First Congregational Church
July 16, 2017
6th Sunday after Pentecost
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 & Romans 8:1-11
“Overcoming Failure” - by celebrating the harvest
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
There was a little boy who wasn't getting good marks in school. One day, he surprised the teacher by tapping her on the shoulder and saying, ”I don't want to scare you, but my daddy says if I don't get better grades, somebody is going to get a spanking.”
I came across this anecdote from one of the preaching “greats,” William H. Willimon. He wrote, “An experienced teacher told me she had learned through her years of teaching that ‘about 80 percent of what you teach is wasted. They are listening, but they are not learning.’” Willimon commented that that’s a lot of wasted effort. Then the wise woman added, “But a teacher waits patiently and keeps on talking, keeps teaching, attempts another approach, tries a different explanation in order to be there for the 20 percent who say, ‘Oh, I get it!’ Their eyes light up, you can see that your words have hit home, and it’s a wonderful harvest.”
It’s quite possible that both of the scripture passages for this morning fall into that 80% bracket, because they are some of those that would land on the top ten most recognized passage list. No matter whether it’s the first or the hundredth time we have heard either passage, may some part of them leap out to you - as if God chose them just for you this morning.
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (NIV)
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
“Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”
Romans 8:1-11 The Message
7:25b I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
8:1 With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.
God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.
The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.
Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.
But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!
Thank you, Beth and Mike. When you sit back and squint your eyes at these two passages a bit, you can begin to see why the lectionary people put them together. The passage from Matthew talks about God’s abundant love, grace and mercy that is available to grow into all God’s people while the passage from Romans talks about how to live in that love, grace and mercy. And perhaps the bottom line of these two passages is about our default human nature vs. developing our kingdom nature.
Back to William H. Willimon, who is a retired Methodist pastor and Duke University professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry, tells a story on himself about how quick he is to point out what’s wrong rather than what’s right.
He said, “We were discussing a new initiative in children’s ministry. Enthusiasm was building to find a way to turn our declining attendance around and attract more children. Then someone said, “The whole country is in a church attendance recession.” Another said, “As I recall, we tried something like this about a decade ago. It didn’t work then, I bet it won’t work now.”
And that was that. We focused on the failure (which is all too easy to do in any church) and failed to have faith in the possibility of success (which Jesus seems to focus on at the end of this parable). That was the part that jumped out at me this week that caused the question - what - specifically - was the success?
If you go back to the end of the Matthew passage, Jesus didn’t get all bent out of shape about the three places where the seed didn’t grow. He celebrated the harvest of that which did grow! 75% of his parable dealt with failure, but 25% focused on the success.
It’s a great reminder for any of us, because at any given time or day, because we are so very human, we can allow for the failed parts of life to overcome us, to speak louder, to beat up what can look small and insignificant in our lives.
But that’s where the Romans’ passage comes in to play. Paul said it before, but in this Romans’ passage, he is saying it one more time - with feeling. Paul has said that the solution to the problems of life is faith. In Romans 8, he describes what faith means. It means being ‘in Christ Jesus.’ “It is not simply putting faith in Christ, it is being in Christ.”
While that can sound a little lofty, try it with love. Love is not the same as ‘being in love.’ “It is not simply putting faith in Christ, it is being in Christ.”
Rev. Willimon made it even larger when he said, “to live in the Spirit is to allow God's infinite power to live in us and give us life that is eternal. God's power becomes our power. It's the power to love as Jesus loved. It changes our lives, which changes the world.”
My buddy, Steve Garnaas-Holmes said, “When God's love exists as pure energy we call it “Spirit.” When God's love is embodied, made finite and mortal, we call it “Christ.”” Now go back to that idea of living ‘in Christ.’ It has a different flavor or hue than just “having faith.”
This sort of living is like the saying I have on the wall behind my desk. We are spiritual beings having a human experience. It’s living in a different cosmos.
Paul is seeking to help his hearers leave behind their old identities which were shaped by the structures of sin and death and rigid law. Being “in Christ” means that believers are not ruled by sin, not ruled by death. Believers have been transported to a new place where life and not death is in charge and where there is no condemnation because sin is not the master.
The candle doesn't trouble itself with the journey of light. The bird doesn't care who hears. Beloved, you waste many seeds. You offer kindness unnoticed. You try seventy times to forgive, and fail, and those you forgive don't repent. Living in Christ, we transform what can feel like failure into that which is worthy and valuable and honorable. As we prepare to refocus our lives on living in Christ, let us pray.
God of Life and Transformation, we thank you for giving us a different way of living life - the way that Christ focused on. We are grateful for the generous sowing of love and grace and mercy in our lives, and for the failed celebrations of those harvests, we ask for your forgiveness. Help each of us find the places of rich, life-giving soil in our lives that can help others to find your love and grace and mercy. Direct us so that the sowing of your dimension of living is not purposefully wasted, but graciously offered to those who need us to be planters of your Word. Remind us not to judge or measure the growth, because that is your job. But do help each of us to tend the gardens of our hearts and minds, that we might be a harvest pleasing to you. And all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.