God’s Zucchini Plant

By Rita Steadman

There is a joke about summer in New England. Why do New Englanders keep their cars locked in the summer? To stop people from filling them with zucchini.

We’ve had summers here when people have brought their extra garden produce to share.  You know how it goes.  There is always extra zucchini.  Squash plants that grow and grow and grow – seemingly able to take over your garden plot with their long vines reaching out, and beautiful large leaves opened wide to the sun.  And their fruit – zucchinis growing abundantly in quantity and size, heralding the joy of summer growth.

Those zucchini plants growing freely and abundantly, filling the garden plot, are no less prolific than God’s Word implanted in our hearts growing within us.

In our Epistle today, James writes that we are born of the Word of Truth, becoming first fruits, as the implanted word grows within us working our salvation.

Truly God’s life is at work in us, growing mysteriously, like the vines of a zucchini in summer, bringing about our salvation, our health and wholeness.  God gives us his life through Jesus’ death and resurrection.  It is made our own at Baptism – when we are born anew in the truth of God’s love.   We are made holy and lovely, as God calls us his beloved, his holy people, his own children.

But this loveliness, this holiness has to take root and grow within us.  It is God who brings the growth, God who produces the fruit, but he does so through our own attempts to follow his Son, our attempts to apply his loveliness to our lives, to live the mystery of his love in our words and actions. This is his word working in us the salvation he has already given to us.  And it will grow freely, mysteriously, overwhelming the garden plots of our hearts with its fruit.

We remember the zucchini to have confidence in God’s saving love working within us.  And we need that confidence.  It is confidence that allows us to look at ourselves honestly.  Otherwise, without confidence, we focus on others.  Look at them.  Look at her.  Thank goodness I’m not like that.

This is the plight of the Pharisees in today’s Gospel from Mark.   They are focused on Jesus’ disciples, worried about the disciples’ holiness instead of their own.  It leaves them to judge their behavior and blind to their own hypocrisy.  Jesus rebukes them and redirects them to focus on the sins of the heart.  What comes out of a sinful heart…. defiles a person.

Ironically, it is easy to hear this passage and to focus on the Pharisees.  Those Pharisees, so focused on outward appearances, so full of their own self-righteousness, so sure of themselves, so focused on rules and rituals.  Thank goodness I’m not like that.  I’m authentic.  It is easy to focus on the Pharisees without really taking time to focus on our own hearts.

Strangely, this has been a week when as a society we have pondered on the intent of the heart.  News has pushed upon us the scandal of Ashley Madison — the internet site for people who wished to have affairs, or at least to consider having them.  The site was hacked, and 37 million names were released of people who had registered at the site on-line.  Strangely, it seems that most of the female profiles were actually fake, created by the company to engage with and tantalize the male users.  And so, it wasn’t so much about people’s actual affairs, but their intent to lie and cheat and engage in extramarital affairs.  Hearts were judged for their intent, not for deeds done.

This is unusual for us as a society, it seems to me.  Often as a society, we adopt a policy of live and let live – do what you want to do as long as you don’t hurt anyone else.  I can do what I want as long as I don’t hurt anyone else.  This is a stance that leaves the heart out, and doesn’t ask us to examine our intents or motivations.

But Christian life asks more of us.  Following Jesus, who offered himself in love for the sake of others, calls us to offer ourselves in seeking the good of others and putting others before us.  Seeking others’ good, and putting them before ourselves as a discipline applied daily, brings us face to face with our own greed and pride – sins of the heart that Jesus identifies today.  Wanting more – more food, more stuff, more attention is a daily struggle.  Seeking others’ good and putting them before me impacts daily how I listen, how I speak, how I use my time, how I think of myself and others.  And I fall down daily as we all do.

But our falling down and our falling short shouldn’t lead us to despair.  It shouldn’t stop us from trying, from exerting ourselves.  It shouldn’t stop us from looking at our own hearts honestly, confessing, repenting, asking for help.  Instead, we remember the zucchini plant within our hearts and take confidence and courage.

Christ has made us holy, and claimed us as his own.  We are his beloved and he has planted himself in our hearts, and the mystery of growth is his.  We strive to follow him, and when we fall short, as we certainly will, we are not made unclean or unworthy while his life is at work within us.  Rather we are exercising the life he has planted and grown.  Like the garden filled with vines, his life surrounds us, fills us, and upholds us as grace.  Grace is God’s zucchini plant within us, thanks be to God.

For as scripture says, and the prayer book says, “This is a true saying, and worthy to be received by all men, Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.”

The Rev. Rita Steadman is a priest of the Diocese of Maine. She preached this sermon in 2015, when she was serving as rector of St. John’s Church in Bangor.

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