Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 16, 2017
“Waking, Working, Wearied and Withered”
Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23 – New Revised Standard Version
“That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.[a] 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
See that guy over there throwing seeds on the ground? That’s the Kingdom of heaven.
Parables are Jesus’ genius way of engaging us right where we are. Not in some theoretical state of being but in the everyday tasks of living. Jesus looked around and said, “see that flock of sheep over there? God is the Good Shepherd.” “See those people out there fishing? Come follow me and I’ll make you fish for people.” “See those workers leaving the vineyard? In the Kingdom of God everyone is paid a day’s wage regardless of the hours worked. That’s what God is like.”
Jesus would come to Colorado and say, “See those people riding mountain bikes straight up the trail? The kingdom is heaven is like mountain bikers with calves as thick as watermelons. See those landscapers? The kingdom of heaven is like people who work long hours for low pay in the hot sun who will do anything they can to take care of their families. See those mountain goats, impossibly clinging to the side? God is like that.
The gospels record 58 parables. C.H. Dodd said parables are stories that tease our mind into thinking without us ever knowing it. There is enough wiggle room to never quite know if we’ve gotten it right. And what it means to me might not be what it means to you.
So as I approach today’s parable, I ask, is it a story about a sower? Is it a story about seeds? Or is it about soil? Or none of the above. And who are we in it? Are we the seeds that the master Sower casts onto the ground? Or is our call to be the sowers, encouraged to scatter our seed far and wide?
But the truth is today, after another week in our nation’s continuing chaotic reality, I just as often feel like the soil – sometimes producing good works, but other times feeling quite thorny, rocky. And seven months in, trampled. Flattened. Feeling like crushed dirt.
I’ve asked you that more than a few times in the past seven months “How is it with your soul today?” How are you keeping sane? How are you caring for yourself? Are you remembering to replenish yourself – or rather, do you remember that we cannot replenish ourselves?
The gift of being people of faith is remembering that we are the conduits of peace. We are not the manufacturers of peace.
Yet, despite that, Jeff Medefind describes the journey of many activists. First comes the waking: We ache over the wrong we see and yearn to set it right. Waking springs us into action working, excited, encouraged by early progress. But we often weary by the stubbornness of injustice to yield to our good works. And finally, one day we can find our idealism has withered away.
Waking, working, wearied, and withered.
And this isn’t just true for activists. It’s for teachers at the beginning of a new school year, first year nurses, social workers, public defenders. And I’m sure in your profession too. At times waking, enthusiastically working as well as wearied and withered.
Even new parents. You may have baby-proofed your house, but what have you done to prepare and protect your soul for the long haul of disappointments and disenchantments that our kids will inevitably reveal. That’s not to suggest that we “give up” before we even start. The state of “witheredness” is not obligatory and certainly not permanent. But we must be aware of such a progression and pay as much attention to the issues about which we care as we do to the nourishment of our soul. Just like breathing. In and out. As well as, out and in.
Jesus understood this for himself. Scripture tells us Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. Today’s text began by saying the crowd was pressing in on him so hard, he had to get into a boat so he could speak with them. If the Savior of the World needed a break, how much more those who feel called to save the world? Audre Lorde said, “Caring for myself is not an act of self-indulgence, it is self-preservation and that is an act of political warfare.”
The genius of Jesus teaching by way of parables is that one day we can see ourselves as the sower, one day as the seed, and another day as the soil. And maybe we’re none of those things. Because maybe the point isn’t about us but about how God is a careless sower who doesn’t hold back based on our potential productiveness. God doesn’t care whether I’m awake or withered. God keeps giving wildly, recklessly, wastefully, regardless of our ability to give back beyond ourselves. That’s grace. In this story, God is less concerned with the harvest than with never giving up planting.
Just like artists must be more passionate about making art than selling it. Teachers have to love teaching more than watching their students cross the stage at graduation. What is our motivation? Because imagine the consequences:
We can fake it for a while, we can stretch it little farther, but when the days of our witheredness come, it will be like seeds sown on rocky ground. Since they don’t have any depth, they’ll spring up quickly, but get scorched in the sun. Or times when seeds are sown among thorns or are thrown on hard dirt, trampled and carried off by birds.
