On Slow-Moving Miracles

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For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.”
A scene from a hike in the Mohawk Trail State Forest in Charlemont, MA, during Our Savior’s camping trip 2017.

Isaiah 55:10-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

They say that what annoys us most about other people is what we most fear within ourselves.

This is exactly what I associate with almost any sentence that starts with “Kids today.” Because usually, the problem described is a human problem, not a generational one.

For example, “Kids today are so impatient.”

Now, it’s true that teenagers today grew up in a much more automated world than people ten or twenty or more years ago did. They grew up in a world where Internet access is measured by its speed and where online shopping wasn’t new by the time they could speak and where they could look up information on the computer in their pocket. That’s all entirely true.

But for those of you who raised teenagers in generations before this one: would you ever have described them as patient? I’m fairly sure the parents of the late 1700s and early 1800s went on and on about how kids these days are just so impatient because they’d grown up in a world, unlike their parents, with steam engines and mercury thermometers and electric telegraphs. “You kids are so spoiled! In my day, we had to travel by horse!”

Tell me: in what age has humanity looked at itself and prided itself on its patience?

There’s a reason patience is considered a virtue: we have such a hard time with it.

Yes, technology has helped, but why has technology developed so fast? We’re impatient. We frequently invent things for one or two reasons: they make a task easier and/or faster.

And it is true that our idea of what it’s like to be patient evolves with our technology. And even with technology, all of us — teenagers included — easily forget how amazing technology is because we’re so impatient.

As the comic Louis CK puts it, even the most terrible, beat up cell phone is a miracle. He points out, that people “got their phone and they’re like eeaagh, it won’t, UGH! Give it a second! Give it, it’s going to space, would ya give it a second? To get back from space? Is the speed of light a little too slow for you?”

Or consider how our ideas of travel have changed: a journey home to see my parents in Alabama, which is more than a thousand miles, two, three hundred years ago, would have been something of a perilous journey that could take days, weeks, or even months, depending on the method of travel. Now? I get tacos at the airport, jump on a couple of planes, and I’m there. And still I say “Ughhhh… I have to go through the security line tomorrow. And I didn’t get a direct flight, so it’s going to take me, you know, SEVEN HOURS to get there.”

Somewhere one of my ancestors wants to slap me, but you know, it was their wondering whether they could make travel faster and more efficient — their impatience — that made our quick travel today possible. 

So it’s true that, in some ways, impatience is quite a virtue in itself: it pushes us forward in all kinds of ways. It pushes technology forward. It pushes justice forward.

But it also makes us into one impatient, nervous, stressed out species.

As one internet meme put it: “You know the human body is 60% water? So we’re basically cucumbers with anxiety.”

There’s so much to be anxious about: your health. Terrorism. Politics. Politics. Politics.

Oh, sorry, there are more, but this one in particular rings true: everybody is impatient in politics. These days, Democrats are impatient that the Russia investigation isn’t moving faster and Republicans are impatient that the President’s agenda isn’t moving forward because of that investigation and the rest of the country is impatient that even after all this time we’ve still got both scandals and gridlock.

There’s also the every day things that make us impatient: traffic. Inefficient or difficult people. Waiting through a long day for when it’s finally time to relax. Being impatient that you have no time to relax.

Sometimes we sigh and say, “We need a miracle.”

I think our impatience colors what we consider a miracle.

The story of God that we are told today tells us about both the patience and the miracles of nature in two episodes: first the Gospel reading, about the sower.

It’s a story as old as dirt, quite literally, and it’s a story that’s been interpreted ad nauseam since the Gospel writers first jotted it down as a saying of Jesus that they thought was worth remembering.

Most interpretations I’ve heard paint God as the sower, us as the soil. God plants and reaps the harvest.

Okay.

But what are we to take from that? Well, a few things:

First, there’s the fact that, while you wouldn’t throw seed just anywhere, God is quite the careless sower: God scatters the Good News — Gospel — of grace and love and God’s favor everywhere. Then there’s that we should “let our hearts be good soil,” as a hymn we often sing (and will sing later) declares. We should make our hearts — and our church — a place where “love can grow and peace is understood.”

