"The harvest within you"
Sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on February 12, 2017
Texts: Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
Clare L. Hickman
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale
February 12 2017—Epiphany 6A
Deuteronomy 30:15-20; Matthew 5:21-37
I tend to think that Jesus is being deliberately hyperbolic here. That in the sermon on the Mount, Jesus points out again and again that the precepts of the Law are all really good things, but we’re in trouble if we get obsessed with following it all perfectly. Because we will undoubtedly fail.
In this passage, he does so by pointing out that most any of us can resist murdering someone. And most of us (not as many, but still most) can avoid committing adultery. But then he goes on to suggest that we maybe shouldn’t congratulate ourselves on clearing such a low bar: that, in fact, the spirit of the law asks more from us. If we make claim to righteousness, he suggests, we’d better not even allow ourselves to feel angry. If we would number ourselves among those who would usher in the messianic age, we must not even indulge in longings for something that doesn’t belong to us.
Which leaves all of us, even the sainted Jimmy Carter, knowing that we cannot possibly measure up. That’s the point, I think. In admitting we can’t do it on our own, we are forced to cast ourselves upon the grace of God.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus thinks that anger and lust (and while we’re at it, divorce and oaths) are good things. They might not be equivalent to murder, adultery, abandonment and deceit … but they can in fact lead in those directions. If we allow them to. If we nurture them. If we forget that we have been made a new creation in Christ, and choose instead to remain ensnared in the habits and values of the world.
“Of the flesh” is what Paul calls it. And he doesn’t just mean sex. He uses “flesh” as a marker of what Brian Peterson has described as “the basic, standard, normal, and agreed-upon ways that human society functions, the accepted ways of defining and pursuing the good life.”[i]
Paul fears the Corinthians are still entrenched in those values, and we might well admit to ourselves the ways in which we too allow ourselves to be caught. To what extent do we judge things by how they affect our own self-interest, by whether we gain or lose, by whether it feels good or bad, easy or challenging?
To counteract this natural, instinctive urge, Paul reminds them and us that the kingdom of God doesn’t revolve around our needs or even our abilities. Rather, it is God who sets the plan and God who gives the growth. We might plant. We might water. We might gather in the harvest. But God’s power is what brings abundance to life.
Even more striking, if you look closely at what Paul says: most of us aren’t even planting, or watering. We, in fact, are the harvest. We are the ground in which the seed is sown. We are the plot of land that is being watered. We are the soil in which God will bring forth growth.
So before we even begin to worry about how we are sowing the seeds of the good news out there, we must remember that the first mission field is in our own heart, our own mind, our own life. We are the soil. We are the ground, no matter how stony or fertile we might be. We are the place in which God can and will bring forth a harvest.
Seeds are planted. Seeds are given sunlight and water, and they will grow. You will put forth a crop, one way or another. But today’s gospel reminds us that it is not only God or the servants of God who might be planting seeds. The ways of the world seek to take root as well: sowing anger, sowing greed, sowing indifference, sowing deceit. And if we give any of these too much light, too much sustenance, it will produce its own bumper crop.
“Don’t feed the trolls.” That’s an internet concept that warns people not to react to those who puke up their negative opinions and fighting words in comment sections. Common wisdom holds that the only way to minimize their impact is to ignore them. Let them die from lack of attention: fighting them only pleases them, and gives them more to feed upon. So: Don’t feed the trolls.
What we give attention to within ourselves will grow. So there might be some wisdom in not focusing too much attention on these instincts toward anger, greed and selfishness. The problem is, ever since Freud, we have had a particular strong belief in (fear of) the idea that our thoughts define us: that the things bubbling up from our unconscious are the most powerful and true things about us. But the past few decades have witnessed challenges to this orthodoxy, and some now argue that we have all kinds of thoughts and urges and instincts, but they don’t have any particular significance or reality unless we act on them. Those thoughts? They are NOT you!
I read a particularly striking account of this phenomenon, in dealing with people who face that strange urge that many of us have to jump off cliffs, and find themselves possessed by terrifying images of committing awful violence. The thought emerges and then it’s so terrible that it grows. They fear it means they are truly capable of doing such things, that at heart they are evil. But cognitive psychology suggests that these thoughts are just thoughts, and that simply facing into them calmly will demonstrate this. Eventually, they will lose their power.
Even for those of us with much less dramatic instincts, there is the fact that spending too much time trying to uproot them could absorb all our energies for the rest of our lives. They’re there, like it or not. But they don’t need to be watered. They don’t need to be given light and fertilizer. They will rise, but they will also fall back down. Don’t dive into them, but don’t waste too much time hating them either. Don’t give them the light. Don’t water and feed them. Let them be. And the best way to do that is to focus on the seeds God wishes to grow within you instead.
How will you recognize God’s seeds? You will recognize them by the ways in which they lead you into the command to love one another by serving one another. This is the harvest God wishes to nurture in your soul: the trust and confidence to care for the needs of others without concern of being repaid. This is the harvest. The trust and confidence to give fearlessly, knowing that generosity is the pathway to abundance. This is the harvest. The trust and confidence to offer the gifts of forgiveness and mercy to the world, even when the world seems hostile to such ideas. This is the harvest.
It has been planted within you. Give it your attention. Let it be watered by teachers, by poets, by friends and loved ones. Let the light of Christ warm and encourage its growth. And may you be a bountiful harvest for God and for the world. May it be so, Amen.
[i] “Commentary on 1 Corinthians 3:1-9,” posted 2/12/2017. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3142