Monday, July 14, 2014

Cracks in the Sidewalk (A Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

To listen to a version of this sermon as preached, click here.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
13That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.9Let anyone with ears listen!” 18“Hear then the parable of the sower.19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

(This is the Word of God for the people of God. Thanks be to God.)
The scripture lesson this morning is one of the most popular stories in all of the Bible. Jesus tells a parable, a short story of a farmer who goes out with a satchel full of seeds and scatters them all around. Some of the ground is covered up with a path, so the seed gets eaten up by birds. Some of the ground is rocky, so the seeds sprout and are scorched.  Some of the ground is thorny, so the seeds are choked out and die. And some of the ground is good soil, so the seeds grow and thrive and produce, thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold. And the point is that you should be good soil for the seeds of faith so that they grow and thrive and produce in you.

None of this is earth-shattering news, so let’s get past the surface level and call a spade a spade. We know this story as the parable of the sower. I’d call it the story of the terrible farmer. I mean, this guy is SO wasteful! He takes handfuls and throws them everywhere, which is a terrible way to farm. I’m a little bit of an amateur gardener, and even I know that you don’t just throw seeds everywhere. First you find the good soil and THEN you put the seeds in the ground. You don’t throw the seed all willy-nilly all over the place. That’s a waste of perfectly good seeds. A farmer who threw his seeds around like that would be out of business in a year, his family starving while the birds ate their fill.

And maybe this is a terrible way to farm, but I will be honest that as a Christian, as somebody who is just trying to follow Jesus, this story resonates with me. It’s not as easy as finding the good soil and then planting your seeds. These days, it seems that the good soil is awfully hard to find, and it is no surprise. You turn on the television and see kids, ten deep, piled up at the border. Children! If you live to be a thousand years old, will you ever understand that sort of thing? It can be enough to make you throw up your hands and let the seeds go where they may. Or you hear about increased violence in the West Bank, as Israel and Palestine race to see who can be the first to completely annihilate the other. Or you read about Syria, or Egypt, or this famine, or that violence, and you try to figure out how to raise your kids in this mess, and you almost want to just give up. The good soil is awfully hard to find, which is one reason we come to church, to this particular garden on this particular corner.

This isn’t to suggest that we have it all together, church, that we’ve got it figured out while the rest of the world is screwed up. I hope this isn’t too offensive to you, but I’ve met some of the most screwed up people I’ve ever met inside the doors of the church, which is exactly right because what we are is not a high horse but rather a hospital for sinners. We’re supposed to be people who acknowledge our own brokenness, who know that we aren’t good enough on our own, that we can’t save ourselves. That’s why we’re here, because we need Jesus, because we’ve encountered a love so much larger than ourselves that we can’t pretend we haven’t seen it.

And yet. And yet when we try to share that love in specific ways, when we try to invite people to church, or to tell them about Jesus, well, you may have had some of these conversations. You know how it goes. Oh, we’re not really church people. We are so busy we like to spend Sunday mornings together as a family; I am sure God understands. Church is just so judgmental; why would I bother with it? Or you know, I see God in the trees and the sunsets. My church is outdoors.

Do any of these ring bells? Have you heard them before? I have heard all of them, as I have had conversations with folks. It is funny. My wife, Stacey, is also a pastor as you know, and we have this game we play sometimes at cocktail parties, where we get in a conversation with somebody and when it is time to exit the conversation, one of us will say to the person we’re talking to, “So what do you do for a living?” and they will tell us that they are lawyers, or teachers, or whatever, and then they will inevitably ask us the same question, and then at the end of the night Stacey and I compare notes to see how quickly people high-tail it from the conversation when we tell them that we are pastors. It works every time! They’ll either sort of say, “Oh,” and then walk away slowly, or they will stammer something about needing to go back to church and then walk away in shame. It happens without fail. The good soil is awfully hard to find.

And I wish it weren’t so, but so much of the fact that it can be so hard to find the good soil is because the earth has been scorched by the church. If we were all as gracious as we’re supposed to be, as generous as we’re supposed to be, as kind and loving and open-minded and all the rest, I’d venture to say we would have more luck finding places to sow seeds. And this isn’t fair, because around here, we really are those things, I think, at least as much as people who have checked into a hospital for sinners can be, but that’s the world. It’s the way it is, for we live in a world with televangelists and sexual misconduct among the clergy and flashy displays of power by the church, and fair or not, this is the ground we’ve been given to plant. The soil is thorny with those who seek to do us harm. It is rocky with religious baggage. It’s been covered up by the well-worn paths of those who have walked away from the faith, deciding it’s just worth it anymore.