Some nights Bryon Alvarez says he can’t get the stories of the immigrants he works with out of his head. Children who have crossed the border alone. Immigrants persecuted at home who need asylum. Mixed-status families trying to stay together. Calls come day and night from desperate men, women, and children depending on him to help them to secure their status.
Just as withered as his colleague Susana Zamorano who sometimes comes home so frustrated, sometimes so angry, she feels like she’s going to break down. “It’s like I’m in the middle of an endless ocean and I have no strength left.”
They are just two of many fighting for social justice who know how to craft strategy. They know how to operate in crisis mode. But they’ve never had their endurance so tested. They are selfless and sacrificial givers who have been forced into receiving help in order to keep giving it. So, they’re among activists signing up for dance classes. And learning to garden. Taking up hiking and yoga. Turning off the television.
Understanding what it takes not to be overwhelmed by our 24-hour news cycle, so that our response is not simply to give up the fight.
Jesus said, “Listen. All with ears to hear, listen.” Meaning, this is important!
Then he said in verse, “19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the hard path.” Word of the kingdom. AKA: The Common Good. What I call an open, inclusive, just and compassionate world. That very thing most at risk today. As William Barber of the Moral Monday Movement in North Carolina would put it: Our concern is not about a series of causes at risk but our loss of common values as a nation.
“20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away.” Such a huge temptation. After the election 700 people came to a SURJ meeting – Showing Up for Racial Justice. A few months later, 150. Sure, 150 is great. But what happened to the others?
“22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing.” Whether it’s wealth, power, status, beauty. Or the worst, the desire for a comfortable, easy life – with no exposure to poverty, pain, violence, or hate. Hidden behind walls created for the privileged.
“23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
Jesus emphasized hearing and the need for understanding. Repeating the word understanding. That is what it takes to endure in times of persecution and cruelty. Depth. Rootedness. Hearing without understanding is like acting without planning. It is thinking I can do this all on my own and burning out. Because the Freedom Riders didn’t just get on a bus. The Bridge Crossers in Selma didn’t just go for a walk. They first had to understand, which takes time. And then builds upon itself, which requires stepping away to think. And hike and dance and garden.
The three-point plan must be repeated: to ponder and wonder and contemplate. We gather to do that every week through worship. Not only to hear scripture but listen to it. And pray to understand, such things as
The kingdom of heaven is like a sower… But not just saying, OK, got it! Because it’s more than that. A few verses later, Jesus said:
Is the kingdom of heaven a merchant or a mustard seed? Is it a fishing net or a traveler? Is it treasure or a landowner? Which is it? Yes. It is. Because some days Jesus looks over at us and says you look like a sower and some days he knows we feel like dirt.
But we come to understand that on the journey of a lifetime of faith, we will awaken, work, become wearied, and even wither. And we will wake, and work, and weary, and wither again.
And more to the point today,
Which is it? Yes, it is.
The Kingdom of heaven is that feeling of waking and working. And the Kingdom of heaven is like feeling wearied and withered.
And the whole time God never stops, always planting seeds waiting to take root. And if they fail, to try again. God never gives up.
And if we are smart and faithful about it, we won’t have to give up either. Because we understand the kingdom of heaven means what we do is in Christ’s name and as vessels of his love, conduits of his peace, channels of his compassion. And that we do it together.
Poet Mary Oliver wrote:
I want to be in partnership
with the universe
like the tiger lily poking up
its gorgeous head.
among the so-called
in the uncultivated fields that still abide.
But it’s okay
if, after all,
I’m not a lily,
but only grass
in a clutch of curly grass
(all) waving (together) in the wind,
one [among] those
sweet, abrasive blades.
 Jeff Medefind, “The Activist Soul,” Christianity Today, July/August 2017
 Ten examples in order: Matthew 13:45, 31, 47, 33, 44, 52; 18:23, 20:1, 22:2, 25:14
 Luke 17:21
 Mary Oliver, “I Want”, Evidence (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2009, 56)