Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
July 14, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
Not often, but occasionally, in the Gospels there will be in the text something that purports to explain something that has just been said. Sometimes these are parenthetical comments apparently put in the text by the author or by a later editor. Sometimes, they are put into the mouth of Jesus. I say put into the mouth of Jesus because the consensus among scholars is that while the parables can probably be traced back to Jesus, the explanations cannot. Apparently someone in the tradition thought these things needed explaining, probably out of fear that people would misunderstand them. Misunderstand them, you understand, means understand in some way other than the author or editor does. The odd thing about these explanations is that to our ears they are often simply wrong. Or, even if they arenít simply wrong, they donít seem to help us much. Those of you who were at my ordination service last month may recall that my friend Dennis Hughes pointed one of these out when he was doing the charge to me. At the very end of the Gospel of John, the risen Christ says to St. Peter: "Very truly, I tell you, when you were younger, you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go." Then comes the parenthetical explanation: "(He said this to indicate the kind of death by which he would glorify God.)" Now, oneís death glorifying God is a big theme in John; but to most of us, I think, Jesusí statement to Peter is not about that but about the nature of his ministry--a ministry of service dictated by the needs of the flock rather than his own needs. Sometimes, to make the text speak to us, we have to ignore the interposed interpretation.
It seems to me that we are dealing with a similar problem this morning. Here, in Matthew 13, we have the parable of the sower--seed sown on bad soil and good with differing results. Then, after a diversion that talks about the nature of parables that we didnít read this morning, Jesus responds to a request from the disciples to explain the parable. The seed, he says, is the word of the kingdom of God. The different kinds of ground in which the word is sown correspond to different ways in which different people receive the word. OK. So far, so good. Some donít get it all, and the word has no effect. The next two types get it, but they cannot sustain their faith in the face of various kinds of difficulties. For some, it is "trouble and persecution...on account of the word." This refers to a reality of the first century, when being a Christian was socially and politically risky if not downright suicidal. Some were attracted to the word but couldnít take the social consequences and fell away. For others the problem is that "the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing." The only people Jesus here is willing to call "good soil" are those who hear the word, understand it, and who, apparently without any difficulty, grow and blossom in faith and produce a bounteous harvest of the fruits of the Spirit.
And thatís my problem with this explanation. It seems to me to dismiss virtually every Christian I have ever known, myself included, as not being good soil for the word of God. Because, you see, the reality is that our faith and our ability to live our faith are constantly assailed by the cares of the world (and sometimes by the lure of wealth). Can you honestly say that you have never been distracted from your faith life by troubles and stresses in your life? I canít. Can you truthfully say that it is always easy for you to have faith and to act on that faith? I canít. I know that Iím not the "good soil" of this parable. Iím not someone in whom the word of God immediately sprouted the first time I heard it and began producing a rich harvest without difficulty. But then, neither am I someone in whom the seed has been completely choked off by worldly cares. My problem with the Gospelís explanation of the parable is that there is no place in it for me, nor I suspect for you. Iím someone in whom the cares of the world threaten continually to choke the word and yet someone who manages, most of the time, to keep the seed alive and produce at least some yield from it. We are all, I suspect, people whose task is to grow seeds among the thorns. We are people whose challenge is to bring forth at least some small harvest of faith from among the cares and distractions of the world. I wish Matthewís explanation of Jesusí parable had included me. Because it doesnít, I donít think itís an adequate explanation.
Our task is to grow seeds among the thorns. Our task is somehow to keep faith alive and growing among all of the cares of the world, the pain, the grief, the anger, the frustration, the hopelessness that we all feel in our lives at least from time to time. Doing that has recently been a particular challenge in my own life. I know that some of you have also had difficulties and even tragedies in your lives recently that may have challenged your faith. I know how hard it can be to keep those seeds growing. It takes a lot of work. But what kind of work? Metaphors are lovely, but what precisely can we do to keep our faith alive when the cares of the world threaten to destroy it? Fortunately, we arenít the first people to face this problem. The Christian tradition has developed tools we can use to help keep our faith alive even under the most trying circumstances. Let me suggest what some of those are. First and foremost, we must pray. We must pray all the time. St. Paul says: "Pray without ceasing." (1 Thes-salonians 17) There is a particular monastic tradition in Russian Orthodoxy that takes this exhortation literally. They undertake to recite what they call the Jesus prayer literally without ceasing, at least while they are awake. The prayer goes: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." These mystics use it like a mantra. Iíve actually tried it myself on occasion. I remember one day a few years ago when I was driving to work in a particularly foul mood (the thorns were high that morning) when I started to recite this prayer over and over as I drove. By the time I got to work, I felt much better. The prayer was answered. Iím not suggesting we all turn into Russian mystics, although there are days when that doesnít sound like such a bad idea. I am suggesting that prayer grounds faith. It waters those seeds. So pray. Even when you donít feel like it, or rather, especially when you donít feel like it. It helps.
