Sermon for July 12, 2020:
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Today’s scripture seems to interpret itself for us – Here’s Jesus’ parable; here’s what it means.  Not everyone agrees that the interpretation came out of Jesus’ mouth, even as most everyone does agree that Jesus did tell this parable.  But early Christians are like us, and they want a clear, well-marked, path of faithful discipleship.  People are either good soil or bad – You’d better be good. 

O, Jesus, I want to be good – I really, really do.  But you know what?  My heart is not filled with good soil.  My heart is filled with all sorts of dirt.  Every human heart is a complicated garden, with all sorts of soils.  Sometimes everything’s grand, and we feel God’s love pouring down all around us everywhere we look.  Sometimes, not much, if anything, seems good,  and if God’s tossing seeds of love our way, they are just bouncing right off the hard path choked with rocks and weeds of our hearts. 

Maybe there’s a place in your heart like mine – Instead of nice good rich soil, it’s filled with rocks – The rocks of anxiety, and fear, and the mental gymnastics of staying safe and sane in these times.  And there isn’t enough time or energy or attention for much else to grow. 

Maybe there’s a place in your heart like mine – Instead of nice good rich soil, it’s got thorns and weeds taking over.  Chores and distractions and people who need us.  News that changes every minute but doesn’t really change at all; Weariness and boredom; The impossible effort of keeping up with the latest guidance or political pivot – And maybe like me you’re noticing the thorns of hate and anger taking up all the space in your heart, and crowding out any good dirt. 

It makes sense - We’re all watching powerful people magnificently use that power to shore up their own egos, their own bank accounts, their own worldviews.  It’s a hard, hard time to be a person of faith.  It’s hard to know what to do with the thorny, rocky, hard dirt in our hearts. 

And what does God, the Sower, do with all these soils?  Just keeps tossing seeds around.  Not planning.  Not analyzing.  Not strategizing.  Not considering that seeds thrown on rocks or in the midst of weeds or on a path have little chance of growing.  The Creator doesn’t seem concerned with output or outcome, with cost-benefit analysis, or a business plan.  The Divine doesn’t seem to have any expectations at all.  Our Lord, at least in this parable, just keeps raining down love like Mardi Gras beads thrown from the New Orleans’ floats at Mardi Gras parades – As though there’s an infinite supply that will never run out.

Huge handfuls of love, that look to us to be squandered.  Love poured out where it will be wasted, ignored, unnoticed.  Where it doesn’t have a chance of growing into anything.  A good ¾ of all of that love, all those seeds, don’t land anywhere promising.  What kind of farmer, what kind of sower, is our God?

We’re big on expectations.  We’re big on measuring outcomes, on strategic planning, on visioning, on using our resources carefully and mindfully.  And that’s all great.  It’s called being a good steward.  But it doesn’t apply to God’s love.

Apparently, we’re to throw huge handfuls of God’s love on everyone and everywhere we walk. Randomly.  Consistently. Constantly.

Really?  A friend of mine got into a dispute with her young adult son, who had posted something pretty angry and mean on facebook in respose to police violence.  When she asked him about it, he kept insisting the only way to fight injustice was to be ruthless, to let rage fuel the fight.  His big comeback line was, “I guess you think we should love Hitler,”  which, in this Jewish family, was pretty radical.  A hit below the belt, perhaps.  And Kim said, “Well, actually, yes.”  And she shared Martin Luther King’s words, which probably fell on deaf ears in that moment, but still, for her own sake, she said, “Hate does not drive out hate – only love can do that.  Anger does not put out anger; only love can do that.  Violence doesn’t stop violence; only love can do that.”  In that moment it probably didn’t change her son’s mind.  But it reminded her who she is and what she believes.

Right now, I don’t like this much.  It’s so much easier to answer violence with violence, anger with anger, hate with hate.  An eye for an eye and all that – but I don’t want us all to be blind.

Instead, there God the Sower is, scattering seeds of love every which way, apparently not caring if the seeds sprout or not.  Because it’s what God does:  God loves.  In times of war and pandemic, social strife and selfish leadership, short-sightedness and self-aggrandizement, fear and more fear, God’s still loving, because that’s what God does.

And, I guess, as a follower of Christ, that’s what we’re to be about, too.   

This feels too hard.  At least for me.  At least right now. 

And then, wouldn’t you know it, at Session this week, Sue Holley shared these words from the Talmud for our devotion:  (The Talmud is the ancient collection of how rabbis interpreted the Torah, the first five books of our Bible.) 

         Do not be daunted

         By the enormity

         Of the world’s grief.

         Do justly, now.

         Love mercy, now.

         Walk humbly, now.

