Pentecost 6 SUNDAY
Two weekends ago, I was in Nashville, Tennessee, officiating at the wedding of one of our long-time young adults from St. Peter’s. I’ve never been to Nashville, so Nancy and I tried to gather in a bit of the spirit of the city when we weren’t with the Moul family at the rehearsal and wedding ceremony or the meals that followed. If you have been to Nashville, then you know that there is a lot going on … plenty of storefront music … lots of neon lights … a whole ton of southern charm and hospitality … and a significant number of construction projects all over the downtown district, confirming its status as one of the fastest growing cities in the upper south, averaging an population increase last year of 100 people a day.
But what also caught my attention over and over again, was the unusual places where we saw wildlife growing and thriving as we walked around. When we walked around what is a sleepy town on Saturday morning, we passed a section of the parking lot where a milkweed plant had forged its way through a crack in the black top, and was host to one lone monarch butterfly. When we parked in one of the parking garages near the hotel in which we were staying, we saw a bird’s nest tucked up on top of toll booth at the garage exit, where at least two scrawny necks of baby birds were stretched into the air above them, screeching for their mother and the breakfast she was gathering. And when we found ourselves stuck on a small side road onto which Google Maps had unimaginably directed us, and across which a freight train had broken down, I saw what looked like a small hidey hole dug right into the bed of the train track from which for a local rodent-type emerged … it looked like a chipmunk … although it didn’t answer to Alvin or Theodore and it certainly wasn’t signing anything.
I will admit to you now, that this was not a serendipitous experience … I had planned to keep my eyes open, since I had done some work on my sermon a few days before leaving town. What I was doing was not so much taking a nature walk through Nashville, but a biblical walk. For I also saw some irises that looked deader than dead, choked off in a box of weeds outside a storefront bar. I saw birds picking at flowers in the large oval flower beds outside the state capital building. And I saw a homeless man sleeping on a hard metal bench on Riverfront Park along the Cumberland River, and wondered how he stayed alive day after day.
It was as if I was watching the Parable of the Sower come alive before my very eyes on the streets on Nashville … which, of course, is exactly what had happened … and is no doubt still happening today in Nashville, two weekends after my visit. It is also happening here in Lancaster … and in every city … and borough … and small town … and rural village … and community throughout our lands. The sower has gone out to sow. But God’s sowing has been about much more than chipmunks and irises and monarch butterflies. God is busy sowing seeds of life and of faith all around us, in a world that is easily as diverse as the landscapes we read about in today’s Gospel Lesson.
The motivation for my nature walk and seed-sower hunt was an old Christian Century article that I came across in my sermon file. It was written by Pr. Bradley Schmeling who are the time was serving a Lutheran Church in Atlanta. He wrote:
With Jesus’ parable of the seed and field in my mind, I became caught up in the mystery of life around me. The city terrains were mixed together in marvelous interrelated patches of fertile and questionable soil, with plants that grew according to their own beauty in both places – plants that horticulturalists would call weeds. Growth was happening in every corner of my journey. It struck me that my inner terrain was more like a patchwork terrain of my hike, than the neatly differentiated terrain in the parable of the sower and the seed. My life is filled with patterns that are so well trodden, overlapping and sun-baked that I’s virtually impossible for the seed of the word to take root. I’m often afraid to let new growth occur on those well-traveled tracks, lest I be forced to build a whole new path. I’ve got weeds of fear and doubt that choke out the most hopeful messages planted by the most determined sower. And it would be embarrassing to list all the different faith practices that I’ve been excited about and then abandoned – the latest prayer beads, icons, or meditative texts. Yet my struggling faith, as full of weeds as it is, has been the place where I have been able to connect with others.
