Monday, July 14, 2014

On Being a Castway

A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on July 13, 2014.  The texts were Genesis 25:19-34, Romans 8:1-11 and Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

Interpreting a parable of Jesus is a tricky endeavor…tricky, because it is not as if we are hearing this story for the first time.  Particularly, this parable is one that most of us have heard countless times.  For many of us, its imagery is probably as ingrained in our imagination as is the famous Superman ‘S’ shield, or, for more refined tastes, the Mona Lisa.  It’s a sticky story, hard to forget.  If, for some reason, you can’t quite get a good mental image, just peek at the icon on your bulletin for a moment. This parable is one of Jesus’ most famous parables.  But when we hear it, or read it, we are processing so much more than the words in the Gospel, for the echoes of 2,000 years of interpretation are bouncing around in our heads.

So, when I ask you all “Who, or what, do you think you are supposed to identify with in this parable”, how many of you would say, “The good soil that brought forth grain”?  This is somewhat of a rhetorical question, but you can raise your hands if you really want to!  We, as the people of God, know precisely what we are in this story: we are called to be the soil that receives the Word faithfully, producing fruit, that is, a life with the visible marks of discipleship.  Jesus isn’t calling us have our God-given gifts snatched away by Satan; he isn’t calling us to choke out the Word by forgetfulness or spiritual laziness.  He’s calling us, as the Church, to be a field of good soil that produces growth, that internalizes his gifts of grace and mercy.  But we know this already.  We’ve heard it before.  And when we become so familiar with an interpretation of a story, it’s easy to tune out, to fix our minds on something else.  So let’s forget that way of thinking for a moment.  Let’s set aside this long-tradition of interpretation.  Forgive the pun, but let’s get our hands a bit dirty and play in the rich soil  that is this morning’s Gospel.

Instead of assuming ourselves to be the soil, to be those receiving something, how differently would we read this story, and maybe live our lives, if we imagined ourselves, as Christians, to be the seed…to be people who bear within ourselves the possibility of producing life in a world that seems to be marked by death, destruction, and despair.  We, like the seed, are cast out into the world by Jesus, the Great Sower…cast out in order to spread this life-giving and transformational Gospel of grace and mercy.  We are bound to face trouble, confrontation…thorns that attempt to choke out the life within us.  Nevertheless, the call of a Christian is to remain faithful to the task set before us by God despite the swift and varied changes of this life.  We remain faithful in the face of evil.  We remain faithful in the face of distraction.  We remain faithful in the face of death.  We may wish for a different life, something more than what we’ve been given.  We may wish that God would have called us to go anywhere but here…anywhere but the places, the circumstances, the situations we find ourselves in today.  But in spite of what comes against us, in spite of what simply ‘is’, our task is always, always to remain faithful to what God has given us to do: to forsake anything that would prevent us from being buried deep into the ‘everyday-ordinariness’ of this world that we might grow up into something beautiful, something fruitful, that witnesses to the transforming power of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

For that which we bear within us as Christians, as the seeds that bring forth signs of the uncontainable reign of Christ, is nothing less than the same Spirit that caused new life to burst forth from the death-soaked walls of Jesus’ tomb: “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” I can remember what it was like for me, as a new Christian years ago, to read these words from Paul.  I had internalized this idea that, because I was still a sinner, nothing good could come from me…that my sins and struggles prevented me from contributing anything to God’s work in the world.  But reading Paul’s words struck me deeply, for they shined light on a truth so profound it changed my life.  Within me, within these hands and feet, within my bones, at the deepest part of who I am, dwells the very same Spirit that caused Jesus to breathe once again after three days in that tomb.  And this same Spirit dwells in you, my sisters and brothers, by virtue of your baptism.  Buried with Christ in baptism. Raised to walk in the newness of life.

Buried with Christ in baptism. Raised to walk in the newness of life. With those waters rushing over you, and the sign of the cross made in oil upon your head…you and me and all the baptized are “sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” This is a gift, a birthright that cannot be traded, stripped away, forsaken.  Even in the face of the darkest day, we have been knit into and remain in the very heart of God, nourished by this table.  Having been charged to “confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim the resurrection, and share…in his eternal priesthood,” we are cast out into the world to transform it, to reclaim it as something sacred, something beautiful, something holy.  Our reading from Genesis tells us that Esau had a birthright he traded to satisfy a passing craving.  But if he had only known what his birthright would have entailed, I believe he would never have traded it for a loaf of bread and a bowl of lentil stew.  How much more, than, for those of us whose baptismal birthright is not so much material inheritance, or a fatherly blessing, but the opportunity to breathe life into a world asphyxiated by pain, suffering, division, and death?

Our birthright is to be cast like seed into the garden of the world, that we might share the power of Christ’s resurrection with all of God’s creation. So, friends, let us go forth with the conviction that all the world, even the darkest, thorniest, most wretched places are capable of bearing forth new life.  Go without hesitation, or the fear that you will be cast into a place that cannot produce the fruit of reconciliation, of peace, of transformation, of hope, of love.  And even if it is by the sheer force of your will, plant your roots deep.  Take root.  Spring forth with your words and deeds as a lively witness to God’s work in the world. Do not lose heart. “For if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.”

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