed from which the condiment is made.]
“This seed is smaller than the other seeds tossed out on the dirt, but when it is scattered, it springs up stronger than every other herb or vegetable, and shoots out big branches; as a result, birds that soar in the sky can roost in its shade.”

What do we learn about the Kingdom of God from this?

Jesus is the small inconspicuous beginning of something big; his entry into mortal human life and death preceded his springing up in resurrection stronger than all other forces, able to provide rest and shelter for all wanderers.

Or, the Good News is not impressive, and yet when it is shared, it has an enormous effect and brings good into the world.


John 15:1-17
Jesus explains this parable as he goes along.  Its immediate context is the following statement: “The world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (John 14: 31).

Father                                                             Gardener
Son                                                                  Vine
The Word I have spoken to you                  Pruning branches
                                                                                    Cut off fruitless
                                    Cut back fruitful
Remain in me, I remain in you                    Remain connected to vine, bear fruit
Jesus                                                               Vine
Disciples                                                         Branches
Separate from me                                         Cut off from vine, withers, burned in fire
Ask                                                                  Bear much fruit

What we learn about the Kingdom of God from this is the importance of pressing ever nearer to our source of life, Jesus, and accepting from God’s hand the kind of guidance that limits one possibility in order to create greater possibilities for good in and through us. 

To sum up:

Jesus in these three parables uses the natural process of planting, sprouting, growing and fruiting to describe what the Kingdom of God is like.  The new life begins in death—what looks like the end is just the beginning.  We are a part of both the death of Jesus and his resurrection.  Also, the natural result of hearing and giving some growing room to the Good News Jesus brings is that it roots and grows and becomes a source of life and shelter and health for others.

These parables also speak to the Old Testament as well:  The Kingdom of Heaven redeems the garden of Eden, and the overall will of God is to bring about goodness in and for all human beings. The mustard seed of the Good News brought by Jesus redeems the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Isaiah 61:11 For as the earth brings forth her bud and as the garden causes the things that are sown in it to spring forth, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations.

Jeremiah 31:12 Therefore they shall come and sing in the height of Zion, and shall flow together to the goodness of the Lord, for wheat, and for wine, and for oil, and for the young of the flock and of the herd: and their soul shall be as a watered garden; and they shall not sorrow any more at all.

Ezekiel 36:35 And they shall say, This land that was desolate is become like the garden of Eden; and the waste and desolate and ruined cities fenced and inhabited.