Monday, July 17, 2017

Dirty Job

The scriptures referred to are Isaiah 55:10-13 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

I have been a nurse for 36 years. My next longest career was as a production director and copywriter in radio for 20 years. I highly recommend both as preparation for ordination. Clinical pastoral education is a lot easier if you have worked with the mentally ill as a psych nurse, the cognitively impaired as a neurosurgical nurse and dealt with all the tragedies and transitions of life, including birth and death, as an staffing, private duty, home health and nursing home nurse. And being a copywriter is excellent training for writing sermons. After 2 decades of boiling content down to 30 or 60 seconds, having 15 minutes is a luxury. You can actually do some nuance and deal with a certain amount of complexity. Plus, speaking strictly for myself, you don't have to sell something you don't believe in. I had a ad salesmen—excuse me, account executive—who was having trouble saying anything good about his client's business. He told me that whatever I said about the client, don't say he has the lowest prices in town; if anything, he had the highest. I've had to write ads for nightclubs, stock car races, spring break events for college students sponsored by beer distributors and a clothing-optional restaurant for people who apparently found that appetizing, or were under the delusion that all the other patrons were going to be supermodels.

Another thing I learned is that words are not magic. Yes, you can persuade people but there are certain folks your ad simply cannot motivate. If you are advertising a Lexus, you can forget about people who love Chevys. Or pickups. You can also forget about anyone who has just bought a car. You are basically trying to reach people who have the money, the need and are open to any brand. Those are the people you can sway.

Jesus understands that. It's at the center of his parable of the sower. Or should we say the parable of the soils. Because in this story the crucial factor is the type of soil where the seed ends up. The seed is the same. The seed, Jesus says, is the message about the kingdom of God.

William Barclay points out that there were two ways to sow seeds in that era. One was to walk along and throw the seed in a broadcast manner. The problem is the wind could pick it up and blow it into areas you didn't want to seed. The other method was to put the seed in a bag, hang the bag on a donkey, cut a hole in the bag's corner and walk the donkey up and down the rows in the fields. The problem is the seed starts pouring before you get the donkey in position and it pours out even on the pathway as the donkey walks between fields or rows. Either way, you sow seed in places you don't want it.

The seed that falls on the path is a lost cause. It's been beaten and packed into a hard surface by all the feet that have trod upon it. The seed can't penetrate the pavement-like path and all you've done is laid a feast for the birds. In the parable, the seed that hits the path is likened to God's message falling on the ears of those hardened against spiritual truth. They are either too lazy to think about it or too cynical and prejudiced against religious talk to even consider it. The message is wasted on them. Far from preaching to the choir, you might as well be preaching to the devil for all the good it will do.

Then there's the rocky soil. When I was in Israel during a college study trip I heard of a Palestinian folk tale about a large pelican that, once upon a time, was flying over the newly-created earth with 3 gigantic bags of rocks. He dropped the contents of two of those bags over Palestine. The story was probably made up by some Palestinian farmer hundreds of years ago to explain the rocky soil he was trying to wrest a living from. Like the Keys, what you have in much of the Holy Land is a few inches of dirt lying on a limestone shelf. So any seed sewn there doesn't have to grow very long to break the surface but neither can it lay down deep roots. It can't find enough moisture and it withers in the merciless Middle Eastern sun. Jesus explains that this is like the person who hears the gospel and readily accepts it but the minute he encounters adversity, his faith dies. In the affluent West we have a lot of shallow, fair weather Christians who have confused Jesus with Santa Claus and think the good news is that God wants to give them a comfortable, carefree life. They think the cross Jesus commands us to bear is a tasteful one around your neck. When the going gets tough, they get going as far away as they can from a faith they feel let them down.

The sower doesn't knowingly throw the seed on thorny ground. It's just that even though the soil is plowed up, the roots of the weeds lie deep beneath the surface. If you don't pull out the roots, the weeds grow back. And as we know, weeds grow faster than the good seed and chokes the desired plants. Jesus compares this soil to the worldly believer, whose cares and pursuit of wealth overwhelm the gospel and ultimately nothing comes of it in that person's life. That reminds me of all the celebrity Christians out there, the movie stars and rappers and businessmen and lawmakers who claim to follow Jesus but whose lives show scant evidence of it. They have affairs, lie, behave unethically in business, and pass legislation that either harms the powerless or makes it harder for them to get help. They say they are Christians but there's no proof and in fact they discredit their faith. In some cases you can't tell if they are truly clueless or simply hypocrites but nobody cites them as a reason for wanting to come to Christ. Whatever their secular achievements, their spiritual legacy is nil.

Before we get to the good soil, I want to add a category that Jesus never saw 2000 years ago: polluted soil. This is soil that has been marinating in some kind of chemical runoff or poisoned by radiation or cross-pollinated by genetically modified seed. The grain grows but it's mutated. This parallels the kind of people who take the gospel and twist it and bring forth some abnormal form of Christianity. The DNA at the heart of it is no longer the love of God made manifest in Christ but hatred for everyone who is not on its side. Whereas Jesus sets us free from the tyranny of the Law and gives us the two great commandments to love God and each other, this deviant kind of Christianity substitutes a thousand rules, ruthlessly enforced by men—it's almost always men—who say only THEY speak for God. Whereas Jesus forgives everybody who asks him, the purveyors of this perverted faith forgive no faults or failings but use guilt as a whip to motivate people. We see this corrupt form of God's good news in cults and tiny belligerent split-off groups and even lurking in the rhetoric of some popular preachers, which is why some folks mistake it for the real thing. But the fruit this soil produces is toxic to consume.

Jesus doesn't really give us a description of good soil, except to say that it is extraordinarily fruitful. We can assume it is not hardened like the pathway, or shallow like the rocky soil, or overrun with weeds like the thorny soil. Or polluted with anything poisonous. And remember we are not talking about the seed, the message, but the soil, people. Jesus knew what I learned in two decades of writing ads. There are some people you can't persuade, no matter how good your message is. You can only reach the receptive.

But that doesn't mean we need to be parsimonious in passing along the word. Because you can't always tell what soil your seed is falling on. And here's another thing Jesus didn't have to deal with: concrete. Yes, the Romans had it but they built buildings and aqueducts and palaces and baths with it. Roman roads were paved with stones, not concrete. And one thing you wouldn't see therefore is something growing wildly from a crack in an otherwise barren area, like the tree growing on the old Seven Mile Bridge. For years, clever people have been decorating it with lights for Christmas. My point is that given a crack, some soil can get in and so can a seed and over time, it can break through the toughest exterior. You may encounter someone who seems so hardened and cynical that you would be willing to bet that they would never become Christians. But you might be wrong. There are many prominent atheists who have come to Jesus, like Alister McGrath, the Irish scientist turned theologian, Francis Collins, geneticist and Director of the National Institutes of Health, Lee Strobel, lawyer and journalist, C.S. Lewis, philosopher and literature professor, and Rosalind Picard, professor at MIT and founder of the Affective Computing Research Group as well as many others.

So let's opt for the broadcast method. Let's fling that seed far and wide. It will find a place to grow, and some of those places will surprise us. But that doesn't mean we can't target the message. Remember what I said about whom an ad will and will not reach. People who are happy with their faith will probably not respond. It's people who have a need to be filled and no prejudice about where that help comes from who will most likely be open to the message.

And take some other tips from Jesus. People like stories. He told parables because they got people emotionally and intellectually involved. A son goes off and spends all his money partying and then hits rock bottom. What will he do now? A man is beaten and robbed and left for dead. Here comes someone along the same road. What happens next? A king throws a wedding banquet for his son and none of the guests come because they are too busy. What will he do about that?

And Jesus always has a plot twist. The boy goes home to face the father whose money he wasted. How do you think the father will react? What about the brother? Two members of the clergy come upon the man left for dead on the road to Jericho. What do you think they will do? Who will help the man? The king has spent a lot of money on food and drink for the banquet and there's no one to enjoy his son's big day. How will he save the situation?

Jesus used familiar everyday things to illustrate his message. A poor woman frantically searching for a lost coin. A farmer trying to decide what to do about weeds growing up amidst his crops. A shepherd finding one of his sheep is missing. Laborers finally being hired late in the day. A poor widow up against a corrupt judge. People could identify with that. They could put themselves in the protagonist's place. And then Jesus asks, what can this teach us about God?

When he healed people, Jesus sent them off to tell others what God had done for them. I listen to a lot of podcasts, like The Moth, This American Life, and The Tobolowsky Files, where people tell true stories—funny, weird, sad or surprising—about something that happened to them. And these are popular because we love to hear people tell stories from their life. And the most popular stories are about people who triumph over problems, big or small. We all have such a story.

It doesn't matter if you're a cradle Episcopalian or life-long Lutheran. It doesn't matter if you had a near death experience or not. We all have a story about how God helped us. It can be how he helped us deal with a loss. It can be how he helped us get through a major life change. It can be how he helped us forgive someone who wronged us. Or how he helped us forgive ourselves. It can be how he helped us find our purpose in life. Or how he helped us find ourselves. Share it. Let people know what the Lord has done for you.

Some people won't care. Some people are too hardened, too busy, too shallow, too perverse to do anything with it. But as Isaiah says, God's word will not return empty. Some people will be good soil, waiting to receive the good news and bring it to fruition. And some will have a few cracks in their lives that will admit the gospel of God's love and that seed you planted will grow and make more cracks in their exterior and expose the fertile soil beneath and burst forth one day as glorious, God-given, fruit-laden life.   

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