On Isaiah 51:1-6

Inger B. Hanson

Year A / Pentecost 12

Shepherd of the Mountains, Jackson, WY

August 27, 2017

 

On Isaiah 51:1-6  Leaving The Tunnels We Know For Divine Possiblity

 

We call it tunnel vision –

when all you can see is your perspective, your truth.

It’s when your peripheral vision –

all that normally corrects, adjusts, delights

and yes, sometimes distracts –

stops working.

Tunnels are dark.

And there isn’t always a bright light at the end of them.

More often, we have a sense of inevitability –

of only being able to travel down this path, or perhaps backward.

If there is any color, perhaps all we see is red.

Perhaps all we see is despair, or hopelessness.

You’ve been there, right?

Maybe briefly.  Maybe a longer visit.

Maybe to a degree – where your vision only narrowed.

What causes tunnel vision?

It’s a noted side effect when we feel anxious or attacked,

when our famous “fight or flight” response is triggered.

Scientists talk about the amygdala “hijacking” the rational brain,

only allowing us to think yes or no, rather than considering how or why.[1]

More metaphorically, it can be the effect of long-term stress.

I think of studies showing how financial strain

impairs cognitive function.[2]

It can come from emotional distress and trauma,

where maybe first the edges were just grey but are steadily darkening

because of a bleak diagnosis, a lost job or a fractured relationship.

And tunnels don’t have to be solitary places.

Sometimes they can be strongest and darkest

when everyone sees the same thing:

like after a hurricane or stock market crash.

Then they can be echo-chambers,

where the narrative you are locked on

is confirmed by your preferred news channel,

your email groups, or your social media feed.

The Israelites Isaiah addresses were in their own tunnel.

Scholar Ronald Peters remarks,

“These words were addressed to people who had experienced

more than a generation of pain and disgrace in exile

after Judah and its capital city were overrun by ruthless Babylonian conquerors in 587 BCE.

The exiles recalled the burning of Jerusalem,

the capture, torture, and death of their king, Zedekiah,

the slaughter of their leading citizens,

and their ignominious trek into Babylonian captivity (Jer 52:4-27).[3]

As we well know, “in the midst of confusing noises of stress or crisis,

it is not unusual to lose a clear sense of perspective.”

But however we got there,

whether the tunnels we find ourselves in were expected, deserved,

or we fell into one suddenly,

as dark as they are,

I think there’s something in us that feels safe in tunnels.

Everything there is black and white.

We know what to expect –

there’s only that narrow highway in front of us.

That sense of certainty gives us a measure of control

and an idea of what to do.

In a tunnel, we can trudge sure-footed.

In a tunnel, however grim, we can survive.

Into that chattering chaos, Isaiah’s clear voice rings out.

“Listen to me.”

In the dimness of the tunnel, Isaiah demands,

“Look to the rock from which you were hewn,

and to the quarry from which you were dug.”

Remember, dear ones, who and whose you are.

On the walls, Isaiah paints murals,

“Look to Abraham your father, and to Sarah who bore you;

for he was but one when I called him, but I blessed him and made him many.”

Isaiah reminds the Israelites of God’s paint brush, of living color.

The certainty of the tunnel world would never permit a baby to be born

to woman so far beyond childbearing years.

Indeed, Abraham and Sarah too, were once caught in a tunnel of despair

as they desperately tried to conceive.

The strident tunnel voices don’t know what do

with the reminder of the baby

that was named Isaac, for laughter.[4]

We are reminded of the bigger picture,

of the world beyond our tunneled perspective,

where God’s presence and activity isn’t limited to yes or no,

but holds fantastic possibility.

And the world Isaiah paints isn’t just for the Israelites.

Theologian Angela Hancock notes

that the transformations Isaiah describes

“are ultimately not just for Israel’s sake but for the blessing of all,

as the broadening of the prophet’s vision

to include the hopes of a wider world in verses 4 and 5 indicates.

While the text began by speaking particularly to those

who “seek the Lord” in Israel,

it becomes clear that promised deliverance

will be a light to any who long with Israel for a just and fruitful world.”[5]

“Listen,” Isaiah cries out, interrupting the tunnel chatter once again.

