Sunday, July 16, 2023

7 Pentecost, 2023-A: The prodigal church of a prodigal God

Lectionary: Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 

En el nombre del Dios, creador, redentor, y santificador. Amen. 

If there is a creature to whom my soul is attached, my prayer connected, it’s a turkey vulture. That’s right… I said a turkey vulture. The turkey vulture connected with me most powerfully in 2016 while I was on spiritual retreat.

For most people the turkey vulture is ugly with that wrinkly red skin on their heads; and gross because they eat dead, rotting road kill. It’s true, they aren’t beautiful like an eagle, or elegant like a hawk – until you see them in flight. The wingspan of this raptor is 5 ½ feet long with finger-like feathers that spread out and touch the wind as they ride the thermals and updrafts with effortless grace and wisdom.

The turkey vulture has one great weakness, though: it’s feet and talons are weak, so it can’t swoop down to grab and kill prey like hawks and owls do. That’s why it feeds on dead animals, which seems like a disgusting way to have to go and makes one wonder what eternal sin they are being punished for (seriously, I don’t believe in that…).

In reality, turkey vultures serve an immensely important role in the big picture of creation. Their powerful digestive juices allow them to eat dead animals without getting sick, thereby saving other animals from the spread of dangerous infections and harmful bacteria. Their featherless heads, while not classically beautiful, allow them to eat their food without picking up harmful bacteria or infection.

Sunlight helps disinfect their heads and feathers, so in the mornings, turkey vultures gather in great numbers, raise their heads and lift their wings, and allow the sun to cleanse them. It’s an amazingly beautiful sight – these magnificent birds doing a prayerful sun salutation.

The scientific name for turkey vulture is cathartes aura, which means ‘golden purifier.’ Ancient Greeks considered them symbols of heaven and earth, spirit and matter, good and evil – all in one physical body.

I see them as the perfect illustration of St. Paul’s discussion in today’s portion of the letter to the Romans. Life and death, flesh and spirit – all transformed in us because of our relationship to Jesus, who is the Christ. Since, as Paul says, “the Spirit of God dwells in” us, we are spirit and matter, good and evil, death and life – all in one physical body.

From the turkey vulture, we also learn that what we might consider to be waste is actually a valuable part of God’s life-giving plan and evidence of the interconnectedness of all creation. We may judge road-kill as waste, but the turkey vulture sees it as sustenance!

There is no such thing as waste in God’s economy. 

By being itself, and doing what God created it to do, the turkey vulture contributes to the health and well-being of the earth and the creatures of God who live on it. Everyone has a divine purpose, even those we might judge as worthless, gross, useless, or bad - a point made plain in the Parable of the Sower.

There are many approaches to understanding this story. Some see us, God’s people, as the seed which has been sown. Some of us grow shallow roots that fail to sustain us in times of trouble. Some of us are distracted and choked by wealth and worry. Some of us grow in good soil and produce abundant fruit.

Then there are those who see us as the soil – footworn hardened paths that can’t receive a seed; or rocky ground too shallow to sustain life; or so crowded with fear and burdens that anything that takes root chokes and dies; or ground that is nourished, tended, and ready to receive seed.

All of those interpretations are fine with me, but the one that compels me today is the one that focuses on the sower as God. If the Sower is God, then God scatters the seeds of love extravagantly, freely, on hard, rocky, thorny, and fertile ground alike. If the sower is God, then the fruit of these seeds is relationship, recalling Jesus’ command to love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul, and love our neighbor as ourselves.

Theologian Dick Donovan spoke of this parable as, “a story of God's prodigality [because] (‘prodigal’ has to do with lavish or wasteful expenditure).” In God’s economy, there is no waste, and in God’s abundance, there is no end to the seeds of love to be scattered.

The fruit of the plants that grow, which is relationship, is valuable, for however long they live. Do we judge relationship with a baby who dies a wasted effort? Of course not!

When I was in seminary, one among us was diagnosed with cancer just months before we graduated. He walked with us but died a few months later. His bishop ordained him on his deathbed. When my friend asked why, the bishop responded: Some ministries are short, and some are long. I’m here to ordain those who are thus called by God.

What if we suspend our typical judgments of the soil and the plants before us and open our eyes to see and understand God’s purpose in them?

A young woman I know was born in rocky soil. Her parents were drug addicted and her family was the
picture of abusive dysfunction. This young woman left home as a young teenager hoping to find a better life. But she was unprepared. She had never learned the basic things so many of us take for granted, like how to read, how to brush her teeth, even how to use a chest of drawers to store clothes. She never learned or saw modeled how to earn money legally or how to be in a relationship that wasn’t abusive or exploitive.

But this young woman, as abrasive and repulsive in appearance and behavior as she was, is a child of God with a divine purpose. So is the homeless person begging at the street corner, or the addict panhandling on the sidewalks downtown, or the person obsessed with money, power, and prestige.

How, then, does a follower of Christ respond?

Well, for one thing, we don’t condemn. St. Paul writes “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” which to me, means everyone, since Jesus, as the second person of the Trinity, is the one “through whom all things are made.” Who, then, can exist apart from him?

Each of us responds to God’s call to us according to God’s plan for us. God called me to be a priest, Jerre to be a deacon, and you to be a teacher, artist, musician, farmer, writer, or whatever!

The same goes for each church, each body of Christ in the world. Each church must continually discern its unique call from God and respond to that call.

So, whether person or church, we respond by setting our minds on the Spirit of God who dwells in us, and letting our weakness be the place God connects us one to another. This is the principle behind AA – alcoholics helping other alcoholics to find healing and wholeness.

This is also what connected me to the young woman I mentioned. I knew the abuse she lived because I had lived some of it too. This enabled us to connect in a real way and begin a journey of healing from which both of us benefitted.

When we connect with one another, weakness to weakness, the power of God’s healing love works through the faithful to transform death to life. Guaranteed.

Perhaps we might respond by sharing from the abundance of our riches, bringing our fertile soil, along with some water and fertilizer to their plot. Or maybe, with their permission, we pluck them up and transplant them somewhere in more fertile soil.

Not everyone is privileged to have been sown into fertile soil, but everyone is beloved of God and has a divine purpose. And the beauty of life in the Spirit is that everyone can be made whole, reconciled by the power of Jesus Christ and his glorious resurrection from the dead.

That is the Spirit who dwells in us, therefore, we are one means by which God accomplishes this in the world today. It is our responsibility as individuals and as the church, the body of Christ in the world, to know and own our weaknesses; to know and own our divine purpose.

We gather together each Sunday to worship God in community, to partake of holy food as God’s holy people, being made one body, one spirit in Christ. Together we discover how the unique gifts God has brought together in this community are meant to be used to bring God’s transforming love to all, but especially to those beloved ones sown in hard, rocky, or thorny soil.

We do this like God does it – extravagantly. Not only is ours a Prodigal God, but ours is a Prodigal Church. We sow the seeds of God’s love lavishly, even wastefully, trusting that there is no such thing as waste in God’s economy.

Let us pray. 

Creator of all, that is give us the courage to be like you: lavish, even wasteful sowers of your seeds of love in the world. Give us ears to hear and understand, and by your Spirit give us grace to see with your divine eyes, that we may recognize the goodness you proclaimed is in all you have created. You have chosen and empowered us by your Holy Spirit. May our fruit acknowledge the truth that we and all creation are in a continual process of sanctification and reconciliation within your abundant, steadfast, and everlasting love. In Jesus’ name we pray this. Amen.

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