Monday, June 11, 2012

Soil Preparation

Preached at Marion Friends Church, June 10, 2012
The story of the sower collected from Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8

Here is a picture of the secret of the way God governs:

Listen up! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!” ... The sower sows the word.

What is “the word”? It can legitimately be a number of things: a story, an event, a doctrine, an instruction, an explanation; for a follower of Jesus, it is speaking what God tells that follower to speak.

Some don’t understand what they hear, so they instantly forget it; some receive it with joy but don’t let it go deep in their lives, so they lose interest when times are hard; some allow the cares of the world, the lure of money, the desire for other things, the desire to be important, the need for affirmation to choke out any growing they might do, so that they don’t see any results from their belief; some are open and ready and honest; these take it seriously and act on it, and they see lots of growth and results. 

Jesus says to his disciples then, and to us now, pay attention to what you hear.  The more you listen to what God says and act on what you hear, the more you will hear; if you don’t act on what God tells you, you’ll lose the little ability to hear that you have.  God doesn’t whisper things to you so that you’ll keep them secret, but so you can disclose them to others. 

And be encouraged: the kingdom of heaven grows quietly under the surface—your obedience will have results in due time.  Trust God to tend the seeds you’ve sown. And the little seed you have sown will grow into a tree.  Trust God to make this happen.

And if you see that some weeds grow up in the field, don’t worry about it.  Let God separate the weeds from the grain.  If you try to pull them up, you’ll pull up the good plants also.  God can handle this in God’s own time.

The most obvious teaching here has to do with sharing the good news that Jesus has brought the Kingdom of God, the area where God rules, right down among us and within us. We can publish the truth of what God has done for us, and then trust God with the results.  God has set us free, has given us permission, to tell what we know of God’s love and mercy and to bring healing and freedom and forgiveness to others, just as Jesus did.  God is closer to us than the air, eager to help us live life well and joyfully, and present to carry with us the things that weigh us down.  We can tell people about this by how we live and also by what we say, both of which we are doing in obedience to the government of God.

But there is more here in this story.  I know because of how I used to read it and how I read it now.  I used to read it as four different kinds of people. But I came to realize that I have all four of these soils in myself.  I have the part that doesn’t understand what God is saying to me, so it slips out of my mind.  I have the part that doesn’t get into my deep soul, so it dies under pressure.  I have the part that doesn’t affect how I live because I am worrying about money or job or who did me wrong.  Thank God I also have the part that eagerly, honestly, openly welcomes God’s word and lets it affect how I think and behave by obeying it. 

So is there anything I can do about worrying, shallowness, or simple hardness of heart? (For the following, I use Richard Foster’s The Celebration of Discipline as a general framework.)

The stories I’m going to tell you are simply all illustrations of the fact that God honors us when we take our small, ineffective efforts to inch nearer by blessing us and others through them. I want to encourage those of you with hearts that long to be more and more open to the spirit of God to hear what follows and take the parts that speak to you. These are my stories, and they are not all for everyone here.  But I hope at least one will be for each of you.

The writer Flannery O’Connor ("The Enduring Chill") has a priest say to an agnostic young man who doesn’t pray, “Well, you will never learn to be good unless you pray.  You cannot love Jesus unless you speak to him.” A number of times in my life, I have kept a prayer journal.  At times I’ve written out my prayers, at other times, I have just kept a list of the requests I’m praying for and written down when there was closure on them.  The latter was more helpful to me in learning to trust God as I saw God answering so many prayers.  Praying about little things and seeing that God cares and answers gives me faith to pray about big things like war, famine, dying children, injustice, politics. 

Frank Laubach, a missionary in the 20th century and the founder of an effective literacy program, said that perhaps we were put on earth to pray for our neighbors.  I have yet to have someone say, “No, don’t pray for me,” even if they themselves are not able to have faith.

The 50 days of prayer in preparation for YM came out of a concern from a whole bunch of people.  I hope you are participating in this because as a denomination we want to hear from God and do what God says, we want to learn to be good and to love Jesus.

Studying or Paying Attention
Several years ago, I read the book of Mark all at one sitting for several weekends in a row to see how the readings might change. It blew my heart open to Jesus.  You try it.  Jesus leaps off the page when the whole story (all 20 pages) zips by. You can see why people dropped everything to follow him and hear him speak.  You can also see why people got mad at him, and you see why St Paul says that if Jesus is not resurrected, humans are completely miserable.  The universe without that person in it—not much of a place, really, particularly once you’ve seen him in action.

