Clearing Ground

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on February 7, 2016)

Farming metaphors are so wonderful for the spiritual life!

This is a bit of a problem for me, because…I’m not a farmer. I’m not a gardener even. I don’t naturally speak “farm”. But I think it’s worth me doing some work to try and understand it, because life with God seems so much more like growing than it does like machine assembly or algorithm development.

Over the last decade or so, we’ve often joined more liturgical churches by focusing on Lent. It’s meant a shift for me, I realized this year. New Year’s Day and New Year’s resolutions have taken a backseat in my mind, and those ideas have moved to the Lent season.

These 6 weeks before Easter, which begin with Ash Wednesday on this coming Wednesday….these 6 weeks of Lent have become the time for me to take a hard look at my life, to examine and make commitments to live differently. What I’m encouraging us to do during this time of Lent is to go deeper than the simple idea of “What will I give up for Lent this year?”

Instead, it’s much more like the title of this message, much more like the farming metaphor, much more like a hard look at self-examination: how can you and I clear the ground in our lives so that there is room for God’s seed to grow?

This is going to be our framework for the next 6 weeks during Lent: how can we clear the spiritual ground in our lives so that God’s seed can grow?

That metaphor, that picture, acknowledges that spiritual work is God’s work. It is God who gives the seed, it is God who makes it grow, it is God who causes us to bear fruit, spiritual fruit in our lives. Spiritual work is God’s work, organic, not something we manufacture or produce.

But we partner with God in this process. We have ways we make the ground of our lives more or less receptive to what God wants to do in us. There are things which can choke out God’s work, and if we encourage the things that are choking God’s work, rather than clearing our lives to make room for God, we cause problems.

This is what I like best about farming metaphors for spirituality: there’s no doubt that God is ultimately the one doing stuff, but there’s also no doubt that we have a part to play in it.

What’s difficult about a farming metaphor, what’s difficult about clearing ground and the whole Lent process, is that I can’t make any beautiful promises to you. I can’t promise you that as soon as you do a bit of weeding, that immediately after that God is going to make you more patient and generous, that your circumstances are going to immediately improve.

Clearing ground, working our way through Lent, means waiting. Waiting. Waiting for God’s work to grow. That can be difficult. It might be easier if a more mechanical model were true. It would be easier if I could say, “Do x and then y, and then z will definitely happen immediately!” Some churches do make those promises, but it doesn’t seem faithful to what Jesus teaches or to our experience of life.

We know plenty of people who have faithfully cleared their lives of sin and junk, and yet struggle still comes. Life with God simply doesn’t always fit the a + b = c pattern. That doesn’t mean that clearing ground isn’t worth it! That doesn’t mean that God isn’t faithful! That doesn’t mean that life with God isn’t ultimately rewarding and fulfilling!

It just means that sometimes a farmer does everything right, sometimes the farmer has the best seed in the world…but weather or circumstances or disease keep things from bearing fruit as quickly as the farmer would like.

What is true is this:

God is always planting seeds everywhere! God’s Spirit is always working to produce fruit in us.

What is true is this: clearing out weeds and thorns is always better for the end result than leaving them there to fester and choke.

Jesus told a famous parable that will serve as our picture for Lent. Turn with me to Luke chapter 8, verse 4 

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable: ‘A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown. (Luke 8:4-8, TNIV)

I’m inviting us to have this frame how we think of Lent. Specifically, the third example, the seed falling among thorns. What can we do to clear thorns from the ground of our lives, to do the best we can to become soil where God’s work can grow?

Not being one who grew up with Lent as a practice, not being one who heard a lot of good teaching about Lent, the idea didn’t come across very well. It came across like God wanted me to give up something good; God wanted to take something away; God wanted to make my life about denying good things like chocolate or sugar or Diet Coke.

But with this parable as our guide, God isn’t one who denies and takes away. God is the crazy farmer who generously gives absolutely everywhere. God scatters the seed, gives opportunity for new growth to come everywhere-paths, rocks, soil choked with thorns. God is a giving, trusting, carefree farmer who gives us every chance to see spiritual growth and fruit in our lives.

Getting rid of thorns, then, is what Lent is about. It’s taking an honest look at our lives and letting God show us the things that are getting in the way, doing damage, choking out the good work God wants to do.

Jump down with me to verse 11 so we can listen to Jesus explain the parable.

‘This is the meaning of the parable:The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8:11-15, TNIV)

When I worked at Tilikum, I learned the song about the “Word of God, is like the little bitty seeds, scattered all around.”

I sang it with kids here for years as Children’s pastor, we’ve even sung it in church here in the past. That song captures the heart of this parable: God’s seed is everywhere! “Everywhere you look, you find little bitty seeds.” The primary interpretation of this parable is: God is generous in giving any kind of soil a chance for a seed to grow, and receptive ground is what allows a crop to come up “a hundred times more than was sown.”

