Sermon, 7/12/20: The Value of a Checklist

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From Rev. Clarence on 6 Pentecost, 12 July 2020 A

Ps. 119:105 – 112; Genesis 25:19 – 34; Romans 8:1 – 11; Matt. 13:1 – 9


He who has ears, let him hear.  Matt. 13:11

It should not be, but often is, very astounding that words which one has heard for decades leap out from the page, as it were, and strike one like a blast of arctic air, when one steps outside a warm comfortable house on a mid-winter’s day, even when weather forecasters have predicted and announced an overnight arrival of frigid air from the North Pole.  Yet, so it was this week, when I read the gospel lectionary for this 6th Sunday after Pentecost.  How often have we all heard or read the Parable of the Seeds told by Jesus, from a boat as the gospel lesson tells us, to a crowd that had gathered on beach.  Those words, as if bold and writ large, are:


The Parable of the Seeds is too well ingrained (no pun intended) in our minds that I should insult you by rehearsing it in its entirety.  The kind of seeds, whether wheat, corn, beans, soy, etc. is of no significance.   Important is the ground upon which the seeds fell: a well-used and open path; rocky ground with no depth; ground overgrown with thorns; and, fertile ground.  But even the description of the types of soil and however important soil is for the growth of seed, it was the simple, almost castaway conclusion which was the arctic cold air that stroke me with an awakening force. What do we do with the seeds which have been given us for growth and maintenance of community?  “He who has ears, let him hear.”

As I sat in my home library, under mandate of physical distancing, I could not help but pose several questions to myself.  Have I remained attentive to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, especially during these most unsettling of times?  And how often in the past have I given only passing, superficial thought to those life-giving and life-sustaining words, for myself and for others whose circumstance has not been as blessed as my own?

Following the recommendations of learned scientists and mandates of governmental officials and our bishop, we have all during these now many months sheltered in place, in order to slow down the transmission of coronavirus.  We have cleared out or rearranged closets; washed windows long neglected, but now needed, in order that we might at least have a clearer vision of the external world; reconnected via telephone call or email or snail mail with relatives and old acquaintances and friends.  And in so doing, a dull, perhaps too long neglected void has been filled.

I, as someone who has long had a love-suspect relationship with computers and the internet, preferring instead an exciting book or a challenging, but still soothing struggle with my violin, discovered that the internet was and is able to address a desire which, because I am “under house arrest” and now, thanks to the explosion of Covid-19 cases in the USA, no longer able to travel abroad, because no country to which I would travel will admit a US citizen.  The internet offered solace in the form videos of 747 and 777 Boeing jets become airborne and land at some of my frequently visited international airports.

However, what was even more striking, the very opposite of a blast of cold arctic air, was the warmth, the feeling of security and safety, as I observed and listened to the women and men in those videos who navigate those heavier-than-air crafts through our skies.  There was and is a protocol, a mandatory predetermined checklist, which they follow: the one officer states his/her intensions or action to be undertaken; his/her copilot repeats verbatim what he/she has heard.  “Let who has ears, let him hear.”  This is not idle chatter—some of which does occur, once the aircraft is airborne, but never heard after landing, as there are too many essential tasks which must be completed, and completed accurately, if the pilot and copilot are to bring those under their care to a safe haven, no attention-diverting conversation, “until the fasten seatbelt sign has been turned off” and all passengers have deplaned.

Often, too often, Jesus of Nazareth is portrayed as the “personal savior” guy.  However, if one would but listen (or read) with an open mind, it becomes clear that the ministry which Jesus proposed then and addresses even in our own day, is one grounded in our hearts, but outwardly directed.  If the ministry of Christ were focused totally on the individual and what that individual would gain for his/her own comfort, would it not be sufficient, if the seeds produced only a sparse harvest?  On the contrary, another image is evoked.  “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.” (Matt. 13:8)  The greater the harvest, the greater the benefit for all: family, friends, neighbors, the stranger on the marketplace who wants to purchase for family and others in his/her circle.  Jesus, always with the individual in mind, holds always a larger vision, and provides us with a checklist of the types of soil which benefits the greater and greatest good.

