DID YOU MISS CHURCH?
Reverend Betsy Aldrich Garland
SERMONS & WORSHIP BULLETINS
Moosup Valley Church, UCC
Sowing the Seeds of Abundance
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
July 16, 2014
This beloved story about the sower gives a preacher a lot to think about: Who is the sower? Is it Jesus, and by extension, God? Or is the sower one of Jesus’ disciples? Could the sower be you – or me? And what kinds of seeds are being thrown? Are they seeds of the gospel of love? Or are they the seeds of discord and strife? And what do we make of the four kinds of soils – hardened, shallow, thorny and good – and the difference in the yields?
Jesus taught in parables, the purpose of which, as theologian C.H. Dodd observed, is to “tease the mind into active thought.” So, how is Jesus “teasing the mind” of his hearers beside the lake then, and how is he teasing our minds now?
This parable – which also appears in the gospels of mark and Luke – is known by different names: the parable of the Four Soils, and the parable of the Miraculous Yields. Matthew sandwiches it in between stories of opposition and misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry. Is that a clue? On the surface, this parable is about the free-handedness of the sower and the fate of the seeds, depending on where they fall. Jesus notes that, the kind of soil determines the success of the farmer’s crop.
His listeners, of course, would have understood this story. They were an agricultural people, like some of you; they, too, went out to sow. But how do we interpret it? Why is Jesus telling this story? Moreover, why does the gospel find hospitable space – good soil – to grow among some people but not among others? And the flip side? What are the necessary conditions for fruitful discipleship? How do we grow God’s love in the world? With what understanding and perseverance? With what soil?
In first century Palestine, farmers would throw the seed first and then plow it in. Farmers today would see that as wasteful. We plow first and then drop the seed into the prepared ground where it has a good chance of sprouting. Then we water and fertilize and weed to ensure success, and in the next year or two, we rotate crops so as not to deplete the soil. Today’s farmers often are business men and women; they plan for the plentiful outcomes. They choose the best seed carefully, and they don’t waste it on poor soil.
Not so in ancient Palestine – nor, I realize, in our lives in the 21st century: Jesus knew the hard soil of his hometown as the people of Nazareth reject him. We see the hopelessness of the homeless who can’t find a decent place to live, and the fear of parents with a sick child and no health insurance, and the frustration of those who want to work and can’t find a decent job with living wages, because their cries for help have fallen on the path of hard soil at the legislature.
Just so, every business owner who produces a quality product and pays employees a living wage knows the shallow ground of customers who go where things are cheaper. We all know the heartbreak of raising teenagers who get pregnant, or experiment with drugs, or drive too fast and kill someone, and our words of warning have been choked by the weeds of cockiness, or fallen on the rocky soil of peer pressure.
And every preacher casts the seeds of her sermon, with no guarantee of what kind of soil they will find, and where they will take root and where they will wither. We know that our odds are no better than the sower’s. And surely you and I know that, even in the best of soils in our collective lives, there are disappointment and heartbreak and tragedy.
So perhaps we might entertain the possibility that this story is bigger than just good business practices, or the nature of the various soils, or the quality of the discipleship. These are important, yes! But perhaps we can learn something this morning from watching the sower: He throws the seed “willy nilly,” on rocky, barren soil and good soil alike. Might this suggest that anywhere and everywhere is within the arena of God’s care and redemptive activity – yes, even in our broken lives and estranged families?
One commentator that I read in preparation for this morning told about his experience visiting a detention center for wayward youth with a group of civic leaders – lawyers, politicians, journalists – as they were learning about the criminal justice system. He writes of the landscape marked by wire-mesh gates and padlocks, and razor wire and electrified fences, of the door which clanged shut behind them, the same door that would shut with finality behind adolescents – children – when they were escorted there! He notes that they were led through the facility, floor by floor, to see classrooms where teaching was attempted, holding cells where new inmates were processed, courtrooms where trials were held.
At the end of the tour, late in the afternoon, they were shown down one bleak hall where young offenders lived in cells with steel doors and narrow slots about two-third of the way up. Behind each of the doors eyes were watching. Some of these children had been accused of major crimes; some of them were repeat offenders. Most of them had had no nurture in their young lives, no family who cared about them, no adult, no neighborhood, no church to offer guidance. It was hard not to notice the eyes. He lingered at one door and whispered, “God loves you.” What happened next, he would never know. Did the news fall on the path to get eaten by birds? Did it get choked by thorns?
Finally, toward the end of the tour, the brokenness got to one member of the group who stopped in the hall and began to cry. When the young judge who was leading the tour noticed, she stopped her commentary and went back and put her arms around that person, and with tears in her own eyes, said, “I know. I understand.” It was then that the religious leader thought to himself, “If I am ever to be judged, I want a judge like that.” And then it dawned on him, that, like a seed thrown onto his path, he has a judge like that, and he caught a glimpse of God’s mercy.
