July 16, 2017: May God’s words alone be spoken, may God’s words alone be heard. Amen.
Thanks to things really starting to take off in our parish office, I was able to leave work early enough this week to catch a baseball game. No, not the Mets, or even the Jackals. This was a game of the Little League team – the Montclair Bulldogs. I was there to watch a favorite kid I know play some ball. What I saw were a whole group of kids on both sides having fun. Sometimes they were distracted by loose shoelaces, a passing butterfly, or whatever it was they found in the dirt or grass. And no matter the score (and my little buddie’s team was not on the winning end of that), they seemed to be playing baseball with abandon. They went out onto the field with joy, and returned pretty much the same way – if not a bit more dirty and tired. And it was this that was in my mind when preparing this sermon.
Now, as some of you know (church geeks – I am talking to you) most denominations from the Roman Catholics to the Methodists, and most everything in between, read the same passages of scripture on any given Sunday, because we share what is known as the Revised Common Lectionary (the readings are called lections, which, in case you were wondering, is why the person reading them is called a Lector – and not because they are related to a character in “Silence of the Lambs). We all read the same thing…except in the season of Pentecost (or what is known as Ordinary time), which we are in now. There we are given an option – Track 1 or Track 2.
Quoting from the Rev. Dr. Barry Bates, one of the priests in our own diocese, “During the long green season after Pentecost, there are two tracks (or strands) each week for Old Testament readings. Within each track, there is a Psalm chosen to accompany the particular lesson. The Revised Common Lectionary allows us to make use of either of these tracks, but once a track has been selected, it should be followed through to the end of the Pentecost season, rather than jumping back and forth between the two strands.
The first track of Old Testament readings (“Track 1”) follows major stories and themes, read mostly continuously from week to week. In Year A we begin with Genesis, in Year B we hear some of the great monarchy narratives, and in Year C we read from the later prophets. A second track of readings (“Track 2”) follows the Roman Catholic tradition of thematically pairing the Old Testament reading with the Gospel reading….”
Okay – got that? And you thought I just picked this stuff to make sermon writing easier – if only. Seriously. For the past three years, we have used Track 1, and now for the next three years, we will use Track 2. So, why am I boring you with this stuff? See, the folks determining the lectionary readings (the prescribed scriptures for any given Sunday across most denominations) sometimes have about as much success at matching the texts to one another (as they try to do in the track that we are using this year) as some of those little leaguers had at matching the bat to the ball* – so there are times when you have to wonder how they even relate, if they do at all – it’s a total strike out. But this Sunday, they at least got a base hit.[*But, I must note, in fairness, the kid I went to see is a pretty good hitter!]
In the reading from Isaiah today, you can see that they went along thinking what Hebrew text would be a match to the gospel – oh wait! – “sower” and “seed” – Isaiah 55 you’re up! Okay, a loose connection, one might be excused for thinking, but actually, it’s a good fit.
Speaking to the life of prophetic witness the author writes “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace;”
Or, for the little leaguers – they went out into the field of dreams with joy, and came back in one piece – to the delight of their parents and coaches. Now, all of that is great, but what does it all mean, or have to do with me, you might be asking. And that’s why this reading is a great pairing with the gospel for this Sunday, because in a very real way, what the prophet is saying, is what Jesus is talking about in this well known parable.
We have heard this parable of Jesus so many times that most of us can probably recite it by heart, but the basic story is this: Jesus tells the crowds listening to him about a sower (a farmer) spreading seed all over the place – some where birds swoop down and eat it, some in areas where a harvest would be hard to produce, some even on rocks! Now, to an agrarian society, folks who live off the land, which would be the case in that time and place, that would sound absolutely nuts! How incredibly wasteful to just toss valuable seed everywhere.
Now later, Jesus explains to his disciples a bit more about the parable, or at least how they might use if for their own formation – yup, those missing verses that the lectionary folks left out – that’s the bit where it is clear the second part of the gospel reading is just a private conversation, not a continuation of what he was saying to the crowds on the beach. I talked about that three years ago, when this gospel last came around, but setting that aside for a moment, let’s stay with the crowds, let’s stay in the parable itself, because the message of it, and of Isaiah, is important for us to hear today.
Now, close your eyes for a moment…
I want you to imagine a world in which love and grace were just thrown around with abandon everywhere, and to everyone.
Imagine a world in which hope and joy were the currency of our lives – taken out of our pocket and given over everywhere we went.
Imagine a world in which a sign of success was in the extent to which we were willing to share.
