This sermon, by the Reverend Andy Jones was offered during St Andrew’s Episcopal Church’s online service of Morning Prayer on July 12, 2020 in Madison Wisconsin.
The sermon is built around the texts assigned for Proper 10 in year A of the Revised Common Lectionary.
Here is a recording of the sermon:
And a transcript of the recording:
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts, be always acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.
It’s been another difficult week. Bewildering, frustrating. It’s hard not to be dismayed and discouraged. It seems so clear. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; care for the widows and orphans; clothe the naked, feed the hungry, heal the sick, lift up the poor. Care for one another. Love one another as God has loved us; and in doing so realize the gift that is all around us: a life that is infused with God, colored with the eternal, characterized by peace.
So why is it that some of us won’t wear masks? Why is it that some of us deflect the pain and dismiss the history implicit in the cry, black lives matter, by saying that all lives matter? Why don’t we have healthcare for all people? Why do we continue to chip away at the social safety net, leaving people hungry, homeless, without hope, and on the margins? How is it that we continue to turn our backs on God’s dream, God’s vision for creation, on the gift that God longs to give us. It’s bewildering, dismaying, frustrating, discouraging.
I’m sure that the disciples felt the same way as they sat there on the beach listening to Jesus speak to them from the boat that morning. They had given everything that they had. They had walked away from their homes, their families, their vocation, their livelihood; all because the words that Jesus was offering, the narrative he was constructing, the vision he was sharing, was so beautiful and compelling that they couldn’t imagine not following him, not doing everything they could to live the life to which he called them.
But the whole chapter of Matthew’s gospel preceding what we just read this morning is filled with conflict, with people resisting what Jesus is offering, and what Jesus has to say. Again and again, the religious authorities seek to trap him, to get him to say something for which they can condemn him, which they can use to discredit him, that they can use to condemn and convict him. They must have been every bit as dismayed and discouraged as we are right now. So Jesus has a few of them take him off from the shore in a boat and he offers us a parable.
Now I’m sure that this parable is familiar to almost all of us, the parable of the sower and the seed that lands on different kinds of soil; good soil, rocky soil, the path, soil that’s already choked with weeds. But I think it’s important to take note of the fact that Jesus offers us this parable with no judgment. He doesn’t say some of the seed falls on that wonderful fertile ground where people respond and live according to the word, not like that awful rocky soil, and the people whose lives are so filled with distractions and other priorities and concerns… There’s no judgment in his parable. There’s simply a description of what is. He’s telling us what he sees and how the world works.
I think that in that lack of judgment, there’s an opportunity here for transformation. Because when we are freed of the sting of rebuke, when we’re freed from the fear that God will somehow find us lacking and decide that we are the hardpacked soil of the path that the seeds can’t penetrate, then we are free to take a step back and look at ourselves, honestly, openly; to look at our lives and to see where we have been good soil, and where we have been packed so tightly that nothing can penetrate and grow within us.
Am I the good soil? Am I the bad soil? What day of the week is it? What time is it? Have I slept well? Have I had enough to eat? Did I have a fight with my partner or my children this morning before I left the house? Did somebody cut me off in traffic? I think that all of us are all of the soils that God describes in this parable. We can be any of them at any given moment. We can even be all of them all at the same time. But when we take away the sting of rebuke and the fear of judgment, we are in a place of transformation. We can take a close look at those moments when our soil has not been open, has not been well watered, and we can work to be different. We can look for the seeds that God is sowing in our lives and make sure that we notice them, make sure that the furrows are open, that the ground is rich, and that we are watering and tending those seeds, so that we are the good soil more often than we are the dry and rocky ground.
That’s a great transformation to experience. It gives us hope. It gives us a place to move. It gives us space to breathe. But that’s not the only transformation that’s available here in this story. It gets even better. Focus on God for a moment and not the soil. God is doing something extraordinary, something almost foolishly extravagant; sowing seed, a precious resource in a subsistence agrarian society, sowing seed on places where it may not grow! That would seem foolish to the people that Jesus was telling this parable, and when we think about it, it seems foolish to us today. Why would God waste God’s seed on places where it might not grow? And then suddenly we wake back up again to the transformation that’s been affected in us, and we realize that that’s us, God is sowing that seed in us and on us, even when we are unreceptive, when we are packed to tightly to receive it.
Then we recognize that God is doing the same with the people all around us in our lives. If there’s no judgment for us when we are bad soil, then how can we judge others when their soil is too dry, or too rocky, or too tightly packed to receive the seed that God is sowing? God is sowing seed everywhere, all the time, and it’s not up to us to judge those in whom it’s not taking root, and growing.
Transformation, freedom, liberty, a place to grow a place to breathe, that’s just the beginning. The transformation goes on. When we find ourselves in that joyous place then we can’t help but want to nurture the seeds that are being sown, the seeds that are being sown in us, the seeds that are being sown in others, the seeds that are being sown around us. And what we know, if we think about it, is that we can’t nurture seeds if we are at the same time judging the ground in which they’re sown. The only way to nurture those seeds is to water them, to shed light on them, to help them work their way into the soil; through an encouraging word, maybe even a challenging word offered in love; through deeds and examples that provide fertilizer to help those seeds grow where they are; to tend and nurture the seeds in the people around us.
It’s been a bewildering time and it’s easy to be frustrated, dismayed, discouraged. It’s even easy, I think, to be angry with the people around us who don’t understand or don’t seem to share the truth, and the values that we hold so dearly; who don’t recognize the beauty of the gift that’s being offered to us, if only we can love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, mind, drink, and our neighbor as ourselves. But the transformation that we have experienced, the freedom that we have been given, the space to grow and to breathe, instills in us a sense of joy and commitment and love for the people around us, and it calls us to help them to experience the same thing that we have experienced.
If it feels like too much. If it feels too hard. Remember, if you will, the words that Matt read to us from the book of the prophet Isaiah, where God promises that those seeds will in fact take hold and grow,
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
For you shall go out in joy… (Isaiah 55:10-12a)
Therein lies our vocation or calling our project and our joy.