Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Bond Between Sower and Good Soil

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA
July 16, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

A bond connects the sower with the good soil, a bond formed by seed scattered on and all around the good soil.  Our gospel passage today embraces the generosity of God.  Some see the generosity of God in scattering of the seed.  Some see the generosity of God in the return 30, 60, a hundredfold.  And of course you can see the generosity of God in both the scattering of seed and the return of the harvest.  Actually, the scripture has one more place to see the generosity of God, and it is there right in front of us.

Frankly though, it does not matter where you see God in this story, so long as you recognize that God is generous, actually both generous and good.  God has an infinite or close to infinite supply of goodness and mercy which he scatters indiscriminately upon his creation, and indiscriminately upon you.  As you recognize the generosity of God, his generosity takes on greater grandeur when you recognize the land is messed up.

We can be frank.  The land is messed up.  Rocks and thorns and hard packed paths and birds and that eat the seed.  The land is messed up.  Rocks and thorns and hard packed paths and birds surround the good soil and the sower casts seed on all of it to make sure the good soil gets the seed.

Our land has problems.  The cost of health care continues to rise in ways that cannot be sustained.  There are jobs out there, but people struggle to raise a family on minimum wage type jobs.  I say our land has problems we can talk about environment, or trust, or terror, deficits.  Our argument is not about the problems of the land.  The arguments are about whose problems do we solve first and how do we go about solving those problems.  

When Jesus told this problem, his land had problems as well.  People were dying; about 50% percent of children died before adulthood.  Roman occupied the land and their soldiers marched about enforcing the peace.  People liked the peace, but something about the way the peace was administered made the local people feel like they were the enemy.  And Roman engineers took the tax money to build aqueducts to supply clean water to all of the people.  People liked clean water, but they may not have liked paying for it.  And different religions were competing for people’s spiritual attention.  And people sinned.  Okay somethings haven’t changed.  

Jesus tells this parable where the land is messed up.  Rocks and thorns and hard packed paths and birds and seed.  The land is messed up, and if we make a simple guess, only 1/4 of the land is ready to receive the seed.  And if we think about it too hard, we might say that one quarter is being optimistic.  The seed the fell on the path did not bear fruit, the seed that fell on the thorns did not bear fruit, the seed that fell on the rocks did not bear fruit.  But the seed that fell on the good soil, the good soil bears fruit.  We like that the good soil bears fruit

We get confused, however, by our own image of good soil.  Fields a hundred acres in size, full of tall tassels of corn.  Or wheat as far as the eye can see, waving in the wind.  That image is not Jesus parable.  And the rich large field of good soil is not really who we are.  

We like parables and we like to find ourselves in the parable.  And so we sing out, “Lord make me the good soil.”  That is a good song and if we would stop there, we would be okay.  We want to be the good soil, because we want to bear fruit for the Lord.  Our song and confessed desire to be good soil acknowledges that we need the Lord’s help to be good soil.  

But truly, Our real relationship with the story begins with a challenge, a confession, an acknowledgement of our own shortcoming.  Because at some point in our lives, we have probably wondered why the sower bothers casting seed upon soil that is not ready to receive the seed.  Why does the sower bother casting seed upon the path and upon the rocks and in the midst of the thorns and thistles.  Which is to say we judge people somehow unworthy of God’s generosity and goodness.  We stop being the good soil and place ourselves in the role of the sower.  Actually, we see ourselves as a sower who knows better than God. 

I would guess Jesus actually sets us up to think this way.  The mixture of the types of soil so close together and the scattering rather than the place of seed.  And I have heard it said that Americans are too use to well groomed fields with acre upon acre of stalks of corn, or fields of asparagus, fields of wheat swaying in the wind.  Two thousand years ago in the eastern Mediterranean terrain that surrounded Galilee, patches of good soil lay in the midst of thorns and rocks and trampled paths.  To Jesus original hearers, they could recognize the imagery.  

