Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Seeds--Sermon 7/10/11


When I was in seminary I was privileged to be part of a three week run of the musical Godspell. Many of you have seen the musical by Stephen Schwartz which is a retelling of the book of Matthew. Our cast was a motley assortment of all ages of seminary students and instead of choosing to set the production in clown garb, as it is often done, the director had chosen to set it with a Brady Bunch theme. Which meant that we wore groovy clothes circa 1975, while dancing in front of day-glo sets. Even today it is difficult for me to read a passage from Matthew without imagining that itchy polyester mini-skirt I wore, and the pigtails that curled and tickled my cheeks as I danced. But more than these visceral memories are the very real way in which the parables came alive for me, and the conversations I had with my fellow actors and seminary friends as we lived the stories.

The parable of the sower and the seed was a one of our sillier interpretations coming in the second act of the play before things became serious and we sang “By My Side,” which recognizes the fate of Jesus. And in the parable, I played the role of the seed choked by weeds, I was especially proud of my dramatic interpretation of being choked by the other actors and was allowed to demonstrate a very impressive death scene complete with gagging and hacking noises (never let it be said that I am subtle). And then, the woman whose role it was to be the healthy seed that thrived, the good seed on good soil, did a little song and dance and bowed and curtseyed to the audience.

I confess that it was a scene, though, that always left me a little uncomfortable. You see I am a worrier, and with each acting of the scene I would find myself wondering where I stood in my faith. Was I that seed that would be plucked by birds? Was I weak I on shallow ground? Was I exuberant now, only to be lured away by promises of materialism later? The odds clearly weren’t in my favor; after all, there was only a 25% chance of being the good soil.

And so I came to live with the text this week with a little hesitancy. Because let’s be honest, sometimes there are those scriptures that we don’t always get, there are those scriptures that sometimes we don’t quite have the ears to hear. I sat at my desk on Thursday and made little notes for myself to try to get my head around this scripture. I drew little stick figures…there’s the seed on the path, and look there’s my pathetic attempt at a bird pecking at it…there’s the seed on the rocky soil…there’s the sun coming out to wither the seeds away. I spent a lot of time thinking, thinking about how to convey these four soil types into modern day language. It was exasperating, sort of like a math equation. Type A soil would equal yield X. And then my eyes fell to the heading of the story in my Bible, “The Parable of the Sower,” and something clicked and it occurred to me, “maybe this is about something else…maybe this is not about what is sown, but about who does the sowing.

Barbara Brown Taylor in her book The Seeds of Heaven writes this, “We hear the story and think it is a story about us, but what if we are wrong? What if it is not about us at all but about the sower? What if it is not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns but about the extravagance of a sower who does not seem to be fazed by such concerns, who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon, who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks his way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters?” (Taylor, p. 26). What if this story is instead about a grace filled God who has enough grace to waste it all over, and if that is what the kingdom of God looks like? Not one of measured careful soil analysis and calculated crop yields, but one where the seeds are scattered in abundance absolutely everywhere!

As many of you know I have a four-year-old son, Grayson. And Grayson is a fairly spirited child, to call him exuberant might be an understatement. Lately I have been trying to introduce him to an evening practice of devotion and prayer that I learned from a Quaker friend, a time of reflection meant to deepen the spiritual focus of children. I ask him when he saw the light of God shine that day, when he felt especially aware of God’s presence. Grayson tries to participate with his pastor-Mommy in this exercise. He really does. I give him examples from my own life. I say, “Grayson, Mommy felt God’s presence when I sat around the table with Tess and Brynn and Daddy and you and felt the love of my family as we had supper.” I say, “Grayson, I heard mourning doves coo and thought of God’s creation.” And Grayson scrunches up his eyes in an attitude of prayer and when I ask, “And tell me, tell me, when did you feel God?” And he’ll say, “I see God everywhere!” And then I press, “I know, but what exactly…” And quizzically he says, “In everything!” My grown-up brain tries to measure out the seeds and plant them in certain locations, guessing where the good soil is, only seeing God in those places which are known, and which are safe, and this four-year-old sees the abundant God who scatters the seeds to the wind and finds God everywhere, and opens the door to see God in everything. I view a world that rations out its sacred and puts it in safe and tidy ordered confines and he sees the abundance of a world where God’s handiwork is never separated from any of us at any time.

The parable of the sower asks us a question, and perhaps it isn’t the question of how we become good soil. Instead, maybe the question is this: how do we as a church live into the vision of this sower who practices such impractical grace? Knowing that God throws seeds even into places where they might not take hold how do we also take those kinds of risks and scatter seed everywhere? How do we imitate our own radical seed sowing?

Brian Hiortdahl in last week’s episode of The Christian Century names the truth of the scripture this way, “Beneath this parable is a bedrock assumption of abundance that we too rarely trust. There is seed enough to lose, and the God who makes sun to shine and rain to fall upon both the righteous and the unrighteous is indiscriminate about sharing. Grace is flung and wasted everywhere.”

