Taking Root

Rev. Diana Phillips | July 12, 2020

Taking Root                                                    July 12, 2020                                                   Rev. Diana K Phillips

Well, it’s good to be back at Laurel Heights United Methodist Church. I love coming here and worshiping here and when I’m given the opportunity to share a message or offer a prayer. So, good morning all of you.

Well I have this absolute love and passion for travel. And like many of you, you’ve had many plans, whether it’s been in the spring or the summer, or even thinking about ahead in the fall, that you’ve either had to postpone or cancel altogether. So I get a little antsy if I’m not getting to travel and over the last couple years I particularly have enjoyed international travel. In some of my antsiness I’ve taken to exploring travel through books, different reading, and there are so many virtual tours one can take.

For instance, I’ve recently read a story of a small town in central Europe. It was some years ago when this traveler went to the village on a trip and saw something that fascinated him, something so very strange to him. The traveler noticed the local townspeople each and every day were performing a highly unusual ritual. There was a certain very ordinary-looking wall in the center of town and the traveler noticed that as the townspeople walked past, they would nod in the direction of the wall and they would form a cross as they walked by. Some would walk briskly by, others more intentionally, more slowly, yet they all did the same thing: nod at the wall, and place the sign of the cross on their head. And this traveler became curious and asked some of the townspeople why they did this – to his amazement, their reply was, “We don’t really know. We have always done it this way. It’s not only a tradition, but a time-honored ritual in our town.” The traveler’s curiosity got the best of him and he began secretly one day chipping away at the layers of paint and dirt on this ordinary-looking wall in the center of town and what he discovered underneath the dirt and the grime after years of wear and tear was this beautiful mural of Mary and the baby Jesus. It had been an altar of prayer for generations and generations in the center of this small town.

However, succeeding generations didn’t know this – there was no depth to the “root system” – there was no understanding and significance of this ritual. The townspeople for generations just modeled the ritual but really didn’t know or understand the historical or the theological significance. You see, the importance of this tradition, of this ritual, just “withered away.” As a result of a lack of depth and understanding, the townspeople became complacent. It was just something that they did. It became so casual, so matter of fact – so shallow, the practice didn’t lead to any kind of fruitfulness – and therefore it offered no impact towards inspiration or growth.

Have you ever found yourself going through the motions, especially these days, rather than being more attentive to what is going on around you? Perhaps, experiencing even difficulty in keeping your focus? I know I have since the beginning of this pandemic especially. A friend recently shared something with me that I found very interesting. She said, “Have you found in these extraordinary challenging times, have you felt like maybe you’re experiencing an ‘Empty – Barrel faith’– going through your day expecting things to run out?” Now, we can easily equate this to resources like toilet paper, paper towels, hand sanitizer, and ground beef. But what if we thought of this empty faith, empty barrel of faith, diminishing our energy, our purpose, our confidence, and even our faith? Or is your Barrel full? Believing and trusting that God is present with us in joy-filled times as well as in times of fear, frustration, hopelessness and loss?

 Being firmly “rooted” in, embracing and engaging in the life God has given – this can be a difficult feat any time, but even more so in these strange, uncertain, and divisive times. I have heard from so many, and I can say this has been my experience, I’ve woken my husband up many times scaring him to death thinking I’ve missed a staff meeting because the days just flow together. It’s hard to keep track, one day from the other. God doesn’t want us to merely go through the “motions”, or as the townspeople in the small European village, God doesn’t want empty rituals and traditions.

Turning to our scripture passage this morning that I read – Jesus offers a teaching moment through the sharing of a short faith story. In other words, a parable. And Laura, you did a beautiful job describing a parable. The gospel writer is intentional in the placement of this particular story. The gospel writer  “sandwiches” this teaching moment between “stories of opposition of the gospel.”  For instance, we’re in chapter 11 and 12. If you look back to Matthew, you’re going to find all kinds of stories, both of opposition and misunderstanding of Jesus’ ministry. Now, we’re in the very beginning of Chapter 13, but if you go to the end of Chapter 13, you’re going to hear that even Jesus’ hometown questions his wisdom and power seeing him simply as the son of a carpenter rather than the prophet he is.

Theologian C.H. Dodd suggests Jesus often spoke in parables “in order to tease the mind of his hearers into active thought.” In other words, like the first listeners, parables serve to draw us into a new awareness – a deeper, more “rooted” way of thinking, understanding that leads to action.  To accomplish this, Jesus often used images and situations relevant to the audience of his time – common things to everyday peasant life. Jesus begins this series of parables with the Parable of the Sower.  Speaking to the large crowd gathered – using the scenario of a farmer (God) planting seeds (Matthew uses the “seed” to describe God’s good news) – God scatters these seeds among four types of soil – hard-packed, shallow, thorny and good soil (like the kind you can buy at local gardening stores for $19.99 for a ten pound bag.)