Can we not but recall immediately another parable involving seeds and the harvest?  Can we not but understand that “salvation,” a relationship with Jesus of Nazareth (Jesus as my personal savior) is not a solitary, self-centered action, focused on the hereafter, but rather on the here-and-now?   The parable of the rich man, often called the rich fool, who was so focused solely on his own comfort, his own salvation, that he proposed tearing down his already overflowing barns, in order to build even bigger ones in which to store his bounty, rather than sharing with those what had little or no harvest—the parable of the rich man addresses explicitly the danger inherent in having ears, but not hearing, which Jesus laments in his further explanation of what seeds can do.  Although the harvest of the seeds were plentiful for the rich man, it was, as if they had fallen on rocky or thorny grounds, for salvation was and is not for one individual alone. (Luke 12:13f.)  Here, in this parable, Jesus reaches the same conclusion as he reached in the parable of the seeds recorded by Matthew.  “He who lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” is not a follower of God’s commandment.

The vocabulary in today’s epistle may be different, indeed must be different because the time and the circumstance were different, but the intent is the same as that which Jesus of Nazareth addresses in the parable of the seeds, when Paul in his letter to the Romans calls us out on our “sinful nature.”  Within us all, waiting to be released or sown, if you will, are the seeds of generosity and compassion and understanding, the very seeds that are integral to the kingdom of God.   The question for Paul, likewise, is the soil onto which those seeds shall fall.  Paul claims: “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies.” (Romans 8:11b)   To which voice should we listen, in order that we might sow our seeds?

The pressing concerns of our era: Covid-19 pandemic, the pandemic of systemic racism, the fortification of faith when we lack the daily or weekly contact in communities of faith, a US sponsored war on foreign soil in Asia—they all remind me of the struggles of a previous era in my life.  Then as now, Holy Writ presents us with a checklist with which we might consider our response.  We are never a people as without hope.

When I attended theological school in the mid-to late 1960’s, Harvard Square was a heady place to be.  I had just returned from several rather uncomplicated, although arduous years of study at university in Germany to a United States in the throes of civil rights demonstrations, to a call of spiritual renewal from Pope John XXIII and Vatican II, in our general society to a call for social justice that reached into our churches, and to a call to challenge our participation in an American-led war on the soil of another sovereign state thousands of miles away.  We were in the main, both in the classroom as well as about campus, of a like mind that the Parable of the Seeds demanded study, reflection, and response, each in our own way.

Faith without works, just as the epistle of James teaches, was no faith at all.  Renewal, a renewed understanding and commitment to the Good News of Jesus of Nazareth, not for our individual satisfaction and advancement, but for the common good, was the call of the time.  Our goal in that era was to root out the thorns that had taken hold and threatened to hinder the growth of the seed which had fallen even on the good soil.

Covid-19 forces us not only to remove ourselves form the day to day contact among our fellow beings, but it provides us also with long minutes to reflect on how we in the past have sown the seeds of reconciliation and acceptance, and perhaps unwittingly the seeds of indifference and complicity, but how we might, when restrictive seclusion has been lifted, sow now those good seed in each of us for the good of all humankind.  Jesus knew the seeds of our hearts and whether we had so prepared our hearts to be the fertile ground for the good seeds.

When Jesus sent his disciples out, two by two, he understood what the politics of the day could do, had done, and continued to do to the daily lives of those around him.  Jesus saw it as his mission to break the spiral of ostracism, of living off labor of others and not sharing its proceeds.  Jesus broke the mold that held people prisoner in their own limited world, preventing them from envisioning a larger picture.  Although of necessity Jesus spoke to the individual—for we are all uniquely made and known by God, putting before the individual those things that set him back or brought him forward, salvation was not for the lone individual.

In its stead was laid a new foundation, not one of hypocrisy and greed, but one of love of neighbor as self, an acknowledgement of the value of the individual, but of the individual within community, for we build the kingdom of God together, one by one.  It would not be farfetched to see a co-mingling of the seed and the soil in this way: in each of us lies the soil, onto which the seeds are cast and in which the seeds will take root.  The question is how well we have prepared the soil for the seed.

Paul phrases this concept as follows: “He came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near.”   “So that we would not be strangers to each other, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the foundation of God.”  This is the operational checklist that today’s gospel puts before us.  “He who has ears, let him hear.”