Monday, July 21, 2008

This is Sunday before last's sermon.

Jesus had two "Sower" stories together. This is the first. The second one is the text for the 8/20 sermon.

July 13,2008
“What a Waste”
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23
Parable of the Sower

Planting technology is amazing to me. How many of us drove by a corn field on the way to church this morning? And how many of us know how some of that corn gets planted? It’s amazing! Lots of tractors now have something that looks like a GPS (global position system) monitor in them. I have one of those on my phone, and we used it to navigate on the mission trip. Mine can navigating unfamiliar cities or find the closest McDonalds. The farm GPS however, does something even more amazing: it tells the planter where to plant. Not only that, with one more gadget attached it can actually drive the tractor to and on the rows themselves.The benefit here? Nothing is wasted. The GPS, guided by satellites, knows exactly where every seed is planted within one inch of its actual location. With the location of every single seed known, where to apply fertilizer or pesticides become more exact. What the seed needs to grow successfully can be delivered EXACTLY to where the seed lies in the field. Nothing gets wasted. Because waste is the enemy.
Scientific studies are done to figure out how far apart rows should be. Whether planting 15 inches apart is better than 30 inches apart. Is the decrease in yield per plant and the increased number of seed offset by the greater number of plants? The land shouldn’t go to waste, either. It’s valuable, too. The goal is to get as close to complete efficiency as possible.
Efficiency. Minimal waste. Most effective strategies for maximizing resources. These are some of the values that guide farming practices today. Contrast our super efficient, minimally wasteful farmer with the guy Jesus talks about in our scripture lesson today. The sower in Jesus’ parable is the model of complete inefficiency. He’s throwing those seeds everywhere: On the path, in the weeds, on the rocks! What in the world? What a waste! What is going on in this parable??OK. Full stop. When I read the lesson this week, I had to remind myself of what we know about parables. The word parable means “riddle”. It is a story that contains something that you have to figure out. It’s a puzzle, sort of. It pulls you in and makes you examine what you thought you knew – to see it in a different way.
On the trip, another leader challenged us with this very unspiritual – completely silly riddle: What can you take through my green glass door? I can take a tree, but I can’t take a stick. I can take some grass, but I can’t take my lawn. And you had to figure out what the rule was for figuring out what could and couldn’t go. I could take food, but I couldn’t take drink. I could take a dinner, but not a lunch. Can you see the rule? I know I took a risk using that illustration, because you may spend the rest of the service trying to figure out that parable/riddle instead of the one from the bible. But I had to take a chance. Because when you figure it out – it’s very easy. It makes perfect sense. But you have to look at things differently. In silly parables, you see something trivial differently.
But Jesus’ parables are spiritually rich and deep. They make us see the world/God/ourselves differently. Jesus was a master of using parables to help his listeners get beyond what they were sure of, and to be pulled under the surface, into the depth and breadth of the grace and mercy of God.
A parable requires that the hearer respond. The only way to know if you had figured out the green glass door was to offer – I could take coffee, but I can’t take tea. Jesus’ parables often leave the conclusion up to the hearer.
A parable is a story with an unexpected twist - where something unexpected happens – like in this Parable, in which the farmer, with a wanton disregard for efficiency, scatter his precious agricultural input across a field that was not prepared, was not weeded, a lot of which was not even good crop land to begin with, wasting the seed, wasting his effort, wasting his money, wasting his time.
But . . . and this is important: Why this parable? What’s the situation that Jesus is trying to get people, trying to get US - to see differently with this parable?
Part of the answer we can figure out by looking in the previous chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. By the time we reach chapter 13 in Matthew’s Gospel – Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry – we find out that lots and lots of people were not “getting” the Gospel that he came to share. And they were rejecting – at first just a little bit, but by this point really A LOT – of what Jesus had to say. In fact, they were rejecting Jesus.
How could that be? How could it be that Jesus could travel around the countryside, preaching love and forgiveness, performing acts of kindness and healing, instructing a very religious people in how to grow closer to God . . . and be so completely rejected by the folks he loves and serves? I mean he can’t do anything right! Open your Bibles to Chapter 12. His disciples pick grain, and the Pharisees say – “That’s against the law on the Sabbath!” The same day, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand, and even explains that his legal precedent for doing so, and the legalists – look at verse 14 – they went out and conspired against him, how to destroy him. Next, Jesus heals a blind, mute man, and the Pharisees say that he must be using devil worship to accomplish these miracles. They go from correcting him, to refusing to listen to him, to conspiring to destroy him, to accusing him of Satanism, which is about as far from what Jesus was about as you could possibly get. The disciples have to wonder? How did this happen? Why did Jesus get rejected by so many, so powerful people?