The primary focus is on God’s work, so I recognize I’m taking a secondary approach to draw our attention to what’s going on in the spiritual ground of our lives. And the one that seems to give the most opportunity for us to do something about it is the one about the thorns.

I suppose the worst thing to do with thorns if you’re trying to let God’s seed grow is to water and fertilize the thorns. I suppose the next worst thing to do with thorns is just let them be there, not believing they will do any damage. Jesus is clearly warning us against that.

We hear, we receive God’s work…but as we go on are way we are “choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures”, and God’s work does not mature in us.

Thorns take the nutrients of the soil and use them to grow things that hurt.

Jesus is saying that if we feed our worries, riches and pleasures, there isn’t as much energy to grow what God wants to do. Even if we ignore our worries, riches and pleasures, they are there, pulling away from the fruit God wants to produce in us.

One thing I like about this is that these thorns, these sins and struggles…they are a problem because of how they pull us away from God’s good work. They cause damage, producing painful things rather than fruit.

In that picture, sin isn’t all consuming, nor is God just trying to take pleasure from us as punishment. God is encouraging health, growth, and fruit that doesn’t harm.

Yesterday I thought of a different kind of analogy for sin and struggles than thorns, an analogy that I have lived under at times in the past.

One summer during college, I got hired by the maintenance department at George Fox. I enjoyed it! A lot of what we did was refurbishing living areas: tearing out carpet, laying new tile, painting, that sort of thing. I was on Nick Maurer’s paint crew quite a lot that summer!

One time I was painting, and I was wearing this t-shirt from a summer camp I had counseled at. I shouldn’t have done that. I got paint on it, quite a lot of paint on it, and of course it was ruined. You can’t wash out paint. Paint on a shirt is forever there, and it forever limits the shirt’s use. From that time on, it was only a work shirt.

I have had that picture of sin for my life before. Sin forever stains and ruins me. With that analogy, the hope of Jesus is one of two things: Either Jesus gives me a new, unstained shirt…or somehow when God looks at my stained shirt, God chooses to see Jesus’ unstained shirt instead of my ruined one.

In that analogy, I’m either ruined by sin or I’ve had sin forever dealt with. It’s an either/or. But with thorns, there’s a lot more.

Sin harms, but God’s work is present. Sin must be dealt with, but it doesn’t forever poison the ground. Those are more hopeful than the paint on the shirt analogy.

What’s more challenging about the thorn analogy is what anyone who has had a garden realizes. Your job is never done. You can pull out every weed and thorn on a piece of ground on Saturday, and then on Wednesday they are popping up all over again. It’s not a one time thing to invite God’s forgiveness and work into our lives; it’s a regular occurrence as we make room for God’s work to grow in us.

With thorns as a model for Lent, we who have followed God for awhile might have the most work to do.

Perhaps it’s been awhile since you’ve taken a hard look at what’s going on in the soil of your life. I fully believe God is scattering seeds all around us…what worries, riches and pleasures are getting in the way of their growth?

Last week I was worshipping with our daughter Natalie and Joel and Jenn Perez at Fellowship Monrovia, a church in Southern California. At the end of the service, there were 30 or 40 people who went up to the front of the church, people who came forward because they believed God had given up on them, that they were forever tainted. The pastor made sure that every single one of them had someone else standing with them, hand on a shoulder, praying for them.

He reminded them God is never finished with us. He prayed against the lie that they were ruined soil, unfit for God’s seed to grow. It was beautiful to watch God’s work and the community’s prayers coming together in a tangible way in their lives. I loved seeing many new people choose to let God work in them!

But it was convicting to me. I don’t often feel like God can’t use me…but I do let worries become my focus. I’ve given a lot of time and energy to worrying about our Yearly Meeting. I have given a lot of energy in the past toward physical things that fit with riches: how to get a particular lens for a camera, or how to get a new iPhone, or how to find enough money for tuition for the kids.

When I watched those people and joined in praying for them, I realized I, too, needed to redirect my focus and energy toward letting God’s seed grow rather than thorns that distract.

This has given me a sense of personal excitement and corporate excitement for Lent this year.

Nothing but good can come from us taking time for a long, inward look at where our energy, our time, our focus, our goals are taking us. Are they the things God is wanting to grow in us? Or are we putting energy, time and focus into things that are thorns, that are choking out God’s work and hurting ourselves and others?

This Wednesday, the journey of Lent begins. There will be an Ash Wednesday service at 7 pm at River Street Church of God, and we are invited along with several other churches in town. It can be a beginning point for this self-examination journey, as we invite God to show us the thorns and distractions and sins to be rooted out of our lives, as we prepare the soil of our lives for what God wants to bring.

May we enter this with hope that God wants to produce good fruit in us. May we look to OUR need to clear out and let go and repent, not direct this toward others. May we be patient when our work of clearing doesn’t immediately result in growth, but trust the generous, seed-scattering Farmer God to bring about love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control.

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