And “Lift up your eyes to the heavens, and look at the earth beneath…”!

Even as our eyes are straining at the ceilings

and dark floors of our tunnels,

there’s a sense that however real they are right now,

they will vanish and wear out.

In contrast, God’s salvation,

God’s promise of the garden of joy, gladness,

thanksgiving and song will endure.[6]

Mere survival isn’t the point.

Rather, we are called out of our tunnels, or, if you will, our tombs.

We are called to ask why and how,

rather than be satisfied with yes or no.

Now, outside the tunnel isn’t safe.

But God promises life after death, resurrection after the cross,

a garden after a desert.

And Christ has gone before us and united to us in baptism,

walks with us.

This week if the voices get loud or if you sense a tunnel forming

may you be comforted by Isaiah.

Listen.  Look.

Remember who and whose you are.

Remember and cling to what God has done and what God promises

when the edges darken, or things seem stark.

May those memories open your eyes, your ears and your hearts

that you hear and see in living color,

with less certainty but more life.

Amen.

 

[1] Summarized here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amygdala_hijack

[2] http://www.medicaldaily.com/poverty-lowers-iq-how-financial-strains-put-pressure-cognitive-logical-reasoning-255093

[3] Peters in Feasting on the Word, pg. 364

[4] Here, Angela Dienhart Hancock’s Feasting on the Word commentary was helpful (365)

[5] ibid.

[6] ibid.  367.

On Isaiah 56:1-8

Inger B. Hanson

Year A / Pentecost 11

Shepherd of the Mountains, Jackson, WY

August 20, 2017 (the day before Great American Solar Eclipse)

 

On Isaiah 56:1-8  Gather Us In

 

While this might surprise some of you, I test as an “ambivert,”

– with some extrovert behaviors but also some introvert tendencies.

So a gathering evokes both excitement and anxiety.

And a gathering for a special event like tomorrow’s total solar eclipse?

That’s another order of magnitude.

Will the church swell with visitors,

or will we have the lowest attendance of the summer

as people “shelter in place?”

We wondered about having a special evening worship service

versus taxing already stretched community resources.

Jackson already feels the strain of being a gathering place,

with our proximity to two national parks.

On a personal level, I love hosting and reconnecting with

far flung friends, but I abhore traffic.

I love meeting new people,

but sometimes I wish I could pick and choose which ones.

And then there’s my participation in the event itself.

I’m a luke-warm umbraphile

(I didn’t even know the term until a News & Guide article a few weeks ago

naming the lovers of eclipses who often travel to see them).

Do I deserve to be here for this “once in a lifetime” event?

Do I care enough?

I’m intrigued, but to be honest, I’m glad the eclipse is coming to me,

rather than taking any extra effort on my part.

I have, however, bought a commemorative hat and protective eyewear.

So, for better or for worse, the Great American Solar Eclipse of 2017

is gathering others besides who already find ourselves here.

And yet I hope it will be like other gatherings we have all known,

where the traffic isn’t as bad as we thought,

and worth the community and energy created,

where all that caused anxiety is proved false.

In Isaiah, the Lord God talks about an even bigger gathering.

The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, says

“I will gather others to them besides those already gathered.”

In the following verses, two groups traditionally named as outsiders

are explicitly named as being invited in:

the foreigner and the eunuch.

Now, the gathering parallel isn’t as simple

as your second cousin twice removed being invited to the party,

or the luke-warm umbraphile getting to be in Jackson

for the total solar eclipse.

Scholars note that the biblical legislation in Deuteronomy and Leviticus,

the laws that governed the Israelite community,

“might incline the foreigner and eunuch

to consider themselves excluded from God’s blessings.”[1]

This would be bringing in those we’d normally deny access to,

formally or informally.

So who are the foreigners or eunuchs today?

The concept of a foreigner doesn’t seem to have changed much

over time.  Someone whose culture, language,

and appearance might be different from our own.

