Sermon for July 16, 2017

Scripture readings:
Gen. 25:19-34 and Ps. 119:105-112 or Isa. 55:10-13 and Ps. 65:9-13;
Rom. 8:1-11; Matt. 13:1-9, 18-23

CULTIVATING GRATITUDE (Matt. 13:3-9; 18-23)
By Michelle Fleming

Introduction

“The kingdom of God is like _________________.”

How would you fill in the blank? Jesus gives us clues in his teaching where he compares and contrasts human experience with God’s kingdom ways—taking something familiar and adding a surprising twist to reframe how we think of the kingdom. In doing so, he helps us wrap our finite minds around the majesty of an infinite God.

An example of such teaching is Jesus’ provacative statement to the Pharisees in Luke 17:21: “The kingdom of God is in your midst.” This statement was provocative, even shocking, because the Pharisees (like Jesus’ own disciples) held a very different view of the kingdom–both as to its nature and timing. Jesus elaborates further in a parable recorded in Matthew’s Gospel:

A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Matt. 13:3-9)

Like the sower (farmer) in this parable, God is always investing in us—reaching out to us, thinking of our good first. God plants seeds in our lives to grow fruit, tangible evidence of his kingdom being present now—in our midst. But in saying “whoever has ears, let them hear” (v. 9), Jesus alludes to the fact that how we respond to what God is doing in our lives, has a direct bearing on the quantity and quality of the kingdom fruit that God is producing in our lives.

“The Sower” by Tissot
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The explanation

A few verses later, Jesus explains how the types of soil in the parable speak to the human condition:

Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. (Matt. 13:18-23)

Like thorny, rocky soil, we can allow the burdens, busyness and distractions of this life to drown out God’s voice and so rob us of the abundant life he has for us. Some see the seed in the parable as Jesus who has been sown throughout humanity. Present in the lives of all people (the kingdom among us), Jesus, post-ascension, works by the Holy Spirit to call, transform, equip and thus point people to the Father. We can participate in (yield to) what the Spirit is doing in our lives to transform us (and thus bring forth kingdom fruit) or we can resist. We can be receptive soil or we can be hard and barren soil.

Cultivating gratitude

One of the ways we can participate with what Jesus, by the Spirit, is doing in our lives, is by incorporating spiritual practices into our lives—ones that help us yield to what the Spirit is doing to remove the thorns and rocks, thus providing deep, rich soil in which spiritual seeds can take root and grow.

Light is critical for plants, giving them the energy needed to change carbon dioxide to oxygen. Jesus describes himself as the light of the world, promising that “whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:22). Trying to transform ourselves by our own efforts is exhausting. But the more we get to know Jesus through spiritual practices, the more our trust in him and in God’s goodness will grow. As we surrender more and more, we realize a life of dependence on Jesus is life- and energy-giving.

Water is also critical for plants, just as it is for us. In one of his psalms, David compares communing with God to life-giving water:

As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, my God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. (Ps. 42:1-2)

As light illuminates the land, a chemical reaction occurs in which water splits apart and creates sugar molecules giving a plant the ability to carry out activities even when the light is not present. In the same way, God’s Word sustains us and gives us the strength we need to survive and even thrive in the dark seasons of life. By making it a habit to spend time with the Father in Scripture, we hide the word of God in our hearts, thus storing up truth about who God is and hope in what he has for us.

Soil is important to plants because it stores nutrients and serves as a medium for growth. It is an anchor for roots and holds the water that plants must have to survive and grow. God’s love is the “soil” we need to flourish. That love (which is the eternal love shared by the Father, Son and Spirit) is experienced in Christian community, as Paul notes:

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Eph. 3:16-19)

Just as soil nourishes and strengthens, so the community of the people of God (the church) provides for each member a medium in which there is mutual accountability and a spurring on to spiritual growth as the community experiences together that the kingdom truly is among them.

Oxygen results from a dynamic bio-chemical process involving light, water and carbon dioxide. When we fix our eyes on God, allowing his word to minister to us, and are grounded in his community, the result will be gratitude to God. In that regard, note what Thomas Merton wrote:

To be grateful is to recognize the Love of God in everything He has given us—and He has given us everything. Every breath we draw is a gift of His love, every moment of existence is a grace, for it brings with it immense graces from Him. Gratitude therefore takes nothing for granted, is never unresponsive, is constantly awakening to new wonder and to praise of the goodness of God. For the grateful person knows that God is good, not by hearsay but by experience. And that is what makes all the difference.

To be grateful does not mean ignoring difficulties and struggles. It does mean trusting that God will redeem those times for our good. In practicing the spiritual discipline of gratitude, we go on a daily treasure hunt looking for God’s hand and provision to get through the day. Sometimes to do so we will have to uproot the “weeds” of distraction, and cast aside the “seeds” of doubt and bitterness that try to choke out our gratitude, thus stealing our hope and joy.

Gratitude is loving, thankful response toward God for his kingdom presence with us and among us, and within the whole world. Though blessings can move us into gratitude, the root of gratitude is not material blessings but a thankful heart that delights in God and his good will.

Ending your personal devotional time, or our corporate worship service, expressing gratitude to God is a great way to encourage the germination in us of the seeds of kingdom fruit. In such times we take a moment to prayerfully consider if there is something preventing gratitude from manifesting in our life. If we find something, we address it with God in prayer, asking him to uproot it and replace it with gratitude.


A concert of gratitude

Note to preacher: in concluding this sermon, you may wish to lead the congregation in a time of prayer focused this way. Set it up by giving the instructions below (projecting them on a screen will be helpful). While the members are individually meditating on these three questions, you might provide some quiet background music.

  1. God what are you calling me to uproot?
  2. Lord I ask you to uproot _________in my life and replace it with gratitude.
  3. What three things are your most thankful for today?

Once members have had time to reflect individually, end with a chorus of praise, noting to the congregation that when the chorus ends you will say a brief prayer that verbalizes something you are personally thankful for, then you will invite them, if they feel so moved, to verbalize something they are thankful for, leading to a chorus of praising and thanking God. After members have shared, say “Amen” to mark the end of the service.

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