For those of us who garden last week’s rain was a godsend. Along with the sunshine and warmth we’ve had since then, the rain has caused an abundance of new life and growth and energy in our gardens and in the world around us. Our scripture readings for the past weeks have been stories from the natural world. We have heard stories about seed and soil, wheat and weeds. The timing couldn’t be better! During summer, we experience the wonder and the beauty of God’s creation in all its glory
In our reading from Matthew we have an abundance of images from the natural world. Today we have not just one parable but at least five different stories about mustard seed, yeast, fields, pearls, and fish—all images from God’s good earth, packed into one Sunday reading!
But to understand these stories we begin with our first reading from 1 Kings. This is the story of Solomon, King David’s son. Last week we heard a reading from a book called the Wisdom of Solomon, which is included in many Bibles. Today’s first reading is about Solomon’s wisdom. In a dream God asked Solomon what he wanted God to do for him Solomon answered, “Give me an understanding mind, able to discern.” And God was pleased with Solomon’s answer: Because you have not asked for yourself long life or riches, or for the life of your enemies…I will give you a wise and discerning mind.
This story seems to be about wisdom, and it is. But more importantly it’s about what leads to wisdom, and that is discernment—the ability to tell the difference between what is of lasting value and what is not. In your worship folder you will find an example of one process of discernment that some among us have used in decision-making within the life of our congregation. It’s from a book by Luke Timothy Johnson called “Scripture and Discernment: Decision-making in the Church.” The process is an organic model, meaning it follows principles found in the natural world. Like Jesus’ parables, it uses images from the natural world to describe how God’s people can learn to discern the movement of the Holy Spirit among us.
Discernment is quite different from the ways we normally tend to make decisions. Many decisions are made on the basis of fear, self-interest–what seems most practical or “common sense.” Tradition and habit are two other ways of making decisions: “We’ve always done it that way before.” Discernment listens to those perspectives but seeks openness to unexpected or new ways of thinking and living.
I’ve spent part of the past week cleaning up my office. As many of you know, I’m planning to share office space with Pr. Gretchen Mertes as she begins her new role with the worship community at Luther’s Table. It’s been said that there are throwers and there are savers. For those of us who are savers, the job of discerning what has lasting value, of deciding what to keep and what to throw is often a challenge.
It’s also a great opportunity! One of the files I found as I sifted and sorted through my records was a file from 1992. Those of you who were here 22 years ago remember Pr. Lothar Pietz, who was interim pastor here for two years and beloved of many. As I recall, he is remembered for introducing coffee hour following worship, which continues to this day.
Before he left this congregation, Pr. Pietz was given an exit interview—a good practice—and he was asked to reflect on his time here, to consider the congregation’s strengths and weaknesses, and to make recommendations. Here is one of his comments:
Throughout my time here I have sensed a concern and worry about ‘the future’… the question may be put more simply: ‘How are we going to guarantee that future?’…Seen this way, what we’re saying is we don’t really need to drag God into this problem. But, perhaps this is the very heart of the issue: As long as it’s not about God it remains a “problem”…But if it becomes a matter of faith, of actually trying to listen to what God may have to say to us, of paying serious attention to…putting our faith out there, in front of us, where it belongs [it will cease to be a problem].
Pr. Lothar Pietz suggested calling together a group of people: “Give them only one assignment: that they come up with something truly new in congregational life. (Bear in mind that nothing truly new has come up in congregational life in this country in the past 30 or 40 years! So, the assignment is not to be taken lightly, nor in jest.)” I don’t know if Pr. Pietz’ recommendation was ever followed.
Pr. Pietz was saying that churches get stuck when they rely on habit or tradition only, because as the scriptures show again and again, God is always up to something new. But seeing and understanding a different way forward requires discernment.
In today’s reading Jesus’ parables are all about discernment! How does one recognize a pearl of great value? You have to be trained as a pearl merchant in order to discern! How does one know good fish from bad? You have to be trained as a fisherman in order to discern! Jesus said, Every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old. To be “trained” for the kingdom of heaven means to use spiritual gifts to understand what has lasting value, to know what is most important, both in what is old and what is new. Through the disciplines of worship, prayer, the study of scripture—and even careful observance of the natural world—we are trained for the kingdom of heaven.
Eventually, we are separated from all we hold dear. If not in this life, death separates us from everyone and everything we hold dear. It’s that fear that can drive to run around anxiously trying to be in control of our lives while we can. But the pearl of great price, the treasure in the field, the good fish–the one thing that is unshakeable, that can free us from that anxiety is this: the unconditional grace, love, and mercy of God.
St. Paul puts it this way: Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship or distress, or persecution, or famine or nakedness, or peril or sword?…For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
The gifts of wisdom and discernment make no guarantee that things will turn out the way we want them to, that life will go our way. There is no guarantee against pain or suffering, disappointment or tragedy. No, a discerning mind leads to something much better than things going our way: an understanding of what is permanent and unshakeable, no matter what. Another way of saying it: the gift of discernment can lead to a life marked by a deep and abiding peace. Who among us doesn’t hunger for that?
May that peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.