Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Seeds & Soil: Contested at Every Turn

seeds and soil

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 10/31/2010

[audio link]

Last week of seeds and soil series...invitation to turn to Mark 4.

Ever notice how hard it is to make positive progress in life?

Let's say you want to get in shape, gain some strength, pump up your cardio-pulmonary system, up your endorphin levels, develop better eating habits, increase your metabolism. You dive right in. You can do this. You will do this. Nothing is going to stop you this time. And then you get sore. Or hungry. Or sick. Or hurt. Or work gets super busy and you're on the road, surrounded by fast food and no place to exercise. Or you get some bad news that saps all your enthusiasm. Or you don't see results fast enough. Or you see somebody else getting results way faster than you. It's like the universe is against you. Which you assume is probably God saying something to you. And all of that discourages you to no end, making you want to just embrace your inner sloth.

And if you do - if you just start heading the other direction, man oh man is it easy. You can add pounds and get moody and short of breath and weak in almost no time at all. It's like the whole universe is cheering you on. Which you assume is probably God saying something to you.

Or you want to get more patient, more loving towards the key people in your life, less angry. So you start doing nice things, taking deep breaths to calm yourself. And then, invariably, those people get extra-annoying. They don't appreciate your efforts. They still remember the old you, and they don't trust the new you, they think you're trying to get something from them. Or you have a bad day at work, and your patience is shot by the time you get home. Or you get some bad news, and you don't have any energy to focus on anything else. It's like the universe is against you. Clearly, God isn't interested in throwing you a bone, right? And all of that just ticks you off even more than when you were just your normal selfish self, making you want to embrace your inner Tony Soprano.

And if you do - if you just start heading in the other direction, man oh man is it easy. It's like you're the incredible hulk and you don't even care what the universe says anymore.

It's that way with everything good and right and holy and healthy in the world. Movement in that direction will always encounter resistance. Even God gets resistance in the world he created.

Consider Jesus, God made flesh coming among us on a rescue mission. No room at the inn. The king sending soldiers to kill him shortly after his birth. Tempted by the devil in the desert. Almost stoned after his first sermon. Slander and critique and accusations of blasphemy from the religious leaders. Eventually, a plot to crucify him.

But it doesn't discourage Jesus, does it? Because he knows: this is what it's like when the seeds of the new creation arrive in the soil of corrupted creation. When the seeds of the rule and reign of God's kingdom are planted in the soil presently occupied by the enslaving rule of the kingdom of darkness. Real, true growth is contested at every turn.

Mark 4v1-8,13-20

Reminder: spiritual growth is the increase of life-giving capacity of our relationships with God, with one another, and with the world in which we are called to be image-bearers.

When the good news of the kingdom takes root in us, there is an exponential increase in our capacity to draw life from God, and to give life to and receive life from one another and our world.

And the forces arrayed against life always contest the growth of anything that increases the capacity of creation to receive and breathe life.

[balloon illustration...increasing difficulty initially, then easing up...]

Just like there is resistance to air being breathed into the balloon, there is resistance to life coming into the earth through God-breathed words.

In the parable, the resistance comes in the form of birds, and the scorching sun, and weeds.

The birds, Jesus explains, are the "satan" coming and taking the seeds away. Satan is just a word meaning the adversary, or the accuser. The scorching sun is trouble and persecution that wither the new plants. The weeds are various worries, temptations, and desires that compete with the growth, choking it off before it can bear fruit - before it can bring multiplying life.

All of this resistance to growth comes because there is an enemy of God whose agenda is to disrupt Shalom and drain God's good creation of life. An enemy whose tools are accusations, fear, and lies. [Tabloid...] Humanity has listened to his accusations, been enslaved to the fear he instills, and bought his lies, hook, line and sinker. The enemy has no real power to destroy us without our cooperation, but we have made a home for his seeds in us, and they have taken root and borne rotten, poisonous fruit throughout the earth. His seeds are a catalyst for death, which is intended to stop all growth.

Remember the first accusation, against God - "he's lied to you, it's good to eat, he just doesn't want you to be like him." received and multiplying - "it was her, she made me do it!" the first a whisper, because that's the only voice the enemy has. The second an amplifying shout, because it comes from our lungs. The accusations fly, and the world is no longer a safe place to be - God can't be trusted, and neither can anyone else. So now fear gains a foothold. And when we are enslaved to fear, all kinds of lies will be gobbled up. Money and possessions will give you life. Power is the only security. Pleasing others will make you feel good about yourself. Wearing the right mask will give you the respect you crave. Sometimes these lies take hold as worry, sometimes as deceptive distractions, sometimes as things that we actively choose over God. Because fear has made us desperate, and no rationality goes out the window when we are desperate (frontal lobe vs. amygdala). And pretty soon the whole of our world is built on a framework of lies promising growth and life but yielding only atrophy and death.