At first, the only eunuchs who came to mind for me

where characters in HBO’s Game of Thrones.

But eunuchs aren’t just part of a bygone, fantastical era.

In the US, those afflicted with prostrate cancer

sometimes are effectively rendered eunuchs as part of their treatment.[2]

Some see the eunuch as representing alternative sexualities.

Sometimes there is legislation that excludes our foreigners and eunuchs of today.

Sometimes it’s less official, and more social.

The side effects of treatment for prostrate cancer

can be psychologically and physically distressing for men.

Let’s push further.

Our other scripture readings also raise this theme of inclusion,

naming different groups viewed as outsiders

by the communities and contexts they address.

So more metaphorically,

who are the foreigners and eunuchs in your life?

At the Tuesday men’s breakfast study, we talked about how

the implication that a eunuch will not have their own offspring

resonated for single people (or for those married but childless).

There are times those who are childless

are made to feel incomplete or less than those who are not.

There is official legislation, like tax advantages,

for being married, or having children.

More poignant is the social legislation.

In my life, I am very grateful for married friends

that find ways to continue to include me,

even when I’m a “fifth wheel,”

or do not have kids of my own to talk about or bring to a gathering.

Who are the foreigners and eunuchs in your life?

Who do the communities you belong to legislate –

officially or unofficially – as “out”?

Maybe you picture an individual’s face.

Perhaps you think of a group of people.

What does it mean to imagine God as inviting those people in?

And further, when have you felt like foreigner or a eunuch?

What does it mean to imagine God gathering you in,

gathering you up with those

who have at some point made you feel excluded?

It’s a bit tempting to use the description of the foreigner and eunuch’s relationship to God

as a qualifier or conditional statement,

to use it to reduce the traffic at this gathering,

or let in only those we approve of,

that understand serving God the way we do.

We’re tempted to say,

“Okay God, I guess you’re also letting in our foreigners and eunuchs –

but only the ones joined to you,

keeping Sabbaths and choosing the right things.”

I think this is a slippery slope,

putting us in danger of judging one another,

tempting us to evaluate just how well people are doing.

God doesn’t ask us to take on that role.

If anything, our role is to remind those that identify as foreigner

or a eunuch

of their relationship to God.

“Do not let the foreigner joined to the Lord say,

“The Lord will surely separate me from his people”;

and do not let the eunuch say, “I am just a dry tree.”

Our role is to remind them that whatever makes them strange, or dry,

does not separate them from the love of God.[3]

Our role is to remind ourselves that whatever makes us strange, or dry,

does not separate us from the love of God.

Before we ever love God, God loves us[4],

forgives and renews us:

working to transform our lives so that we can keep God’s Sabbaths,

choose the things that please the Lord, and hold fast to God’s covenant.

Our role in the gathering is that reminder.

Our other charge is to “maintain justice, and do what is right,

for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.”

As God gathers, we wait,

but our waiting isn’t idle.

Maintain justice.  Do what is right.

Wait for the Lord, because soon God’s salvation will come,

and God’s deliverance be revealed.

That “soon” in the first verse

reminded me of Andrae Crouch’s great hymn “Soon and Very Soon.”

The bridge lyrics echo Isaiah’s and also Revelation’s vision of a great gathering,

and talk about God giving us the strength

to maintain justice and do what is right,

to overcome any obstacles to being gathered.

Should there be any rivers we must cross,

Should there be any mountains we must climb,

God will supply all the strength that we need,

Give us grace ’til we reach the other side.

We have come from every nation,

God knows each of us by name.

Jesus took His blood and He washed our sins,

And He washed them all away.

Yes, there are some of us,

Who have laid down our lives,

But we all shall live again,

On the other side.

 

Maintain justice.  Do what is right.

Wait for the Lord, because soon God’s salvation will come,

and God’s deliverance be revealed.

May it be soon and very soon.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Harper Collins Study Bible, notes on Isaiah 56:3.

