Eighth Sunday after Trinity (Matthew 7:15-23)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR
Eighth Sunday after Trinity + August 11, 2019

Text: Matthew 7:15-23

You can tell a garden that is kept and tended from a garden that has been neglected.  The tended garden shows careful attention, addresses weeds before they get out of hand and hurt the good plants preventing them from bearing fruit.

The Lord relates to gardening, because He put Adam and Eve on the earth (and in the Garden of Eden) to tend and care for it.  He gave them responsibilities, and didn’t give them a creation that can just take care of itself.

The Gospel for today also uses gardening for a lesson:

“Beware of false prophets…You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?  So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit.  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.”

Often, God likens the Church to a garden.  Isaiah 5 uses the image of a vineyard: “For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting.” (v. 7) John 15 further illustrates who’s Who, when Jesus says, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (vv. 1-2) The Parable of the Tenants in Matthew 21 further clarifies that, just as God does the planting, growing, and pruning, He uses human servants to carry out his work: “There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country.  When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit.” (vv. 33-34)

And finally, St. Paul applies this to a situation where the Church started picking favorites among those human servants:

“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field” (5-9a)

You are God’s field.  Pastors are fellow workers of God, like God’s gardeners.  Jesus says it’s possible to know a false prophet by their fruits.  Of course, there’s a negative lesson from Jesus’ words: Watch out for false prophets, watch for bad fruit.  But what that tells us is the fruit is the best rule the Church on earth has for evaluating its servants.  To put it another way, If you want to know if you have a good gardener, you ask, how does their garden grow?  What sort of fruits are being produced?

Those of us who have gardens enjoy seeing them flourish.  We can relate to God’s garden metaphors—His desire for grapes, His work of pruning to remove what is dead and strengthen what is fruitful, His watering and daily attention to what He’s planted.  All of it is a labor of love.  But sometimes, even though we put all the right effort in, it still fails. Plants get diseased and whither, deer help themselves to our roses and crops, and the weather doesn’t cooperate.  Nobody would fault a gardener for this.

These sorts of things happen in the Church too.  But when they do, we need to remember the words of the Apostle, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”  But what does that growth look like?

It’s important that we don’t equate growth with increase, or increase with growth.  God’s work for His Church is growth, not just increase in numbers.  There are lots of ways to attract people under the guise of religion. False prophets are excellent at this, but they create a deception. They give the appearance of church, but devoid of the genuine fruits which God is seeking.

There is only one way to make growth: Planting, watering, and tending the good Word of God.  That is the gardening which God blesses.  Yes, it might go through brown times or lean times, but let us trust our heavenly Vinedresser and be faithful to His instructions for care: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.”

When we get growth and increase confused, it can lead to problems.  This especially comes up when we’re looking for “more people” to come into the Church.  Let’s be honest, in gardening terms, we have a very large plot in this sanctuary, but it’s not densely populated.  Maybe that leads to the thought that we should be able to fill those empty pews, and that we’re doing something wrong if they’re not.  Maybe it leads us to envy other churches around town that seem to be increasing.

But just like having a garden that’s way too much for you to manage, it’s a strain on appreciating what we do have.  It makes us have ulterior motives for wanting to see new faces arrive.  But all we need to be is God’s field, tended by a faithful gardener (pastor), growing with a growth that comes through the Word of God. 

The Lord does not bid His Church to “bring people in” or “keep the doors open.”  He’s in charge of that.  What matters to Him is what we do with those He has given us, and how do His servants tend the garden that is there?  In order to grow the Church God’s way, this is what to do:

  • Planting His Word: Live as witnesses of His forgiveness and firm foundation in a world of shifting sand.  Invite your friends and family when, after praying, the time seems right.
  • Watering that Word by recognizing that your need for Sabbath rest is greater than the grind of the week, and when it all passes away, you will still have God, your rock and fortress.  Come to Bible study, or if you can’t, invest in a Lutheran Study Bible and use that during the week.
  • Tending that Word: Yes, of course it’s the pastor’s duty to tend God’s garden, weeding and fertilizing, etc.  But we also do that for one another: “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:1-2)  The Church is the Communion of saints, of brothers and sisters who lovingly watch out for each other not just in temporal things but more importantly in our spiritual welfare!

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