Saturday, July 19, 2014

"The Extravagant Sower"

The Extravagant Sower  -  Sermon by Pastor Sandy Ward - July 13th            
The next few weeks we’ll be looking at some parables from the book of Matthew.  Before we do that I’ve found it helpful to understand the context and history of how these stories have come into being. 
Matthew is one of 4 gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Matthew, Mark and Luke are called the synoptic gospels.  Synoptic comes from the Greek words syn, which means same, and optic, which relates to sight or view.  So while each of these gospels contains its own divine inspiration, Matthew, Mark and Luke contain a lot of the same material, sort of the same view – hence, synoptic.  And the reason they cover a lot of the same ground is because these 3 relied upon the same sources when they were writing their gospel.  The gospel of john relied upon totally independent sources and that is why it is not considered one of the synoptic gospels. 
Each gospel writer had a distinct viewpoint.  They wrote with 3 main purposes:
·      converting readers and hearers to faith in Jesus; 
·      to instruct and strengthen  those who already believed; 
·      to refute those, including Jews and Christians, with whom they disagreed. 

Each gospel was what the author believed to be true, when they were writing some 40-60 years after Jesus’ death. 
So what we will see here, as we study parables in Matthew, is that the same story is often written in one or both of the other synoptic gospels. 

So that helps us understand a little about the gospels and the writing of Matthew.  Now let’s consider the biblical timeline:

Jesus was born around 3 BCE, baptized around 26 CE, and is telling the parables we will be talking about the next few weeks around the year 28CE; Jesus death and resurrection happen around 30CE.   So Jesus was around 31 years old when he was speaking the parables. 

Mark was the first gospel written around 70 CE;  Matthew and Luke were written sometime in the 80-90’s CE, and it appears that both Matthew and Luke relied upon 2 main sources for their writings:  the book of Mark and a collection of Jesus’ sayings called  the “Q”, that was likely written in 40-50CE.  Mark had only the Q to rely upon. 

When you hear of a story or a scene that is in 2 or more of the gospels, that is called a “gospel parallel”.  Today we will talk about a parable – one you may be familiar with–The parable of the sower.  We will be looking at it as it is found in Matthew 13:1-9, but the same story is also found in Mark 4:1-9 and in Luke 8: 4-8.  Those are the gospel parallels for this parable.

This parable is found in chapter 13 of Matthew, so if you are like me, you like to know what has led up to Jesus telling this story at this point in Matthew’s gospel?   Take a look at your bulletin insert for the highlights of Matthew’s first 12 chapters.  Chapter one is all about the ancestry and the birth of Christ.  Chapter 2 takes Jesus from a baby to his baptism as a grown man.  Then we have the temptations of Christ, and by Chapter 4 Jesus has returned to the area of Galilee and is calling his first disciples, the brothers Simon-Peter and Andrew and the other brothers James and John.  It’s at this point Jesus starts teaching and preaching to the crowds. 

In Chapter 5, Jesus needs a break and retreats from the crowds by going up to the mountain.  This is when he teaches the disciples the beatitudes – “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” (9 beatitudes in all).  The teaching goes on until Jesus comes down from the mountain in Chapter 8.  Then he starts the healings, first the leper, then Peter’s mother in law.  The crowds are following him and he again needs a break and he tells his disciples to follow him.  He gets into a boat and then calms the storm.  After that he returns to the crowds, casting out demons, and healing.  In Chapter 9, Jesus calls Matthew, a tax collector, to be his disciple.  Chapter 9 is also where the hemorrhaging woman touches Jesus’ cloak and he says the famous line “Your faith has made you well”. 

By chapter 10 Jesus has 12 disciples and he calls all of them together.   He gives them authority to cast out demons, cure illness and heal sickness, and then he sends them out. 

In Chapters 11 and 12, we start seeing how the Pharisees (who are strict followers of the Old Testament laws) challenge and refute and accost Jesus.  The Pharisees call him on working on the Sabbath – challenging  him about picking grain on a Sunday, which he was doing to feed the disciples, and then later, when Jesus is in the synagogue  and heals a man’s hand, and they again criticize him for healing on the Sabbath.  They discount his ability to remove demons from a blind and mute man, and then they demand a sign to see if he’s for real.  The Pharisees have started conspiring on how to get rid of him.  Jesus finally goes home

