Sunday, July 10, 2011

Seeds and soil, July 10, 2011

My first sermon preached at Coronach United Church and Wesley United in Rockglen * Text: Matthew 13 (the parable of the sower)

I was glad to see that the assigned Gospel reading this morning was the parable that I just read of the sower and the seed. It seems like an appropriate place to start ministry in this beautiful corner of south central Saskatchewan where farming is such a big part of life.

In a farming community, the work of sowing seeds, tending crops, improving the soil, and reaping the harvest are often in our thoughts. And the amount and timing of rain are crucial. I understand that the green hills and lush fields I saw as I drove up from Montana and into Coronach on Tuesday are not usual for this time of year. Many places have had records amounts of moisture this year, which has often delayed planting or even made it impossible. At the same time, other places in the northern prairie are suffering from drought conditions. And so I am sure that many of us here are aware of seeds and soil, rain and sunshine, and all the other ingredients that come together to create a bountiful harvest. And sometimes, of course, weather and other factors frustrate the plans of farmers and lead to poor crops or even no crop at all.

Now, I am not a farmer. I grew up in small cities in eastern Ontario and I have lived in Toronto ever since I left home for university at 18. But like many Canadians my age, I am only one generation removed from the farm. Both of my parents grew up on small farms on the shores of Lake Ontario. And my oldest cousin on my father's side still runs what is now a dairy operation on the land where my father and his brother and sister grew up.

But regardless of our knowledge or lack of knowledge about farming, does Jesus' parable speak to us today? For instance, who are the seeds, who is the sower, and what message, if any, might it have for us today?

Well, this is an unusual parable because Jesus interprets it for the disciples. Jesus tells them that the seed refers to the word of God. The different types of soil refer to the types of people who hear the good news of God's kingdom. Some of us, Jesus says, are like the soil on a path where the birds, or the devil, snatch up the seed before it can sprout. Some of us are like rocky soil in which the Word cannot put down enough roots to withstand the heat and sun. Some of us are like soil infested with weeds where our addictions and distractions choke out the good plants of God's Word. And some of us -- we hope -- are like the good soil in which God's seed becomes a flourishing plant with a huge harvest.

But what the parable doesn't tell us is how to avoid becoming "unproductive soil." Presumably that knowledge is provided by the rest of Scripture, and by church, family and community tradition. But I wonder how the disciples feel when they hear Jesus' explanation. In a part of Matthew 13 not included in today's assigned reading, Jesus is very complementary to the disciples. He says, "the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to crowd . . . blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear."

So the disciples might feel all puffed up and proud. They know secrets others don't, and they can see and hear what others for some reason cannot.

But then what must these same disciples feel later in the story. On the night of Jesus' arrest and at his trial and execution, every single one of them runs away in fear. At that time, do they remember Jesus' word about the different kinds of soil and decide that perhaps they are soil that is exposed, rocky, or weed-infested; soil in which the good news of God's kingdom cannot grow?

I will admit that I don't like my initial feelings upon reading the parable . It makes me wonder if I am bad soil. Does the Word of God not take root in me? Am I easy pickings for the Devil? Or in contrast to that, am I a goody two-shoes who does everything "right" and in whom the Word of God flourishes and yields a large harvest?

People in a pastoral charge like Borderlands might also feel bad after hearing this parable. Are we a productive church? Doe the Word of God take deep root in us and yield great results for the building of the kingdom of heaven? Or are we barren soil that is infested with weeds and good for nothing?

Given the decline of all the mainline churches, including the United Church of Canada, over the past 50 years and the rise of secular concerns, it might be easy for us to feel bad. Why is that we no longer have a Sunday School? Why is it so long since we last had a confirmation class of teenagers? Why do fewer of us come to Sunday services or to other church events compared to 20 or more years ago? Are we still relevant as a church? Is the good news of God in Jesus Christ still important, and if so, why are we not more successful as a church? [pause]

Despite the nice  things Jesus said about the disciples in this parable, they are hardly role models of success. Over and over, the gospel stories show the disciples unable to understand what Jesus says. They often quarrel and fight among themselves. And at the climax of the story -- the arrest, trial, torture and crucifixion of their leader Jesus -- they fail him completely.

And yet, these same disciples are praised by Jesus; they are the founders of his church; and it is to them that he gives his Great Commission to spread the good news of God's Kingdom before he ascends to heaven.

