Today in the Spirit: Proper 10A

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In Year A of the Sunday lectionary, the Matthew year, we move with that Gospel’s revelation of Jesus’ ministry in Galilee from initiation to maturation. Fittingly, for the next four Sundays we will sit under Jesus’ third major teaching discourse in Matthew, the parables of Matthew 13:1-52, in which the themes are planting and growth. The Collect for this week is a plea to God that the Church might be enabled “by your Holy Spirit” to pray that which is “pleasing to God,” knowing that when we do so, we “receive what we ask.” The appointed Gospel reading out of Matthew 13:1-9,18-23 is what Jesus himself calls the parable of the sower and its interpretation, though because of its content many preachers call it “the parable of the soils.” The OT reading from Isaiah 55 contains words of gracious invitation from YHWH. We might well imagine the seed of God’s word described in Jesus’ parable carrying the very message found in Isaiah: Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good and Seek the LORD while he may be found. The assigned Psalm 65 is a song of praise in the latter verses filled with agricultural images appropriate for the day: You water [the earth’s] furrows; you send rain into the little valleys; you make it soft with the drops of rain and bless the increase of it (Psalm 65:11, BCP Coverdale). Building on earlier themes in the first half of Romans, the assigned Epistle reading in Romans 8:7-17 contains Paul’s teaching on the contrast between life being transformed under the influence of the Spirit of Christ and life which remains under captivity by the sinful nature.   

The Collect

Let your merciful ears, O Lord, be open to the prayers of your humble servants; and, that we may receive what we ask, teach us by your Holy Spirit to ask only those things that are pleasing to you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the same Spirit lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

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Come Everyone Who Thirsts (Isaiah 55)

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price. 
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food. 
Incline your ear, and come to me;
    hear, that your soul may live;
and I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
    my steadfast, sure love for David. 
Behold, I made him a witness to the peoples,
    a leader and commander for the peoples. 
Behold, you shall call a nation that you do not know,
    and a nation that did not know you shall run to you,
because of the Lord your God, and of the Holy One of Israel,
    for he has glorified you” (1-5).

Here through the prophet comes an enticing word of comfort addressed not to unbelievers, but to believers, to the people of David, God’s own Israel. You, Christian, must not distance yourself from these words of invitation because you feel you know the Lord already. Imagine yourself like one of the exiled of Israel in Babylon, believing but thirsting for more: “Dear Lord, you have come to me, and I know you through my faith in Jesus. But I confess to you that I am lost in my own Babylon, away from home, not myself and not complete. Though I walk with you, I admit I am still not comfortable in my own skin. I fret about many things when I know I shouldn’t. I am, though a child of your choosing, still, after all these years, very insecure. You say here if I am thirsty to come to the waters, and then again, Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live (NIV). Last week I heard you say the same thing: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Matthew 11:28). You keep offering, and yet I hesitate. Thankfully, I find when I don’t come to your home, you come to me, Here I am! I stand at the door and knock (Revelation 3:20). You just keep showing up, opening your arms and saying “Come!’ When will I give in? When will I surrender?”

Holy Spirit, enable me to do what I cannot do for myself. I am thirsty, parched spiritually. Assist me to take one step closer today to the door, to the border exiting my Babylon, in answer to your never-ending invitation to come   

Praise Is Due to You (Psalm 65)

Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion,
    and to you shall vows be performed. 
O you who hear prayer,
    to you shall all flesh come. 
When iniquities prevail against me,
    you atone for our transgressions. 
Blessed is the one you choose and bring near,
    to dwell in your courts!
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
    the holiness of your temple! (1-4).

This week’s selection of a psalm is based on the agricultural images in the latter half of this song of praise fitting with the Gospel reading of the parable of God, the Sower of kingdom seed. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers, and blessing its growth (Psalm 65:10) connects with Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty (Matthew 13:8). The psalm reminds us growth in our kingdom work is not automatic and natural but the gift of God, not to be taken for granted. God’s favor, especially the favor of sending Jesus Christ, merits our praise, so “David” in the Spirit begins the psalm with Praise is due to you, O God in Zion. The Hebrew in that line is literally “To you praise silence, God in Zion” (or There will be silence before You, and praise in Zion, God NASB). What is it that distinguishes as Christians in the world? Is it our fulfillment of religious duties? Well, yes, externally perhaps, but beyond that is the motive behind our fulfilling them. Why do we, for instance, show up at church on Sundays? It is because, as the psalm declares, God is good, and her merits our solemn (silent, humble) praise. 

Today, Holy Spirit, fill me with awe this Sunday in the church sanctuary, and every day in the sanctuary of my heart, that I might show up with a glad heart praise you for everything you have done–for, as the psalm makes clear, the praise is due you.  

If the Spirit Dwells in You (Romans 8:7-17)

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you (9-11).

There are multiple ifs in this passage. But please note this: none of the conditional language–not one of those ifs, iis directed to you, to who you are, to what you think or what you do. So it is not that you are in the Spirit, if in fact you are praying or going to church or keeping up with your tithes. You are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Then, it is, if Christ is in you,…then the Spirit is life (in you). Then again, it is, if the Spirit..dwells in you, then [the Father] will also give life to your mortal bodies. Paul is no doubt writing like this as a teacher to give fresh theological insight. I’m glad he did that; but as an unsteady believer myself and a pastor of unsteady believers, I’m also happy that his pounding repetition of total dependence on God speaks so forcefully against our human tendency to always revert back to the default mode of prideful self-reliance. And with every return we make to works righteousness comes the guilt that inevitably rises from never being able to live up to the mark. Paul yearns as a pastor, and so do I, that the Christian body takes to heart Zechariah 4:6: Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts. The devotional question is, Will you hear Paul’s words and believe it to your very core?

Today, Holy Spirit, help my unbelief so that once and for all I hear the conditional language in the Scriptures–all the ifs as in this passage–and stop turning them on myself.

When Anyone Hears (Matthew 13:1-9,18-23)

Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty” (18-23).

Especially in Matthew, the way this parable is told and explained by Jesus, it seems the four types of soils receiving the word of God are four types of people. But, being honest, every one of us as Christians can notice ourselves in the experience of all four hearers. One day we may hear and disregard; the next day we may hear and start well but lose heart; and sometimes we hear and persevere in obedience and bear fruit for the kingdom. Devotionally, what shall we do with that apparent disconnect between the trajectory of the text and that of our own experience? Well, we cannot deny that there are some who receive the word of God sown into their lives and others who do not. The Scriptures are full of references to people lost and people saved, those who, using an earlier parable of Jesus in this Gospel, enter by the narrow gate and those who do not (Matthew 7:13-14). But, knowing our own tendency to allow seed to die within us or push it to one side, we can seek to make a far more humble presentation of ourselves as Christians in the world. God is the sower of his word, and we are the tool in his hand to do it. “I share the word of life about Jesus with you. How you respond is your affair. I can only tell you that in my own experience hearing the word and acting on it and sticking to it is far better than letting it go.”

Today, by the Spirit who is in me making me ever more humble in my testimony to the love of the Father and the Son, I see myself in every description of the soils in the parable and pray my own efforts to disperse God’s precious word might find good soil in others.

Today in the Spirit

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Author

Geoff Little

Geoff Little writes the Today in the Spirit series of reflections on the ACNA Sunday and Holy Day Lectionary. He is the founding rector of All Nations Church in New Haven, Connecticut, where he lives with his wife, Blanca.

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