Sermon for Proper 10, Year A: Seeds and Stems

Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 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 one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

Sperm is often called “seed,” especially in the Bible. Therefore, every single one of us starts out as a seed, and when, joined with an egg, takes root in the womb and stems outward. A lot of our personality is created when seeds become stems  and stems become branches and branches become the mature tree… a new person, ready to take on the world.

But have you ever stopped to wonder how the DNA handed down to you affects the type of roots you create? What kind of seed you might be? Do you consistently seek out people who you deem “in the same garden?”

The types of seeds that Jesus is talking about directly relate to personalities in people, and he says so directly when he’s explaining what he just said. This is because often, when Jesus uses an analogy while preaching, and even in just talking to his disciples, what he receives is a series of dumb looks.

This is not unusual even today, because without repetitive explanation, people get lost in their own minds and now have no idea what you’re saying. The best preaching advice I’ve ever gotten is, “first, you tell them. Next, you tell them again. Then you tell them again.” Of course, you use different illustrations, but they’re all the same point.

When people are firmly planted in their pews, completely tracking with you, they may not get the idea of repetition. People who are not often need it. As a preacher, I am competing with the personal stories that come up for the people listening, what to have for lunch, and, especially in Portland, a sunny day.

It’s the difference between how the seeds are planted, and what kind of personalities they create.

We can even expand past the personal to the local church. Are you invested with deep roots, or did your mother make you come? It’s at this point that we have to ask ourselves “are we the 30, the 60, or the 100-fold kind of church?”

What kind of church ARE we?

Are we so shallow in our commitment that a bird could swallow us up? That it would take so little to make us disband? We have nourished the bird, but have failed ourselves in a “give a man a fish” kind of way. We’ve sustained, for a moment, one being… and walked away. The gospel competes with the world, and loses… badly.

Have we planted ourselves on rocky soil, reaching for the sun? The best analogy I can think for this kind of church are those that initially are so gung ho that they over-commit, and six or 12 months later, leave, never to return… because it’s just so much work. Few can let go and listen because the running tab of things to do is so long, particularly for “the Marthas…” who place very little importance on the phrase don’t just do something, sit there.

Initial excitement in its exuberance is a wonderful thing, but it has to be watered carefully, as not to burn or drown. There is generally little room to add new crops, because people are already so mired between committees and choirs and teaching Sunday School and laying out vestments and ALL THE THINGS that new shoots spring up, and there’s no one with enough sunlight left to tend to them. The gospel just gets in the way of the running to-do list with no respite.

Churches with deep roots are not only self-sustaining, but have the ability to minister to others… and it’s a difference you can both see and feel. Deep roots mean there’s a group of people for each single thing, so that no one group has to do everything. The same 30 or 60 people are not the entire church, but just the choir or just a couple of committees. If you’ve ever been to a really small church, you know that there are at least ten people who are on every committee and in the choir, and have to say “no more.” Not out of malice, out of exhaustion. There are churches with deep roots who have the ability to create a committee just to shake new people’s hands as they come in the door, and that is their only function. There is enough room between rows, enough nutrients for everyone, that the seeds become stems and the stems become branches and the branches become the mature tree. The gospel is not working at us, but through us. We are able to welcome the stranger, give to the poor, fight racial inequality and GLBTQI rights… we have the ability to widen the net, teaching others to fish as we go.

Which invariably leads to the question of what kind of world we want to be.

For a lot of people, it’s starting to feel like being a 100-fold seed in a 30-fold world. But here’s the catch… it’s not a 30-fold seed world. Perception is not reality. There are enough people to do everything, enough people to be able to pick which causes to support, which battles to fight… and which governments need resistance. Resistance is not futile, it’s its own kind of protest.

Hundred-fold people create hundred-fold churches which give the individual a chance to grow into a community. So many people can and will get involved, but are overwhelmed when it comes to how to “jump in.” They are the hope and the future as to how a 30-fold seed can find its way from feeding one being to all of them.

This is where you are issued an invitation, in turn to give one. In my own life, I have never once had success with inviting someone to come with me to church. I have had success with showing them who I am and to whom I belong. For instance, I’ve invited friends to march with me in the Pride parade along with my church group…. or go to a political rally. Wide-eyed, they look at me as if to say, your church does THAT?

Of course. In a church with deep roots, the plants grow toward the sky, because the deeper the support system, the easier it is to say…

Jesus Has Left the Building.

Amen.
#prayingonthespaces

The Upside of Fear

When fear that life would pass me by became greater than my fear of social interaction, I started to move. Yesterday was a “go big or go home” sort of day. I talked to my pastor about all sorts of things, such as working to earn ordination through the UCC, actually going to seminary, and people I should meet in Silver Spring.

As of this morning, my application to Howard is complete. I am just going to worry about how to pay for it later. I am sure that with the combination of donors, federal aid, grants, etc. I can wade my way through the last year and a half of undergrad and start grad school to get the MDiv I’ve wanted forever, but have never put my money where my mouth was. I chose Howard because it’s cheaper than American. The last thing I want to do is start out my homeless ministry with crippling debt. Being a pastor to homeless people generally doesn’t pay that well, and if it does, you’re doing it wrong.

The application fee was less than $50, and as I submitted my debit card number, I had this huge feeling that this was money I was using to prove that other people didn’t have to believe in me. I believed in myself. To that end, I took Matt’s suggestions and reached out to the names he gave me in Silver Spring already doing what I want to do.