[2] http://bigthink.com/experts-corner/the-surprising-truth-about-modern-eunuchs

[3] As Paul tells us in Romans 8:38-39

[4] As we hear in 1 John 4:19

On 1 Kings 19:9-18

Inger B. Hanson

Year A / Pentecost 10

Shepherd of the Mountains, Jackson, WY

August 13, 2017

 

On 1 Kings 19:9-18  Lessons on Lamentation & Mission from Elijah

I’m no Elijah.

I officiate at weddings rather than great miracles;

I have not stood before the political leaders of our nation and taken them to task.

And much as I enjoy action movies,

I do not kill the false pastors.

Yet, in my own way, in my own time,

I strive to be zealous for the Lord, the God hosts.

You too, in your own ways, strive to remember God’s new covenant with us,

to live in joyful response to Christ’s work.

But this week, Elijah’s complaint resonates.

“They are seeking my life, to take it away.”

The life where the horrors of nuclear weapons were a history lesson rather than a present fear.

The life where racism still existed to be dismantled

but white supremacy would never be paraded, blatant and unmasked.

And yet even to use these words of life being taken away metaphorically is a privilege,

because for our siblings in Christ who are people of color, “seeking my life, to take it away”

is far more literal.

Our siblings tell us that they struggling to breathe,

that those that are sworn to protect them are sometimes threats,

and that our justice systems often fails them.

How did we get here?

How did Elijah get here?

Actually, before this moment in our first reading,

Elijah almost didn’t make it to Mount Horeb.

After outdoing the prophets of Baal, and then killing them,

Queen Jezebel has sworn her revenge on him.

He might have been the victor of that battle,

but now Elijah is on the run.

He even prays, just a few verses before our passage today:

“It is enough;

now, O Lord, take away my life,

for I am no better than my ancestors.”

Elijah laments his ineffectiveness in leading the Israelites,

in changing their ways.

It’s a lament we could sing too.

I like to point to the “theys” taking away my securities and the life I have known,

but there’s an “I” component too.

I am no better than my ancestors.

I’ve been inculcated into the idea of progress,

that we’ve been improving, slowly but surely, from ages past.

But when I read the headlines of the last week,

it’s like I’m in my history books, not 2017.

Even if I’m not comparing myself to Elijah or the other great prophets,

these words resonate with how I feel as a white American.

When I first began learning about systemic racism,

I used to want to clarify my Swedish-German ancestory:

“my grandparents weren’t involved with slavery!”

I used to wonder if I would always be apologizing for the sins of other people past

who happened to share my skin color.

 

This week I’m realizing again how naïve I was and have been.

These are the sins of August 11, 2017 in the United States of America, of which I am a citizen.

Forget progress.  This week shows us that we are no better than

the generations that came before.

 

And even when I’ve been willing to engage, I tire quickly.

I’m not alone – we have terms like “terror fatigue” and “activist burnout,” –

and even without the fancy names

most of my friends and acquaintances talk about times

where we redirect the conversation rather than engage a racial slur,

or tune out from what’s happening in the world.

I find it comforting that even Elijah got fatigued.

Elijah only finally makes it to Mount Horeb for the encounter we read about today

because God sends an angel to tend him and equip him for a forty day journey.

Sometimes we do need a break,

to be fed so that this journey doesn’t overwhelm us.

So Elijah finds himself retracing the Israelites’ wilderness wanderings in reverse,

and eventually arrives at the mount of God.

Surely here, more than with just an angel’s attendance (though that seems pretty nice),

Elijah will bring his fatigue and frustration to God, and be answered.

 

“I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts;

for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars,

and killed your prophets with the sword.

I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

 

Here in 2017, no matter our zeal,

no matter what we had thought or hoped we had accomplished,

we have fellow citizens, some who call themselves Christians,

who have forsaken the covenant – to love God and to love neighbor.

Images surfacing from Charlottesville show white nationalists with assault rifles

facing off with clergy counter-protestors from all denominations.  And there have been deaths.

 

In Elijah’s story, what happens next is what we usually focus on.

God passes by: not in the great wind so strong that it split mountains;

not in the earthquake; not in the fire; but in the sound of sheer silence.

The traditional renderings describe a “still small voice.”