This parable is, in part, Jesus’ answer. And it’s not a sociological critique of power structures, or conflicting expectations or anything reasonable and superficial like that. Instead of addressing the surface of the issue, Jesus tells a story to pull the disciples under the surface and into a deeper understanding of what the world and of God.
Look, he says, A sower went out . . . and the disciples still don’t get it. So Jesus spells it out (this is a parable where Jesus explains himself. So we should pay close attention. This is a “gimee”) –
Jesus says, I get rejected because some people are hard, like a path, and my message can’t sink in. Some people are shallow, like the thin, rocky places. They don’t develop any depth of faith. Some people let the ambitions and cares of the world crowd out their spiritual commitments. But BUT BUT !!!, Jesus says, that is not the whole story. Because some of the seed falls on good ground. Some people do listen, some people do respond, some people do sink deep roots in the Word of God, some manage to rise above the cares of the world. And those people thrive! They drink deep from the living water and raise their heads to the Sun of God, and they blossom and cross-pollinate and bear much fruit. Their harvest – 30, 60, or 100 new kernels of grain - kernels of new life - makes the Sower’s heart glad. And for the sake of that harvest, God sent Jesus into the world.
Did God “sow” the word of New Life in the most efficient manner possible?
I think we can agree that God did not. Jesus could have spread the word much more efficiently if he’d had the mass media to broadcast his sermon on the mount to millions. Instead, he wasted all those good stories on a few dozen, a few thousand – what a waste!
Wouldn’t it have been better to pick more powerful and influential disciples, instead of wasting all that wisdom on a bunch of fishermen and what not? What if he’d gone straight to Rome and converted Ceaser instead of Simon Peter. Wouldn’t that have been a better use of his time?
He only had three years of ministry, and so much of that was wasted, walking from town to town. If God had valued efficiency as much as we do, he would have equipped Jesus with a nice 12 passenger van.
And maybe that’s the deeper twist to this parable – maybe that’s the more profound riddle Jesus hopes that we will figure out: That God’s way is to broadcast widely and indiscriminately his love and his mercy and his grace. God is a Sower who, without any apparent concern for efficiency, generously – abundantly – sows the world with great cascading handfuls of grace. He sows without judgment of who will receive it, who will reject it, or who needs it most. God’s way doesn’t wait until the weeds are pulled, the earth is turned, or the rains have fallen before grace is sown in our lives. God says, Ready or not,
receptive or not,
responsive or not – here I come.
And if my love is sometimes wasted – if people don’t, or can’t respond - that’s the price that I am willing to pay for those that do take root and flourish. For the sake of those who do respond, I am willing to be wasted. That’s the kind of God I am.
And, if God is so intent on spreading his love and grace widely and abundantly . . . does that challenge the careful, cost-effective, calculating way we tend to go at it? Mary Simon and I talked about this often last week in Benton Harbor. We have all these kids, and all these adults, out doing all this stuff . . . but are we wasting our time? Is it really worth the time and effort and expense to have a 3 or 4 dozen old people in a nursing home have someone pay attention to them? Does it really make any difference to those kids at the Boys and Girls Club if some white kids from rural Illinois show up to make bead necklaces and play basketball with them? Mary and I both have advanced degrees and years of experience – should we be sorting through used clothes in the basement of an Emergency Shelter? Isn’t that a waste of resources, somehow? Isn’t taking kids all the way to Benton Harbor to work with poor people wasteful when we have poor people a lot closer to home?
Those are legitimate questions. And Mary and I puzzled over them some this week. But by the week’s end, it seems to me, God had opened our minds and our hearts to a different kind of answer: We “got it” - our answer- in the deeper faith, and the wider compassion and the more tender mercy clearly evident in the lives of the young people who offered themselves to others in God’s name. They experienced the pain and the power of serving others first hand. And they don’t want to stop. These young men and women were willing to be used by God to spread his love – even if some of the love was wasted - some of it was not. And the effort wasn’t wasted on them.
What they did was not precision planting technology. But every morning they got up and prayed for courage and put a smile on their face and went out there and showed in their deeds and their words and their servant attitudes the love of God to a waiting world. And when I looked at them I know as surely as I know my own name that some of the seed fell on good ground and brought forth grain – some a hundred fold. Let anyone with ears, listen.

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