It's into this world that the Farmer comes sowing seeds. And as we've explored before, every seed is love, because the Farmer is God, and God is love. And every seed is a word from the God who is love, a word that subverts the accusations, subverts the fear, subverts the lies.

And what is required for soil to receive the seeds? Trust. Trust is what is required for the objects of love to receive love, to make a home for it.

Jesus said, The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy, I have come that you might have life and have it to the full, abundant life. (John 10v10) Jesus' tools are the good news of the grace present in the kingdom of God, perfect love that drives out fear, and truth that sets us free. [Newspaper vs Tabloid...] The question for us is will we receive his words - will we repent (turn away) from listening to the accusations, from acting out of the fear stirred up by one who is less than God, from basing our lives on the system of lies that undergirds our relationships, and will we believe (act in trust of) his good news, act freely in the light of perfect love, and bank everything on his truth?

In this parable, in our world, trust is under siege by the enemy of life, by the satan who brings fresh accusations, who conspires to reinforce fear from trouble and persecution, who scatters the seeds of insidious, choking lies in the same soil on which the seeds of love all.

Growth Contester #1: Accusations steal Love from untrusting soil. We've all heard the accusations. God doesn't deserve your love - look what he allowed to happen. He doesn't actually care about you, only himself. Or, why would any of this apply to you? You're not anyone God would be paying attention to, what have you done to make you think he would? Or, you don't deserve God's love - look at what you've done. And when we listen to those accusations, we don't trust the seeds God is trying to sow, so they don't stick around long enough to take root. [Chris Farley show...]

Growth Contester #2: Fear limits Love's roots in un-surrendered soil. Sometimes we only let the love of God scratch the surface, because as soil, we're not actually surrendered to him and his seeds. We're just in it for what we think he and his seed will add to our lives.

Ah, the good news that God loves me? Of course he does, why wouldn't he? But we won't let his love go all the way in, and touch the parts of us that we are ashamed of, the dark and ugly parts of our lives. And the fear remains deep down in us, the fear that God will abandon us when our darkness becomes clear. And so the heat of day comes. The going gets tough. And that plant that began to grow has nothing to draw life from, and it withers.

Or the good news that forgiveness is here? Yes! of course it is - this world would be such a better place if everyone would just forgive one another! But we don't let this seed go all the way in, and touch the things we need forgiveness for, or the things we need to forgive others for. And the fear remains deep down in us, that we won't be forgiven, or that actually forgiving those who've wronged us will leave us too vulnerable. And so the heat of day comes. The going gets tough. And that plant that began to grow has nothing to draw life from, and it withers.

Growth Contester #3: Lies keep love from bearing fruit in uncommitted soil. There is a way in which we can hear the good news of the kingdom of God, receive it, and keep our options open. I'm going to follow Jesus, and make as much money, enjoy as much comfort and pleasure, gain as much power, achieve as much success in this world as I can. I'll love and forgive and give God glory, as long as it doesn't cost me too much money. Or too many of my friends. Or cramp my style too much. Or make me lose that promotion. And here's the deal - the seed takes root and grows, because seeds are like that, they'll find their way into any opening they can find. But it never bears fruit - it never multiplies and brings the fullness of kingdom life - as long as enough seeds of the enemy are welcomed into your soil as well.

Know this: Jesus doesn't tell his disciples all of this to discourage them. No, just the opposite. Jesus tells them this so that when they encounter the enemy's resistance, they would recognize it for what it is, and be able to respond to it with perseverance.

In fact, when we encounter resistance to growth, in light of Jesus' good news, we can take it not as a discouragement, but as an encouragement. Real growth is always contested; the contest is in fact a sign of the seeds of the kingdom being scattered on the soil of your life.

And there is good news about the outcome of the contest too. Jesus tells his disciples later: I have told you these things, so that you may have peace in me. In this world, you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world. (John 16v33) When Jesus speaks of the "world" here, he's referring to the system of death built on the foundation of accusations, fear, and lies that has corrupted the first creation.

And how has he overcome it? Like a seed being planted in the soil. On his journey to the cross, Jesus faces all of the obstacles the seeds face And he has a way through those obstacles, a way through the accusations, and fear, and lies for us to imitate as we pick up our crosses daily and follow him.

Jesus, heading to the cross, gives no ear to the accusations. He acts freely in the face of fear. He banks everything on the truth that his Father's rule and reign has come. And as a result, he becomes a seed that goes into the ground, dies, takes root in the soil of the old creation and grows up into a tree of life that breaks above the surface on Easter Sunday. And so now the accusations have been countered, the grip of fear has been broken, and the lies have been proven false. They may contest growth, but they will not prevail. Because in the resurrection, life has prevailed over death once and for all.

(the mustard seed, so small but grows to be the largest - larger than the choking weeds, large enough to provide shade from the sun, so large in fact that the birds can perch in its shade - all of the evil overcome)

What can we take from Jesus' example?

When accusations come, ask yourself where the words are coming from. (Truth be told, we have a very hard time telling whether or not what we hear is true or not...)