There is something about Elijah not being alone:

that God is present in the opposite of the grandiose.

I remember preachers urging me to listen for that voice,

and I still find it comforting to remember that God shows up in the ordinary.

I think about how God is present to us in prayer,

in the sacraments, or in worship.

 

But on this reading something else struck me.

Elijah might be more ordinary than I thought.

Because however we love verses 11 through 13 and assign them great import,

verse 10 and verse 14 are identical.

For Elijah, the storm and the silence make no impression.

While some readers like to imagine different intonations,

it’s important that his lament, his fatigue and frustration,

remains unchanged.

“I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.”

 

Today we will pray.  We will share communion.

We will worship together.

But Elijah demonstrates that our faith is not a quick fix.

The God we witness to does not erase or ignore the realities of our world on mountain tops.

God is present on those mountain tops, and here in this sanctuary,

but God isn’t done yet either.

God doesn’t get mad at Elijah, like,

“hello, didn’t you notice me in the still small voice here?”

Rather, God continues the conversation.

I’m not sure Elijah loved the answer.

God both promises Elijah more, but expects more of him, too.

 “Go, return on your way to the wilderness of Damascus…”

However tender the angel, however much Elijah needed this retreat,

it’s not an indefinite escape.

God is sending Elijah back into the fray.

And yet there is promise in the tasks God gives him:

God will answer the loneliness he’s experienced in his call

with new kings and even better, a successor.

Further, there will be justice: Elijah’s enemies will be killed.

What does that mean for us in our story?

While I would argue Christian testimony ultimately arcs away from violence,

I think we can learn a lot about our God from Elijah.

Even when we are still tired, even when we feel unchanged by prayer, sacrament, or worship,

we are sent back into the fray.

We are called to more.  And God promises more.

God will answer the futility we feel.  And God will be just.

 

In Romans, Paul asks, “how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard?

And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?

And how are they to proclaim unless they are sent?”

Dear church, in these troubled times, we don’t need to be Elijahs.

But we need to be Christians.

Learning from Elijah’s example of both lament and mission,

we are sent into our community and country.

Let us be clear about who we proclaim and the God we witness to.

Our God may be present in silence, but our God answers injustice.

Our God is love, and does not accept hate.

And when we anoint people with this good news,

God will meet us in our work, and continue the conversation.

I can only imagine the hard work of being a pastor in the South,

of how at times it must feel futile and lonely.

And yet, the Charlottesville clergy found each other,

forming a collective to respond to the rising evil of our times,

refusing to let that evil and hatred go unchallenged.

In the face of torches, they sing “This Little Light of Mine.”

Whatever we feel or don’t feel in our prayer or in the silences of our worship,

let us remember that God isn’t done at the end of the service.

God asks more, and God promises more.

Let us shine too.

Amen.

On Matthew 14:13-21

Inger B. Hanson

Year A / Pentecost 9

Shepherd of the Mountains, Jackson, WY

August 6, 2017

 

On Matthew 14:13-21  The Beauty of the Unnecessary Miracle

 

We have a God of abundance.

We get sort of used to hearing that,

but I don’t know if we always know it our bones,

or if it slips our minds when it comes to how we understand God,

what we ask or expect of God.

We have a God of abundance.

And I’m not just talking about full bellies,

or having more after a simple meal than you started with.

The story of the feeding of the five thousand (plus women and children!)

points to an abundance of miracles.  And types of miracles.

I think we often limit miracles to being just about healing,

or rescue from dire circumstance.

We look to God when we need a miracle –

when we or someone we love has gotten a cancer diagnosis

or been in an accident, when there’s been a fire or a flood,

or the third overdue payment reminder has come.

In Matthew’s gospel, the people needed those kind of miracles too.

Matthew tells us that crowds of people left their towns

and followed him on foot to a deserted place.

And we know that at least some of were sick.

And yet what I imagine as these desperately needed miracles –

the illnesses perhaps uncurable by the medicine of the time,

the ones both the same as but as individually particular

as other dramatic stories in the gospels –

these miracles aren’t the focus of the passage.

