Rooted & Reaching

A Sermon for Sunday June 29, Matthew 13:31-32, Ephesians 3:16-19

SHOVEL2The most prized possession my younger brother Ben and I owned as kids was a plastic yellow shovel.

The toy was ideal for digging up dirt and sand at the playground, but it had other uses as well. The shovel was a sleek looking spaceship that carried our heroic action figures to distant planets or it was the legendary sword that slayed a fierce dragon. Ben and I hardly ventured outside without one of us holding onto that plastic yellow shovel. It was as if it was an integral part of us, an extra limb attached to our bodies.

One summer, while living for a brief time in a suburban cul-de-sac of Jacksonville, Florida, we discovered that our plastic yellow shovel could be used for other things than make-believe.

On a hot Saturday morning, my dad cranked up the chain saw to cut down a large tree in our front yard and I was curious and eager to help out. Gripping the yellow plastic shovel, I boldly marched out the door to survey the yard for other trees that might also need to be chopped down.

At the age of five, I determined that anything taller than my two foot self was a tree worthy of whacking and the “trees” that I noticed immediately were the three nestled in the front flowerbed of our house. Unbeknownst to me, they weren’t actually trees but split-leaf philodendrons, the kind you commonly find in tropical areas or see in jungle movies, about 4-5 feet in height and width with beautiful thick green branches and long curvy leaves.

They were my mother’s favorite plant, and with my yellow plastic shovel, I whacked and hacked all three philodendrons to the ground in mere minutes, a tangled mess of green at my feet. I was feeling quite proud of my task and preparing to go inside and tell my mother about my hard work when I heard a loud rap on the front window. I looked up and saw the face of my mother, her eyes bulging out of her head and her mouth agape. And then came the scream, a noise so loud that it penetrated the glass window, screeched across the yard and rang in the ears of my dad who was still operating a chain saw with headphones on:  “MIKE!!!!! LOOK AT WHAT HE’S DONE!!! HE’S CUT DOWN ALL OF THE PHILODENDRENS!!!!! NOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!”

Before I could utter a word of explanation, they both scooped me inside to smack my backside and lecture me on the difference between trees and plants, shovels and saws.

Ben, who was 2 and a half at the time, missed this important discussion on proper shovel usage, which might have benefited him when he appropriated the shovel several weeks later.

A boy my age had recently moved in the house across the street and was hanging out in my driveway along with other pre-school kids from the neighborhood. The new kid was a loudmouth who liked to brag about being the fasted runner or insisted that he knew the right way to play every game. And if he liked the toy you had, he would snatch it out of your hand and threaten to punch you if you tried to reclaim it. 

His target on this particular day was Ben’s Big Wheel—a plastic tricycle with an over-sized front wheel that rides low to the ground. And the new kid didn’t waste anytime telling Ben to get off the toy and give it to him; he just pushed my brother off and took it!

But Ben didn’t say anything or tear up. He got up on his feet, walked into our open garage and returned with…the yellow plastic shovel which he then used to whack this 5-year-old bully (who was twice his size) several times upside the head until the kid fled home crying.

Despite my parent’s amazement at skills they were unaware my brother possessed, he got a spanking and a brief lecture on how you’re not supposed to hit people.

That plastic yellow shovel got us into some trouble.

It’s incredible what harm we cause when we whack and hack our away at the problems that tower over us.

Our minds, hearts, words and hands have many incredible uses in this world. We can imagine and create extraordinary things, whole worlds and realities, just as God intended in the beginning of time. 

And yet the slightest amount of misunderstanding, fear, hate, greed and selfishness can cause us to use these amazing tools God has given us to whack and hack our way through the wonders of God’s creation. 

Within seconds, we can use our own yellow plastic shovels to tear down the people that God has planted in our lives.

 Disagree with another person’s political viewpoint; turn to the comment section of an online news story or Facebook and post cruel and angry rants that seeks to dehumanize that person. 