We also must confess that we do not always see the little inch of good soil that is surrounded by rocks and thorns.  But that soil is there ready to bear fruit and God sees that patch of good soil.  The good heart lying in the midst of a den of thieves.  Sometimes the only way to get seed to fall on the sliver of good soil is to rain it upon the messed up people around them.  Scripture tells us in Matthew 5...
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same?”  Matthew 5: 44-45. 
In the same way God casts his word, his seed upon the good and the evil, the righteous and the unrighteous.  

But even after Jesus explains the meaning of the parable, some still get stuck thinking about pinpointing the seed where it can yield the most fruit.  We start thinking about the seed as a finite resource and want to send it where it can bear the most fruit.  We start thinking in terms of return on investment.  We do mental calculations about how much seed needs to be gathered back in to offset how much seed the sower casts out.  That sort of return on investment, receiving more than we cast out is a human concern, an economic concern, and at the heart of it a sinful wandering of our mind.  God simply wants for his word to bear fruit.  While he can delight in how much fruit his word, his seed brings forth, the harvest itself and not the volume of the harvest is the concern.  For us to remember that, it helps to think of God with an infinite supply seed, with which to generate a harvest.  

I remember one time when I missed out on being good soil or a the good sower.  Nelson was known as our stealth member at our first call.  His Lutheran Church had been closed, and he travelled 15 miles, 20 minutes to come worship with us Sunday morning.  He would silently slip into the church, sit in the back, leave his offering and slip out.  He would hardly talk to anyone.  I received a phone call from the funeral director when Nelson died.  And I travelled 15 miles away to conduct his funeral service with people I had never met.  I preached about Nelson’s faith and described it as like a cross in your pocket, always there for you when you needed it.  When I said “cross in your pocket” a young teenager laughed and his mother went “shhh.”  The funeral was open coffin and typically I would stay with the coffin until the funeral director closed it.  But the funeral director asked me to step outside for a minute.  I didn’t ask why.  I had seen the six pack of beer that men were trying to sneak by me because they wanted to leave it in the coffin for Nelson.  That was a missed opportunity.  I should have walked with them and said something like “why waste good beer.”  Or I could have cracked one open and lifted up a toast to Nelson and passed that beer along to his friends to drink to Nelson one more time.  Sure some of them would have probably laughed at me.  Others in the community would have been offended by the idea of a minister sharing a beer with the mourners.  But maybe one soul would have understood why Nelson drove 20 minutes away to go to a Lutheran church when plenty of other churches were closer by.  That Lutherans aren’t afraid of a six pack of beer.  Maybe a few of them would have appreciated by participating in (or affirming) the blessing by which they wanted to send of Nelson.  Instead I went and read the scripture and proclaimed grace and played the role of a minister discreetly looking the other way.

The generosity of God can be seen not in just how God scatters the seed on the good soil.  We see the generosity in how God scatters the seed among the rocks and everything else.  Perhaps, it doesn’t really make sense in the parable version, but as Jesus explains things I understand.  I like it when people get excited about God’s word, and I always hope that it will take root.  Same with the thorns, I like it when the word of God starts something even though I have to lament that it does not bear fruit.  Even the birds are fed, and we are probably surprised to hear that the birds represent the evil ones.  If Jesus told the parable today, he would probably talk about squirrels that way, at least here in the Valley where the squirrels find new and creative ways to steal the seed we intend for the birds.  Let the birds or the squirrels be fed, if that means seed falls on good soil.  And God is generous to the birds, all the land, and to you.  He casts the seed, and his grace-filled word on all of creation.  

The challenge of stewardship for a church or any charity, its not about what we want for ourselves, but instead what we want for others, including others who may not deserve it.  That is what it means to cast out seed indiscriminately.  And sometimes we are the soil receiving the seed, and sometimes we are the sower casting out the seed.  And finding ourselves in both parts of the story is part of the bond between the good soil and the sower.  

