Hearing the Word

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber on July 10, 2011, at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut.

For better or worse, I’ve always been interested in politics. I still am. I watch the morning news and evening news and Morning Joe and listen to Rush Limbaugh – til I can’t stand it anymore. And it sometimes filters into my sermons.  It’s a great way of illustrating what the Bible teaches about human sinfulness. But I’m always nervous about the possibility that someone will think I’m taking a political position and I’m not. I like to say that I’m “an equal opportunity critic.”  I see fault on both sides – all sides – and think it’s worth noticing.

They run ads on television that show someone leaving an unattended bag in a bus or train  And they say, “If you see something, say something.” That’s my attitude toward politics. If I see something that throws some light on the dark side of human life, I often say something. I’ll say, “Look at that!  Do you see how we are?  That’s why we need the gospel.”  But the danger is that the sin I want to highlight may have been committed by a member of a particular political party and friends of that party can hear me as taking a stand against that party rather than the sins committed by that party.

Sin is bipartisan.  Members of both parties have recently transgressed whether the issue is sexual discipline or willingness to find ways to work together for the common good.  There are failures on both sides. But always the point is theological – so let me know if you don’t hear it that way. The point I’m always after is how God works in human lives and how we so often shut God out, fail to listen, fail to respond.

I’m saying this because I think that this week’s gospel is on that subject: how hard it is to hear God’s word and respond.  Jesus said, “Listen!  A sower went out to sow . . .”  I wonder whether you noticed in the Bulletin that nine verses are missing from the reading. We got verses 1-9 and 18-23.  We got the story and we got the explanation. But what happened in between?  Well, what happened in between was exactly what I’ve been talking about: Jesus told this great story, illustrated his sermon with a terrific example, and afterwards the disciples came to him and said, “What was that all about?”  Well, at least they knew they had missed the point.

But listen.  Listen.  Words are spoken for a purpose – or should be!  And the Word of God is given to change lives. The word of God is given to change lives and the word of God comes to us daily. It comes to us today in the readings from the Bible and, if I do my job, in the sermon, and also it comes to us in the sacrament and sometimes in the newspapers or even on television. I don’t mean the evangelical extravaganzas either.  I mean the news channels and history channels and maybe Home Box Office – there are lots and lots of movies that throw a useful light on the human condition: the workings of sin and grace, failure and forgiveness, repentance and righteousness. And daily, of course, God’s word is available in the Bible in your home you can pick it up and open it, and there it is: a word that can change your life.  It’s there.  God is always speaking to us, reaching out to get our attention.

But then what happens?  Jesus tells us what happens. The seed is sown and nothing happens. Birds come, weeds come, rocks are always there.  And the word never has a chance to change your life. Birds come, weeds come, rocks get in the way.  Yes, right here in church. The reading is given, the sermon is delivered. But the word never enters our lives.  Our minds are elsewhere. It’s hard to shift gears when we get to church. We’ve been dealing all week with a million things and we come to church in part to escape that to get free of all that to be able to be in God’s presence and hear God’s word but you can’t shift gears that easily just by coming in the door. The mind is still on what to have for lunch and how to pay the bills and whether it will rain and what to do about an impossible brother-in-law or mother-in-law or cousin or neighbor. Maybe your mind is wandering off in that direction right now just because I reminded you! Sometimes, as I said, I push buttons about political issues. and the mind goes off in the wrong direction; the birds grab the seed and run with it and it never gets to the soil, to your mind and heart where it needs to be to make a difference.  Birds come – the birds of distraction – and the seed never gets to the soil.

But even if it does, there are weeds.  The weeds pick up where the birds leave off. Maybe in spite of everything a word gets through, the seed falls and you say to yourself, “That’s right; I haven’t given God my whole life and I need to make some changes” and you go home with wonderful resolutions and realize you’ve got to get the laundry done right now or there won’t be a thing to wear on Monday, there’s lunch to make, gardening to do, a paper to read, a ball game to watch, and those have to be done right now and the good resolution can be done tomorrow or day after tomorrow.

And even if somehow I can get free of the weeds, there’s still the rock to deal with. The rock: the hard stony soil that has learned how to resist all deep commitment, to keep the roots from going down to the center and making a lasting difference.  Rock. Hard rock.  Impenetrable soil.  In Connecticut we call it ledge. If you’ve got it in your garden, you’d better just put your garden somewhere else. The mind can be like that, it’s not accustomed to taking in big ideas; it’s like rock.  Most of the week we’re not dealing with new ideas, life changing ideas, the point is to do your job the same way, not some new way, new ideas come to us – if at all – in 10 second sound bites re-enforced with amplifiers and fast moving color pictures because the experts know how to blast a hole in your mind and get their message in for toothpaste or ant-acids or whatever and the result is that we forget how to listen to compound sentences and new ideas, life changing ideas. Some churches have adapted; they come at you the same way the advertisers do with multiple screens and amplified sound. I get catalogs full of such stuff for churches to buy and install and make it simple. Some days I wonder whether we should go that way. Other days I think I’d rather not be saved at all than be saved that way. But the ledge is there, the rock is there, and the word comes in the door and I respond with joy: Yes, indeed; I’m really going to change this time and for a day or two I do – but that rock is still there and the roots don’t get down deep and the change is only temporary.  The new parishioner comes in, the old parishioner suddenly decides to let God into their lives, but a few weeks go by, a few months go by, and we’re back again to square one. And nothing has really changed.

And then there’s the kind of seed – let me expand a bit on Jesus’ parable – that responds enthusiastically or angrily but to the wrong thing. Someone tells me, “That was a great sermon . . .” And I ask, “Why?” And the answer is, “Because I really liked what you said about X; couldn’t agree with you more.” But that wasn’t the point. The seed sprang up but it was the wrong seed in the wrong soil. It got used to reenforce old ideas not to challenge with a new one.

So what do we need to do?  What does Jesus tell us in this parable of the sower?  How do we get the right seed to the right place? How do we get that rich potential harvest?  How do we do that? Well, first of all, Jesus reminds us, it’s God’s doing.  God is the sower and we are the soil. God has to sow for anything good to happen – and God does: today, here in ths church, God is speaking. Tomorrow when you notice the Bible beside your bed and decide to pick it up, the word comes. God still speaks in many ways. God sows the word.  And we are the soil – full of weeds and rocks and harassed by birds but able, I believe, to do more than a rocky Connecticut field can do because we can change our circumstances, we can do something about those rocks and weeds and birds.  We can do some cultivating, pull some weeds, dig up some rocks, put up some netting to keep the birds away. We can turn off the television set occasionally, we can dedicate some time every day to quiet prayer and Bible reading, we can open our hearts and minds to the seed even standing in the checkout line, even driving along Route 202, or Bantam Lake Road, or the Interstate.  We can train ourselves to let the sun and clouds and rain, the green trees and lakes, remind us of the Creator. We can take a verse of scripture and hold it in our minds all day, we can come back to it while we do the dishes or while we brush our teeth or while we walk from the car to the store. We can come to church ten minutes sooner to quiet our minds before the service begins. We can take the Bulletin home with us and reread the lessons daily, say the collect ourselves every day.  We can make room in our lives for the holy, for the seed, for the word. And that word can begin to grow and change your life and make you more aware of God’s love and more aware of other’s needs.  You can give the seed a better chance and discover what God is able to do to help you grow in love and faithfulness.

Be aware.  Even in politics God can reveal good and evil, repentance, forgiveness, renewal. Look for God to speak to you – and listen and respond.

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