Monday, July 11, 2011

Who Will Lead?

Scripture for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost includes Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

In reading the Gospels, context is everything. Matthew sets his familiar parable of the sower and the seed in the context of a sharp question: Who will lead the people of God in the next generation?

Jesus is surrounded by great crowds. He is a celebrity, admired by many, fascinating to many, magnetic in appeal. His parable takes a needle and pops that bubble, revealing that flashy popularity has little bearing on his question. Many will turn out to hear him and have their hearts warmed. Many will flock to him to experience the thrill of a movement, an event, something happening. But who will understand? Who will bear fruit? Who will last? Who will lead?

Our Lord’s short public ministry heightens the drama of this question. He’s on the radar screen of Israel just a short three years at most: it’s a brief run because of all the toes and clay feet he stepped on in that career of his. The Gospels dwell on the question What will happen when the religious hierarchy sets him up and imperial Rome snuffs him out?

You can say that this critical question is the Church’s question. Matthew’s Gospel dates from the period 90-110 in the Common Era, let’s say 60 years after the events it narrates. Some three generations separate today’s seaside sermon and its passing through pen and ink onto the parchment of Matthew’s Gospel. Still a burning question is Who will lead the Church into its future? The early Church attracted sizeable numbers to its community, both Jews and pagan souls of one stripe or another who found something admirable, something appealing, in the message and mission of Jesus Christ, his sacramental presence in the believing community, and his spiritual presence in believers.

But it takes many Christians to change the light bulb of leadership, to pass the torch to the next generation, to lead a movement that depends not just on the waters of baptism and prevenient amazing grace but also on blood, sweat, and tears for inspiring and overseeing the hard work of being the church in the world.

And let’s update this profile. Ask the nominating committee of this (and any) parish, and you’ll find the same critical question being asked, nearly two millennia later: Who will our leaders be?

It’s a question that can be asked in anxiety or in faith.

Matthew and Mark and Luke, three out of the four Gospel writers, make it clear that this question has been urgent and central to Christianity from the start, and answering it in faith essential. As any nominating committee labors over its task, let them hear this Gospel and recognize what powerful company they’re in! He too confronted the leadership question, revealed it to be central to, not antithetical to, the spiritual life, and did so by telling a parable, The Sower and the Seed.

We’ve essentially heard it twice today, once on its own and a second time by explanation. The same seed (the Good News of the reign of God on earth) fell on four different patches of earth. Some fell on a path, and if human feet didn’t crush it, birds came and ate it. Some fell on rocky ground (this must have been in New England) and while this seed sprouted quickly, that rocky ground dried out fast when the sun rose and, roots being shallow, these seedlings withered. Some seed fell among thorns, and you can picture what happened there: choked. Other seeds fell on good soil—and in a basically desert climate, good soil couldn’t have been easy to come by, must have required work and sacrifice to irrigate and cultivate—and behold, payday: these seeds brought forth grain (“…first the blade, and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear; grant, O harvest Lord, that we, wholesome grain and pure may be…”), in varying degrees of bounty.

We observed at “Sundays @ 9” this morning that while the poor soils get described by a long list of words or phrases (rocky, thorny, no depth, shallow roots), just two words apply uniquely to the good soil: understanding and bearing.

I hadn’t noticed that before. Nor that the parable throws us a few surprises. Seed sown on the path in the parable is sown, according to the explanation, “in the heart.” Seed sown on rocky ground is when the hearer receives the message joyfully. Come again? Don’t those sound like successful landings?

But no. The heart is apparently such an open place that birds of the air can swoop down and snatch what the heart holds (paradoxically, perhaps especially what the heart tries to hold onto too tightly).

And that rocky ground can resound with joy (aren’t we told somewhere that if we forget our Savior’s praise, the stones themselves will sing?), but even joy doesn’t cut the mustard, doesn’t sink our roots into the nourishing depth of understanding and bearing—and doesn’t weather the storms of trouble and persecution that have uncanny ability to disillusion people of faith and make us anxious skeptics.

This parable rises out of an urgent question. What critical question might the parable, in turn, inspire you to ask regarding your own spiritual practice?

I hope it’s how do you cultivate a receptive place within yourself to accept the seed, the message, the knowing of God, the transformative opportunities God presents. Without openness to God in the present moment, the seed does not sprout and mature to understanding and bearing.

You may want a more practical answer to that question, now in this sermon. But while I’m going to disappoint you on that score, I can suggest you come to “Sundays @ 9” this summer, where we’ll be considering just that kind of question: how to cultivate within our lives receptive places for the seed.

And until you arrive at your own answer to that question, I recommend treasuring the insight of St. Paul, shared with us today in his Letter to the Romans: “To let your mind be preoccupied with the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” He reminds us that, despite all the media messaging that barrages us, we who are baptized into Christ are not only in the flesh; we are also in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in us.

There is the rich deep ground of our being that we may cultivate, work, turn over, sink roots into, depend on, and rest upon.

And there is our baptismal birthright, not to be traded away for anything.