The Land of And…
A sermon related to Matthew 14:13-23
The inward contemplative life must be integrated with the outer life of expression and service (and vice versa).
When Jesus heard about John, he withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. When the crowds learned this, they followed him on foot from the cities. 14 When Jesus arrived and saw a large crowd, he had compassion for them and healed those who were sick. 15 That evening his disciples came and said to him, “This is an isolated place and it’s getting late. Send the crowds away so they can go into the villages and buy food for themselves.”
16 But Jesus said to them, “There’s no need to send them away. You give them something to eat.”17 They replied, “We have nothing here except five loaves of bread and two fish.”
18 He said, “Bring them here to me.” 19 He ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. He took the five loaves of bread and the two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed them and broke the loaves apart and gave them to his disciples. Then the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20 Everyone ate until they were full, and they filled twelve baskets with the leftovers. 21 About five thousand men plus women and children had eaten.
22 Right then, Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. 23 When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone.
For the Word of God in Scripture
For the Word of God among us
For the Word of God within us
Thanks be to God
Some of you know the elder Roman Catholic Priest Father Richard Rohr who was the founder and driving force in establishing the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He once offered this illustration……
When people ask me which is the more important, action or contemplation, I know it is an impossible question to answer because they are eternally united in one embrace, two sides of one coin. So I say that action is not the important word, nor is contemplation; and is the important word!
I’ve read Father Richard Rohr’s books in past years and he is an increasingly important teacher for me, particularly as an articulate voice and presence for evolving Christianity, for the kind of Christianity that takes the best from our tradition and moves it forward with articulation and depth that is accessible. Like Father Rohr, I don’t find the essence of Christianity problematic, I find that too often our way of understanding it over the centuries has been problematic and immature. Our faith has too often been captured by the Empire and used for its purposes. Conveniently for the Empire, this capture psycho-spiritually involves the ego and its fondness for splitting things into two and confirming its bias. The ego thrives on either/or; my way or the highway, I’m in and you are out, heaven or hell. Taken as a whole, and in its highest and deepest teaching, the Gospel and our spiritual lives are meant for more. The Realm of God, of which Jesus spoke so often, is a big enough circle, a wide enough vision to include all, even paradox. In short, the Realm of God could also be called the Land of And.
Father Rohr quotes Charles Péguy (1873–1914), French poet and essayist, who wrote with great insight that “everything begins in mysticism and ends in politics.” And Rohr says that everything new and creative in this world puts together things that don’t look like they go together at all, but always have been connected at a deeper level. Spirituality’s goal is to get people to that deeper level where the Divine can hold contradictions and paradox. (Some call this place the unified field or nondual reality or wisdom.)
This creative work of living in the Land of And is the creative work of a lifetime and a sign of maturing faith and psychology. (It’s harder when we are younger.)
We could spend a long time exploring all those seemingly opposing poles of life in which we move, like continuity and change, structure and flow, accountability and mercy, planned and emergent, and countless others. Today, I invite us to travel in ‘the Land of And’ by focusing on the two important poles initially mentioned: action and contemplation.
Did you notice the integration of these two in our Scripture story today?
Just below the plot, just below the surface, Jesus is in the dance of action and contemplation. He seeks solitude and prayer both before and after his communal feeding of the 5000. Just before our story, Jesus hears of John the Baptist’s cruel execution at the hand of Herod, and he seeks solitude. And after his action with the crowds, showing them compassion and healing, offering them food, he seeks solitude and prayer time once more. This is a deep pattern, contemplation and action and then contemplation again and so on, each feeding and informing the other.
You might say that Moses was in this cycle on Mount Sinai, first having a mystical experience of the burning bush and having that lead to his actions for liberation of the people. It’s as if the bush burned before him, then in him, and then through him in action in the world.
You might come to the Land of And from either side of this or any polarity. You might be a person of action like Simone Weil, an activist who fought against totalitarianism and worked for the French Resistance based in England during World War II. What you might not know is that in the 1930’s as a young activist, her atheist, communist sympathies soured and it was no longer religion that she considered the opiate of the people, but revolution. A mystical experience in the Church while on a visit to Assisi changed her life and the framework and fuel of her activism. She realized that activism without a spiritual framework, a framework capable of getting beyond the ego, was deeply limited and even dangerous. Said Weil, “God is not present, even if we invoke God, where the afflicted are merely regarded as an occasion for doing good.” Weil began in action and found her way to the inclusion and integration of contemplation, of inward spiritual practice, which in turn altered and inspired her continued activism. She found her way to the Land of And where action and contemplation were one dance, indispensable and interdependent elements.
