Sunday, July 13, 2014

Fifth after Pentecost: a Sermon by the Seashore

Proper 10A Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

Again grace and peace.  It’s very nice that in this summer in the season after Pentecost and in Year A of our Revised Lectionary we have the opportunity and hear and reflect on this long middle section of St. Matthew’s Gospel.  As I noted I think last week, Matthew is sometimes called “the Church’s Gospel,” because it often captures and communicates the attention that Jesus was paying in the time of his earthly ministry to the relationships and mission and ministry that his disciples would continue in the years and decades and generations to come.  I find this interesting and helpful especially for us, as we are here at St. Andrew’s approaching one of those milestone markers.  Looking forward to what we’re calling “Renaissance Sunday” this year.  Round Up Sunday of years past now cast in a new frame.  Sunday, September 7, and I hope circled already on your family calendar.  The dedication of the many renovations that have been made possible through the stewardship “Opening Doors” Capital Campaign, as Bishop McConnell will be here, as some have suggested, to cut the ribbon or to break a bottle of Iron City at the Parish House entry, for a great picnic with all kinds of entertainment and activities-- and as we will all find many traditional and new ways to launch into the fall season not simply as another fall but as a time when we have and do offer prayers for a true spiritual renewal in our lives and in the life of our church.  

That God’s Holy Spirit would work in each of us, in our homes and families, in our congregation and in our wider community, for a “renovation” of the whole household, stirring up faith and energizing our witness and outreach.  You think the new church floor and all the electrical and plumbing and heating infrastructure, new and renovated meeting rooms, elevators, all of it—you think that’s a great step forward.  You haven’t seen anything yet.  To see that this really needs to be all about our being the people and the church that Jesus calls to us to be.   Just wait to see what God is getting ready to do with us, in us, for us, through us. 

And the Biblical witness so important to guide us along the way.  That commission from Jesus that we heard a few weeks ago at the beginning of Matthew 10.  “He called to him his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to heal every disease and every infirmity.”  “Go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.  And preach as you go, saying ‘The kingdom of heaven is at hand.’  Heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.”  And “when they deliver you up, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say; for what you are to say will be given you in that hour; for it is not you who speak, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.”

This not about sitting back and enjoying the show.  Not about standing on the sidelines or being consumers of some processed religious entertainment.  Not actually even about “going to church” at all, when you get right down to it.  Which is kind of the connection here with our Summer Book and our St. Andrew’s Lecture.  About a “missional” life, about being “People of the Way.”  It’s about who we are and what we are about 24/7/365.  How we raise our kids.  How we relate to our neighbors and friends.  What we tell them about what God has done in our lives, what they hear from us and what they see in us. A renovation that is less about events and programs and all the inevitable structures of busyness, more about what settles into our DNA, our identity.  Less about “where we go to church,” more about how we are and who we are at work or school, in the neighborhood, in our families. 

I love reading about the Desert Fathers, back in the earliest Christian centuries, and about how often the stories would be about how the Evil One would manifest himself to them in these burning hours of temptation in their secluded Egyptian caves.  Confronting them with doubts, offering seductive alternatives, testing their faith.  And how the spiritual strength founded in years prayer and fasting, singing psalms in the loneliness of the mountaintop cell, deeply ruminating on the words of scripture—how all that would gather together in power to push back in that moment of testing, to cast the Evil One out with a force of spiritual strength.  

But then to see that this isn’t something Jesus talks about as something for the few religious athletes of the ancient wilderness, but for all his disciples.  Each and all.  With authority over unclean spirits wherever they may be found in this world, and real authority.  In the deep places of our hearts and souls, and in the wide world, relationships, communities, nations and peoples.  To face the Evil Spirits head-on, and to cast them out.  And to think about what that looks like not just in Antony’s cave, but at home in the East End.  At the pool, the playgroup, the garden club, or in the office.  Here, for us.  About how we go into the towns and villages to proclaim for those whom God has prepared to hear us the saving call and announcement, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  To make an accurate translation of this constant message into the particular languages of our lives.  To think about what that looks like here.  To think about what elevators and meeting rooms and floors and ramps and six new accessible restrooms have to do with casting out demons, healing the sick, pointing to Jesus, announcing his Lordship, his Kingdom.