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Don’t like the way an athlete is playing their sport; boo, ridicule and curse them from your place in the stands or on Twitter.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Can’t stand people of another race, culture, religion, sexual orientation, and gender, call them offensive names in public.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Offended that the Presbyterian Church (USA) narrowly voted to divest from three American companies who are participating in questionable business practices in the Middle East; declare on national TV that all Presbyterians are anti-semitics who hate Israel.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Appalled that more and more states are legalizing same sex marriage, and that Presbyterian churches are opening its doors to gay couples; write letters claiming that the denomination is officially dead and make public statements that gays and those who support them are going to hell.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Angry over a misperceived slight or fearful of one person or an entire group of people who are vastly different from you; pick up a gun and start shooting, send in the drones or kidnap scores of teenage girls.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Disgusted by the poor and homeless on the streets; support the passing of unjust ordinances and laws that make it harder to address the systemic issues of poverty and care for people in need.

Whack. Hack. Whack.

Disgruntled by those who are making your life miserable; let them know it in words and deeds:

You’re beneath me.

Whack.

You’re an idiot.

Hack.

You’re unworthy of God’s love.

Whack.

We as a society do so much whacking and hacking that it appears as if we don’t know any other way to live and interact with one another.

But Jesus and his earliest followers remind us that we were not made to whack and hack. And they suggest there is another way—an alternative to our senseless thrashings and foolish attempts to uproot and destroy what God has planted.

As the High School youth and adults learned during the Montreat Youth Conference “we are rooted in God’s love and acceptance for us, no matter what.” That is the good news we forever proclaim in the waters of baptism and celebrate at the Lord’s Table. We know who we are and whose we are. We are children of God who belong eternally to God.

And because God has rooted us always in love, God expects us to grow and reach out in that love, recognizing we are all connected and called to care for one another.

Jesus and the apostle Paul encourage us to continually sow seeds of love to help the kingdom of God spread and bear much fruit, especially in places where there is none—barren lands where human beings have tried to whack and hack away at God’s handiwork.

Jesus says in the Gospel of Matthew:

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.

In Jesus’ day, farmers and peasants were quite familiar with the growth of mustard seeds, which like the South’s infamous kudzu, vigorously and unassumingly takes over gardens, roads, forests, mountainsides and even buildings. Since the people of that era valued order, they had very strict rules for keeping a tidy garden, and that meant no planting mustard.  At the same time, the people had high expectations that the kingdom of God would come in splendorous and towering triumph like the giant cedar trees described by the Hebrew prophets.[1]  

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Illustration by Ryan Sharp, “Jesus For President” by Shane Claiborne

Jesus counters all of this by describing the kingdom of God as a small and wily mustard seed bush.  As activist and author Shane Claiborne interprets it:

What Jesus had in mind was not a frontal attack on the empires of this world. His revolution is a subtle contagion—one little life, one little hospitality house at a time…His power was not in crushing but in being crushed, triumphing over the empire’s sword with his cross. Mustard must be crushed, ground, broken for its power to be released…Mustard was also known for healing and was rubbed on the chest to help with breathing, sort of like Vick’s vapor rub. Mustard, a wild contagion of a weed, a healing balm, a sign of upside down power—official sponsor of the Jesus revolution.[2]

 I wonder if the apostle Paul (once a whacker and hacker of Jesus’ followers) was thinking about the mustard seed parable when he wrote to the church in Ephesus:

I pray that…Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, as you are being rooted and grounded in love. I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

My prayer and hope for the Church Universal, for followers of Christ and for this church is that we cease our whacking and hacking so that rooted in God’s love we can do….

a lot more sowing,

a lot more tending,

a lot more growing,

a lot more caring,

a lot more forgiving,

a lot more listening,

a lot more loving,

a lot more reaching, and

a lot more turning plastic yellow shovels into plastic yellow mustard bottles.

Amen

[1] Insight gleaned from Jesus For President: Politics For Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Zondervan Publishing, 2008.

[2] Jesus For President: Politics For Ordinary Radicals by Shane Claiborne, Zondervan Publishing, 2008.

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