You do, however, know the words that come from love versus the words that come from unauthorized judgment. It's the dove vs. crow. Listen to the former. Don't engage with the latter.

Notice that Jesus only engages with the crows when the accusations are meant to make the sheep afraid, but when they are directed at him directly, he is silent. Presumably because he's keeping his ears open for the Father's voice, and the Father's voice alone. Maybe Adam's and Eve's first mistake wasn't eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil...maybe it was engaging the serpent in conversation at all.

When trouble and persecution come, it's always a choice between responding to fear, or to love. Which is always about who is on the throne in your life. Is it you, who has everything to lose? Or is it the one who has nothing to lose because he's already lost everything in loving you? Then we can act freely in light of that love. (Peter's abandoning Jesus, and then - do you love me, do you love me, do you love me - ok, now go feed my sheep. Now it's not about Peter any more, and yet now Peter is most fully himself.)

And what do we do about the worry, the deception, the desires? The only antidote to the lies is going all in on the truth. Selling everything to buy the treasure in the field. Banking everything on the kingdom of God. Everything you hold back makes room for weeds that can choke, and make the seeds unfruitful. Seek first the kingdom, and all these other things will be added to you.

Practical Tips:

1. Try a pundit and ad fast for a week. See what happens when you're not exposed to a constant flow of accusations, fear, lies.

2: Try a do over, this time starting with the seed.

Take something you've had a false start on in the past (getting in shape, becoming more patient, overcoming a fear, eliminating a bad habit, etc.), and start fresh, this time by identifying the seed of good news God is planting. Your body is a good gift, blessed by God for his purposes in your life and in the world, for example. Now, take just one step in a new direction, but this time your goal is to make a home for that seed so it can multiply and grow, not to get in shape so that girls will think you're hot, or whatever else might motivate you. Now, watch for the accusations, and when they come, if they come from the crow not the dove, ignore them and press on. When the going gets tough - you get afraid you'll never make any progress, your life will just be miserable, etc., ask yourself who is on the throne. You or Jesus? If it's not Jesus, repent and put him there again. And then press on, doing the things that make a home for that seed, trusting him and his love for you. When you start to worry what others are thinking, or get discouraged because you don't look as good or eat as well as so and so, resolve to go all in on the truth. The truth that your body is a good gift, blessed by God for his purposes in your life and in the world. Then the lies won't matter, and you'll be free, and the truth will bear fruit.

3: Try the generosity experiment.

Of all the things that are signs of the rule and reign of God growing in a person's life, wouldn't you agree that generosity would be low hanging fruit? Compared to say, loving your enemies, turning the other cheek, not holding others in contempt, having a heart free of lust, willingness to give up your life for others... Generosity, relatively speaking, is kind of square one, right? It's also directly connected to trusting the good news of God's kingdom, isn't it? Generosity makes no real sense except in light of God's love. And in light of his love, it's the only way to love that really makes sense. Every time you see generosity on display, doesn't it make you get a little choked up? Every time you experience it. Participate it. And it's simple, isn't it? It's not complicated or complex. Any one of us could think of some way to be generous today, without needing to take a course on it.

So try out what we've learned about spiritual growth today in the area of generosity.

For example, Find your tax return from last year and look at schedule A line 19, charitable contributions. Bible doesn't make a law about this because generosity can't be legislated. But the biblical tradition of giving in the Bible is a tenth. The average charitable contribution in the U.S. is 2.2% (after taxes).

When you see the number, keep an eye out for a flock of accusatory thoughts. Toward God. Toward yourself. Toward me for even bringing the subject up.

Consider that those thoughts might be an indication of the presence of a kingdom seed. Pay them no mind, press on. "To make a home for the seeds of God's generosity towards me, whatever I gave last year, I commit here and now to increase it. Even if it means I have to consume less this year." Maybe you gave less than 5%. Double it. Maybe you gave less than 10%. Increase it to 10%. Maybe you have 10%. Increase it 1%. See what happens to the accusations - watch them fly away.

[doesn't matter to me where it goes - give it to another church if you're skeptical about my motivations, give it to a good charity, give it anonymously to a neighbor in need.]

Then, along the way, pay attention to trouble that comes up, and accompanying fear. You have an unexpected repair or medical bill: I'd better not give this month, we might not make it. Your friends or parents or accountant tells you your crazy. Yeah, this is silly, God doesn't need my money. Ask yourself where the voice comes from - the crow or the dove. Fear or love. Ask yourself who is the throne of your life. You or the one who has lost everything for your sake. Repent and put him on the throne again. Notice how when he is on the throne you start to notice not the things that make you afraid, but the way in which God continues to provide in the midst of difficulty. See what kind of freedom that brings.

Notice the worry that tries to come in, the deceit, the lies. When you notice it, commit yourself all in to the kingdom of God, trusting that everything else will be added to you according to the one who loves you and knows your needs. See what kind of fruit that bears in the life-giving capacity of all your relationships.

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