Back in the 5th chapter of St. Matthew Jesus began a famous sermon we call the “Sermon on the Mount,” and this morning at chapter 13 we get a second extended sermon.  Perhaps appropriately named for this summertime, “The Sermon By the Seashore.”   Everybody invited to apply some sunscreen and sit back and listen to Jesus as we enjoy the afternoon sun.  –It is a sermon that as it continues through this chapter is made up of a series of Parables, brief vignettes, often rich with metaphorical and symbolic and allegorical resonance.  A deceptively simple way of preaching and teaching, to allow the listener to continue the sermon internally, to think about the images and stories and to be shaped and informed and enlightened by the process of that rumination. 

The sermon begins in this morning’s reading with the Parable of the Sower, or sometimes it’s called the Parable of the Soils-- and our reading includes both the Parable itself in verses 1-9 and then the interpretation of the parable that Jesus gives in verses 18-23.

The sower sowing with such abandon, reaching into his bag and taking the seed and then tossing it wildly into the air, so that it just seems to be carried in the wind.  Some falling on the road, some in the brambles, some on the hard ground, and, finally, most importantly, some on good soil, where it quickly takes roots and brings forth a magnificent and abundant crop, better than any could have predicted.  And in the interpretation in the second part of the reading Jesus reminds us that we’re not just talking about corn or wheat here.  “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 once case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” The Kingdom Harvest.  

In the words of the Morning Prayer canticle taken from Isaiah 55, “for as rain and snow fall from the heavens ad return not again, but water the earth, bringing forth life and giving growth, seed for sowing and bread for eating, so is my word that goes forth from my mouth; it will not return to me empty; but will accomplish that which I have purposed, and prosper in that for which I sent it.”

You might think on a first take that if you were the farm owner and this sower was a farmworker, you might want to send him back to agricultural school for more training.  Incredibly wasteful, just to be out there hurling handfuls of seed into the wind.  What kind of stewardship is this?  But to look again and see that it is in the sower’s extravagance that the point of the story seems to take hold.  The seed is essentially free, but the crop, once that seed finds good soil, is abundant and valuable.  And that process of finding good soil seems to be something the sower just doesn’t concern himself with.  He trusts.  He lets go of control, the idea that he can manage and micromanage.   If you could you might even follow the example of the farmers in Central California who plant from airplanes.  Just get that seed out there.  Don’t spend all day measuring it out in teaspoons, worrying about precision and order, trying to record and document every last grain.  Let it rip, and just see what happens then.  If we really believe God is in charge.  

If we have read the 21st Chapter of St. John’s Revelation and know how the story ends, we know that what needs to happen is going to happen, and not because we were running the show.  We’re going to make mistakes, and a lot of them.  But the abundance of the harvest is assured, not as the result of our mighty efforts, but as his free and good gift.

What that all has to do with us?  With this great place, now renewed and refreshed, with the stewardship our personal and corporate resources.  With these crazy ideas that people keep coming up with—and some of them do sound a little crazy sometimes.  Your grizzled old rector thinks to himself, and mutters out loud--“that will never work.  We tried it back in ’96, and it didn’t seem to work well then.”  In fact most of them probably won’t work.  But that’s not the point.  When you hear that from me, give me a quick slap I guess, and tell me to practice what I preach.  There’s just no telling, not by us anyway, when that seed as it’s tossed up into the air is going to find good soil. That’s God’s business.  He’ll get done what he needs to get done.   For us it’s about getting into the game with the extravagance of the Sower—and then trusting the one who is in charge to do what he will do.

Walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.

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