Now open your eyes and your hearts, because that is the world Jesus is describing here – and it is something possible for each of us to live into. The sower is spreading the seeds hope and possibility of God’s grace and love everywhere – without concern for where (or on whom) it lands. And the thing is…the sower may never know just what an impact he had on everything that seed hit – but I bet you his willingness to go out into the field with joy left him returning to his bed at night in peace – because he didn’t allow himself to get caught up in the human definition of success, he lived instead into God’s definition of it.
Which brings me back to that baseball game. Watching it, I was reminded of a story about another little league game. It was told by the NY Times bestselling author Jeffrey Zaslow, in his book Tell Me About It. “Years ago, my father coached a team of eight-year-olds. He had a few excellent players, and some who just couldn’t get the hang of the game. Dad’s team didn’t win once all season. But in the last inning of the last game, his team was only down by a run. There was one boy who had never been able to hit the ball–or catch it. With two outs, it was his turn to bat. He surprised the world and got a single!
The next batter was the team slugger. Finally, Dad’s players might win a game. The slugger connected, and as the boy who hit the single ran to second, he saw the ball coming toward him. Not so certain of baseball’s rules, he caught it. Final out! Dad’s team lost! Quickly, my father told his team to cheer. The boy beamed. It never occurred to him that he lost the game. All he knew was he had hit the ball and caught it–both for the first time.
His parents later thanked my dad. Their child had never even gotten in a game before that season. We never told the boy exactly what happened. We didn’t want to ruin it for him. And till this day, I’m proud of what my father did that afternoon.”
That coach is one who sowed seed with abandon – who understood what the seed was for in the first place. I suspect he returned home that night in peace.
See, God’s grace and love isn’t there so we can build beautiful monuments to it – tall flowering plants are wonderful, as are large thriving churches – but that isn’t the purpose of the seed that this sower is throwing about, just a by-product of some of it. The point is, the seed that doesn’t become what we think it ought to – the seed in the thorns, the seed on the rocks, the seed in the birds mouth – may be exactly where it needs to be. It always fascinated me about the birds, and how the interpretation is that it was bad that they scooped up the seed. I tend to think it a good thing. God’s grace and love is there for all of God’s creation. The thing is, God just wants us to be the ones sowing with abandon – going out in joy and returning in peace – reaching as many in God’s creation as we can with the seed of God’s all abiding grace and love that hope is spread everywhere.
Because God’s love and grace is for everyone – you, me, the rich and the poor, the gay and the straight, the male and the female – all people in every corner of the world…and all creatures who inhabit it too. God does not discriminate – people do – but not God’s sowers, not God’s prophets. And that’s where we come in. That’s where this gospel, and the Isaiah passage has meaning for us today.
All of us are prophets – that is the ministry of every one of us.
And, the prophet’s job isn’t to worry about what is possible.
The prophet’s job is to offer a word that makes the impossible possible.
Because the work of the prophet is to spread the hope of God’s grace and love….and the very nature of hope is that it creates possibility.
We may never know the impact of our actions in the world, but we can ensure that what we cast around is of God’s love, not of human fear. If we start worrying about where to drop that grace and love – or worse, whether a part of God’s creation is worthy of it or not (because that is just absolutely ridiculous and arrogant) – then we end up returning home with seed still in the sack. There is no peace in that. To think that we had a chance to spread the seed of God’s love, of God’s grace, and didn’t… That would be the saddest thing of all.
The Most Rev. Desmond Tutu, one our Anglican church’s most insightful prophets, once told a crowd of people “I want you to go away from here knowing that we are made for goodness. We are made for beauty. We are made for laughter. We are made for joy…We’re made for compassion, for gentleness, for sharing.”
He’s right….We were made for joy…the joy of the prophet – the joy found in sharing God’s grace and love.
We are called is to spread with wild abandon God’s seed of grace and love that hope abounds.
It is the life we were born to live – the life we do with Christ’s help.
So, may we go out onto the fields of dreams – that place we call our daily life – joyfully spreading the seed of God’s grace and love everywhere, and returning home a bit dirty, a bit tired, and full of peace when the game is done.
For the audio from the 10:30am service, click here:
 Jeffrey Zaslow, “Tell Me All About It,” 1990.
 The Most Rev. Desmond Tutu, Archbishop (ret.) of the Anglican Church of South Africa, from the 1999 Wilborce Lecture.
Rev. Diana L. Wilcox
Christ Church in Bloomfield & Glen Ridge
July 16, 2017
Pentecost 6 – Track 2
1st Reading – Zechariah 9:9-12
2nd Reading – Romans 7:15-25a
Gospel – Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30