Listening and Obeying
In Quaker worship, there is often a spell where people sit silently and wait for God to speak.  I started feeling moved by God to speak in high school, and I was so honored, and still am so honored, that I want to be obedient.  Often, one or two people will tell me that what I said spoke to them, and that is confirmation to me that I was supposed to share. 

When I was in college, Bill Vaswig came to speak in our church.  Bill was a Lutheran minister who was preaching about obeying the Holy Spirit.  He said, why not trust in those impulses to do good.  Call that person on your heart; do that next good thing you’ve been thinking of.  See what happens.  So one thing to do is to listen and do what you hear.  George MacDonald wrote that God always makes clear the very next good thing we are to do, even if what we are to do after that is still unclear.

Dallas Willard taught me in The Divine Conspiracy that God is closer to me than the air I breathe.  Paul teaches that we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit as if we were a house.  I cannot be separated from God.  Thinking about that fact, living in that truth, what an awe-inspiring honor to carry God from place to place.  My car is often a place where God corners me and nudges me to grow up.  One of my most amazing experiences of forgiving another person took place in a car, with the radio on even, because God was right there also, pushing me to move a little closer to true forgiveness.

I really hungered for someone to confess to at one confused and desperate point in my life.  I confessed everything to God, but I really wanted to tell another person.  I did have a spiritual director/counselor at that time to whom I was mostly transparent, and that was helpful.  However, I hungered to hear someone tell me that my sins were forgiven. 

Almost accidentally, I was able to tell someone this truth—someone said to me, why do I feel so miserable about the past? And I said to her, you know, your sins are forgiven.  She witnessed to me a week later that those words lifted a burden from her heart she had been carrying for years. 

For me, this started with giving my tithe to the church back when I started working for money in high school.  Then as time passed, I read C.S. Lewis’s suggestion that giving ought to cramp your style a little.  When I got a dog, I felt convicted that if I could afford dog food and vet bills, I could afford to give money to the hungry.  Mark and I give money to people working for parachurch organizations because I’m a missionary kid, and to social causes or organizations I believe in because I’m a US and world citizen.  It does cramp my style a bit—but it helps weed my heart of love of riches and possessions.  I want to be thankful without being grabby.

I have also repeatedly given myself as completely as I know how to God, and I have discovered that God believes I mean it.

I find the next two attitudes enormously difficult and linked by the necessity of trusting God to give me what I really need.

I don’t think I’ve voluntarily gone without food for decades and maybe never.  I have friends who witness to me that this is one of the ways God works with them.  I get migraines when I skip meals, I get faint and cranky and I can’t think straight.  So I don’t go without food.

However, C.S. Lewis wrote that sometimes we think we really need something (like food, but maybe something else) and we don’t have it, and this is a fast God has sent us.  Like if I miss a meal, I can embrace that as a fast God has sent me, and offer it to God as a gift.  Or if I think I need praise or affirmation and none is forthcoming, I can embrace that absence as the fast God has sent me.

This is the hardest for me—I don’t trust easily, not even God, and to take the events of my life as expressions of God’s will for me requires very hard work on my part.  I try to start small by saying when I am impatiently waiting at a RR crossing, this is God’s will for me.  I am practicing for when life goes nothing like what I expected in big ways—it is an act of faith for me to take this as being from God and trust in God’s love despite disappointment.  And the part about letting anger go, letting my rights go, not insisting on being vindicated—that’s very hard.  Jesus said we need to take up our crosses daily.  This is what that word means to me.

One final way to get to know God better is by Celebrating.

The kingdom of God is compared to a party at least as often as it is to a garden or field.  When I hear God, I can risk being obedient; being obedient produces joy.  When we celebrate, we can get over ourselves—we can be holy fools—we can play games—we can sing out loud—we can do cartwheels or pump our fists in the air because God’s team just won the championship—we can shoot off fireworks to celebrate our freedom to love God; and we can invite others to join us.

So if, like me, you recognize that you have all four soils in you, and you want to see more results from believing Jesus’s message of good news, try praying, try listening, try obeying, try confessing, try studying, try accepting, try celebrating what God gives.  We don’t make God love us more by doing these things; we just make it easier for ourselves to know God’s love.

Isaiah 55:10-11, 1-2
As the water falls from the sky and does not return to the sky until the earth is wet so that seeds grow, buds form, and plants flourish and yield seed for the gardener and food for the eater, so my word (says God) goes out from my mouth and does what I want it to do.  My word does not return to me empty.

All who thirst, come drink the water; you with no money, come buy and eat; buy wine and milk without money and at no cost. Why do you spend money on what doesn’t feed you? Why do you work for what doesn’t satisfy you?  Listen to me (says God), listen to me and eat what is good for you and your soul will be filled with delight.

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