There God is in the person of story once again being generous.  There Jesus is telling our story, about our ministry in the best possible light.  Jesus tells about our sowing of seeds and how we bear good fruit.  Maybe he even tells the story a little bit better than we would tell it ourselves.  (For Jesus and for us in this messed up land) For Jesus our story begins when the good seed we cast hits good soil.  And he tells how we it produced fruit, thirty, sixty, even a hundred fold.  


Monday, July 10, 2017

Paul and the Challenge of Hypocrisy

Sermon of Christ Lutheran Church, Staunton VA   
July 9, 2017
Pastor Robert McCarty

Preaching Texts:  Romans 7: 15-25a     Matthew 11: 16-19, 25-30

Few people want to admit it, but being a Christian is hard.  Being a Christian truly affects how you live every day.  As we know a person’s behavior does not always match a person’s values.  Sin creates that problem.  Any person or any community with a strong set of values will have to confront moments when their behavior along with the behavior of the world around them challenges those values.  And when we fail, it opens us up to the charge of hypocrisy.  

Here is a story.  Richard grew up Mennonite.  He became a Lutheran, but he grew up Mennonite, and he responded to the call to serve the (call to fight) in World War II.  Mennonites, along with Quakers and Brethren, are among the peace churches that teach and preach non-aggression.  Richard’s decision to enlist went against the values of his family, his church, and the community of that slice of Bucks County Pennsylvania that had a strong Mennonite presence.  His Mennonite Church faced a conundrum on how to respond to Richard’s actions.  And not just his church.  Other Mennonite churches faced the same dilemma as their sons enlisted.   Not just Richard faced the conundrum, but the sin that fireballed into world war II forced the Mennonite churches to make an awkward decision.  His church would remove Richard from membership.  Now, Richard married a young Lutheran woman.  I saw those black and white wedding photos when they celebrated their 50th anniversary, and I found grace in knowing that Richard’s mother attended the wedding service in her plain clothes and mennonite head covering.

When I lived outside of Philadelphia.  I spoke with a retired Mennonite pastor at a social event that we were both invited to.  Again, just a reminder, mennonite are not amish.  Some mennonites dress in plain clothes, but most mennonites and mennonite pastors dress in the contemporary clothing style of the time, as this retired mennonite pastor did.  He told me that World War II was a theological struggle for the Mennonite Church.  In part because of the reality of evil that existed in Europe, but also they had to deal with the patriotic fervor that existed in the United States.  How do you respond to evil, and how do you respond to these sons who have grown up with you who choose to fight the evil?  

Not just Mennonites, but the Christian Church, and not just the Christian church, but a good portion of humanity that takes faith and spiritual practices seriously,  We teach mercy, grace and forgiveness, but we also teach a set of standards about how we get along with our selves and one another, our neighbors, how we get along with the rest of humanity.  Those standards, that moral code is important.  For us, that means the 10 Commandments and teachings about the 10 Commandments.  

That we have values, a moral code, and that we practice forgiveness creates a moral conundrum that we as Christians cannot escape.  Some of the skeptics outside of Christianity call it hypocrisy.  Technically, hypocrisy occurs when behavior does not conform to one’s moral standards or beliefs.  Our challenge, Christianity adheres to a moral code that is actually at odds with itself.  The code has us stand both against sin and for mercy.  We stand against sin but with forgiveness.  We will call it hypocrisy, because that is the charge leveled against us, but it is not really hypocrisy.

Mennonites faced this challenge with World War II and the draft of Vietnam, probably Korea in between and World War One earlier that century.  How to handle grace and mercy and clearly stand against aggression and violence by your members.  They also wanted to stand against the patriotic fervor that had a military outward expression.  They have a concern worth considering: how do we create patriotic unity without rallying around a common enemy to fight?  How do we create patriotism, national pride, that does not require an army or a navy or soldiers.  That is what North Korea does.  That little, tiny slice of a peninsula once had the 4th largest army in the world.  Their leadership beams that they now have a missile that can attack Alaska or Hawaii, as well as Japan.  We don’t want to be like that.  

