Message July 30

The scriptures were: Romans 8:26-39 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. It was another week of parables about planting, so my title was, “Another Sowing Parable.”

Before we get started, I need to apologize for failing to tell you last Sunday that I was planning to be out of town all week. I went with James, this year, to the coaches’ clinic in Bismarck. There was a session on a new piece of technology and he wanted me there to get the information on it. It was good, and there were lots of interesting sessions, but I hope that I will not have to go away overnight again this summer. I am good with staying home and getting things done around here and around home.

Our sessions included information about coaching ethics and philosophy and not just specific techniques, which was interesting for a change. One of our final presenters, a coach from Billings, MT, who did three of the four last hours, gave us his dilemma of walking into a team with absolutely no discipline. It seemed that for many years prior to his coming to West Billings High School, no one cared about the track team, as in no one—not administration, not parents and especially not students or even the track athletes.

After he took the job, he found out that they really were at the bottom of the proverbial sports’ totem pole in their school. The first thing he learned was that they didn’t have a budget, so no equipment purchases and don’t think about purchasing any other sort of things like meals for the meets. He fixed that with a fund raiser. On one of the first bus rides to a meet one of the athletes asked who would be next year’s coach. It was then he learned that before him no one coached there for more than one year, and because of it the athletes did whatever they wanted. In fact, everyone kept telling him not to get worked up because it was “just track.” I don’t think the schools of Eureka or Herreid would understand that idea. We have never been like that.

His point was that discipline and expectations are very important to building a program that will be successful, and then that success carries itself. He decided early on in his time there that he wasn’t going to be there for only one year, and that he wanted to build something that the student athletes were going to buy into and something they would work as hard at as he would.

He was asked to speak at the clinic because he has had a team win the Montana State AA title for 7 of the 12 years that he has been there. And on the other years, they were pretty much second or third. I forgot to write down how many times they have been 2nd or 3rd.

I think his belief that children need discipline and need to buy into a program has done wonders for their teams. Lately, the more news I watch and the more I pay attention to certain local politics, the more I realize how important discipline and following some sort of rules would be good for all of us. Enough said on that.

The reading that we had in Romans today, at least the ending part, might seem familiar to us. I am sort of hoping that it becomes less and less familiar to us, but … Those words are found in our bulletins when we have a funeral. The last verses of Romans 8 are the final part of that affirmation of faith that we read together following our funeral messages, before the final song and benediction. As a public affirmation, we read these words and if we believe, really believe what we are reading, we are telling everyone around us that we have bought into the message that Jesus brought to earth from God, which is that we are loved and accepted and wanted. We have importance. We are children of God and nothing will keep us away from his love, his acceptance, his family.

But what about the words we keep reading in the 13th chapter of Matthew? What about those parables about sowing and plants growing and good seed and bad seed? What about that idea that on the last day, the weeds will be torn from the good grain and sent to the fire to be burned. One of the commentaries that I read last week said that was a much easier concept for the people of our frontier to grasp than it is for us. If any of you have read the stories of Laura Ingalls Wilder, you might remember the book called, The Long Winter. In it we read how they were out of fuel in the middle of that winter during a horrible blizzard, and they went to the barn and kept twisting hay and putting it into the wood burning stove to keep themselves from freezing. Having some extra weeds around to burn would have been a great luxury in those days.

So who are these weeds and who are these seeds that grow up to be the good crop? How does this difference happen? In today’s gospel lesson the parable is about a useless seed, a little tiny mustard seed that in the days of Jesus had no purpose, yet it grows up to be something of great importance that houses many of the birds of the air. It seems to be telling us that even what we think is nothing can become something. It seems to be saying that the least of these are important. Could it be telling us that we too are important? Could it be saying that even if we feel mostly inadequate, we are somebody in the eyes of God? Maybe we are supposed to connect them to other Bible stories of how the last will become first and the first will become last? Perhaps that is something for us to study in our age of importance and entitlement.

But what about the rest of the parables, those little incidental phrases near the end of this passage? The themes of those seem to be that the kingdom of heaven is a treasure that is worth more than anything else we could ever have or ever want. Jesus is telling us that no matter what we have or want to have on this earth, nothing can ever compare to what we can have in the kingdom of heaven, in God’s kingdom. And the underlying message of that is sort of the opposite, the converse. It is the idea that we should strive for what we gain in the kingdom of heaven, not what we gain in this kingdom. In other words, what we do here—on this earth—should be in an effort to build up mansions in the great beyond, not mansions on this earth where things don’t last. We need to be buying into the kingdom of heaven, not the kingdom on earth. Sort of gives you a different perspective on saving for retirement. Perhaps this is a different kind of 401K.

