Proper 10 (July 10-16)
Texts: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23;
Isa. 55:10-13; Rom. 8:1-11
PLOWING THORNY GROUND
As I said in my newsletter column this month, summer is a time of recreation, but here at Prince of Peace it is also a time of re-creation. We are moving out of a four+ year transition in staff. And we are looking to not only move forward with a revitalized sense of mission but also with a renewed sense of our traditional ministry. Along those lines, there is a very important meeting of the Christian Education Committee this Thursday evening at 7 pm. I’ve invited last year’s entire Sunday School staff, and I open that invitation to all of you. Before us is not just a strengthening and shoring up of our Sunday School, but I would like a renewal of our entire Christian Education ministry to be on the agenda for us.
In his fine book The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg is challenging the contemporary Christian to have a renewal of the heart and practice of our Christian faith. In commenting on Christian Education, for example, he says:
Education also matters for adults, particularly in our time of change and transition. For many in the church, education will involve reeducation from a way of seeing Christianity learned as children / to a way of seeing Christianity that makes persuasive sense to us as adults at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This is a pressing need in our time. …it is difficult to give one’s heart to something that one’s head rejects. (1)
Part of what’s at stake is the Christian Education of our children, since we adults obviously are the ones responsible for teaching them. It is important that children not be taught in such a way that they will later need to unlearn many things, because we have not kept up with the significant changes to our Christian faith.
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been astounded at how differently the Bible has been read and taught in the seminaries over the twenty-five years since I’ve graduated. I’ve had to work hard to keep up. I want to become more personally involved in our Sunday School this year, especially with the teachers, so that we can all keep up together on the big changes happening with regards to our faith.
What kind of changes? Hopefully, you’ve already been able to tell at least somewhat in my preaching. But I think I would characterize it as an expansion of faith to embrace the dimension of justice. For a number of generations now, I think we can say that our faith has been shrinking somewhat to more personal and family-sized dimensions. John 3:16 says that God so loved the world that he sent his Son. In other words, the Gospel is about saving the whole world. Yet haven’t we focused our Christian faith too much toward the fate of individual souls?
Brian McLaren, in his very important book Everything Must Change, puts it this way:
Sadly, in too many quarters we continue to reduce the scope of the gospel to the individual soul and the nuclear family, framing it in a comfortable, personalized format — it’s all about personal devotions, personal holiness, and a personal Savior. This domesticated gospel will neither rock any boats nor step out of them into stormy waters. We have in many ways responded to the big global crises of our day with an incredible, shrinking gospel. The world has said, “No thanks.” (2)
Isn’t that what many of our youth and young adults are saying these days? “No thanks”? They look around them at a frightening world with many significant problems — overconsumption that is overtaxing the environment, terrorism and the war on terrorism that over-relies on militarism, a growing gap between wealthy and poor that causes increasing unrest in the global family — they see these problems and look at a version of the Christian faith that seems way too small to help us address such big problems. And they say, “No thanks!”
But where else do they have to turn? The alternative might be hopelessness. The alternative might be hours of mind-numbing entertainment on video screens. The alternative might be taking heroine. I opened with prayer at the Portage City Council meeting this past Tuesday. After the terrible story of Amy Bousfield, the talented Portage Central High School graduate with such a promising future, whose life was tragically cut short by a heroine overdose, the agenda of the meeting this week came to include the concern in our community for teenagers overdosing again on serious illegal drugs. The expansion of our faith needs to include a hope for us and our children that can face the big problems facing us in our world.
In the terms of this morning’s Gospel Lesson, I would propose that our temptation of falling into being infertile soil is the seed that fell on thorny ground. Jesus describes that soil as: “this is the person who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” Hasn’t that been our biggest temptation in recent generations? Our lifestyle has very much been about comfort and wealth such that it leads to a shrinking faith to personal dimensions. Later in the gospels, I think this kind of soil is illustrated best by the rich young man who comes to Jesus and asks him, “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?” (Matt. 19:16) Note the personal nature of his question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Hasn’t, for the last several generations of Christians, our faith become so focused on precisely that question? “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus’ response is sufficiently shocking hyperbole to perhaps jolt him, and us, back into a life of faith that is big enough for a whole world’s problems to be addressed. “Go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor,” says Jesus; “then come, follow me.” Jesus expands faith to include justice for the poor — one of the main themes of the Bible (whereas the theme of personal salvation is secondary at best to such themes of justice).
But in the end this Parable of the Sower isn’t about the infertile soils of our human hearts and minds. Otherwise, we should call it the Parable of the Soils. No, we call it as it should be, the Parable of the Sower, because it’s about God’s generous grace in Jesus Christ instead of our stubborn sins that make for infertile soils until we do yield faith.
Let me give a brief example of how God’s generous sowing might make fertile even our infertile hearts and minds. This is a glimpse of the kind of thing our ministry can about through a middle class family in Argentina. They were traveling to their ‘summer vacation’ as we often do, to a mountain region now mainly populated by the indigenous people of Argentina. (Think ‘Indian Reservation.’)
But as they left the green and fertile fields of the valley and ascended the rocky, inhospitable mountains to the west, Graciela, [the mother,] somehow realized that she was encountering her own history — the history of colonization that drove the indigenous people farther and farther from their ancestral homelands, down from temperate north to frigid south, up from the fertile lowland valleys into inhospitable mountains, until they found their last option for survival at this cold, high, rocky margin — literally on the edge of existence. All of this hit her, and she began to weep and couldn’t stop weeping.
Instead of their usual vacation, they spent their time getting to know the folks of that region.
Graciela, her husband, Luiz, and their family were careful not to do what too many well-meaning “whites” do: they didn’t want to “assist” the people in paternalizing ways that would only wound their dignity even further, fostering dependence and humiliation. So instead, they asked the people what their biggest problem was, and then they offered to join them as helpers in solving it. The biggest problem? They needed a school so their children would have a place in their own community to learn and grow.So over the coming years, Graciela and her family rounded up help — an architect, volunteers from their local church, mostly young people who paid their own way. . . . They made the thirty-plus hour trip by car and train season after season. In the coming years, over many visits, they not only built a school, but in the process, they showed honor and respect and love to the indigenous people who had been, for so many centuries, treated with scorn and neglect and so much worse. (3)
They also built up hope together, in the face of what can seem at times to be a hopeless world.
Our children and younger generations are growing up in a culture and world that is now more fully aware of these kinds of injustices but is also tempted to be immobilized and feel hopeless in the face of them. Part of the reason, I would suggest, is that the faith resources that the church could provide has become the thorny ground of a personalized faith too small to give hope in the face of injustice.
But the Good News this morning, once again, is that this parable is first and foremost about the Sower, God, and not about our poor soil. It is “about the extravagance of a sower who does not seem to be fazed by such concerns, who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon, who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks his way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters.” (4) It is about the God who in Jesus Christ encountered our faithless soils in the cross and raised him to new life that cannot be defeated. It is about you and me and our children getting caught up in this wondrous story of life coming to fullness. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Prince of Peace Lutheran,
Portage, MI, July 13, 2008
1. Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity (HarperSanFrancisco, 2003), p. 195.
2. Brian McLaren, Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007), p. 244.
4. Barbara Brown Taylor, The Seeds of Heaven, from the sermon on this text in ch. 4, “The Extravagant Sower.”