This is where chapter 13 picks up – and it’s in verse one we hear “That same day”, which is referring to  this “same day” of controversies, conflicts and teaching, that Jesus has come outside and now goes down to the Sea of Galilee.   It is in light of how the crowds have been infiltrated and influenced by the Pharisees, that Jesus tells this parable: 
A farmer, the sower, put a heavy seed bag on his shoulder and went out to his field to sow seed. The word “sow”, here, means to scatter.   In those days, seed was first scattered, and then gently plowed into the ground.
Here, as this farmer tossed his precious seed, some fell on a well-worn path cut by foot traffic through the fallow field. When fields lay fallow, foot travelers would cut walking paths through the fields, taking the shortest distance between two points. They didn’t really have fences to keep people out.  So some seed landed on the path. And when it did, the birds ate it for lunch.
Other seeds fell on rocky ground. Because there was little soil there, the seedlings sprang up quickly and then withered under the scorching sun. Thorns choked off other seeds because the thorns were so dense that the seedlings couldn’t get enough light to grow. Finally, some seed fell on good ground and brought forth a bumper crop yielding thirty, sixty, even a hundred times the amount of seed that was scattered.  Jesus ended the story admonishing all to listen; everyone with ears is to pay attention and listen carefully, deeply, and thoughtfully.
Some time passes. Probably alone with his disciples, and now in verses 18-23, Jesus gives them an interpretation of the parable he told to the crowds earlier.
He starts with an explanation of The path:
The seeds that fell along the path are the people who hear the message about the kingdom, but don’t understand it. These people are influenced by the evil and wickedness surrounding them in the world, and they let that evil overtake them, and it snatches the good message from their hearts. You know; some people are just too involved in the world to pay attention to spiritual things; they hear the word, but don’t really absorb it, these are the people represented by the path.

The rocks:
The seeds that fell on rocky ground are the people who gladly hear the message and accept it right away. But they don’t have deep roots, and as soon as life gets hard or the message gets them in trouble, they give up.  Other people get all excited about the Gospel for a while, but then their excitement dies down because they don’t grow in their faith; these are the people represented by the rocky ground.

The Thorns
The seeds that fell among the thorn bushes are also people who hear the message. But they start worrying about the needs of this life and are fooled by their own neediness and desire to control, so the message gets choked out, and they never produce anything. Then there are the ones who lose their faith when trouble comes, when sickness and persecution and trial attack their lives. These are the people the thorns represent.

Good ground:
The seeds that fell on good ground are the people who hear and understand the message. They produce as much as a hundred or sixty or thirty times what was planted.

What’s interesting to me is that this parable is called the Parable of the Sower, but the theme, explanation and interpretation is really about the four kinds of ground, and the people represented by each kind of ground. 
So I’m going to offer a couple of other explanations. 

The first is that maybe it’s not about people each being a different kind of ground, but maybe it’s about each life having all kinds of ground…if that is so, all of our lives have worn, rocky, thorny, and yes, good soil in which seed can germinate and grow.

If your life is like mine, you know how daily living creates well-worn paths. We call them ruts. We drive to and from work using the same route day after day. We shop at the same grocery store, fill our tanks at the same gas station, thankfully attend the same church, and, more times than not, feed our families predictable menus of foods we know they will eat and enjoy. Routines are often required, but sometimes in our relationship with God, routines can become ruts. We can attend church week after week, hear the scriptures read (like this familiar parable), sing familiar hymns, go through the church routine.  And all these routines can leave us kind of complacent, maybe even bored.
God’s seed also falls on the rocky places of our lives. Life, by definition, can leave us cold, sharp, soilless, and rough. Physical pain, emotional pain, the cruelty of insensitive friends, and the crude comments of strangers can leave us feeling lifeless and immobile, like those rocks on the highway.  Those rocks can’t produce anything, or reflect any of God’s bounty.
 Thorns pop up in our life’s ground as well.   An unexpected bill or family crisis can be brutal and overwhelming and none of us intend for the thorns to overwhelm us, but there they do, choking out God’s blessings, robbing us of God’s promise.
But thanks be to God, some seed falls on good ground. When it does, we can experience the kingdom of heaven, the goodness of God, the miracle of new life or a renewed spirit is cultivated and nourished.  Our spirits can soar 100fold in ways we never dared to dream. 
The second explanation I offer is this: 

What if it is not about us at all but about the sower?   Barbara Brown Taylor, an ordained minister and Christian writer asks:  What if it is not about our own successes and failures and birds and rocks and thorns,  but about the extravagance of a sower who does not seem to be fazed by such concerns, who flings seed everywhere, wastes it with holy abandon, who feeds the birds, whistles at the rocks, picks his way through the thorns, shouts hallelujah at the good soil and just keeps on sowing, confident that there is enough seed to go around, that there is plenty, and that when the harvest comes at last it will fill every barn in the neighborhood to the rafters?

