Roadtrips and farms

Pentecost 8, Proper 11A

In the name of God who sows, who grows, and who harvests.  Amen.

Michael and I are glad to be home from our vacation.  We took a huge road trip that took us through 13 states, across about 4,000 miles.  We visited some familiar places that we hadn’t been to in a while and spent time with family and friends we’d been missing.  But we also went to some places and saw some sites that we hadn’t experienced before.  We laughed a lot.  We ate a lot of good food.  And in the end, were glad to come home and return to our routines (and our own bed!).  Rufus was with us almost every step of the way, and he was pretty excited to be home, too.

While it’s true that New Jersey really is the “Garden State” (despite our national reputation) and we live in one of the most beautiful regions of this state, there is something special about getting out of the population density we live in, and exploring more open places.  It’s particularly interesting to see the farmland that makes up so much of this country.  Of course, as I’m sure you’d imagine, we saw a lot of corn and soybeans growing almost everywhere we went.  But it was punctuated by regional differences.  In Arkansas’s delta region along the Mississippi River, we saw rice fields.  In south Louisiana, we saw sugar cane.  In northwest Ohio, we saw fields of lavender.

As the miles lapsed, we passed countless stories we’ll never know or really fully understand.  They were the stories of lives defined by a way of life that most of us are now completely divorced from – lives driven by and sculpted around agriculture.  Sure, many of us may grow things.  If we’re good at it, we may even get to eat what our land yields.  But the difference between our lives and theirs is that our livelihood doesn’t depend on it.  A measure of our joy might depend on the whims of the “growing life” – but that’s usually about it.

So sometimes that makes it hard to really get inside some of these stories that Jesus uses to illustrate our faith.  When I hear “weeds” I think “annoyance” – at worst, some added work that will have to be dealt with.  But this story is about more than an annoyance – it’s about a threat to the grower’s livelihood.  And not just the grower alone, but these weeds represented a threat to all the people who depended on the health of that crop for their own livelihood and sustenance.

But even if we can’t fully understand the story from a farmer’s perspective, there is one aspect of these agriculture-themed parables of Jesus that I think we can appreciate: the idea of growth.  I’ve often said that a Christian should always be growing.  And I mean always.  It is my sincere hope that up until the day I die, I will be growing in spiritual maturity and in my relationship with God.  That’s our job: not to be perfect examples of every aspect of the Christian life, but to always be striving – to always be striving to find new ways to grow closer to God.

And the ancestral story of our faith shows us that that is sort of what God is about, too.  From creation through Resurrection (and beyond), the Christian faith shows us story after story, example after example of God striving toward a closer relationship with us.  That’s the brilliance of Michelangelo’s painting above the Sistine Chapel: God and humanity reaching toward one another, though not quite touching.  If you look at the painting, you’ll see Michelangelo’s image of God practically straining for contact.  The shortfall comes from humanity’s reach – a reach, but not fully extended; a reach with some way yet to go.

We still have room to grow – we still have room to carry ourselves farther.  But it takes work, and it takes commitment.

In the agricultural metaphor that Jesus uses, the weeds represent that unmet reach toward God.  They are those things that are holding us back from meeting our full potential, our full reach.  They are the ways that our growth is inhibited.

Paul, in his letter to the church in Rome, talks about it in a slightly different way.  He says, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption…”  That striving for the nearness of God is like labor pains – it is the birth of something entirely new; an experience that we long for, but can’t fully comprehend because it hasn’t been born yet.

Where Jesus talks about harvest and reaping, Paul puts it in gentler tones.  He talks about adoption.  The moment of being cradled and protected by God, brought into the fullness of God’s warm embrace.  Rescued from all that separated us from our full potential before.

It is an act of discernment to figure out what are the weeds and what is the wheat in our own lives.  What are the things that bring us closer to God and what are the things that stand in our way?  What helps us to flex our reach toward God and what leaves us limp?

These aren’t easy answers.  They take prayer and reflection.  They take time.  And that’s part of what this “Summer of Sabbath” is all about – it’s about taking some time.  It’s about taking the rest we need so that our own busyness or exhaustion isn’t just another one of our weeds.  And it’s about using that cleared-out space to look at what’s left.

This summer, I hope you’ll practice asking these questions: what brings us closer to God?  What stands in our way?  Not just because it’s summer and we have a little downtime, but because we need the practice for when we don’t have the downtime.  We need to flex those muscles so it comes a little more naturally.  That kind of discernment is always our task.  We all have a little weeding to do from time to time.  Amen.