Then there is Scripture. Particularly in our Protestant tradition, reading Scripture regularly comes highly recommended. Let me suggest something. We all have our favorite Bible passages. The theologians say we all have our own canon within the canon, that is, our own bible within the Bible. There are particular passages that really speak to us. The one I would put at the top of my personal list is Romans 8:38-39: "For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord." Iíve got others too: Psalm 139, Psalm 23, John 1:1 together with 1:14, and many others. You probably have your own list, or could come up with one if you wanted to. In a homily I gave at a wedding here last Sunday I told the young couple that when things get tough they should read and take to heart 1 Corinthians 13, Paulís great ode to love, that they had chosen to be read during their ceremony. Itís good advice for all of us. When the thorns threaten to choke the seeds, pull your canon within the canon off the shelf and read some of it. Meditate on it. Pray over it. It helps.
Then there is communal worship. Iíve said here before that I think there is great wisdom in the way our tradition makes attendance at weekly worship services a hallmark of the Christian life. I canít speak for you. I know that I have a very hard time maintaining my faith without it. In the traditional Christian worship service we rehearse our faith every week. We pray together. We sing praise to God together. We hear the ancient stories read anew in our contemporary context. We hear those ancient stories interpreted for our time. Now, you may be saying, he doesnít hear them interpreted. Heís the one who does the interpreting. Well, here in this community of faith thatís true. But let me share with you a professional secret about preaching. More often than not, what the preacher is preaching he is preaching in part because it is what he thinks his congregation needs to hear. But in larger part, heís preaching it because it is what he needs to hear. You can be pretty sure that most of the time (and certainly here today) what you hear me saying up here is something I need to have reinforced by saying it and, in the saying of it, hearing it. Many other pastors have told me the same thing about themselves. So, even those of us who do the preaching come to worship to hear the old stories retold for our time. All of us come to share our faith with our family and friends. Our faith is reinforced by their faith. Especially in this part of the country you will hear people say that they are Christians but that they donít need to go to church to be Christians. Well, I donít buy it. Maybe there are some people for whom it is true. I know Iím not one of them, and I rather doubt that very many other people are either.
Then thereís that very special part of the worship service that we do only once a month (many of you know my feelings about that)--the Eucharist, or Holy Communion. More than anything else, it is the Eucharist that keeps my seeds growing among the thorns in my life. I know that my enthusiasm for Communion is something of a minority voice in the UCC. Some share it, but many donít. My mother, like me a cradle Congregationalist, for example, has refused to have anything to do with Communion for decades. Still, for me it is the most powerful expression of Christís presence with us. I once defined ministry as the practice of the presence of God. Those of you who were on the search committee may remember that statement. The presence of God in Christ is what the Eucharist is all about. The one thing about the Eucharist that all Christian denominations agree on is the Real Presence of Christ in the sacrament. A sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. In Communion, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is mediated to us in a most direct, intimate way. Table fellowship was how Jesus most powerfully expressed his solidarity with the outcast and rejected of his society. In Holy Communion we too have table fellowship with our crucified and risen Savior. In that table fellowship we experience Christís solidarity with us, whatever our station in life, whatever the burdens we bear, whatever the trials we must endure. The Eucharist is the ultimate source of light, water, and nourishment for the seeds of our faith.
And so, we struggle to grow seeds among the thorns. Perhaps we wish we could be that good soil without thorns, where our faith could produce a hundred fold easily, without struggle; but thatís not the way it is. At least, itís not the way it is for me, and I suspect itís not the way it is for you. The Good News is that, despite what Matthewís explanation of the parable of the sower seems to say, our seeds can grow among the thorns. The thorns donít have to have the last say. But itís a lot like trying to control the blackberries that keep invading your garden patch. You have to keep fighting them. You have to keep cutting them back. You have to keep tending the seeds of the good vegetables and flowers youíre trying to grow. You have to give them enough light, water, and fertilizer, and you have to protect them from the blackberries. We need to give our seeds of faith the light, water, fertilizer, and protection from the thorns of prayer, reading Scripture, communal worship, and the Eucharist. If we do, we too can bring forth grain a hundredfold, sixty fold, or at least thirty fold. Thanks be to God. Amen.