The worst part is that I wish these folks who look down on the church could see North Decatur United Methodist Church! I wish they could see Jesus at work in a church that has people who are rich, people who are poor, people who are black and white and gay and straight and young and old, people who are so conservative they are mad about almost everything, so liberal they barely believe anything, and everything in between! I wish they could see this: you! But it usually does not get that far, because the good soil is hard to find.

And yet the parable doesn’t say “a sower saw that some of the ground was rocky, and some was thorny, and some was shallow, so he decided to limit his efforts to the good soil, wherever that was.” It says, “a sower sowed seed, and he sowed it in all of these places.” Maybe he was a bad farmer, but it turns out that he was a pretty good Christian.

I don’t mean to put too fine a point on it, but I have been in church settings where people have said, “we don’t need to reach out to those people. They’d never come to church.” I mean, says who? Who gets to decide that sort of thing? The sower sows where he will, and some of the seed lands on fertile ground.
This is all well and good, but those of us who have invited people to church know that it can be a demoralizing experience, for we’re much more likely to discover that the ground on which we’ve planted our hard earned seeds is not the fertile ground for which we’d hoped. It can be embarrassing to discover that what you thought was miracle grow was in fact concrete, hard as a rock and no place to grow crops. I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of busing up concrete with a sledgehammer, but if the concrete cracks, and it gives, it is hard enough, but if you swing the hammer and it doesn’t crack, you feel it in your teeth. You feel it in your toes. And this can be what it feels like to open yourself up to share the deepest things in your heart, your love for God, the amazing community you’ve found by being part of the church, and then to learn that it turns out you’ve thrown seed on the path, where it will get eaten by birds. You feel it in your teeth.

And yet. Someone, somewhere along the way, must have taken a chance on you. Somebody—a parent, a friend, a stranger even—must have been willing to take a chance, to open up, to swing at the concrete on the off chance that maybe, maybe this time it will take. Maybe this time, I will have discovered fertile ground.

Somebody, somewhere along the way, must have thought that even though the good soil can be hard to find, even though the paths of those who have left the church are well-worn, there are sometimes cracks in the sidewalk. And sometimes, cracks in the sidewalk are wide enough, deep enough for seeds to sprout. We may not be surrounded by farmland, but there are enough cracks in the sidewalk around this church, around our lives that if we are willing to plant even where it seems hopeless, some seeds will take root and the Kingdom of God will sprout from the most unexpected places, which keeps things interesting after all.

I will acknowledge that it takes a lot of faith to do this work. More seeds get eaten by birds and choked out by thorns than take root. And it’s awfully easy to become jaded, to say, oh, it’s just not worth it, the world just doesn’t care and I am so tired of spinning my wheels. As a pastor, I see it all the time, and I find it to be among the saddest things I know, to watch someone who buys into this love thing we talk so much about lose hope in a difficult world.

And that’s why what we are doing here, in this place, is so important. It is why I am so pleased we are a diverse church, and why we need to become even more so, I think, for it is the case that if the church is the body of Christ, the more diverse the congregation, the fuller the picture of the face of God. It’s why what we are doing here on this corner matters so much, for it is not a game, but rather deadly important, for we are a witness that all people, young, old, rich, poor, gay, straight, black, white, sinner, saint: all people are children of God. And I don’t know of anything more hopeful than a baptism, than a claiming of a child by God, a child who isn’t even old enough to choose for himself, which is the point, because you don’t achieve grace; you receive grace. It’s hope that baptizes that child. It’s hope that sends him out into a difficult world to be an agent of love. It’s hope that helps him grow, that serves as wise counsel and a holy example. It’s hope that sends him out with a satchel and seeds and says go plant in the name of Jesus Christ, not where you think respectable society wants you to plant, but all over, because even the hardest concrete cracks, and in those cracks grows the kingdom of God: bearing fruit thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold.

After all, this is who we are as children of God, broken like busted-up concrete, recognizing that we can’t do this by ourselves, acknowledging the incredible power of love, love that takes root in the cracks in our souls and pushes up toward the sky. This is who we are as God’s beloved, sowers of God’s love in the world and proof that even when it seems like the earth is scorched, God is at work. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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