If the parable is about the Sower and not the parable of the different kinds of ground, then it takes on yet a different meaning.   The focus changes from being about us and our shortfalls, to that of the generosity of our maker, the prolific sower who doesn’t spend time obsessing about the condition of the fields, who is not stingy with the seed but who casts it everywhere, on good soil, on paths, on rocks and on thorns.  A sower who is not cautious or judgmental or even very practical, but one who is willing to keep reaching into his seed bag for all eternity, covering the whole creation with the fertile seed of his grace and goodness.

God, the sower, showed us grace and mercy through the human life and death of his son, Jesus Christ.  He showed us the incredible harvest through Christ’s resurrection, so maybe then, I need to apply the same grace and mercy to this parable.   Maybe I need to unlearn looking at myself as good soil and someone else as bad soil. Maybe this is where the two explanations meet and mesh.  Because each of our lives is the most basic field into which God sows his grace, where it sometimes meets with a life and heart that is hard soil and rocky soil and weeds, and sometimes a life and heart with good soil that bears the fruit of extending God's limitless love with others.

The ministry of sowing is not a task for those who are easily discouraged.  The seeds of God’s love and grace can look very different and sometimes that difference sustains us.  Sometimes our seed might be talking about God’s love to another, other times it might be expressed in an act of kindness, goodness or concern.  Sometimes I don’t think I have it to give, but if I reach deep enough, I can find a way to be the seed or plant the seed.  Lots of times in Missouri I would run down the street for lunch, I would get a sandwich, cut it in half and on the way back to my office give the other half to one of our many homeless friends coming in and out of the church.  This was something I could do when I was stressed or in my grumpiest of moods, when I was field of rocks or thorns. 
This week I discovered a story about Vincent van Gogh that really touched my heart.  Van Gogh was the son of a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church in the 1800’s.  Vincent had a call to ministry and he pursued this call as a student of theology and then as a missionary to coal mine workers in Belgium.  He was deeply moved by the poverty around him and he gave all of his possessions, including most of his clothing, to the miners.  An inspector from the Evangelization Council (of the Dutch Reformed Church)  came along and found that van Gogh’s generosity bordered on scandalous and he reported Vincent’s behavior to the church’s authorities.  Although he was successful in his ministry, the hierarchy of the Dutch Reformed Church rejected him and at the end of 1879 he left the church. 
He remained in Belgium in deep misery, but he found it within himself to make drawings of the simple life of the Belgium peasants.  He found drawing a kind of conversion experience, saying “Even in that deep misery I felt my energy revive…” Although most of the van Gogh biographers viewed the transition as a rejection of religion, what actually happened was that his art, rather than preaching, became van Gogh’s chief form of religious expression.  His faith in God and eternity and respect for God’s word remained firm.  He rejected the religion of his parents for what he thought was true piety, which he called “the white ray of light”.  Many of his paintings have religious themes.   Van Gogh claimed “our purpose is self-reform by means of a handicraft and of interaction with nature – our aim is walking with God”.  He had a desire to bring people closer to God, closer to each other and closer to themselves.  In 1888 he painted “The Sower”, an important piece in the history of art, and a scene straight out of our Matthew text.  We see the farmer sowing the seed deliberately.  For van Gogh, the color yellow symbolized faith, triumph and love; the color blue represented the divine.  You see how he combined the colors to show the relationship between all living things.  

How do you nurture your heart to make it good ground that will yield a fruitful harvest for the Lord?   The holy sacrament of communion is one way to feed your soul with God’s grace.  Prayer is another way.  As we prepare to come to the Lord’s Table, let us take a time to share our joys and concerns and bring them to God in a time of prayer.  To acknowledge and know the sower is in your midst, let the Eucharist unite you, prayer guide you, the Holy Spirit empower you and loving service define you.  Spend time observing the world with eyes that are blessed to see.  Spend time listening to the world with ears that are blessed to hear.  Not just what you want to see and hear, but with the blessing of seeing and hearing the reality and diversity of the world.  A journey Jesus forged for us on the path of His human journey and taught us to heal brokenness, welcome the stranger and love as we have been loved.  Then the seeds He sows in our hearts will indeed bear fruit and yield a crop thirty, sixty or even a hundred times the seed that was scattered.
Amen.  .