I have a meeting with Jeffrey Thames on Friday morning. Jeffrey runs a homeless ministry in Silver Spring called “Hope Restored,” so my objective is just to show up and absorb all the knowledge I can, and see if he’ll give me a job. I can’t imagine he won’t. It doesn’t matter if it pays anything. That’s not the point. The point is to get experience in what I really want to do, because walking back and forth from my house to the 7-Eleven is only going to yield so much. As of right this moment, I know four homeless people by name. It’s a damn good start if I am choosing to focus on how far I’ve come in the month that I’ve been here. The trick is not to give in to social anxiety anymore.

When I isolate, I keep bad things from happening, but I don’t let in any good, either. I have to be bigger than my fears. I have to keep them at bay. I have to own them, and not let them own me. The upside of fear is that it motivated me to look at my life differently. And in that way, there is no downside at all.

Sermon for Trinity Sunday Year B 2015: Put Down Your iPhone

Put. It. Down.

I know you’re reading this on some kind of electronic device, but when you’re finished, maybe take a walk. Play Scrabble with your kids. Walk on The Mall or go to the Smithsonian. Whatever you do, unplug in a major way. Because when you are paying attention to your screen, what kind of information are you missing? What kind of dreams would you have if they weren’t interrupted by pictures of falling candy? What kind of knowledge would you pick up that you couldn’t get from Google?

A lot, actually.

Google and your electronics will definitely give you world news, but what about how your family is doing emotionally?

Our passage from Isaiah focuses on that point exclusively. Isaiah has just been through one of the worst times in his life. The king of Judah that he loved, Uzziah, was pushed out of his throne and into a life of solitude, even unto death. He’d committed a major sin according to the High Priest by burning incense as a gift to God, but to the High Priest, it came across as a major power play. Burning incense as a gift to God was an authority given only to the descendants of Aaron, so HOW DARE HE? Uzziah contracted leprosy soon afterward, and the High Priest declared it punishment for Uzziah’s sins. He wasn’t even buried with the other kings- set apart because of his mistake.

The king that took over, Jotham, conspired with Pekah, the King of Israel, to form an alliance with the Assyrians. Isaiah felt that the Jews were turning their backs on a God that had delivered them from their distress, all the way back to Moses leading them out of the slavery they’d suffered in Egypt.

He went into the temple to pray, and had a vision. This scripture is very important to the life of both Judaism and Christianity, because it is the moment Isaiah steps up and says, “here I am.” It doesn’t come easily, though. At first, the vision is of his pain. He knows that he and his people are unclean in the way that they are ignoring the same God that’s been there for them all along. He deems himself unworthy, and then an angel steps forward. Hear it in his own words:

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

Isaiah is not anointed by oil; he is anointed by fire… and yet, he doesn’t speak of it burning him. He speaks of it as doing what fire does. It tempers him. He takes the fire and lets it burn away the old version of himself, the one that feels unworthy to serve. When God says, “Whom shall I send?” Isaiah STANDS UP. He says plainly, “HERE AM I; SEND ME!” The old Isaiah is no more. He takes his power of vision and is considered one of the greatest prophets who ever lived. His predictions turned out to be accurate. As I have said before, Isaiah’s prose on Jesus is like looking at his baby pictures from hundreds of years before he was born. Fire on his lips in his visions became fire in the belly in his daily life and he USED IT.

We don’t get this kind of vision in our daily lives unless we sit as still as Isaiah did. Unless we unplug our electronics and sit in our own unworthiness and decide what kind of fire we need to create the kind of passion that Isaiah exhibits.

Last week, I preached a confessional sermon on how my Holy Spirit moment occurred, also through fire that tempered me. What is your moment? Have you found it yet?

Jesus talks about the Holy Spirit moment in a different element. Hear his words:

The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

The context is that he is talking to Nicodemus, who is confused by the concept of being “born again.” Of course you cannot reenter your mother’s womb, but every life gets fresh starts. We do it all the time. I just moved from Texas to Maryland. What have you done? Perhaps it is seeing a bad relationship and either departing from it or refreshing it anew. Maybe it is a job you hate that you’ve finally decided you’ve had enough.

Or perhaps you have unplugged enough that you can say, “here I am; send me” to the other people in your world. Perhaps there’s a sick person that needs your attention and you just haven’t had the fortitude to visit, but today is the day. Perhaps you’ve let church relationships fade because of one conflict or another and you’ve had enough of your own passive aggression and show up, anyway.

Maybe, just maybe, you’ve had enough of you. Maybe the person you are is not the person you’d like to be. What kind of coal should go on your lips so that you can be born of the spirit instead of watching it happen to others? To you, is self actualization just for other people? Are you hiding in your own darkness because it’s comfortable?

On this Trinity Sunday, I ask that you ask yourself these burning questions, because if you sit with them long enough, they won’t burn anymore. You won’t have seen fire, you’ll have walked through it.

Where is your Holy Spirit moment? What do you need to ask God to heal? Are you calling out for Jesus, the Mediator and Advocate?

God in three persons, blessed Trinity.

Amen.

To This Day

Dana and I were just having the most interesting conversation about Doctor Who and the Bible, because the canons are strikingly similar. The conversation started when we remembered The Master.

I said:

I hope they show The Master as a little boy, looking into the schism for the first time. You know who it reminds me of? Moses and the story of the burning bush. God actually tells Moses not to look at him because the sight is too overwhelming. When The Master looks into the time vortex, it’s like getting an answer to the question “what would have happened?” Keep in mind that since I am not a fundamentalist, I am not talking literally. There’s just a lot of wisdom in looking at them together.

And Dana said:

The Doctor is a Christ allegory because in dying for our sins, he’s still protecting us to this day. For years, the story has been that the doctor is atoning for the sins of killing all of his people and the canon has changed to now having locked them in a slice of time so that he can rescue them one day. And he’s over 2,000 years old now.

My eyes started to bug out of my head.

I love being married.