The Holy One, the Sower, is like the judge in today’s text. The parable of the Sower is a riddle that tells us as much about God as it hides from us. This parable is not so much about good soil as it is about a good Sower. The Sower whom we seek this morning is not so cautious and strategic as to throw the seed only in those places where the chances for growth are best. No, this Sower is a high-risk sower, relentless in throwing seed everywhere, as if it were potentially all good soil.
We see examples of God’s abundant life all around us: Dandelions push up through cracks in the sidewalk and a tree sprouts in a crevice and spreads its roots over the boulder. Seed thrown on the rocks, amid the thorns, on the well-worn path, even in a jail.
“Which [might] leads us [this morning] to wonder if there is any place or any circumstance in which God’s seed cannot sprout and take root,” yes, even in our midst!
May it be so! Amen.
 As told in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary by Theodore J. Wardlaw (Year A, Volume 3), page 240-241.
Moosup Valley Church UCC
A Cup of Cold Water
July 2, 2017
Our scripture for today is about compassionate welcome – hospitality – as a form of service to Christ. Matthew, the writer of this gospel, is remembering how Jesus taught the importance of welcoming the stranger. It sounds familiar to us because we remember the passage in Matthew 25 about feeding the hungry, bringing water to the thirsty, clothing the naked, and, when we have done so, we have tended to Jesus. Remember, “When did we see you hungry and thirsty and give you food and drink?” And Jesus’ answer was, “When you did it unto the least of these, you did it to me.”
This story would have been important to the early church as it spread out across the empire. Missionaries were traveling from city to city and from one little house church to another. Providing hospitality was essential, whether they were a prophet, or a righteous missionary, or even a simple person, a “little one,” who comes in the name of Christ.
Hospitality in the ancient world meant more than what we commonly think of when we talk about hospitality today. When we have a visitor to our church, we assume we are offering a “holy welcome” if we greet him or her with “Good Morning” and a handshake. But hospitality in Jesus time, meant taking someone in, washing his feet, putting a robe across his shoulders, and sharing a meal. And he probably was going to stay for a few weeks or months at a time. Hospitality was a commitment – a sign of discipleship.
Notice, further, that Jesus asks us to offer a “cup of cold water,” not just a cup of water. Not a cup of water from the earthenware jar that had been sitting gathering dust from the road all day, warming up as the sun grows higher in the sky. No, Jesus wants the water to be cold. That means the woman has to walk to the well, perhaps a mile down the road, let down the bucket for the second time that day, and walk back to the house with it balanced on her head. In other words, Jesus knows that hospitality may mean going out of our way, doing extra work,
So what does this text mean for us here at Moosup Valley? A century ago, this Meeting House was the center of the community, a place for people to gather, to learn, and to socialize. According to Churches of Foster: A History of Religious Life in Rural Rhode Island, the building “reflected the desire of the community to erect a suitable place ‘as we need [it] for divine services, Lectures, Sabbath schools, Singing schools, [to be] near the Vestry [school].” “Sixty-five subscribers pledged contributions of money, materials, and labor.”
The history continues, “Although the Meeting House was separate from any organized church, the Moosup Valley Association specified in its constitution that the Christian denomination ‘Shall have the use of the House two Sabbaths in each month . . . the remaining Sabbaths in each month shall be open for worship, or lectures, to any denomination.’” So this Meeting House has always been more than a church and always more than a church for just the Christians. It was a place of hospitality for everyone. It was a neighborhood center.
Times change. People no longer need a community center they can walk to. Cars race down Moosup Valley Road at speeds unimaginable in days when people travelled by buggy. And instead of one central meeting place, neighbors far and near meet on the internet. Yet we know that people are hungry for community, for connection, for meaning in our fast-paced world. How might Moosup Valley Church offer “a cup of cold water” to that world?
Jesus insists that “holy welcome” – hospitality – is what makes us disciples. Sometimes that holy welcome is provided to people that we like and who also like us. And sometimes that holy welcome needs to be provided to people who are needy, or who are very different from us, or alienated from us, people whom we might not even like – or who don’t like us. And sometimes to people who think church is irrelevant. We all like to play it safe, to spend time with people who are like us, to stay in our comfort zone.
And then Jesus arrives and says, “Take that love for family, that love for your closest community, and extend it, extend it further and further still. Welcome in the stranger. Welcome in the one whose life you hardly understand. Not to change them, but simply because they, too, are God’s.”
Our work is to reach out and to welcome, to give a cup of cool water on a hot summer day. Our reward, Jesus says, will be full indeed!
May it be so.