An interesting side note – as mentioned, Jesus often uses common life images to draw in his hearers. How ironic it is that since the start of the pandemic, many of us have been engaged in a new hobby or perhaps we went back to a hobby that we had let go by the wayside. A lot of people have returned or started gardening. In fact, a recent article appropriately titled – Peas and Quiet? In Times of Turbulence Americans Turn to Gardening As people shelter in place and worry about the cost and availability of groceries, many of us have found reassurance and relaxation in the timeless ritual of planting, watering and tending to our gardens. In fact, the co-founder of an app called GrowIt, has seen a tenfold growth just since the spring in its users. And then how many of us — I know I grew up with the popular Burpee Seed catalogues coming out. Well Burpee Seed Company, just since the spring, has seen more seed sales, just since this spring, than any time in its 144-year history” I find that so interesting.

Turning back to the parable, Jesus uses parables as a teaching tool. He would often conclude his storytelling by offering an explanation. The parable of the four different types of soil and the seeds scattered– hardened, shallow, thorny and good — Jesus uses this to remind the disciples and now us, the necessary conditions for fruitful discipleship. For instance, in order for us to grow as followers of Jesus, it is crucial to understand – but we can’t just stop at saying we understand. We need to incorporate active listening. That plays a huge part in our understanding. And there’s study, and action, and persevering when confronted with opposition and persecution. In Matthew 13:21 — now this is my interpretation of this short verse — says, “Joy in response to receiving the good news of the gospel is wonderful and uplifting. Yet Jesus warns – as followers, troubles or persecution will arise. Without a strong root system, without this strong foundation, the disciples will not be prepared.”

I invite you to listen to Jesus’ explanation from the Message- (a modern day biblical translation), from Matthew 13:18-23, and as you do, think about your own gardening experience, maybe your farming experience, and even if you don’t have that kind of experience, you can picture the different types of soils. We all have had a variety of pathways we have walked, from hard dusty pathways — which isn’t hard these days, in these coming days, with the incredible heat we’re experiencing — and we’ve all smelled the freshness, moistness of soil after a good rain. From the message, hear Jesus’ explanation to the disciples -“When anyone hears news of the kingdom and doesn’t take it in, it remains on the surface, and so the Evil One comes along and plucks it right out of that person’s heart. (Recall that Matthew equates the seeds to God’s word, the “evil one” in the story is the black bird that steals the seeds). This the farmer scatters on the road.

The seed cast in the gravel – this is the person that hears and instantly responds with enthusiasm, they’re so excited. But there is no soil of character, no depth, and so when the emotions, passion, wears off and some difficulty — troubles, temptation or something better — arrives, there is nothing to show for it.

The seed cast in the weeds is the person who hears the good news of the gospel message, but weeds of worry and illusions about getting more and wanting everything under the sun strangle what was heard, and nothing comes of it.

The seed cast on good earth [soil] is the person who hears and actively takes in the Good News and then produces a harvest beyond his/her wildest dreams.”

Understanding, a deep understanding through active listening, enables the disciple to act. For the gospel writer, without active listening which leads to understanding, the Word finds no place to implant – to become firmly grounded; and the ever-near evil one, like the hovering birds in this morning’s reading, snatches away the potential of a growing disciple, inhibiting the disciple’s ability of building a deep relationship, a long-lasting relationship with God, possibly taking away any sustainability; and the disciple being able to grow into one’s full potential, taking away our ability to grow into our potential.

So the question is, just like Ms. Laura pointed out to you this morning — and I tell you, children’s messages, I love children’s messages. I gain so much from them. And it is true, it’s like, what is it that we can take away? We can hear the story, we can hear the explanation, but what did this mean to the people in Jesus’ time from so long ago and how is it that we can apply it to our life to make it relevant today? The question most often asked with regards to this parable is why the farmer would scatter such precious resources — the seed, the good news — on barren, rocky or weed-filled soil? Even the most inexperienced farmer or gardener would assume that the most logical place to scatter and grow the seed is on the good, well-prepared soil – the soil which provides the greatest potential for growth. But Jesus’ point did not discriminate – God doesn’t discriminate. Although that God is ever-present and active in our lives, this illustrates that God the farmer scatters the seed and moves on.

We can suppose the quality of the seed is never called into question. It’s all good. The seeds are scattered and it is up to us (the soil) as to how we respond – “we are the recipients of the sower’s seed.” It is how we reject, embrace, nurture and nourish the seed –that determines our fruitfulness as disciples and the depth and sustaining power of our rootedness. The great news for us is the very fact, “The farmer throws seed not only on good soil, but also” — and listen to this — “not only on the good soil, but also amid the rock, the barren, the broken places in our lives in order to suggest that God’s vision for the world is itself, is apprehended in strange and broken and uncertain times and places.” So where do we see ourselves? Picture this image of all the different soil types.

Like the Hard-Packed Soil? Where the seed cannot take root and the “birds” simply come along and devour the seed never providing a chance for growth and fruitfulness? When this happens, we never start or we stop this active listening, this understanding, and we become hardened by life, and this hard-packed soil person becomes close-minded. Have you ever met a close-minded person? Have you ever felt close-minded yourself? It’s easy to become distrusting; easy to surrender to life’s trials, difficulties, and temptations that come our way. A strong root system never has the opportunity to develop, which causes one’s ability to form a relationship with God to be at risk.