So if the disciples, despite their many failures and lack of character, are considered good soil in which the Gospel can take root, then why not us too?

But now I want to turn the metaphor of the parable of the sower and the seed on its head and look at it from another angle. Instead of seeing the hearers of the Word as different types of soil, why not think of us as the seeds planted by the sower instead? The Bible describes Jesus as the Word of God become human, God's Son. And the Bible in many different places also describes ordinary men and women as children of God. The first chapter of Genesis, which is the first book in the Hebrew Bible, says that all humans are created in the image of God. And in baptism, we are said to take on Christ, who is the Word made flesh. So if the seed in the parable is a metaphor for the Word of God, perhaps this includes all of us. In a way similar to Jesus, each of us is an incarnation of the Word of God, a seed of the Holy One, planted in various types of soil. Sometimes that soil makes it easy for us to be productive. But more often than not, the soil we are given to take root in is less than ideal, and through no fault of our own.

For instance, the disciples didn't ask to be born as poor fishers in an obscure part of the world, under the domination of a foreign empire, the Romans. But that was their lot in life. And as children of God, they answered Jesus' call to follow him despite their individual and collective shortcomings. They were humble, broken, sinful and ignorant men and women. But they made up a community of love and service that surrounded Jesus. And despite their shortcomings, they helped to change the world.

Like the disciples, we too are children of God, and like them we are also broken, fragile and mortal humans. Each one of us also contains a spark of the divine Word, an inner Christ. But we didn't choose to be born into the families we were born into -- with all that we like and love about those families and all that we find difficult about them. We didn't ask to live in the 20th and 21st centuries with all their wonders and terrors. We didn't ask to bear the human condition with all of its pains and pleasures; all its difficulties and possibilities. But here we are. And the divine spark in us can be seen as God's Word planted in sometimes difficult soil.

So what are we to do as carriers of the Divine Word, followers of Jesus, and as members of the church in Coronach, Rockglen or Fife Lake? Well, to be frank with you, I don't really know.

That admission is not one that I would have made two years ago as I began my student internship as the minister of Knox United Church in Didsbury. I was quite excited to move from Toronto to Didsbury Alberta two summers ago, but frankly I was more scared than excited. I had preached less than 10 times to that point. I had only completed two of the three years of full time study required to achieve a Masters of Divinity degree. Having been away from the church for much of my adult life, I didn't have a lot of church experience to bring to the role of sole paid minister in a busy United Church congregation in a town of 5,000 people north of Calgary. I didn't know if I could write a sermon every week, be present with sick people and others needing pastoral care, or lead a  youth group. And above all, I didn't know if I could be what a grieving family needed as we prepared to bury a loved one.

In the end, I loved the experience. I worked in Didsbury for 10 months. I preached more than 40 sermons. I found that I really enjoyed creating worship services. I helped baptize seven children and co-presided at communion 10 times. And most importantly, I presided at seven different funerals.

All of these experiences as a student intern and supply minister helped to confirm my call to ministry and gave me more confidence that I could lead a congregation in worship, in service to the community, and as ambassadors of God in Christ to the community. But having had a year to reflect on that experience while I finished my course work at the University of Toronto, I think that now I have more space in which to admit how little I know; how much of the magic we experience in church together remains a mystery to me; and how much I have to learn from people like you.

But the good news as I see it in the Bible is that we don't have to know what to do. The disciples were often confused or in trouble, and yet they were loved by Jesus and given his authority to continue God's work on earth as the church. So too none of us need to be "perfect." Indeed, from the vantage point of the spiritual life and of God, there is no such thing as "success" or "failure." Instead, there is just this moment, this group of gathered friends, this opportunity to remember what is sacred in our lives . . .

The soil in which we have been planted might sometimes seem rocky and at other times seem fertile; sometimes it might seem parched and at other times it might be drowned by floods. But regardless, we have been baptized into Christ and are the seeds of God's divine Word. We don't have to do anything to claim our status as children of God created in the image of God. We simply have to be who we are in all our brokenness and glory.

I don't yet know much about this community and I can't foresee all that we will do together over the next years. But I am sure that we have all we need regardless of what the soil in which we are planted seems likes. Rocky or weedy, parched or well-watered, this is our holy ground. God has planted us here and we have been given all we need to be present in love to one another and to our neighbours.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

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