Oh Lord, uphold thou me that I may uplift Thee. Amen
Karen is a wonderful person. We have known each other for more than twenty years. She is warm and vibrant, extremely intelligent, and I don’t think she has a bad bone in her body. We were great friends in college and we have kept track of each as the years have gone by. Life has been good to Karen. She was raised in a loving family, she has had the best educational opportunities of anyone in her generation and she has done well for herself as a clinical social worker who specializes in counseling. And while we are good friends we are very different from one another. We just don’t think the same. We approach life from two different points of view, and no matter how often we have tried to explain to the other where we are coming from it is always as if we are speaking different languages. The difference between us all seems to boil down to one central issue – God. For the majority of my life my faith in God has been central to who I am. For better or for worse, my desire for a relationship with God, and my commitment to serve God defines my life. Karen, on the other hand, while she is a wonderfully loving person, just has no idea what I am talking about when I say the word God. For her, it is simply a word used to describe some fanciful being who has no basis in reality. Every time I have tried to share my faith with her it is like trying to describe an elephant to someone who has never seen one. God just isn’t a part of her vocabulary. It isn’t a word she has any use for. Every time we talk about the existence of God it becomes clear that I might as well be trying to convince her that cows can fly. She doesn’t have the slightest clue how I can live my life thinking so much about God, and I don’t understand how she can live her life without at least being a little curious about God. But the fact is, she isn’t and I love her anyway. Jesus said, “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. . . . . let anyone with ears listen.”
I always saw Bob in spurts. For two or three months every year, usually beginning in the fall, Bob was always in church. He was motivated and enthusiastic, participating in the Bible study and signing up to work in the soup kitchen. He was hungry for something more in his life, you could just see it in his eyes. And every year you could tell that he was making a new resolution, a new resolution to take his faith seriously. During those few fall months we would always talk and I would try to encourage him in his new commitment. But after a little while something always happened with Bob. Things would get tough at work or at home, one year his father died, and then we wouldn’t see Bob anymore. When he was around, I never knew anyone who wanted faith to be more a part of his life. But he couldn’t seem to hold on. It was as if the Church and faith were like that one book he always wanted to read, but a book where he just couldn’t get past the first hundred pages. I was always saddened when Bob stopped coming around. I used to call on him and offer any support I could, but he just wouldn’t respond. It was as if each time, when he got close to a real commitment, he realized that faith required too much of him and he would back away having completely lost his enthusiasm. Over the years we talked about his struggle with faith several times. I used to tell him that being a Christian isn’t only an opportunity, it is also a responsibility. I used to tell him that having faith isn’t always about feeling good, sometimes it means suffering. Sometimes having faith means you just have to hang in there. But Bob just didn’t get it.
I always pray for Bob. Jesus said, “ Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. . . . . Let anyone with ears listen.”
David was the most gifted orthopedist in town. Everyone came to him and trusted him with their backs and their knees and their hips . David hoped he was a faithful Christian. Born and raised in the Episcopal Church, there was never a time in his life when he hadn’t been what he considered an active member of a church community. All of his children had come up through the Sunday School, been confirmed, each in his or her own turn, and his daughter had most recently been married in the church. He thought of himself as a man of faith – but in truth, Dr. David was never around. He supported the church with his check book year in and year out, but his life was just too busy to allow much personal involvement with his faith. He was a fine man who lived a fine life, but most of that life was spent being a full time doctor. He had no prayer life, he had no faith life, he was too busy caring for his patients to be able to care about much else.
Someone once said that it is not usually the things that are obviously bad that are dangerous and keep us from God. Rather, it is sometimes the things which are obviously good that can dominate our lives and keep us from a deeper knowledge of God.
David was too busy doing too many good things to stop and make room for Christ’s presence in his life. Jesus said, “Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. . . . Let anyone with ears listen.”
Ben Photolo and his wife Elizabeth are very old now. They have both retired and they live in a small house in the South African township of Sharpville. They are probably the most comfortable people I have ever met. They are easy to be with and their home is a haven of peace and joy. Neither one of them ever thought their lives would account for much. Both grew up without shoes and they struggled most of their lives to put food on the table. But they always had this overwhelming need to do what they felt God was calling them to do.
Ben became an Anglican priest when a Black South African was less than nothing. Elizabeth became a nurse to try and care for her own people. Together they weathered the years and the worst days of South Africa’s history. Ben cared for his little church for three decades. He saw the young people becoming angry and protesting in the streets. He watched them march against the police and he saw them shot in cold blood. Try as he might he couldn’t stop the violence. Eventually he knew that God wanted more from him and so he stepped into the street himself. Through years of peaceful protests and numerous imprisonments, Ben helped his people put an end to Apartheid.
He and Elizabeth are retired, but they are still working. Elizabeth welcomes anyone into her home and she gives them whatever free medical care she can beg from the hospital or buy with her pension. Ben promotes education and teaches the young that they cannot solve all their problems with clubs and knives. During my time in South Africa I saw the number of lives they touched, I saw the reach of their faith and the strength with which they have held together a community. Jesus said, “Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!”
The good news in all of this is that unlike our parable, God’s seed isn’t planted just once, but it comes into our lives over and over again. Sometimes we may receive it like Karen, David or Bob and sometimes we may be fortunate enough to live for awhile like “Indade” Ben, as his people call him. Where are you on this spectrum? Of the people I have described this morning who do you most closely resemble in your life right now, at this moment? The truth of the matter is, God keeps throwing the seed, we have to decide the type of soil we will till in our own lives. Is the soil of our souls hard and tough, unable to be penetrated by anything other than our own concerns? Is our soil shallow in depth so that we are cannot hold onto anything for too long, especially if it demands too much of us. Perhaps the cares of the world fill our lives like weeds that seek to smother all else? Whatever the case, it is up to us to decide how open we are to God’s presence, to decide how much ground work we will have done when the seeds come.
Like a faithful and patient gardener God wants from us all the spiritual growth and development that we have it in us to give. And as a community of faith we have a lot to do with the quality of the planting. Are we a church that encourages each person’s growth in love? Are we a church that allows for deep and abiding faith, a place that protects one another from the diversions and distraction of the world so that we can grow as the children of God? We must be good soil for one another, so that God’s word can reach deeply into our lives. Because after all, the point is to bear fruit for the Kingdom – some thirty fold, some sixty fold and some a hundred fold. “Let anyone with ears listen.” Amen.