Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 13:1-9,18-23) is a parable, as the story tells us. Parables are compelling because they aren’t intended to be taken literally; in fact, the point of a parable is stretching the mind, spurring the imagination, and exploring different interpretive paths. Usually, Jesus tells the story and it just sort of hangs there, with us left to wrestle with the meaning. Well, with this one, Jesus hands us an interpretation: “Hear then the parable of the sower,” he says. This story is about hearing “the word of the kingdom,” the proclamation of God’s way of ordering things, and how we might respond to it. Jesus wants us to be seeds sown on good soil – people who hear God’s word, understand it, and bear abundant fruit. Great – Jesus has done my work for me. You’ve just enjoyed the shortest sermon of all time.
Or not. Sorry to disappoint. In the spirit of spinning parables, let me play with this story by adding something to it. We know those less-than-ideal situations of discipleship Jesus named – seeds sown on the path, which the birds eat; seeds sown on rocky ground, which spring up and die off quickly; and seeds sown among thorns that choke off the new plants’ growth. Well, imagine Jesus offering one more – the lost verse in the Parable of the Sower. Here’s how it might go: “Other seeds fell on good soil, but they declined to tap into it, confident they had what it takes to grow on their own. So they lay on the soil until the next rain washed them away.” And what might be the point there? Scattered seeds are vulnerable and weak, and the good soil is where they find their nurture and their strength. Seeds can’t grow on their own.
Admitting vulnerability … talk about a challenging call. At least it is for me. As most of you know, my wife, Ann, has lupus; and she’s been very sick from time to time over the past 15 years or so. (She isn’t here this morning, but not because she’s ill; she’s just she’s out of town.) When we were in seminary, the disease almost killed her; she was in the hospital for two months. A small part of my struggle in that time had to do with the fact that we were living in a seminary community, an environment where people like to engage in what one of my professors called “the helping Olympics.” In that intimate community of people on fire to serve Jesus, sometimes helping goes a little over the top. We had more food than I knew what to do with. I will never see tater-tot casserole the same way. I had pans of lasagna and bags of spaghetti stored in freezers literally across campus. But the real challenge wasn’t the supply; it was the demand. At first, my reaction to all this helping was shamefully negative. I could take care of myself and my kids just fine, thank you very much. I didn’t need anything … especially not another tater-tot casserole. I have always prided myself on self-reliance. Hmmm. Note the verb in that sentence: “prided myself.” That might have been a clue that something was amiss. Pride isn’t one of those things about us God enjoys so much.
My guess is that I may not be the only one who struggles with needing to assert my independence and self-reliance. Perhaps some of you can identify with that. It’s a huge part of our American character. It’s a marker of maturity, a marker of success in our culture. And I would say, having been with you nine years now, that self-reliance is a value deeply held here at St. Andrew’s. Just ask anyone. How are you? “I’m fine. Just fine. Really. I’m fine. Everything is just fine.” Right?
Well, let me tell you: We’re a lot more fine when we let God love us through this beautiful community we’ve been given. And as we grow that sense of community – as we cultivate connections among us and embrace our interdependence – we grow stronger and stronger as a parish family.
So, I want to introduce you to two new ways to do that this morning – two ways to connect with each other and embrace our interdependence. One is the new Welcome and Connect card, which the ushers handed you when you came in. You’ll notice they’re blue and white – combining the old blue cards and white cards into one. I’ll talk about this more during the announcements, but I hope each of us will fill one out and put it in the offering plate every week. Really. Every week. Part of the goal is that we want to know you’re here so that, when you’re not here, someone can check in and see how you’re doing. But we also want to stay in touch better, making sure we have your current e-mail and cell-phone number. We’d like to have your birth date so we can send you a card. And we’d like to be praying with each of you, every week. Everybody’s got something or someone to pray for – just jot down even a single petition or thanksgiving. It’s a great habit to start.
I’d also like to introduce you to the other new card, the one in the pew rack in front of you. At the top, it says, “In His Service,” or IHS. IHS is an opportunity to match up St. Andrew’s people who have a willingness to help with St. Andrew’s people who have a need. So, what kinds of things do we have in mind? Whatever you might want to offer. Maybe it’s a ride to church or to the grocery store. Maybe it’s a meal during a challenging time. Maybe it’s babysitting. Maybe it’s mowing the lawn. Maybe it’s help with polishing up a résumé and networking for a new job. Or maybe it’s just the chance to go out for a cup of coffee and a conversation.
So what we’re asking you to do is share your abilities and your needs with your parish family. On one side of the card, you’ll find bubbles to fill in, saying whether you’re offering help or requesting help, as well as when you’d like to paired up with someone. On the other side is space for your contact information and the most important part: telling us what you can offer or what you need.
Now, I do think this is an inspired effort, but I don’t think we’re magically going to get precise matches all the time. That’s OK. You may offer to help someone file income taxes, and it may be closer to April before anyone takes you up on it. You may let us know that you’d like help figuring out how to use your computer, and it may be a while before someone else volunteers the right skills. Please be patient, and don’t think you’ve been forgotten. Someone from the IHS team will be in touch with you in any case, to let you know that you’ve been heard.
And who might that team be? I want to honor these parishioners who have cared enough about you, and about this church family, to build a system to help us love each other. Thanks very much to Connie Hesler, Bill Meeker, Jerry Miller, John Norton, Jerry Stanley, and John Walker. Bless you for being a blessing and for helping us bless each other.
The IHS system is new – and it will surely have its kinks to work out – but the mutual love it reflects already happens here all the time. In a single week, I have seen these moments of community, moments of connection: A Eucharistic visitor not just taking Communion but arranging flowers from the altar to brighten a lonely person’s day. An usher noticing someone in tears and offering a hand on the shoulder – and a prayer. A volunteer helping a grieving family put on a funeral reception. Trained lay people visiting parishioners in the hospital. People from the SweeneyCare telephone ministry calling to check in. People bringing food when a friend’s child came home from the hospital. In these moments, and dozens of others, I’m sure, the love of God has taken flesh at St. Andrew’s – just this week. And that’s what we hope IHS will build on, helping people see that they can turn to their church family first as the place to use their gifts and meet their needs, the place to grow into the wholeness and wellness God desires for us, the place to grow into the “stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).
IHS is not a panacea for meeting every need. We will stumble along the way, and that’s OK. In families, you don’t get each relationship right every time. But you do know that your family is there for you. And that’s the long-term goal of IHS – to encourage us turn to St. Andrew’s, to turn to each other, first to help foster our well-being. And in that, I mean by giving as well as by receiving, because, as everybody knows, the giver receives as much or more than the recipient.
This church is a place where each of us can grow stronger and deeper in our relationship with God and with each other. This is a place where the kingdom – God’s deepest desires about the life we share – can take flesh in the relationships we nurture and grow. This is good soil. We just have to acknowledge the fact that we need it. We just have to admit that we really aren’t always “fine.” We just have to embrace the beauty of our dependence, on God and each other – the kingdom reality that seeds don’t grow on their own.