For too long, the loudest voice in the name of Christianity in our culture has been one which that has declared judgment and incited punishment of a portion of God’s children. In the name of “love,” churches have excommunicated members, families have shunned their children, and policies have been endorsed to declare GLBTQI persons as second-class citizens. In less extreme but still damaging ways, churches have created requirements for membership that inherently exclude GLBTQI persons, families have withheld support and love from their GLBTQI members, and abstinence from voting has enabled bigotry to rise to the top. This voice of Christianity in our culture, along with the shooter himself and the influence of terrorist organizations, bears a measure of responsibility for the loss of the 50 souls that perished in the largest mass shooting which took place at the night club named Pulse in Orlando, FL on June 12, 2016. This Christian voice bears a measure of responsibility for these 50 souls and the countless others who have been victimized by the denial of God’s creation within them. It is important to name this voice in order for grace to enter in.
As God’s children, we are all oriented towards growth. All of us. Those who have espoused this kind of hurtful vitriol and committed acts of violence, those who have stood as faithful allies to the GLBTQI, and those of us who identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, intersex or questioning – all of us are children of God and all of us oriented for growth through Christ’s redeeming love. It is important that we, as Christians, speak this message of God’s grace and love more loudly – not in judgment, not to punish, not to feel righteous – but because Christ commanded us to love God and to love one another.
I wrote this sermon before the deadliest mass shooting happened and I preached it hours after it happened, though I was unaware of the details. I am grateful to have preached the sermon that I did. Upon reflection, it was a Word I needed to embed within my spirit in order to bear the news of this awful tragedy without despairing.
The first reading in our worship service was Psalm 139:1-18. Following this reading, I stood up in the pulpit and preached the following sermon.
Two summers ago, soon after I moved here to DC, Heather and I took an urban gardening class through the Neighborhood Farm Initiative. The class took place up near the Fort Totten Metro stop where there is a large community gardening plot and it was a wonderful program. Having no experience in growing anything other than potted plants, we felt like it would be good for us to get out and learn this important skill. So, each week, sometimes twice a week – as often as we could, really – we trekked up New Hampshire Avenue for an hour or two of instruction and then we put our skills to the test on the 12 feet by 12 feet plot assigned to us for the summer. Over the course of the summer, our plot transformed from a rugged, weedy patch to a proper garden with beautifully tilled rows planted with healthy seeds and seedlings and we did our best to grow a variety of fruits and vegetables.
Some plants did better than others – all the cucumbers in the whole garden ended up being plagued by some insect and we only got one cucumber before the plant succumbed to the infestation. We got loads of green beans – those did really well as we stayed on top of plucking the beans weekly to encourage more beans to grow. The larger tomatoes didn’t do so well either – but one of our cherry tomato plants did really, really well. We got two cantaloupes off the vine but our watermelons didn’t quite mature, and at the end of the summer, we pulled one of the largest sweet potatoes we have ever seen out of the ground! It was a humbling experience – caring for a garden. We tried as best we could – careful about the amount of water the garden received, organizing the plot so each plant could get the appropriate sunlight that it needed and we weeded our hearts out – though, that was a little tougher to get out in front of, if we’re honest. And, even with all of our intervention, throughout the whole process, we really couldn’t control what would grow and what would not.
I know many of you here have wonderfully green thumbs and the process of growing fruits and vegetables, or flowers and herbs, plants and shrubs is a familiar process – the steps became so for us as we learned to prepare the soil, plant, and harvest – but, the mystery of growth amazed and humbled me. These tiny seeds grew to be prolific producers like the bush beans, others incredible vines like cantaloupe. There is something mysterious that happens with growth, don’t you think? Of course, science can illuminate how the process works, but the nature of ‘growth’ is mysterious in that it is out of our control. Yes – we can do things that stunt growth and we can do things in hopes of nurturing growth – but the act of growing itself happens independent of us.
The theme of growth appears time and time again in our language of faith. The process of growth – the imagery of growing – this mysterious experience that surrounds us and cultivates our lives is repeated throughout the Scriptures from the creation to the watered garden of Isaiah to the seeds planted in the gospels to the growing body of Christ in the world. Even today, we are enmeshed in this language of growth – so much so that phrases like ‘grow the church’ or ‘grow in faith’ ring through church buildings as if these words are the mortar holding the bricks together. We say them as if we have control, as if we could make ourselves truly grow in our faith, as if we could command ourselves to grow to a certain height, command our tomato plants to produce a certain amount of tomatoes, command our faith to reach a certain depth….but, I might be getting ahead of myself here…
Our Scripture lesson comes to us from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew and it includes two different parables about growth – a little seed that grows into an abundant shrub and a little yeast that grows into great loaves of bread. Flanked by the parable of the weeds and the wheat before and after today’s text, the parables we will listen to this morning reflect the same theme – something little has potential to grow and serve many – and I invite you to consider the mysterious power of growing as we listen for God’s Word.
Let us pray: Gracious and loving God, what miracles are you working on today? Cultivate within us your love, your wisdom, your hope as we turn to your Word and may we grow in faith. Amen.
He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
He told them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.’
Jesus told the crowds all these things in parables; without a parable he told them nothing.
This is the Word of God for the People of God. Thanks be to God.
As you know, this summer we are delving into the parables of the Gospels and this morning, we have 2 of them to reflect on – 2 different expressions of the same theme – growth. And, I must confess that I have had such fun this week pondering these two parables and the experiences we have of growth in the world – and I want to take a few minutes to reflect with you on the topic of growth.