Or do we see ourselves as Rocky Soil? Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where the soil was shallow. The seed immediately sprouted, yet there was no depth, as fast as the seed sprouted — that passion, that excitement — any growth withered away. To equate this image to our rootedness as disciples– the good news is heard, but the root system has no depth. So think about those townspeople again in that small European village, who for generations would nod and form the sign of the cross as they casually walked past, or even briskly walked past that wall.  They went through the motions, but it offered no impact on their lives, no spiritual growth opportunity. For the Rocky-Soil person, the initial response is enthusiasm. We all love those kinds of folks. And we all see that even in ourselves. This person might attend worship on a regular basis yet over time, attendance diminishes. This person might serve as a volunteer, join a small group study, engage in a mission/outreach project and be super pumped and excited– then life happens, a crisis occurs, a challenge, trial, a full-blown storm like this pandemic. Recall the analogy of the  “Empty – Barrel versus Full-Barrel faith.” The rocky-soil person may grasp the challenge initially, but retreat from the pain; seek Christ’s beautiful gift of good news but in the end resent the cost.

Perhaps we find ourselves open to hearing the good news of the gospel, but “choked” by the cares of the world. Some of the scattered seeds fell among the weeds and thorns –eventually obstructing the growth of the plant. In his parable Jesus went on to explain that thorns and weeds of life can be worry, anxiety, fear, anger, close-mindedness, the inability to forgive. Perhaps a relationship with God has been built yet any fruitful growth as a disciple is overcome by these “weeds” of life. Have you met this person? Have you ever looked in the mirror and maybe you say, “Oh my gosh, that’s me.”

And then there’s the good soil – the $19.99 dollar bag potting soil. (And it does work, by the way.) The seed cast on good earth is the person who actively listens, works on understanding, listens to different perspectives and viewpoints without growing angry, takes in the good news then produces a harvest beyond one’s wildest dreams. Do you see yourself as the good soil? Is your root-system – your faith sustaining even in the most difficult of times?

Thomas Merton (20th Century Catholic monk) writes, and I paraphrase, “Every moment and every event in a person’s life on earth, plants something in his/her soul. For just as the wind carries thousands of winged seeds, so each and every moment brings with it microbes of spiritual vitality that come to rest unassumingly in the minds and wills of each person. Most of these unnumbered seeds perish and are lost, for such seeds as these cannot spring up anywhere except in the good soil of freedom, spontaneity and love.” Thomas Merton is inviting us to see that Jesus’ Parable of the Sower is not about the occasional moment when God, or you and I through our witness, sows a seed about God or about good news. Rather, everything at every moment of every part of our lives is a seed infused with life-giving spiritual importance and potential.

The sort of soil we find ourselves – hard-packed, shallow, rock-filled or thorn-infested – in each arising moment affects how we receive the seeds of experience that are always being sown around us, within us, and beyond us. Many a gardener/farmer will advise, Good, receptive soil doesn’t just happen. The soil must be tilled and fertilized. To be good and fruitful soil – which equates to growing disciples there must be active listening – in fact Jesus underscores listening twice in this short faith story -understanding, attentiveness to scripture, spiritual practices and perseverance. God does not discriminate; the seeds are scattered – it is up to each of us – individually and collectively as to the response. We are the recipients of the sower’s good seed.

It is how we reject, embrace, nurture, nourish and harvest the seed – that is the saving Gospel message – that determines fruitfulness as a disciple for you and I and sustains us with strength and power of our root system – our very foundation – our relationship with our Creator.

Jesus often taught in parables “In order to tease the mind of his hearers into this active thought, to draw us into a new awareness” – a deeper, more “rooted” way of thinking, understanding and action – which all leads to a more life-sustaining relationship with God. And that life-sustaining relationship with God affects all that we are, all that we do and all that we impart — in every part, in every moment of our lives. I was raised in a community in Ohio where farming and gardening was a way of life. I have heard it said more than once, “There are certain, very stabilizing forces in gardening and farming that can ground us when we are feeling shaky, uncertain, and terrified really. It’s these predictable outcomes, these predictable rhythms of the garden that are especially comforting to us right now in the midst of such uncertainty.”

“This is the God this parable calls us to trust. Jesus knows the hard ways of the world. He knows what we’re going through. We are not alone. We are also taught the abundant ways of God.” Where do we see ourselves in this parable? Hardened soil? Rocky-Soil? Soil Choked by weeds and thorns? Good Soil?

Let us Pray…..

Merciful God, you know the things that fight and struggle within us. You know the places where our soil is barren. You know the burdens we bear, the places where we are hurting and in need of healing and the times that we are filled with joy. We ask you to help us to know and trust you more so that we can truly live as Jesus exampled. So God, please guide us as we continue to grow as your disciples. It is in your Son’s most precious name we pray, Amen.