Another example, many, even some Lutherans, pick on Roman Catholics and their practice of annulling marriages.  Roman Catholics along with many other Christians want to uphold the sanctity of marriage.  So Roman Catholic practice makes it more difficult to end a marriage than just getting a legal divorce.  Sometimes they administer their annulments poorly, but they truly wish to emphasize the gift and blessing of marriage.

Jesus in the gospel lesson, along with Paul in his letter to the Roman church, confront this challenge of Christian behaviors and teachings that sometimes conflict.  And they confront the criticisms that fall upon the church.  Of course they confront it in different ways.  Paul speaks candidly about his own challenge.  Jesus looks at those around him. (I do no know that he laughs at the situation, but he certainly points out the humor in it.) 

We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;
we wailed, and you did not mourn.”
For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, “He has a demon;” the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The crowd creates a situation where you just cannot win.  Jesus cannot win, at least with the crowds.  But we know that Jesus is the winning side.  

Let us go back to Paul.  All that Paul says in this passage is what we do is hard.  Christians struggle to act like Christians. If you are not a Christian, that statement sounds funny.  If you are a Christian, you know exactly what I mean when I say Christians struggle to act like Christians.  Take a simple commandment, “Thou Shall Not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”  Which we summarize as “Thou shall not lie.”  Try to go through a day without lying.  It can be done, but here are the challenges.  

  1. White lies to protect peoples feelings.  For example, I love the color of those socks; I think the floral pattern on that tie is bold; I think purple and red is a good color choice.  Do you remember when women would get together wearing purple dresses and red hats.  You don’t see women groups gather wearing purple dresses and red hats anymore.  The first challenge has you protecting peoples feelings.  
  2. Throw away statements to protecting our privacy.  For example,  Someone asks, “How are you feeling?” and you say “Fine” when you are not feeling fine.  We do that all the time.  “Are you okay?”  We say, “Yes” even when that answer is a blunt “NO” or a mild “Not really.”  Frankly, I don’t need to tell everyone that my back hurts, and I think it really crummy being fifty years old.  But to tell that to everyone is to dwell on it.  I don’t want to dwell on it.  

Being a Christian is hard and this point about polite lying is incredibly minor compared to what Paul is talking about.  People are trying to kill Paul.  They are throwing stones at him.  They are planning mobs to overwhelm him.  They have placed him under house arrest.  I suspect that Paul is actually wanting to knock some heads together.  I suspect what Paul would really like to say goes along the lines of “you throw stones at me, I will throw bigger stones back.”  Paul has never been someone to run away.  If the response was “fight or flight” Paul was one to fight, but now he behaves differently. 

Instead, Paul has to respond with “I trust God.  I trust in Jesus Christ my Lord and savior.”  “My life is his.”  Those words are words we all need to respond with.  “I trust God.  I trust in Jesus Christ my Lord and Savior.  My life is his.”  Living out the Moral code is hard and we fail.  Sometimes though, trusting in God is even harder, and we fail at that too.  

When we trust God however, we learn from these two scripture passages, all is well.  Paul describes trusting God as delivery from a body of death to a body of life.  Sin still weighs on us, but the body has been freed from death to life.  

I like Jesus description better.  His yoke is easy and his burden is light.  Jesus lifts us up.  Richard made a tough decision and an unpopular decision.  He found the Lutheran Church.  Trust in Jesus.  Jesus finds you and lifts you up and cares for you and what you need.

On the Bucks County side of Telford, PA you will find a non-denomination congregation that teaches mostly mennonite values.  The congregation was formed by young men and their families.  The men were drafted during Vietnam, went and served their tour.  When they returned the Mennonite Churches would no longer allow them to worship in their former churches.  So they got together and formed a new church that did not ban them for military service.  And fifty years later that church continues to thrive and minister to those in need and helps people with the struggle and hard work of living a Christian life.  Jesus found them.

You will mess up, even without trying, but Christ will always be here waiting for you with grace and mercy even when people laugh at him or criticize him for doing just that.  Cynics call it hypocrisy.  We call it grace and mercy.