Sunday, July 10, 2011

Pentecost 4-A: Challenged to Obey

By: The Rev. Dr. Valori Mulvey Sherer, Rector
Lectionary: Isaiah 55:10-13; Psalm 65: (1-8), 9-14; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

One of my favorite things about Scripture is that you can read from it over and over again, year after year, and still find something new, something you hadn’t seen or noticed before. There is always new revelation waiting the one who reads Scripture, especially when one is intentional about reading it openly – receptively.

But reading Scripture in this way takes some practice. As most of you know, at the beginning of each vestry meeting, Redeemer’s leadership practices Lectio Divina, a spiritual discipline in which we intentionally open ourselves to hear God’s word in Scripture for us, the Word that will guide us as we make decisions regarding our church.

The problem most of us tend to confront when we read Scripture is that we’ve been taught by well-meaning Sunday-school teachers and clergy, to understand and visualize the stories in Scripture in a singular way. God is that grand-fatherly old man with a long white beard, like the image created by Michelangelo in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Jesus is light-skinned (like us, but not so much like the Palestinian he was). He has a beard, and soft, wavy hair that goes to his shoulders. And the Holy Spirit almost always looks like a white dove.

Culturally agreed upon images and traditional ways to understand the Biblical stories tend to develop over time, and they become is what is taught to new hearers. And there’s nothing wrong with that – unless these understandings and images become ties that bind the freedom of the Holy Spirit to influence and guide us. Then they become idols.

When we hear the Parable of the Sower, most of us were taught to hear it picturing God as the sower and ourselves as the soil. We listen asking ourselves, which type of soil am I? Well, of the four types described, only one is fruitful – so (I think) most of us will find a way to identify with that soil!

But when we listen to the parable that way, I have to wonder… where is the surprise? Where is the challenge to conventional perspectives? Where is the shocker… the twist in the plot that points to the counter-cultural nature of God’s reign? That is, after all, what parables are meant to do.

So, let’s expand the window through which we are looking a little bit. Our gospel reading actually starts with the words that same day, which refers to what has just happened in the previous chapter. The Pharisees have accused Jesus of being a law-breaker because he healed a man on the Sabbath and allowed his hungry disciples to pluck grain - also on the Sabbath. They also accuse Jesus of healing a demoniac by the power of Beelzebul.

Jesus responds to these accusation by calling them a brood of vipers and an evil generation. And this is where our story today picks up. Jesus goes and sits beside the sea to teach, but the gathering crowd becomes so large that he has to set out into the water a little so they can all hear him.

Despite the opposition and accusations of the Pharisees and Scribes, huge crowds continue to gather around Jesus. They are hungry for what he has to offer.

This, by itself, is counter-cultural. Jesus is a religious rebel who challenges the traditional understanding of his time. And the people can’t get enough of him. They gather around him in droves, drinking in his teachings.

Listen… Jesus says to them... let anyone with ears listen. Jesus is asking the people gathering there to listen differently… to listen freely and receptively, to open themselves and go beyond their traditional understanding in order to hear the new thing God is revealing to them.

He is asking for their obedience – that they hear the word of God and do what it calls them to do. We asked the same thing as we gathered today, praying in our Collect: “grant that [your people] may know and understand what things they ought to do, and…have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”

Old Testament theologian Walter Brueggemann teaches that the laws given to the people of Israel by Moses “do not exhaust what it means to do the will of God; new laws will certainly be needed for new times and places and older laws may need to be revised.” But the relationship between God and God’s people is, Brueggemann says, one “in which obedience is …an integral component. This makes it clear that…[o]bedience is a way of exhibiting trust in the God who speaks the word in any time or place.”

God is still speaking God’s word in our time and place, and we are still being asked to listen and obey that word. So how do we do that faithfully? Let’s go back to the Parable of the Sower which describes four ways of listening, but let’s talk about this parable in terms that relate to our world today.

First there are the “Sunday-only Christians” who are very devout (and often very demanding) about the Sunday worship, but they’re pretty much disconnected the rest of the week. These Christians tend to miss Sunday worship often – for good reasons, of course. In the end, the busy-ness of their lives snaps up their attention like birds eating seeds off the sidewalk, and they produce no real fruit.

Next are the “Energy-drink Christians.” These hearers are truly on fire - faith-filled and ready to get stuff done! But somehow, it never actually gets done. They don’t make any real changes in their lives to make room for God, and their passions remain only in their thoughts. Soon they begin to lose energy. They show up in church less and less over time. For some Energy-drink Christians, this is a pattern that may be repeated throughout their church membership- lots of highs and lows over the years, but no real fruit.

Then there are the “Cell-phone Christians.” They’re looking at you, but listening to the earphone in their ears. Money, position, sporting events… there are many things that distract them, take priority, and become the focus of their time and attention. Witnessing the good news and building the kingdom become what they can manage to fit in to their spare time - and everyone knows, there is no such thing as spare time - so these Cell-phone Christians also produce no real fruit.

And finally, there are the “Disciples.” These are the ones who continually open themselves to hear and understand what things they ought to do (as our Collect says). These Christians discover that God makes available to them the grace and power faithfully to accomplish those things. They listen freely, openly, and trust the Spirit of God to accomplish God’s will in and through them. These hearers live as if they are in the process of sanctification and partners with Christ in building God’s kingdom on earth.

Oooohhhh. Now I see how this parable surprises and challenges.

So, how do we, the people of Redeemer hear this story, and how does it challenge us to obey – to trust in God who is speaking to us in our time and place and do what we ought to do? The answer can be found in our fruit. Are we seeing a yield that is 100-fold, 60-fold, or even 30-fold?

In some cases YES! Our Shepherd’s Table is bearing fruit that is 150-fold. The Food Pantry is bearing fruit that is 50-fold.

Where are we not seeing this kind of yield in our common life? In our Sunday attendance? … in our pledges and tithes? … in our hospitality to those hated or outcast by our local culture? Those are the places we need to be willing to go to together, ready to receive a new revelation from God, and act as counter-cultural agents of the reign of God in our time.

Who is willing to hear and obey? Let anyone with ears listen!

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