And what about the things we talked about a few weeks ago when I said, and I saw some of you agreeing, that we need to be about more than just sitting around waiting for the day when we join the kingdom of heaven?  Yes, we do need to be about more as a congregation and as individual Christians; we need to be active in spreading the gospel and loving our neighbors and caring for the world around us, “A Just World for All” and all of that stuff, but just doing that doesn’t make or break it in terms of getting us to the kingdom of God. We can’t ‘good works’ our way in, we can’t buy our way in, we can’t sing or teach or preach our way in, we all know that.

Paul in Romans 8:38-39 says there is nothing, nothing at all that can keep us apart from the love of God. Then how is it that there still are weeds that get pulled away from the good crops and thrown into the final fire? The fact is, there is nothing outside of ourselves that can keep us from God. It is what is on the inside that determines where we go on the day of dividing. It is what we believe, where our faith lies that makes the difference for us when our time here is over. All God asks is that we believe, that we believe in him, in his Son and accept the Holy Spirit into our lives to guide us and help us through all that we face. Will we be perfect at all times, of course not, we are human. But by following the words of Jesus, who says, “we are to love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as much as we love ourselves.” If we do that then when our day comes, nothing will be able to keep us from that love that God offers us, which means on that day, that wonderful day; we will see Christ in Paradise.  And, as long as we can buy into that faith—that wonderful faith in Christ, I don’t think there is anything we can’t accomplish. Amen!

Accepting our part, or a mature mission

The following sermon was used on Sunday, July 13, 2014 at St. Paul’s UCC in Eureka, SD. The scripture was Matthew 13:1-9 & 18-23 and Genesis 25:19-34 and Romans 8:1-11. The title in the bulletin was “Accepting Our Part.” If you feel the need to use any of this, please contact me before doing so. I am willing to share, but I am also curious to know if you do.

To say that yesterday was a long day is an understatement. (Here I took a little side track to show my arm with the sunburn and give a little humorous story about the auction sale. If you are interested in how that went you will have to back up to the blog from yesterday and the day before.) After I finally made it back home with all my wonderful bargains from Irene’s auction sale, I managed to make it to Pollock to join James and his classmates for their 40th class reunion. And there were several other spouses there. I had been trying for a week to convince James that none of the others would show up, and yet several did. It was an interesting time of sitting back and listening to them share stories about their families and where they have been since graduation. One of their classmates went so far as to grab their graduation picture off the wall and they went through each of the absent classmates to share what they knew of where those others where and what they were doing.

It was a typical class reunion in terms of variety of where people are and what they are doing, although as we listened to the stories, I picked out a few items of interest. One of their classmates, who is a nurse by occupation, has raised her children up and down the Amazon River because she and her husband are missionaries and have been their whole life together. Another classmate has done mission work, and though he has been a teacher and principal, he is now working as a Pastor in a Baptist church in Aberdeen, and then James was able to say, well I am just the Pastor’s spouse. You would think by now that he has figured out how much work that is. Anyway, it was interesting to hear, as it always is, where and what everyone is and is doing and what their lives are about. I guess if we would be reading a book about the stories we had heard, we might be analyzing them in terms of what literature calls, “the human condition.” We would be analyzing the situations of the people in the stories. We would be discussing someone’s “part” in the world around them. What are their lives about? What is the “condition” of that life?

When you look at the passage of Genesis that we read for today, we see three pieces to the story. The obvious one is the final story in which Jacob swindles Esau out of his birthright. Most people like to look at this story in terms of “poor” Esau and what he lost. According to the tradition of the time, an eldest or first-born was entitled to a double portion of the inheritance. So that means Isaac would divide all he had and give Jacob 1/3 and Esau 2/3. But the issue here is not the worldly possessions, but the father’s blessing and the inheritance as the Patriarch of God’s chosen nation. As the first-born in my family, I really had planned to talk about poor Esau and how he deserved to be given all the things that a first-born deserves. He should have been given everything. What gave that upstart Jacob the right to think he should inherit anything? A first-born should just get it all and the rest should, well, just do without.

Now we all know that is not how God sees things or does things. How many times do we have to read the words of Jesus when he tells us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, and this isn’t the only story of the Old Testament that gets tipped upside down when we realize what Jesus came to teach us. It seems to me that God doesn’t always follow rules set down by human tradition. Jacob was to be the one through whom the Israelites would become a great nation, and that is how it happened.

Going backwards in the Genesis passage, we see how Jacob and Esau struggled in the womb. Rebekah apparently had a difficult pregnancy. Obviously this happened before the days of ultra sounds or even stethoscopes. There would be no way for the woman to know if there were one or two or several children inside of her, but Rebekah knew. She was in such turmoil that she appealed to God and was told that not only is she having two children, but these two children will both be leaders of great nations, and they will not be working together. She is told even before they are born of the struggles of their later lives. She doesn’t get specific details, but she learns enough to know that things will not go smoothly between her sons. She makes her appeal, she hears the answer, and she accepts what is happening inside of her.

