Monday, July 14, 2014

Sermon: Let Anyone With Ears Listen!

Rev. Mandy Sloan Flemming
July 13, 2014

Let Anyone With Ears Listen!

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and say beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let any one with ears listen!”

“Hear 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 is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on 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 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. As 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. But 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.”

One: This is the Word of God, for us, the People of God
ALL: Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.

            What a marvelous week it has been! If ever there is a way to make one’s spirit feel revived and joyful, it’s during Vacation Bible School. This week, we saw 26 children and countless volunteers come to the church for the intent of engaging God’s word in new ways, through worship, drama, engagement with the physical world, and, of course, snacks. Brian and Liz and the volunteer staff did an incredible job of making this week one of intention and purpose, and I got to experience once again the best of church life, when we work together as a community of all ages, for the single purpose of praising God.
            One of the stories we heard this week was the Parable of the Mustard Seed. It seems like seeds and growth are a recurring theme around here! But our text today is a parable that focuses on the seeds sown by the sower. Jesus walks us through the variety of things that happen as the seeds are scattered in a variety of places. First, the sower scatters seeds on the path and the birds swoop in and eat them up. Then, the sower scatters seeds on rocky soil, and though the seeds sprang up, they did not have root and the sun withered them away. Other seeds fell among the thorns, which choked them. Finally, some seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain in varying quantities.
            One of Jesus’ best qualities is that he does his best to give descriptions of the Kingdom of God, but frequently he does so with intentional opaqueness. For us today, however, Jesus offers an interpretation that is so clear that we must get what he means, right? He says directly – hear the word of the kingdom. The problem is that no one has a frame of reference for this. The crowds who had gathered by the lakeshore, crowds so great that Jesus had to get in a boat to address them, were there to listen intently. They knew this man to be a teacher, a rabbi, but he preached different things than had ever been spoken. This man spoke of what it meant to be a participant in the kingdom of God.
            That’s the tricky thing about this parable. It’s difficult to hear it and not try immediately to find yourself in it. It is tempting to say that we know of people who are the seeds on the path, with no defenses, swooped up as a snack for hungry birds. In his interpretation, Jesus mentions The Evil One, which no good Methodist likes to think about. It makes us all very uncomfortable to consider that there might be a force in the universe that is so opposed to God’s intention for good. But Jesus never lets us forget that evil is a real and powerful force. It’s clear in Jesus’ description that this force is active, not passive: “The evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart.” The hope for us in this is that it is not the sower’s intention for the seeds to be eaten. It was the work of the Evil One, who preyed upon the seeds.  
            This is why, in our liturgy for baptism, we ask a very strange question. We ask, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness and reject the evil powers of this world?” It is an astonishing thing to ask, especially to sleep-deprived parents, cradling their newborns, who have lost the spiritual force of showering. What sort of power do we believe baptism holds? The answer is what the pastor asks next, “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” We believe that the waters of baptism give us the freedom and power to resist evil. Can you imagine what this would mean if we embraced it? The world would be a different place if we took up our authority, given to us through our baptism, and said no to suffering in all ways. I have the image of the sower watering the seeds on the path, and the gentle stream pushing the seeds into a safe place, where they could root and grow. This is the sort of life-giving power our baptism holds. It is not what saves us, but it gives us the freedom to be stronger and braver than we could have imagined.
            As for the seeds that fall on rocky ground, they are offered no soil, no depth, and they are scorched by the sun and wither away. Jesus interpretation of this outcome is also perplexing. He likens the rocky soil to one who hears the word of the kingdom with joy, but because this person has no root, he or she falls away when “trouble or persecution arises on account of the word.” What Jesus is seeking to describe is the risk that we undertake as people of faith. It is risky to believe in a God who remains mysterious. It is risky to participate in a church that doesn’t always get it right. It is risky to serve others who will challenge us and our comfort. If our faith isn’t nurtured, then it becomes expendable. How, then, do we avoid this? There is a tenant of Wesleyan theology that describes the four-fold way in which we engage our faith: through Scripture, Tradition, Reason and Experience. We call this the “Wesleyan Quadrilateral.” Each of these elements is necessary for a balanced understanding of who we are as people of God. If any of these is given too much (or too little) emphasis, then our perspective can become skewed. If all we have is an experience of God’s presence in our life, then we are blessed. But one cannot have a true encounter with the living Christ and refuse to learn more about what Scripture reveals to us and how the church has practiced our faith. There must always be ways to learn, do and trust more as we become faithful disciples.
            Jesus describes the seeds that fall among the thorns in a particularly condemning way. These seeds are planted, blossom, but are choked by the cares of the world, particularly by the lure of wealth. Jesus talks a great deal about money and the power that it holds over us. It is a necessary evil in this world, and we must do what we can to be good stewards of all that we are given. But the curious part of this result is that the sower scatters seeds here, regardless. Often times, we are too cautious with where we scatter the seeds of our ministry. We want to plant things only where we are certain they will blossom, and this keeps us from taking grand risks with our potential. “In the name of stewardship, we hold tightly to our resources, wanting to make sure that nothing is wasted. We resist new ideas for fear that they won’t work, as though mistakes or failure were to be avoided at all costs” (Elisabeth Johnson, Working Preacher). This is the most convicting part of the parable for me, because I am reminded at how extravagant and risky God is with us. It is our choice to “resist the forces of evil” and to grow despite the snares that may surround us. So, this is our charge to grow in thorny places, to be stronger and more resilient than the obstacles to our growth. This is what baptism promises, this is what a nurtured faith yields, not success, but the ability to be stronger than the forces at work against us.
            Perhaps the most graceful part of this parable is how Jesus describes the seeds scattered upon good soil. These seeds bring forth grain, some a hundred-fold, some sixty, some thirty. These seeds are the ones that hear the word of God and understand it. But how do we know if we truly understand? This is simple: You will see the fruit of the Spirit in your life, just as Paul describes in his letter to the Galatians (5:22-26). If you have found love, in your family, your community, or in your church, then you have heard the Word of God. If you have joy – not happiness, but a joy that persists even through sorrow – then you have the spirit of God. If you find peace, a peace that passes all understanding – then you have the spirit of God. Patience, kindness, goodness, faith, gentleness, self-control… these are the fruits of the spirit that take root and blossom in our lives when we open our ears to hear the Good Word that God has given to us. These are fruits, yes, but they are also gifts to us, that we may be in the world a contrary voice to the injustice, hatred and oppression. But the beautiful part is that the seeds bring forth grain in varying quantities! Some yield much, and some yield a little, and yet, the amount is equal in the eyes of the sower. It is not the quantity of fruit that is yielded, it is the evidence of fruit that matters. This gives us permission to notice even the smallest ways in which our lives are blossoming.
            Sisters and brothers, the waters of baptism are what begin our life of faith. The soil upon which we fall is the result of where life takes us. But Jesus tells us that this is the Parable of the Sower. This is not a story about the seeds or the soil; it’s not a story about water. It is a story for us because it is about the relentless and persistent sower who continues to scatter seeds in all places. We are called to hear this good news, to receive it, and to blossom with love and grace, bearing the fruit of our faithfulness even in the smallest of ways.

In the name of the Creator (Sower), the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

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