But there are some drawbacks to interpreting the lesson that way exclusively. First, what are we to make of God wasting seed by throwing it where it dies? The parable goes to great lengths to describe how the seed dies. Since soil cannot change itself, it seems cruel of God to throw the seed where a little shoot of grace and hope might spring up suddenly, only to get choked out.

If it’s cruel when this happens in our gardens, how much more painful is it in our hearts?

So others offer different interpretations: what if Jesus is making us out to be the sowers?

When we think of how we reach new people, of how we might offer help and peace to our neighbors, how often do we write people off, thinking they won’t answer, or they won’t care, or they’re just “not church people”? What good is it to invite someone again, if they always say no?

Jesus is calling us to have the patience of a farmer.

Every growing seed is a miracle. Miracles aren’t required to take place instantaneously. 

(Instantaneous miracles are usually called “magic.”)

Jesus is also calling us to be a little careless: scatter the Good News everywhere. Lord knows the world needs a little Good News.

As we said a few weeks ago: tell them something good. Good news is its own miracle.

Tell them about another little miracle: a church where people love each other imperfectly, but genuinely. Where people show up, despite the other stuff they have going on, to do heavy yard work, to pressure wash, fix the ailing air conditioning unit, cut the grass, or fix the communion table.

Where people show up in the sanctuary sometimes in the evenings for the sole purpose of praying for you.

Where people are both really Christian and really okay with loving everybody — and everybody really means everybody. Where we don’t compromise our faith just to accept people, but instead believe that loving and accepting people exactly the way God made ‘em is one way that the Gospel gets lived out in the world.

Sometimes I don’t think any of us realize how special what we have really is.

We get tired. We get impatient. We’ve been doing the same things for years and sometimes we feel a little out of breath or stagnant. We’ve scattered seed on the same community for years and seen only modest growth.

But considering both the history and the present state of the Christian church, your very existence is a miracle.

The book of Isaiah tells us about another slow-moving miracle.

Ancient history tells us of the state of the world — and of Israel — when the last part of the second third of the book of Isaiah was written: in other words, Isaiah 55, the first passage we read this morning. The kingdoms of Israel and Judah had been in Babylonian captivity for likely over 50 years. For perspective, consider that if we were them we’d’ve been living in exile and captivity since 1965.

It’s just long enough for a flicker of hope to remain, just long enough for most people to remember or have parents alive to tell you about how life was “before.” Before we were taken captive and brought to a strange land. Before the temple was destroyed.

The book of Isaiah is really more like three books. It’s in the second, the one we read from today, that God begins to whisper after years of captivity:

“Psssst. Something big is about to happen.”

That something would be the return of the exiles, thanks to a kind-hearted Persian king. The rebuilding of the temple. The dawn of hope.
And it’s in that context that we read the words:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall be to the Lord for a memorial, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
(Isaiah 55:10-13 NRSV)

God is saying, “Patience, my people. The trees take a long time to grow, but they’re going to grow. The word of God doesn’t return empty.”

As a person living in a place with four distinct seasons for the first time, I cannot get over what a miracle some things are. I watch the irises and the daylilies all around here get killed by frost, covered with snow. But just as I’m getting impatient after the melting of April and May, BAM! They arrive. And the message they bring is oh so clear that you have to respond: “Oh, hello, hope. We’ve been waiting for you.”

Nature is full of miracles — most of them just take a little time.

We are impatient people indeed, but some things cannot be rushed: the end of winter and the return of spring. The growth of a tree. Even climbing a mountain for the view takes some patience.

So let us continue to sow grace and love and acceptance everywhere, believing that God’s good love never returns empty. Let’s go to the FallsFest and to Sok’s for Beer & Hymns in August and out into our lives every day bearing the Good News that there is hope — this crazy hope that there is a slow-moving miracle taking place in the world and that what we see now may be fall or it may be winter, but spring is coming and it’s going to be glorious. That what we see now may be buried seed, buried seed can grow into a strong tree — it just takes awhile.

And may the Holy Spirit rescue all of us — this church, western Massachusetts, the United States, the world, and each person in this assembly — from our own impatience.

Because ask our ancestors and they’d tell you: gosh, adults are so impatient these days. Amen.

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