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Ordinary People

ed. note:  This was Pastor Sandy's introductory sermon to Girdwood Chapel on July 6th.  It's a great way for you to get to know our new pastor, in her own words.

Ordinary People                                         sermon: 7.6.2014                Sandy Ward
Good morning. 
This is a story about a very ordinary person, in a very ordinary life.  There is nothing glamorous, and no one is going to write an epic drama mini-series depicting this life.  But in this ordinariness there is something very awesome and very empowering…
It was a blustery fall day, in fact it was Halloween, and the doctor was trying to finish his obligations.  I was one of his obligations – or rather my mother and I were his obligations.  I had to be born so he could go out of town.  I was both a trick and a treat that night in Moline, IL. 
Over the next seven years, my older brother and I were joined by another sister and brother.  It was the 60’s and my dad went to work each day at his job as a tool and die maker, and my mother stayed home and raised the children.  We were… a very ordinary family.  We walked to our school two blocks away, went to lessons and after school activities, and on Sundays my mother took us four kids to Sunday School and church service at the Watertown Baptist Church.  I remember it being a medium size church with one male pastor, and a male youth pastor that was hired later.  This was the church my mother’s entire family attended, 3 aunts, 3 uncles, 9 cousins, grandma, mom and my 3 siblings. 
I grew up memorizing bible verses and the books of the Bible.  John 3:16, King James style, was the central verse of this church’s ministry, long before churches had mission statements and ministry plans.  The minister lived in a parsonage that was connected to the church.  Worship was every Sunday morning, Sunday night and I think there was a mid-week service.  When I was in high school, we had youth group on Sunday evenings. It was a …very ordinary church.
I was an ordinary middle child, who went to an ordinary school and ordinary church.  I even went to Normal, IL for college.    In the years that followed college I moved to Chicago, worked in corporate America and went to grad school at night.   I was living the dream of the 80’s – working in corporate America, getting an MBA.  I had a nice car, a condo in the city,  By some folk’s standards, I had it all… but after about 10 years of that I wanted something more meaningful. 
I was growing restless; I drifted in and out of church attendance, not really finding a downtown church to latch onto. I was struggling with how to live in a self-absorbed, fast-tracked world while really wanting to make some sort of social contribution.  I had growing need to serve others. 
In July of 1989, I met my husband on a boat in Wilmette Harbor.  We were sailing together on a mutual friend’s boat in a regatta on Lake Michigan.  Two years later we were married outdoors at Windpoint Lighthouse in Racine, Wisconsin.  Our son, Cameron, was born a year and a half later.  It was 1992, and by this point I had left corporate America and was working as the Marketing Manager of a hospital, starting  to make some contribution to society.  And with a new baby, it was time to get serious about getting back to church.  (How ordinary is that story?)
In 1994 we moved to Ames, Iowa, we began to find a family routine and values around worship, mission and fellowship at the First UMC in Ames.  With a one year old in tow, and another baby on the way, now my identity was as a wife and mother.   When we moved again to East Lansing, Michigan, it was easy to connect with a new church.  Now we had 2 preschoolers (Cameron and Blake), my husband was in law school and I was working at Michigan State University.  At church I was a Sunday School teacher and my husband ran the sound board, and we chaired the outreach committee, and many of our neighborhood friends were also our church friends.
Fast forward ten years.  We had been raising our children with Church attendance and activities as a regular part of our lives, when we moved to Columbia, MO.  We found a new church and it was easy to connect because now we had school age children.  I was employed working for the church – first in a more regional setting then later at the church we attended and were members of.  My oldest son graduated from high school, my husband had a good job, my younger son was growing up, and life should have been savored and appreciated.  But I knew there was something more.  Thoughts of attending seminary had floated in and out of my mind, and I had this very compelling feeling that each job and each experience had been building to something greater.  This was my call and I either had to live into it, or forget it.  I knew I had to be true to myself and my God.  So, like many of our household business discussions, I decided to bring it up with my husband over lunch.  I said “hey, I want to talk to you about something”… and he said “you want to go to seminary”.  I was shocked!   “yeah… how did you know?”  He said “I thought you should have gone years ago”.    What a gift that was to me.  I felt peace, and a solid sense of direction. 