         You are not obligated

         To complete the work,

         But neither are you free

         To abandon it. 

And Sue reminded us who we are and what we believe, and some of the anger and hate in my heart was dissolved.  Because there is no end to God’s love.  It just keeps coming.  In spite of the hardened, thorn-infested, rocky ground of my heart.  God’s going to just keep throwing handfuls of love my way.

And then, wouldn’t you know it, I happened to see Maria Janush’s facebook post, and the coincidence I saw there eased some of the hate and rage in my heart, and a seed of love was planted.  See, it’s her birthday today, and it’s Sunday, so worship with communion today, and we’re taking a communion offering.  And for her birthday, she is asking people to donate to the same fund of today’s communion offering:  The Equal Justice Initiative.  She read Bryan Stevenson’s book “Just Mercy,” the same movie we discussed a few weeks ago, about providing legal counsel to people unjustly sitting on death row.  And the anger in my heart eased, because I saw someone doing justice now, sharing seeds of God’s love, now. 

We may feel anger, and rage, and hate.  And, there is no end to God’s love.  It just keeps coming.  Our hearts might be hard and rocky and thorny.  And, there’s no end to God’s love.  It just keeps coming.  I can’t argue or yell or shame the anger, rage, and hate away.  And, there is no end to God’s love.  It just keeps coming.  It’s all true.  And so, all I can do is be honest about my thorny, rocky, hard dirt of a heart.  And offer it to God.  Then go out and scatter a few seeds of love myself, never knowing when and where and how they will take root, and ease someone else’s anger and rage.

And practice trusting that God’s love is more powerful than anything in my little heart.

Because this isn’t who I want to be, and it isn’t who my Creator made me to be.  And, this minute, tomorrow, in the darkest of night and the brightest dawn, there is no end to God’s love.  It will just keep coming.  Maybe in one small hidden dark corner of our hearts, we can trust some of God’s seeds of love will fall, and take root, and we can stumble our way to live in the love of God,

I sat down Monday morning to read this week’s scripture lessons, and I don’t know what happened exactly, but I sort of just, cracked. More accurately, I cracked up. And I found myself giggling at today’s passage from Matthew. … you either have to cry or laugh

So, yes, I know – serious, serious things are happening in our world and in our streets. It’s a mess out there right now.

But even while Covid-19 outbreaks are popping up everywhere, (I just read about 5 churches in West Virginia that gathered for in-person worship, only to become hotspots of infection, the passage from Matthew Olivia read describes a God who cares for even the sparrow falling from the sky. And I giggle, imaging some of the Lord’s minions running around with nets, catching and counting falling sparrows for the daily count, to make sure the Lord Almighty’s knowledge is up-to-the minute accurate.

And yes, right now, every time we turn around, there’s more news about more atrocities being committed against people of color and those who stand with them. And I read Jesus telling the disciples to watch out that they don’t follow Beelzebub – Who sounds so scary, but who was that century’s equivalent of the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain, or the emperor with no clothes, and I laugh. You might need to explain

And yes, our eyes are opened to some new horrific evidence that we don’t know our own history very well. We United States were formed by brilliant men, yes, but men who owned slaves – so the wealth that built this country came from slave labor. Our forefathers were men who assumed this land was theirs for the taking, even though native people had been living here for thousands and thousands of years. And they established laws that protected them – That is, all men older than 21, and their property, and their interests.

But then I read more of the Gospel of Matthew, and how God knows the hairs on our head. And I imagine other angels of the Lord assigned the “hair-counting duty.” Once the hair-counting is done, do you get to play? So if you’re assigned the heads of some of our beloved choir members, you’ve hit the jackpot and can take the rest of the day off?

It’s a heavy heavy time in the soul of our country. But you know what happens sometimes when our souls get tired of the heaviness? They just crack. And they start to find serious silliness and even laughter in the midst of it all. And when it gets too outrageous, too absurd, the only thing to do is to take a time out and throw up our hands, and laugh at ourselves.

I deliberately chose one of everyone’s favorite hymns for today – Joyful, Joyful – Because I’m needing a little respite of joy along about now. Then I looked into the history of music – Did you know Beethoven composed this particular piece of music when he was already deaf??? Can you imagine being a composer, your life is music, music you can’t hear anymore, and yet in your soul is THIS kind of joy!

And did you know that the Ode to Joy music composed by a deaf Beethoven, has been used for various demonstrations worldwide over the years? Against Pinochet’s violent regime in Chile; Chinese students in Tiananmen Square; Christmas Day at the fall of the Berlin Wall; concerts in Japan every December after the 2011 tsunami. There is joy in these hard times. There may even be laughter at the absurdity of the human race. Let’s not forget that.