Growing. Growth. The act of growing. The mystery of growing. This act, and language that describes this act, are so incorporated into our life experience that ‘growing’ is an almost trite idea. Just think about it – from our bodies to the world around us, to the world within us, we commonly use the language of growth to describe our experiences. We watch as a woman’s belly grows and then the baby is born. We watch as the child grows in body, mind and spirit, just as we’re watching Sam and Mitch and Natalie and Anna right here at Western. Through puberty, we grow into our bodies as some parts of us seemingly grow faster than others, and we grow into clothing as we get bigger. We grow into our personalities and we grow in our faith as we mature. If we look to the natural world around us, as the seasons change, we watch as the trees grow leaves again, as the seeds planted in the spring sprout and grow into plants in the summer. And, even when we look here, in the church, we, as Christians, seek to grow the church, seek to grow in faith, seek to grow the ministries of Christ in the world. The language and phenomenon of growth pervades every aspect of our lives and it reflects how we are oriented – all of God’s creation is oriented towards growth.
This, I assume, is no surprise to you. And, I want to go a little deeper into this notion of growing our in our faith. You see, throughout all of history, people of faith around the world have, at some point or another, had this goal: to grow in faith, to develop a deeper sense of spirituality. Perhaps you can relate to this – I certainly can. Almost daily, I wish that my faith might be stronger, that I could more deeply know and reflect God’s love – wouldn’t that immediately make me wiser? Happier? A better person? More of who God wants me to be? But, as I begin to reflect more earnestly on this question, I wonder: what does this actually mean? What do does it mean to grow in faith? Is growth in faith a goal? Or is growing in faith simply a state of being? How do I know if I’m growing in faith? What are the benchmarks I can measure against to know if I’m growing? Will I ever be grown? —- And so I come back to the mustard seed – this little tiny mustard seed planted in the earth, nurtured by the farmer, subjected to the elements, with its steady process of growing from a solitary seed into a shrub in service of others. And, I can’t help but reflect on the process of growth again and see it anew for us as people of faith.
Because, church, though we do not actually have control over the growth, we do have the power to nurture this growth: When it comes to our faith, we take actions that foment growth within, growth in our faith. We can study the Scriptures, and open our hearts in prayer. We can be mindful of the love God has for us and we can practice the lessons of Christ in the world. This also means that we take actions to hinder our growth in faith – we can harden our hearts and limit the ways we might experience true joy, happiness and love. We can open ourselves up, soften our hearts, relieve ourselves of self-important, self-sacrificing, self-denying behaviors and we can open ourselves up to the pruning care of grace and mercy OR we can make an idol of our arrogance, we can make room for fear to take hold, we can blame others for our failings, we can withhold truth and love from ourselves and those around us, we can maintain power for the sake of power. We have a role to play in this journey, to nurture the growth that is already taking place within us – and being mindful of our actions, our participation, our contributions to this growth is important.
But — just as with a garden, God created us to grow. And isn’t that remarkable? Both of our parables today speak of God’s action in the world and the ways in which we, as God’s creation, are oriented towards growth. Just like the mustard seed and the yeast in our text this morning, we were created to grow, and cannot help but grow. It’s our very essence as God’s beloved. All of God’s creation, which is fearfully and wonderfully made, is oriented towards growth – not regression or stagnation, not stasis nor going back to the way things were. All of God’s creation is oriented towards growth – oriented to navigate this slow and mysterious process with patience and tenderness, awareness and attentiveness, trusting in God’s faithful presence and active devotion along the journey. And like our vegetable garden, though we can tend our spiritual growth, we can’t control it. Growth in our faith does not happen with the snap of the fingers or with the tap of an impatient toe. It does not happen with the hardest of work or with proof of piety. It happens over time, with diligent care, with love and openness to trust that God is doing a new and unexpected thing, and God’s creation is always good.
And, rest assured church – our growth is not simply for the sake of growing. It is for a purpose. Like the mustard seed that becomes a tree so that the birds of the air can nest in its branches, so, too, we grow into magnificent children of God – followers of Christ seeking to love God and to love God’s people. This is what we have been created for. This is what we grow into throughout our lives – and we do this as individuals and as a community.
As you know, this is Pride Weekend here in DC – and if you’ve been anywhere in the city this weekend – or even last week leading into this weekend – you have surely seen the city blanketed with rainbows. Restaurants, shops, homes – the streets are lined with flags and signs which herald a message of growth – a message of love, a message of peace, a message that God’s creation is good. And, our participation in this growth is important because what we do can help or hinder our growth. As a community of faith, we can trust that God is at work – God is faithfully pruning the fear, and watering the beauty, watering the acceptance, watering the love of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, transgender, intersex and those questioning. God is shedding light on the goodness of God’s own creation, and slowly and steadily, the diversity of God’s creation is blooming and expanding.
And, we have the choice to help or hinder God’s work in our midst – will we help this growth by loving God’s creation within ourselves and within one another? Will we love one another and not pass judgment? Will we rid our vocabulary of hurtful and hateful language? Will we stand up to the bullies so that the bullied one doesn’t stand alone? Will we go out into the world knowing that there are still closet doors closed, and while it is not our job to open those doors, it is our role to make it a safer place for those yet to come out? Will we be brave? Will we have confidence in God’s faithfulness? Will go out into the world and speak of God’s love, speak of God’s good creation? Will we not only say it gets better but will we work to make the world more reflective of God’s love?
Friends, God is at work. God is at work in our growth. As individuals and as a community, God is at work in us as we grow and we can trust in and rejoice in this knowledge. God knows all the days of our lives from before we were knit together in the depths of the earth, until the days yet to come – and God is at work, laboring in our growth. May we give thanks and praise God for God’s tender care. May we not neglect our faith but actively nurture the work God is doing within us. And may we grow in love, praying that all of God’s children might be open to the beauty, the joy, the hope, the mercy and the peace that God has created us for. Amen.