Matthew summarizes them in just one verse:

Jesus “had compassion for them and cured their sick.”

Instead, the focus of this story is not on an individual’s cure or rescue, but on a picnic.

And let’s be clear: Matthew doesn’t give us any indication that there’s been a famine in the area,

or that the crowds are starving.

There’s not that kind of urgency to the story.

The disciples are even thinking ahead,

considerately trying to send the crowds home in a timely manner

so they can stop by what I like to imagine as the hot meal or soup bar

at the grocery store before it’s shut down for the day.

I don’t think anyone would have been offended.

It doesn’t seem like this one meal is make or break;

missing it wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Matthew doesn’t even give us a significant explanation,

like Jesus was only half way through an important lecture,

and the rapt crowd needed to stay to learn more.

A miracle of convenience?

An unnecessary miracle, when we consider all the types of needs that Jesus encounters?

God is expanding my usual definition of what a miracle is, when they occur.

God is expanding my definition of what God cares about, and when God acts.

And God is expanding my usual definition of who a miracle is for, and who God cares for.

The miraculous is invading the ordinary.

5,000 men, and women and children besides.

In spite of what we know about group think or crowd behavior,

I’m struck by the sheer number of people caught up in this miracle,

remembering that this crowd is made up of individual humans each with their own stories.

Surely not all patient.  Surely not all kind.

Surely not all merciful.  Surely not all poor.

Whatever label we usually think of Jesus acting with and for,

it’s hard to make those generalizations with a crowd this size.

This story seems to teach that miracles aren’t just for the deserving, or for the desperate,

but for collectives, for impromptu communities.

This miracle is not asked for, not necessary, not urgent,

not for an individual we can identify with…

but Jesus wants to do this miracle.

Maybe, even, it’s a miracle for Jesus.

The passage begins with Jesus learning of John the Baptist’s death and withdrawing –

presumably to grieve or to ponder.

“But when the crowds heard it” – just that Jesus had left? Or about John the Baptist?  –

perhaps they too were grieving, pondering what this might mean.

Perhaps in the healing, in the interaction with the crowds he had tried to escape,

Jesus had found comfort and a bit of healing for his own grief.

Pastor Jon Beake wondered if the feeding of five thousand (and woman and children besides)

is Jesus throwing a funeral feast.

“They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”

Jesus expands who does miracles too.

The disciples are invited to be part of God’s action.

And then, in language closely related to the meal we share at communion,

loaves and fishes are multiplied.

All “ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces,

twelve baskets full.”

What was the outcome of this ordinary miracle?

I think far more than just full bellies and leftovers to take home.

Far more than even wonder, or fledgling faith inspired by this power of this sign.

I’m curious about the mutual comfort of a funeral feast;

where in the face of death God comforts Jesus and the crowds with overflowing signs of life.

But surely one of the five thousand (or one of the women or one of children besides)

wasn’t that hungry.

Surely one already believed.

Surely one didn’t know or care that much about John the Baptist.

Surely one of them was a bit like me

(okay, so I like John the Baptist, but in a pretty academic way).

What might this ordinary miracle mean to them?  What might it mean to us?

Teton Trail Runners holds a special place in my heart

disproportionate to the miles I’ve put in with them.

This summer I’ve only made one or two runs,

but I think wistfully of the parking lot conversations.

The organizers, you see, don’t just check us in as we cruise (or limp, as the case may be) in.

They haul a water cooler and simple snacks that encourage folks to linger,

and usually a large group migrates to the nearest watering hole.

It’s not necessary, and not urgent,

but this simple generosity does something rather miraculous:

it nourishes and deepens relationships.

It affirms life, beyond just the run.

To me, Matthew’s telling of this ordinary miracle honors fellowship and community.

It shows God’s investment not just when God is most needed,

but also in the ebbs and flows of everyday life.

God works in abundant ways, and divine intervention mingles with the actions of disciples.

It’s an ordinary miracle, but a life-giving and sustaining one.

God’s abundance isn’t just about quantity, but an extravagance of style and approach.