When I saw this image of the patchwork quilt of different soils that Schmeling writes about, it stuck with me, both in Nashville … and also while we were on vacation last week in the mountains of Western Maryland at Deep Creek Lake. And I was reminded of my tendency to always try to figure out what kind of soil resides within the people around me … as if I could see into their souls, as only God can. I look at the neighbor who never sets foot outside of his home on Sunday, unless it is to get his morning paper, and I am tempted to judge him as rocky soil, whose seeds of faith have long been pecked away by the birds of life’s temptations. I consider the cynic who stands behind me at the register, and who offers his wife a half dozen smart-aleck comments about the religious magnets for sale on the side of the cash register, and I picture his life as a weed-ridden life, in which faith has been choked off by disappointment and disillusionment. I may even look at the person in the pew here who seems to be a saint in what she does, and presume that every choice and action in her life is fruitful and faithful like the good soil in our parable. Now … before you start thinking badly about me, remember … you do the same thing … we all do … we make judgments and presumptions about people, and draw conclusions about their faith life that may or may not be anywhere near the truth of what their journey with God looks like. You may not admit at your neighbor’s dinner party … but you do it, as do I. St. Matthew even does it, as many biblical scholars consider the explanation offered about what kind of people fall into the various seed categories as the word of Matthew, not Jesus. When I fall prey to this particular sin – and sin it is – it is typically because I have forgotten that the growth of the seed and the harvesting of the seed is God’s work, not mine. I can never know if the soil I see in others … or in myself … will be trodden upon or pecked at or choked off or nurtured into abundant growth,.
What Jesus calls us to do in this parable is two-fold. First, we are to believe Jesus’ words that he wants us to be good soil … that we can receive this seed of faith from Jesus, trusting that it will grow into a life that is abundantly attentive to the Word of God and fruitful in our actions that grow from that Word. Yes, we are to believe that Jesus can do exactly what he promises, namely growing faith and action within us. The second thing we are called to do is then take the harvest which this abundant seed produces in our lives, and scatter that into the parts of the world in which we live – yes, we are called to become apprentice sowers, who spread this remarkable gift of faith into the world around us. That is the mission of the church … to live as if we actually believe that we are good soil, and to take the amazing things God grows in our lives and use them in places where God might bring even more growth in the world. Sometimes the growth God brings will be new disciples to the life of faith – lives like Erik’s and Peyton’s along with others who have yet to hear the word of God … and sometimes it will be restored disciples who thought they were stuck in the thorns, but find that they are really waving in the sunny breeze of the harvest. Sometimes the growth God brings will be new opportunities for ministry to the needy of the world – those who in their homes and relationships face trauma that prevents them from seeing God at work in their lives … and sometimes the growth will be among those who bring trauma upon others, and need to hear God’s call to repentance. Sometimes the growth God brings will be something totally unexpected … something we could not have imagined as part of our individual or congregational missions … but something raised up for us as a compelling call by our God who sows seeds everywhere … and who sometimes brings growth in places we would never have anticipated as good soil.
This is what our current Mission Statement Drafting process is seeking to accomplish. Its charge is to lead us to places of good soil … places of mission to which God has called us as a congregation. You have helped us take a first step in that journey through the Core Value Survey you participated in. At the moment, the Mission Statement Draft team is interpreting that survey information … studying and reflecting on Scripture … praying … and seeking direction from God in our process. At the end of summer or early fall, they will share back with you some of the early conclusions and directions identified in this process, to see if those conclusions resonate with you the congregation, also. This process is not about simply finding a catchy tag line for our congregation and a statement we can plaster all over the place – even though we will do those things. It is about sorting out and recognizing the places to which God has called us as a congregation and as a body of believers … we will cast those seeds of discernment wide, just as the seeds in our parable were sown far and wide … because we are sometimes surprised by the places where God brings the growth of faith. We have permission to be a bit extravagant with our exploration, because our God is an abundant and extravagant God. And we are called to keep our eyes wide open, because God is also a living God who surprises us with joy and opportunity when we least expect it. Pray for us as we pray for you … and may God lead us all to fertile and good soil of ministry.