Now to me the most interesting part of the story in terms of how it is handled comes at the beginning. Apparently someone has learned something from growing up in the household of Abraham and Sarah. Isaac must have been a great son. First off, we never read anything about his reaction to the story of how he was nearly sacrificed while Abraham was being tested. Nowhere is there any psychiatrist couch or treatment facility or even any special medication. And when his father’s servant brings home a strange woman to be his wife, he accepts her without any fuss.

So it says that Isaac was 40 when Rebekah was brought to him, and he was 60 when the children were born. For 20 years they were together without having children. As the son of Abraham, he had this “great nation” thing hanging over his head. What was going on? Here is what I mean by the “learning something from living with Abraham and Sarah.” Isaac understands the promise, but when there are no results, he turns to God for the answer. We should all take a lesson from Isaac on this one. Unlike his father and mother who took matters into their own hands and looked to the maid for the answer, Isaac turns to God in prayer. And because Isaac is faithful and believing, God answers him. Isaac knows that God has set a plan for him, but when it didn’t seem to be working out, he went back to God rather than trying to do it on his own; he accepted his part and he went to God for his help.

So how does this accepting our part come into play in the passage from Matthew? Jesus uses a parable about planting to try to teach the disciples about their work as messengers of his word. I found it interesting when I looked at my Interpreter’s Bible because for some reason it was trying to explain seeding in terms of the way farmers planted in earlier days when you would plow the ground then seed it. The parable really is more about the days of broadcast seeding where you would walk with the seed bag on your hip and reach in and cast the seed around you.

Anyway as the parable is explained it comes out as the seed being the word that the disciples will spread and the soil being the types of people who hear the word. The plants that grow from the seed to be harvested or don’t grow are the results of what the disciples have accomplished. The first seeds fall on hard ground and the birds (or devil/Satan/powers of evil if you prefer) eats up the seed/devours the potential believer. The second set of seeds falls on rocky ground and initially a plant grows (a believer develops, but they fade out quickly and stop following when things get tough). The third set of seeds falls into soil with lots of weeds, which are the cares of the world or none believers who pull them away from following. The final seeds that are planted are put into fertile soil and the harvest is great.

Here again it seems that the focus is usually on the dilemma of how the first three types of soil results in no harvest. The focus should be on the fertile soil. The focus should be on the fact that the harvest is plentiful with believers resulting in the 30’s, 60’s and 100 times those who hear the word. Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that when they went out not everyone would believe, but many would believe and they needed to keep working and spreading the gospel. They needed to be able to accept their part and keep working at it.

Just as Esau and Jacob eventually came to terms with what God wanted from them, just as Isaac understood his part in going to God with prayer to ensure that Rebekah would bear his children to fulfill the promise that there would be a chosen nation, so we must accept our part in what God asks of us. We could be the hard soil that accepts nothing of the seed, but if that were true we wouldn’t be sitting here. We could be the rocky soil that starts the sprout but grows no roots—well it seems we have come back more than a few times, so I am guessing that is out. We might be the soil with the weeds—since being here on Sunday morning isn’t always an indication of what happens during the week, but I suspect that is not so much.  Now we could be the fertile soil that is producing in several folds. The question for me is: “What is the truth of our human condition?” And, I realize that money isn’t the only way that we promote the spreading of the gospel, but it is something, and just last Wednesday at the Council meeting, it was approved that we share some of our good fortune with our fellow Christians in Wessington Springs. Again, money is not the only way, but it is A way. What I am still asking and challenging us to do is simply this; we are a church that has the chance to be something different.

We really need to stop and embrace where we are on our faith journey. Instead of thinking that things are slipping because there are no youngsters in the building, we need to embrace the fact that we have been freed up to do something different. (Here I again went off script and reminded the congregation what it felt like to raise children. It went something to this effect. Remember how good it felt when you children were finally able to walk and you didn’t have to carry them anymore? What about when they finally were past all the times of needing to help them with their homework? Again you could sign a relief. And what about when they finally had a good job and didn’t call home saying, “Mom I am a little short this month, could you put something into my bank account?” We are that church.) We are able to be about a more mature ministry. We know what our part is, what we need to determine is, what are the specifics of how we fulfill that mission? How do we die to the old ways and take up the new spirit that God has in mind for us? We all need to be intent on that mission and help come up with that plan. We all need to be part of the thought that decides out spiritual condition in a human world. We all need to be listening to hear how God is Still Speaking to us! Amen!

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