I have come to believe that the kingdom of God must be one in which we always err on the side of grace. I have come to believe that the kingdom of God must be one where we stop trying to decide which of our brothers and sisters in the world is worthy of love, and which we will do not feel safe taking chances on. I have come to believe that the kingdom of God must be one where all are welcomed, even if they are different than we are, or threaten what we believe. And I have come to believe that the kingdom of God must be one which is characterized by sowing seeds everywhere, and not just in safe rows which we can control and shape to fit our purposes.

I want to close by reading to you a retelling of this parable by Barbara Brown Taylor from the perspective of the sower:

Once upon a time a sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came along and devoured them. So he put his seed pouch down and spent the next hour or so stringing aluminum foil all around his field. He put up a fake owl he ordered from a garden catalog and, as an afterthought, he hung a couple of traps for the Japanese beetles.

Then he returned to his sowing, but he noticed some of the seeds were falling on rocky ground, so he put his seed pouch down again and went to fetch his wheelbarrow and shovel. A couple of hours later he had dug up the rocks and was trying to think of something useful he could do with them when he remembered his sowing and got back to it, but as soon as he did he ran right into a briar patch that was sure to strangle his little seedlings. So he put his pouch down again and looked everywhere for the weed poison but finally decided to pull the thorns up by hand, which meant that he had to go back inside and look everywhere for his gloves.

Now by the time he had the briars cleared it was getting dark, so the sower picked up his pouch and his tools and decided to call it a day. That night he fell asleep in his chair reading a seed catalog, and when he woke the next morning he walked out into his field and found a big crow sitting on his fake owl. He found rocks he had not found the day before and he found new little leaves on the roots of the briars that had broken off in his hands. The sower considered all of this, pushing his cap back on his head, and then he did a strange thing: He began to laugh, just a chuckle at first and then a full-fledged guffaw that turned into a wheeze at the end when his wind ran out.

Still laughing and wheezing he went after his seed pouch and began flinging seeds everywhere: into the roots of trees, onto the roof of his house, across all his fences and into his neighbors’ fields. He shook seeds at his cows and offered a handful to the dog; he even tossed a fistful into the creek, thinking they might take root downstream somewhere. The more he sowed, the more he seemed to have. None of it made any sense to him, but for once that did not seem to matter, and he had to admit that he had never been happier in all his life.

Let those who have ears to hear, hear. (Taylor 28-29. The Seeds of Heaven, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004).

May our God’s abundance inspire us to be radically giving and sowing as well.


Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Listen--Sermon 7/3/11

When I was in preschool, I would wait patiently to hear my Dad’s footsteps walking in the back door at around 11:30, as he rode his bike home from the church for lunch with my mom and me. While my mother was preparing our egg salad sandwiches, I often had my dad’s undivided attention and we’d wander into the living room for our noon-time confab (which as the parent of a four-year-old now, I realize was probably a tremendous relief for my stay at home Mom who had been trapped in the house all day with a child who could be a bit locquacious, not unlike her son is now). Each day Dad would ask about my morning. I’d ask about his day at the office. I’d tell him how many times the ping pong balls got dropped on the head of Captain Kangaroo that morning. He’d tell me which of the parishioners had stopped by to say hello and have a cup of coffee with him while he was working on his sermon. I’d put on a ten minute dance recital for him. He’d teach me that magic trick where a quarter came out of my ear. Most days this was our routine.

The story is told by my parents, that one day our routine was interrupted. It was, I believe, during the time of Richard Nixon’s resignation and the papers were filled with juicy tidbits and details. While my mother was putting lunch on the table, my father hunkered down in his reading chair with the newspaper, trying to catch up on the national news. This was not a normal day in my world, which revolved around only me. As many times as I would try to catch my father’s attention, he would answer from behind his Journal-Gazette with only a half-hearted, “hmmmmm…” or “oh, really?” I watched him expectantly with all the impatience and righteous indignation that a precocious preschooler can muster, and when I could stand it no further, I climbed onto his lap, scrunching the paper underneath my tiny body by sitting on it, and then took his two whiskered cheeks in my little hands. I turned his face toward me and put my nose mere inches from his and said, “Daddy, you must look at me when I talk to you! I need to know you’re listening!”

This morning, we’re going to talk about listening. And what it means to listen for the Word of God. So often in our media-saturated culture we hear so much spoken, chaos and cacophony. It is hard to know who we should listen to, but more than that, I fear we are forgetting how to listen. For the kingdom of God cannot be created in this world unless there are people there to listen to the Word. The theologian Nelle Morton talks of our life in faith as, “hearing one another into being.” We need to listen, to be faithful disciples as well.

