Sermon for July 12th, 2020
Video of sermon
Sometimes when Jesus speaks in the scriptures he gives us direct commands: do this or don’t do this.
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
Forgive as you have been forgiven.
Heal the sick.
Feed the poor.
Take up your cross.
Make disciples of all nations.
Baptize, proclaim, pray, beware,
Do and do not.
This is action Jesus. And regardless of whether or not we actually heed Jesus’s commands and do what he says, I think we really like action Jesus because he gives us something to do. And we really like having things to do; that gives us power and control. When Jesus says to do something or to not do something, I get to decide how I am going to respond. I can do it or I can not do it, but in either case I am in control and I like being in control. So even if action Jesus is telling me to do something I don’t really want to do, I like listening to action Jesus because I still have power and choice and agency in how I respond to what he says.
But action Jesus is not the only Jesus we find in the scriptures. Sometimes, many times actually, the Jesus we meet in scripture is not action Jesus, but truth Jesus. Sometimes when Jesus speaks in the scriptures he isn’t giving us a direct command, but is instead sharing with us an important truth. Jesus wants to tell us something about God, about the Kingdom of God, or even about ourselves and we can choose to either accept that truth or reject it, but we can’t actually do anything to change it. I think we really struggle with truth Jesus, because truth Jesus doesn’t give us the same level of power and control that action Jesus gives us. Action Jesus calls us to respond, but truth Jesus calls us to understand, and let’s face it, sometimes responding is easier than understanding or listening. But time and time again, Jesus says “let anyone with ears to hear, listen,” “hear then the parable,” “let the listener understand.” Yes, a lot of times Jesus calls us to action in this world, but there all also many, many times when Jesus gets our attention to share with us a truth. It may be a truth we have no control over. It may be a truth that is good news, or it may be a truth that is very hard for us to hear, but either way, Jesus thinks we need to hear it. Sometimes the only response that we can have to the words of Jesus is just to hear what he is saying and to receive it as truth.
In today’s gospel lesson we have one of Jesus’s many parables, and perhaps one of his more famous ones. “Listen!” he says. “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 anyone with ears listen!”
Immediately some of Jesus’s disciples came up to him (and this is the part that gets cut out of the reading this morning) and they ask him: “why are you talking this way? Why are you talking to them in parables?” It’s like they came up to Jesus and said, “Look man, why don’t you just tell people what to DO, that’s what they really want?” And Jesus says to them: “I am trying to help you understand secrets or truths about the kingdom.” And Jesus quotes Isaiah and says that many people’s hearts have grown dull and they have shut their eyes and closed their ears and have no desire to understand or know anymore. Then he makes very clear to them the truth in the parable:
“Hear then 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.”
The only thing Jesus tells his disciples to do in this passage is “hear.” Just listen to the truth he is sharing. Some people hear the word of God and just do not get it. It never has the chance to grown within them. Some people seem to get it, they may even been incredibly enthusiastic at first, but quickly their energy fades, they can’t manage to set down roots, and they fade away. There are others that hear the word of God and it takes root, but it is just one plant among many that eventually just gets choked out by the others that just seem to grow more quickly and be more vigorous. Finally, there are those who get it, who receive a word planted in their soul that continues to grow and thrive and to bear fruit their entire life long.
All Jesus asks us to do is hear this truth, but it is so tempting to hear this passage and to try and respond to it as if it were action Jesus talking; as if Jesus were telling us to get up and do something. So we start thinking:
How do I get those seeds off the path?
How do I help the seeds in the rocky ground set down roots?
How do I weed out the thorns?
How do I grown more fruit?
And how do I sew more of the seeds of God’s word in the world?
I want to respond to this passage by trying to think of something to do, but the only thing that Jesus actually asks me to do here is to listen. Hear what he is saying. This is truth Jesus speaking. Jesus wants me to understand something. He wants to share with me a truth about the way things are.
I have heard this parable so many times, but the longer I have lived and worked within the church, especially in active ministry, the more I appreciate the truth of it. The picture that Jesus paints in this little story is absolutely true in its depiction of how people respond to God, to faith, to the bible or to church in their lives. I can’t even count the times anymore that I have seen every one of these scenarios play out. Some people just don’t or won’t get it. Some people convert enthusiastically and then immediately disappear. Other people get distracted, or busy, or simply fall out of the habit and allow other things in their lives to take precedence. And then finally there are the people that just grow and grow from season to season, bearing good fruit, some more than others, and quite often surprising you with just how deep their roots are. That is church. That is faith.
And if what Jesus is saying here is actually true. If this is the way it is, then I can expect that this is going to continue to keep happening. I can expect some people to continue to have no interest in God. I can expect people to show early enthusiasm and quickly fall away. I can expect people to drift away from church, overcome or distracted by other cares and concerns. I can expect all those things, and even though I might not like it one bit, I don’t need to beat my head against that reality trying to change it, nor do any of us need to beat ourselves up trying to figure out what we are doing wrong when every seed that is planted doesn’t become the fruit bearing tree we envisioned. This is the way that God’s kingdom is breaking into this world and quite a lot of it is simply outside our control.
I think that we can fully expect that many people, not just in our parish, but throughout the church, will simply not return once the coronavirus crisis passes. I’m not talking about people that are exercising due caution for their health but are otherwise prayerful and active in worship in whatever ways they can be. If you are taking the time to watch this service online, then I imagine you still have an active desire for your faith to grow and bear fruit in your life. But for some people the closure of our churches, the social distancing precautions and all that is going on in our world and in everyone’s individual lives, will prove too much. Their faith may simply not be deeply enough rooted in their lives to withstand this. Some people simply will not be back.
Some seeds just won’t grow, but some will. It’s a shame, but we can’t let the fact that people fall away or walk away from God, faith and the church, get us down, make us despair or quit ourselves. We can’t be overwhelmed and discouraged by the seeds that don’t grow. Jesus told us it would be this way. Some seeds won’t grow, but some will. Not every life we touch is going to be transformed, but some will. This is a truth we need to understand. Jesus told us that it would be this way and I think he told us, I think he shared this truth, this secret of the kingdom with us so that we wouldn’t despair every time we see it happen. We don’t have time to despair about the seeds that don’t grow. Jesus has real work for us to do. There is action Jesus who calls on us to labor in God’s vineyard. But if we want to have the strength or the stamina or the perseverance or the determination to do what action Jesus tells us to do, then we need to be willing to listen when truth Jesus tells us to listen.