God’s care for the relationships of our lives

can be glimpsed in the small touches or grand gestures.

And we are invited to care for our community with healing generosity

that takes us beyond assessing need or desperation to flourishing together.

This week, may God’s ordinary miracles surprise and fill you anew.

Amen.

On Matthew 13:1-23

Inger B. Hanson

Year A / Pentecost 6

Shepherd of the Mountains, Jackson, WY

 

Sower, Seed, & Soil… and bird poop?  A Parable of Possibilities

 

Stories seem an appropriate teaching style for the divine.

Stories resonate, stories ground,

stories capture all of one’s senses and emotions.  Stories are fun!

But sometimes it feels like a story raises

as many questions as it answers.

There are loose ends, or parts we want to know more about.

A story often prods, teases, and challenges us.

There’s a richness in story that is never exhausted,

never fully understood.

 

Still, Jesus shows us some mercy.  In Matthew and Mark,

the parable of the sower is the parable to introduce parables.

And this time, Jesus helps the disciples with the interpretation.

He gives them the code:

The various types of soil represent

the different ears the word of God falls on.

The parable describes the diverse reactions to Jesus in his ministry.

 

Why do people respond to Jesus differently?

Why do some believe, and others don’t?

Why do some stop believing after a short time?

Why do some stop believing over time?

If Jesus is the truth, shouldn’t everyone be able to recognize and believe in him?

 

Why do people respond to Jesus differently?

 

It was a big question in Jesus’ own time,

especially in Matthew’s account.

Communities responded differently to his ministry.

We know that the Pharisees and Sadducees opposed Jesus.

Earlier, Jesus had also called out cities

that did not repent after he visited.

 

It was a big question of the early church Matthew is writing for.

I wonder if they saw it as regional:

hey Pete, lots of rocky soil in the north.  Lots of sun over there.

Paul, you’re definitely in the weeds!

 

It’s a question that still haunts us today.

Why does Christianity catch on in one part of the world,

but not in another?  We look at lots of factors:

historical, socio-political – but on the deepest level

we still wrestle with this question.

 

And the question applies not just between,

but within communities too.

Matthew describes the people in Jesus’ hometown taking offense at him,

and his own family didn’t always understand him.

The early church struggled with divisions, and within our own communities,

there’s a frustrating range of responses to the gospel.

 

We all know someone who has never believed.

We all know someone was very active in the church for a while,

and then seemed to give up on faith.

We all know someone where trouble, or desire for wealth,

seems to choke their faith.

And we all know Christians who thrive

in varying degrees in their faith.

Why do people respond to Jesus differently?

 

We might be tempted to consider that Jesus

was saying different things,

leading to the different responses.

Had he preached bad sermons in those cities that didn’t repent?  Did he have an off day?

Maybe the early church sent bad missionaries to certain areas.

Maybe the people we know missed that awesome class.

 

The parable of the sower rejects this line of thinking.

It affirms that the seed is always the same.

The Word of God is always the Word of God; it keeps its integrity.

It always has it powerful potential,

but it is expressed differently in various settings.

The truth of Jesus is deeper, bigger,

more than something people

just intellectually recognize and assent to.

 

Instead, the parable of the sower describes the range of responses

as due to hearing the same message differently.

Different ears, different soils.

 

Now, the agriculture illustration isn’t quite so simple for us today.

What about how a seed is more viable

after passing through birds’ guts?

One study said by 370%!

What about fertilizer?  Transplanting?

What about irrigation, or shade?

What about removing stones?  What about weeding?

 

Would Jesus still tell this parable today to illustrate his point?

I like to think so.

 

Because I think all these questions are actually us wrestling

with something really disturbing about the text.

Being compared to soil is disturbing.

Soil is so… arbitrary.

Soil can’t choose to be one type or another.

The story doesn’t allow for choice, for merit.

And soil can’t transform or change itself.  It is powerless.

 

What does this mean for the countries far away,

the congregation we’re a part of, or for our loved ones?

What does it mean for ourselves?

 

If you’re like me, you’re trying to sort people into soil types.