The Gospel of Mark is a unique one. It is, by all accounts, the earliest written Gospel, and it is terse to the point of annoyance at times for a word-lover like me. It is the shortest of the four Gospels and it records fewer of the words that Jesus spoke as well. The Jesus that we discover in Mark is always busy. He’s always moving. He’s always acting. He’s always doing. He’s always on the go. Reading the book of Mark is like watching a movie on fast-forward. Jesus has these marathon days where he heals, teaches, prophesies, performs miracles, walks on water, argues with Pharisees, travels from town to town to town, feeds multitudes, makes disciples, welcomes children…[sigh]. And then lather, rinse, repeat. The next day starts and he does it all again without even breaking a sweat. Surely this Jesus could rub his tummy and pat his head at the same time while whistling Great is Thy Faithfulness and standing on one foot. He’s one of those kind of guys, a multi-tasker, an up and comer. In fact, Mark’s favorite word, used over 40 times in this short book, is the Greek word meaning, “immediately” or “at once.” Mark tells us over and over again, “First Jesus was here, and now look, immediately he did this.” “At once he was over there and then, voila, immediately he did something else.” That Jesus was an activist is not arguable here. But even in this account of Jesus’s life, we have glimpses of another aspect of Jesus, a more contemplative presence of this one who was himself the Word, of this one who knew how to listen with an inner knowing.

At several points in Mark’s account, Jesus finds ways to go away, whether it be with others, or by himself, to pray and listen for the voice of God. At critical points in his ministry, Jesus makes his way to quiet places to connect himself to the one who named him “the word.” In the midst of action, and there is a lot of action, it is clear that there also needed to be space made for some profound listening. (And those of you who are introverts in this sanctuary can’t tell me that that doesn’t allow you to breathe a sigh of relief…). One of Mark’s stories tells us that in the whirlwind days of Jesus’ early ministry, shortly after his baptism, and after recruiting some disciples, and teaching in the synagogue, and healing a friends-mother-in law, and then leading a rally to heal the sick, he found a place to sleep and in the midst of all this action, he awoke while it was still dark and went out to a deserted place to pray. And then there was another time, a time when after encouraging his disciples to practice some self-care and find some time and space for themselves to pray he realized that there were hungry crowds and after multiplying food and taking care of needs he insisted, yet again, that his disciples go out onto the water for some R&R. That way he could be alone to listen for God, and to pray. And let’s not forget that on the night he was betrayed, after the bread was broken and the cup was poured, after the disciples were excused from the table for their final meal together, Jesus went off by himself to pray. Jesus, the Word incarnate, doesn’t just speak. He listens.

And while this would seem like a simple task, to just listen. I would wager that we, the modern day disciples of Jesus aren’t as good at it as we think. I would wager that what most of us are doing is hearing, hearing the sounds around us, hearing the noise, but not taking part in that active task of connecting the sound with our soul, where we really listen. For there is a world of difference between those terms.

Several years ago I took a group of 4th, 5th, and 6th graders away for an overnight retreat experience at a nature preserve. We were talking about creation, the grandeur of God’s creation, and I wanted them to know the wonder of the world through all their senses. And so, the thirty or so of us, sat outside on a sunny June afternoon in Wabash county with our eyes closed and listened, really listened to what we heard. After several minutes of this listening, they were given papers and pencils and asked to write or draw the sounds they heard on the paper. I was amazed at the variety of noise which surrounded us. And I became aware of the noise which I simply filter out each day, or don’t consider. I sat under a tree that day and listened with new ears. I did more than merely hear. I noted bird coos, and airplane sounds, wind in pine trees, and the distant bark of a dog. Really listening opened me in a way I hadn’t anticipated.

And it led me to imagine how much more I could be listening for God.

I confess that I am not one who hears the voice of God on a regular basis. Or, um, ever for that matter. And that doesn’t mean I haven’t deeply desired that kind of response at times in my life. A simple, “Yes, do this,” or “No, absolutely not, no, no, no” in a deep booming bass voice would be so helpful at times of major decisions, wouldn’t they?

I shared this lament, this lament about not feeling as if God spoke to me, with a spiritual director at one point in my life. And her response was elegantly simple, “Christen, perhaps God doesn’t do that anymore in our culture because God doesn’t have to. Perhaps we’re capable of being attune enough to God, to listen well enough, that God can afford to be subtle.” I hated her for that response at the time, because I still would like yes or no responses, but I confess that her answer gives me a great deal of hope. Perhaps the Word of God in our lives are so subtle around us that when we stomp through them like a bulldozer we are missing the slightest nuances of grace. Perhaps our demand for definitive answers leaves us oblivious to the whispers of our Creator.

Sometimes I have a vision of God, standing like that preschool child that I was, impatiently tapping a foot and waiting, waiting for me to stop and pay attention. I imagine God, pulling away the newspaper of my daily routines, cradling my face and looking into my eyes and saying, “Christen, you must look at me when I talk to you. And you must listen!”

May we all.