The story doesn’t end there.  It’s actually a new beginning.  Because, through this journey, I began to discover that even the most ordinary people are something special.  And through my own Bible study, this is one of the scriptures that has really really embraced and empowered me; 
Psalm 139:13-14:
 For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.”
 In this passage, the psalmist is David, and he is writing in praise for the formation of each and every person -- unique and not of ourselves or our parents, but of God.  Think about it, each and every muscle, bone, organ and blood vessel is in place to work together in exact symmetry and proportion and is designed exquisitely to deliver energy and function when we need it.  These verses transcend the scientific concept of humans as merely biological happenings. David is so eloquent in making the case that each human is a deliberate and intentional work of our omnipotent creator.  Our very being, our self, wholly and complex, is the will of God and we belong to God in every aspect of our being.   
            Look especially at 3 words in this passage:  formed, fearfully and made:
First, the word “formed”, from verse 13 ““For it was you who formed my inward parts”:  Albert Barnes,( in his article in Sacred Texts), comments that the literal translation of v.13 should be “Thou hast “woven” me in my mother’s womb”, “meaning that God had put the psalmist’s parts together, as one weaves cloth – God made us human, forming our parts and uniting them in a bodily frame and form.” [1] 

Second, the word “fearfully”, from verse 14, “I am fearfully and wonderfully made”:   Dr. C. John Collins, a theologian at  Covenant Theological Seminary, writes that when you interpret verse 14 from the Hebrew, it is better translated as “I am fearfully (or even better, awesomely) wonderful”.   Fearfully is derived from the root word “yara”,  In today’s culture, fear is usually associated with the instincts to run, defend or retaliate.  But “yara” actually encompasses a larger meaning of awe, reverent respect, and honor.  At its root, the word denotes obedience to the divine will, so another meaning might be “reverently”.  Albert Barnes provides a translation of “fearfully” as things suited to produce fear or reverence – things in creation which are suited to inspire awe”. [2]   

Third, look at the word “made”, also from verse 14:  The common Biblical translations usually say “I am fearfully and wonderfully made…”, but actually, the word “made” translates closer to “be separated, distinct”, with a nuance based on the Hebrew verb that means “set apart for God’s gracious attention.”[3]  

Putting it all together, using the wisdom of Barnes and Collins, a better interpretation might be ‘God put me together in my mother’s womb, uniting all of me together in a human body.  I am revered as an awesomely distinct being, set apart for God’s gracious attention.’ 

We are living proof of God’s wonder, wisdom and knowledge.  We are created in the image of God, according to Genesis 1:27 “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them”. 
When I first began this journey of exploring a call to ministry, I was asked to tell my story.  I told a humble, “Readers Digest” version and a colleague said to me, “you have something to shout about – you are the daughter of the King”.  What a conviction!  God created me and gave me exactly what I need, to be able to do what I am called to do.  I am created to share the good news of the love and grace of our Lord and do good works.  I am created to serve as Jesus served, lead as Jesus led, pray as Jesus prayed and love and Jesus loved. 
And I think we all have a call to serve God in one way or another.    God has created you uniquely, formed and framed by God.  Each of us was reverently, wondrously, strikingly, remarkable, differently made, in ways beyond human explanation.  We are to know God, just as God knows us.  God has given you exactly what you need to be able to do what God calls you to do.  You are empowered to live a God filled life, by virtue of the wondrous creation you are. 
 While I may have had a pretty ordinary life by most people’s standards, I am far from ordinary in God’s eyes.   I AM the daughter of the King!   And there is nothing ordinary about any of us – we are all children of our living and loving God – each of us uniquely created to live out our own faith, our own call, our own identity in the world.  You are sons and daughters of the King!!
On this weekend when we are celebrating our country’s independence, we remember all those who have done a part to protect our freedom -- many of them from very ordinary walks of life, but all of them courageously stepping up.  But in each of us, ordinary or not, God has created us with beauty and purpose.  Remember that you are the daughter or son of the King, and that each and every one of us is an “awesomely distinct being, set apart for God’s gracious attention and reflection.    

[1] Albert Barnes.  Notes on the Bible:  Psalms Chapter 139, 1834,, 2010
[2] Albert Barnes.  Notes on the Bible:  Psalms Chapter 139, 1834,, 2010
[3] C. John Collins.  “Psalm 139:14:  “Fearfully and Wonderfully Made” Presbyterian: Covenant Seminary Review 25:2 (Fall 1999): 115