Am I lucky I grew up in a Christian culture?

Would I be Christian if I had been born in another country?

My brother is an agnostic, and I’m a pastor.

Yet we grew up in the same house, going to the same church.

 

How do we know what defines “good” soil?

If you’re trying to grow wine grapes,

soil that makes the vine struggle is ideal.

 

I desperately want to assume I’m “good” soil, but if I’m honest,

there are some days where I hear the word of the kingdom

and do not understand it.

There are some days where I hear the word

and immediately receive it with joy,

but when trouble or persecutions arise, I fall away.

There are some days when the cares of the world

and the lure of wealth choke any word-inspired action.

Only some of the days do I hear the word and understand it.

Only some days do I bear fruit.

I’m not sure if it’s ever been a hundred-fold, though I hope.

 

If I’m honest, this text is a metaphor for my internal landscape,

as well as the external one around me.

 

The parable has deepened the question.  It’s become,

why do I have so many different responses to Jesus?

 

Instead of answering the questions,

as if we could change the outcomes,

the parable acknowledges the situation.

There’s no explanation of how the soils got to be the way they are:

it just describes them.

But then the parable takes the conversation in a new direction.

The action of the parable focuses us on the sower and the seed.

 

This sower is not economical.

I mean, the sower isn’t blind.

He sees those different types of soil.

And he still sows everywhere anyway.

Wouldn’t a smart sower use those precious seeds

on soil that will yield a crop?

What kind of sower sows on a path?

On the rocky ground?  In the thorns?

What is he doing?!?

 

I don’t think this is an empty sort of justice.

It’s not like the sower says, oh look, even though the deck is stacked

I’m going to go through the motions

so that I can say everyone got a chance.

No, this story reveals something different about our God.

 

Instead of an economical sower,

we have one who keeps showering us with seeds,

regardless of what type of soil we seem to be.

To use one scholar’s description, God is an extravagant sower.[1]

 

If the seeds are the word of God, God’s good news,

the parable reveals God to be a talkative God.

God’s chatting up everyone,

whether they seem to be listening or not.

And God keeps talking.

 

I like to think that this extravagant sower is also wise,

knowing his own power and his own creation.

Maybe the sower knows about seeds flourishing after passing through bird guts

and traveling to new lands through bird poop.

In Matthew 13:5, there is a quality to the seed sown on rocky soil: it springs up quickly.

I like to think the sower appreciates that joyful speed,

and knows how to save the plant.

Perhaps this sower knows about transplanting.

Perhaps this sower is also a gardener, and has plans for fertilizer, for shade, for weeding.

Perhaps this sower knows about both grapes for wine

and grapes for eating.

Perhaps God has plans for all the soils in my interior landscape.

 

And so when we read this parable,

instead of sorting others into soil types

or worrying about the soil makeup of our interior landscapes,

let us cling to the integrity of the word of God,

and the extravagance of God’s love.

Let us cling to his constant conversation,

falling on us each and every Sunday and in our daily lives.

Let us cling to the extravagant sower, who is also a wise gardener.

 

In my life, this frees me for new possibilities.

I can value not only the part of my faith thriving in the top soil,

but also the speedy growth of the part of my faith

that probably needs some nourishment to form deeper roots.

I can value the part of my faith that has struggled,

even as I accept help to clear the things choking it.

And I can value seeds that I find covered in bird poop.

 

When we live with confidence of God’s extravagant love

and power in our own lives,

we also learn about how to participate in God’s mission.

We can value and support the fledgling plants we see.

And most importantly, we don’t need to be economical

with God’s word, assuming that this or that person

doesn’t want to talk about your faith story,

that he or she doesn’t want to hear

about the mystery of God in your life.

Rather, I think we are called to imitate the first sower –

indiscriminately sharing God’s word

and trusting those seeds to do their work over time.

Some of the results we will see.  Some we will not.

But don’t forget that God can work through bird poop.

Amen.

 

 

[1] Rev. Elisabeth Johnson (Lutheran Institute of Theology), July 10, 2011 commentary, workingpreacher.com