You may remember a few weeks ago, I included my friend Erin’s prayer as part of our worship services – she is a Black pastor for a predominantly Black congregation in New Jersey. Last Sunday was their inaugural Zoom Live Worship service, and wouldn’t you know it, they got Zoom-Bombed, by pictures of swastikas and naked men. Horrifying, I know. Just so so wrong.

But then, I read this passage with Jesus describing what it means to be a disciple, to follow the way of Christ, and how what has been covered up will be uncovered, I admit, I start giggling, again. Because really – A few pictures of men naked as the day God made them, and a few pictures of crooked crosses, and you think the church of God, the Body of Christ, will fold in fear? Jesus says “Don’t be scared of those people.”

Those people who hacked that worship service, trying to intimidate people of faith? Ha! They were messing with the children of God whose ancestors survived slavery; whose great-grandparents survived lynching; whose grandparents survived Jim Crow, whose parents survived the Civil Rights era, who are keeping on keeping on even as right now they are watching us white people educate ourselves about what’s been REALLY going on all this time. What are crooked crosses and pictures of bare-naked men compared to all of that?

Well. Right, I know – no one – of any color or ethnicity - wants random pictures of naked men or swastikas showing up in their sacred worship space. Those crooked crosses have been used to intimidate Jews and our brothers and sisters of color, along with representing a whole host of other atrocities in our world. So yes - It IS appalling. I am in no way condoning it or trying to minimize it – It’s a hate crime. Yes.

(Honestly, I don’t know what to say about the pictures of naked men being used as intimidation. That’s just sort of funny to me. Okay, a lot funny to me. Downright silly to think that will scare a people who put their faith in the God who’s been with them through all the horrors they’ve suffered of the ages.)

And we who stand with our brothers and sisters in Christ, our fellow Presbyterians of color, well, really – I don’t think crooked crosses and pictures of naked men are going to scare us into turning our backs or keeping our silence. I think we’re past trying to un-see what we’ve been seeing. I don’t think we can unlearn what we’ve been learning. No, we too are a people who put our faith in God, and so we stand with them.

This world is a serious, but also a seriously funny, place. We are a seriously messed up people, but a seriously funny people, too. One of my favorite movies is “Parenthood,” with Steve Martin, and at the end, the great-grandmother pipes up to say something like, “Life is a rollercoaster – You go up a hill, you don’t know what’s on the other side. You go down a hill and around a curve, and you don’t know what’s coming. That’s life.”

And sometimes, on that rollercoaster ride of life, we wish we could get off and hop on the Disney’s sedate, soothing, lulling, “It’s a small world after all” ride that just goes in a circle. But right now, we’re on this wild beast of a rollercoaster – Maybe it’s time to laugh at ourselves for what we used to believe, throw up our hands, hope the ride doesn’t make us throw up our lunch, and see where it takes us.

After all, 13 of the 15 best-sellers on the New York Bestseller list this week are books addressing race. So yeah, we’re on this ride, like it or not. Sometimes we’ll be terrified, sometimes we’ll be surprised, sometimes we’ll be exhilarated, sometimes we won’t believe the ride we’re on.

These days, we ordinary people are discovering all sorts of things we thought were true really aren’t. Things we never really thought about before. We realize how little we really know and understand about basic germ contagion and how viruses spread. We’re realizing how little we really know about our own history as a nation of freed slaves and immigrants and native peoples. Because at the end of the day, every one of us fits into one of those three categories.

Jesus tells us, through it all, our Lord knows us down to the number of hairs on our heads. Our Lord keeps track of the tiniest sparrow in the air. As Jesus says, “They can kill the body but not the soul.”

This Friday many cities officially celebrated Juneteenth, the day when every last slave found out they were free – Two plus years after the Emancipation Act. And into this time when the news just seems to keep getting worse and worse, Veronica Chambers writes in the New York Times, “The elemental sermon …. Of Juneteenth has always been one of hope. The gifts of the holiday are the moments of connection, renewal, and joy, for a people have had to endure so much, for so long. To me, Juneteenth matters because it says: Keep going. The future you want is coming. “

Our God loves us. We are a people of faith. We can take ourselves lightly and laugh at ourselves. We can find joy, even silliness, in the midst of hard times. Because our first and last and eternal identity is this: We are the children of a mighty God. There’s not much that can keep us down, regardless of our color. We are a people of learning, a people of confessing, a people of justice, once we know truth.

And now, to help lift your heart even more, watch this video of Katrice Saunders, a young ice skater, rollerblading over the Washington DC “Black Lives Matter” street, to Andra Day’s “Rise Up.” There is joy, even in the midst of sorrow and hardship. Thanks be to God: