My dear, wise friend, the Rev. Arnie Pierson, has worshiped with us from Chicago, and he has
shared some important feedback:
Good service Pastor! So appreciated seeing you!
Only wish for a little less Dodgers and a shout out for the Cubs!
Well, this week Jesus tells a parable about a sudden explosion of miraculous success that followed a litany of failures and disappointments, including choke jobs and withering after a fast start.
Cub fans, this one's for you.
[change into Cubs stole]
The kingdom of heaven is like Kyle Schwarber.
Last year, just like the sower in Jesus' story, Kyle Schwarber hit exactly .250, which means he got out three out of every four times he lumbered to the plate.
Arnie can tell you that he also misplayed roughly three out of every four fly balls hit his way.
Schwarber's failures varied, of course: sometimes he grounded out, sometimes he popped up, sometimes he swung and missed completely.
Some hopeful looking line drives and long fly balls died in opposing gloves; other at bats were clearly hopeless.
But now and then, once out of four times, a seed would land.
Sometimes these produced abundantly—he had 38 homeruns and 92 runs batted in.
For his quarter time success, Schwarber was rewarded this year with a 7 million dollar salary.
(If I could up my game to one good sermon out of every four, I would settle for that.)
Let anyone with ears listen.
Last Sunday, in our Revelation study, I heard a familiar melody line in the conversation.
I heard lament that we are not seeing a bigger harvest.
Where is the thirty, sixty, hundredfold growth of church membership?
That, of course, is how we have automatically, maybe uncritically come to measure the
value of ministry in default American terms of effectiveness, productivity, stats.
What did our efforts yield, and what was wasted, and how can we be more efficient – all
questions that are almost inevitable for us but which the sower does not seem to care about.
It doesn't help that many of us grew up in a golden age of church participation; our expectations were set at hundredfold by growing up in a time when it appeared that everyone went to church every week, reinforced by social pressure.
Here in Southern California, most of our ELCA congregations, including ours, were planted and quickly grew large in the twenty years after World War II as L.A. expanded and welcomed a huge influx of new residents from Lutheran-rich places like Chicago, where
winter is usually as cold and crushing as September at Wrigley.
Big churches and expanding harvests were the norm, except that post-war America was a minority blip in church history, a grand slam, a rare patch of unusually productive soil. And just as our area is far less field and much more path – fewer farms and more roads – so the soil conditions of society have drastically changed.
As one participant commented, now the f-word is far less scary or offensive than the name Jesus.
We the church have certainly done our part to drag his name through the mud with our
internal conflicts, judgmental moralism, fear, irrelevancy, greed, abuse, and plenty of other sins.
And hearts have hardened all around us; positions and politics have calcified, and it feels like the soil is harder and rockier now than in former times we think we remember.
Receptivity and vulnerability are considered weakness; the soil we idealize and celebrate is firm, tough, strong, resistant, fortified against intrusion and change; how can the word get in?
Whether it is the evil one or insatiable capitalist birds or rock hard ideologies just beneath the surface or the irresistible wiles of wealth or thorny entanglements that are necessary to
survive in the world or simply nine guys playing defense against one batter, there is
substantial resistance to the word.
A lot of it falls into failure.
But that's not the end of the story.
If the seed is the word, and the word is Jesus, then we should not be surprised that he fails.
The evil one snatches him up in the garden of Gethsemane.
The shallow disciples turn on him and fall away.
The world chokes him on the cross.
After a three year ministry, Jesus dies 0 for 3.
But that's not the end of the story.
My word ... shall not return to me empty, God promises; it shall accomplish that which I
purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, Jesus says in John's gospel; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.
Christ, like grain that sleeps unseen, rises new from the earth like wheat arising green.
Despite appearances, God's wasted seed is not wasted after all.
And it is abundant – Christ plays in ten thousand places, Hopkins observed – because the sower is eternal and generous.
The word is continually flung in every direction, and when it is lost and disappears, there is hope.
Animal ingestion and excretion of seeds is one of nature's ways of insuring their
distribution, Robert Capon notes; the effective power of the word is not lessened even
though the devil may try to digest it for his own purposes and turn it into offal.
Meanwhile, as another pastor I know wrote, withered plants become part of the fertile mix that is the earthen womb for new life.
Thorns grow and stretch until they become so obnoxious that someone comes along and prunes them back; this is one of the constant lessons of human political history.
And the seed that is truly lost—the seed that disappears and dissolves until it is unrecognizable — the seed that dies, bears much fruit.