Others have journeyed the other direction from contemplation to action. Saint Oscar Romero might be one example of this. The quiet studious priest earned his doctorate after ordination and then eventually served in parishes and as a church official in various capacities including running a conservative Catholic publication. He certainly got things done in his early ministry, yet was considered a conventional and conservative choice years later when he was selected as Archbishop of San Salvador, selected as someone to preserve the status quo. It was Saint Oscar’s contemplation of the assassinated body of his activist friend and fellow priest, Rutilio Grande, that transformed Romero, transformed him into a prophet of action who led actions of liberation for the people, actions borne of compassion that came out of his wrestling in prayer, his inner spiritual contemplation.
The invitation to the Land of And begins when we draw the circle wide, including both energies. As simple as the inbreath and the outbreath, we come back to the necessity of each and their interdependence. Any energy pole can polarize, distorting the other side and suffering the consequences of focusing too much on one side. In most congregations like this one, to oversimplify, there will be fans of action and of contemplation, people who lean one way or the other.
Let’s do a quick polarity map of those.
A polarity map is a way of understanding where we are in relation to any given poles and how the two can be integrated. Each pole can have an upside and a downside. When we are really preferring one pole, we tend to be suspicious of its interdependent pole, judgmental about the downside of that interdependent pole. If you are preferring action, you might be suspicious of those who talk about prayer or meditation or mysticism. What are your concerns? (I’m one of these people. I have this voice.) Pie in the sky, all talk no action, hypocrisy, insulated, not real. Breaking through this polarization involves trying to see the other pole’s upside and your preferred pole’s downside. So, let’s say we guarantee that the action pole will be served, what could one gain by also serving contemplation? Energy, inspiration, insight for better actions, care for the self and inner life, integrity of spirit when engaging action, etc.
Reverse it. If you prefer the inner life, the contemplative life of Spirit, you may have been suspicious of those always in action. What are your concerns? Burn out, reactivity, not strategic, act in inconsistent manner (ie not peaceful peace marchers), etc. But what could be the gain in adding action to one’s contemplation? Integrity of doing what you say you value, new learning from engagement, connection to others, grounding in the tangible world.
Are we, like Jesus in the story we heard this morning, involved with self-awareness, with checking our egos and supporting our souls with a regular life of connecting with Spirit through prayer and/or yoga and/or other spiritual disciplines like Lectio Divina, poetry, or journaling, or walking the labrynth, or participating in vital worship? Are we, like Jesus, then filled with enough courage and compassion to answer the call to act, to incarnate the Spirit into acts of service and healing and justice-making, to put our bodies and checkbooks and time into faithful actions for the coming more fully of heaven to earth?
In a distracted world of the 24-hour news cycle, of Facebook and emails, of constant cable news crawlers and tweets, my friends we are challenged to keep in touch with God, with the deep still point of the circle.
And, in the midst of a world of such constant noise and so many opportunities to live only in a chosen private manufactured reality, we are challenged to connect in community, and to act in wise, effective, and meaningful ways that are grounded in the embodied reality of earth and guided by the vision of all God’s people and all Creation in a just relationship.
If we are to see the possibility and then miraculously deliver such abundance satisfying the hunger of body and soul as Jesus in feeding the 5000, we will have to imitate Jesus in the cycle and the integration of action AND contemplation.
It’s worth remembering that both King and Gandhi considered their movements spiritual movements, fueled by prayers of song and speech. Gandhi once said, "I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one." That’s a human being living in the land of And.
Let us go and do likewise. AMEN
“Hidden in Plain Sight”
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
31[Jesus] told another parable to them: "The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and planted in his field. 32 It's the smallest of all seeds. But when it's grown, it's the largest of all vegetable plants. It becomes a tree so that the birds in the sky come and nest in its branches."
33He told them another parable: "The kingdom of heaven is like yeast, which a woman took and hid in a bushel of wheat flour until the yeast had worked its way through all the dough."
34Jesus said all these things to the crowds in parables, and he spoke to them only in parables. 35This was to fulfill what the prophet spoke: I'll speak in parables; I'll declare what has been hidden since the beginning of the world.
CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 38380-38389). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
Do you remember the great fun, especially on a summer’s evening, of playing “Hide and Seek?” The adrenaline rush of finding just the right hiding place and then trying to stay quiet enough so as not to be found? The suspense of stealthily seeking? The squeals of laughter when you were found and then racing the seeker back to home base? So much fun! Think about all the stories you’ve read or seen on the big of little screen about finding hidden treasure. Or even the love of research or discovery as an adult in whatever field you might be in….discovering something new in science, or a new formula as a mathematician, or a new way of constructing an environmental savvy building as an engineer or architect, or new ways of helping a social justice situation, a new client or customer to help, new plot twists as a writer or word pictures as a poet, a new chord progression as a musician. At times when we finally discover what we are looking for, we marvel….well, that was there all along…hidden in plain sight! We just had to look from a different angle, perspective, turn over one more stone – metaphorically or literally.
Parables are wisdom hidden in plain sight by using comparison, setting two unlike things side by side. Jesus used parables all the time to teach the crowds and his disciples. He was steeped in the Hebrew scripture use of mashal, enigmatic language whose meaning was not immediately apparent. It was riddle-like. Language “intended to tease the mind into insight rather than communicate a simple idea by means of an illustration.”[i] The mashal of Hebrew scriptures and the parables of Jesus were both meant to conceal and reveal the wisdom and the activity of God.
Now why do Jesus, and the prophets before him, speak to us in this concealing/revealing kind of way? Why don’t you just say what you mean, Jesus? I think wise ones down through the centuries and through all traditions knew that riddles, the odd comparisons of parables, language that teased the mind and heart slow us down as humans. We need to listen as human beings, not just as human doings. We can get so busy accomplishing, building, making, doing whatever needs to be done that we forget to slow down and listen. A well told parable, story, riddle, poetic image slows us down. We must take time to contemplate, to consider the meanings in our heads and let the wisdom sink into our hearts. This is the sacred activity, activity of the Holy, of God. The wisdom of the Divine is not taught so much as experienced.
Jesus tells the crowds, “The kingdom of heaven, God’s activity in the world, is like a tiny mustard seed planted in the soil. Something hidden happens there in the darkness of the soil. And the seed begins to grow. The seed grows into the largest of plants…as large as a tree and it is shelter for many living creatures.” What happens to that seed hidden in the dark? We know that inside the seed there is the possibility of new life – an embryo plant. With the right amount of water, the seed splits open and begins to grow a root to gather more water and then a sprout to break the surface of the soil so that it can get sunlight and begin the process of photosynthesis. This happens so often, is so much a part of life around us, that we don’t stop to be amazed. But it is amazing! And hidden as it is, seed growth is a small pattern for the holy work of creation. Nothing would survive on earth without this pattern. It is a pattern we can emulate in our faith journey.
And Jesus tells us, “The kingdom of heaven, God’s activity in the world, is like yeast hidden in flour dough that causes the dough to grow, to double, triple in size, until it can feed more people than we might have ever imagined.” In fact, hidden in Jesus’s parable is an incredible measure, three measures of flour, translated into a bushel in the Common English Bible. That’s a lot of bread…more than one might make in your kitchen just for fun. Jesus wants us to know that God’s activity can so small like yeast, yet it activates so much! We know that yeast is a single-celled microorganism. It is millions of years old. It reproduces by budding, a new cell growing on the first cell and so on and so forth. When we add it to flour and other bread ingredients it starts to feed on the sugars in the ingredients creating the rising action. This action hidden, in bread making, is another small pattern of the holy work of creation. It is a pattern we can emulate in our faith journey.
If the kingdom of heaven, the activity of God, is like a mustard seed or like yeast, then God’s activity in the world is seemingly small and concealed. Yet, mysteriously, through the energy of God’s love, God’s hidden activity grows exponentially and is revealed as powerfully nourishing. Wow! I find this pattern fascinating. It reminds me of fractals, never-ending patterns found repeating in creation. Examples of fractals are the spiral patterns in our fingertips that show up in the galaxies, patterns in ferns that are in tree branches, patterns in river deltas that are in the very structures of our lungs. A fractal is pattern in the micro that is reflected in the macro and vice versa. Thinking metaphorically, each human being made in the image of God would be a fractal of the Holy One. We are not God, but we hold the patterns of God within us. We need to pay attention!
American author, social activist, philosopher, and feminist, Grace Lee Boggs, wrote, “Transform yourself to transform the world.”[ii] This is thinking of change at the fractal level, at a seed level, at the level of yeast. I know that in this faith community we want to transform the world with and through God’s love and justice. Our first step must be allowing our own transformation through God’s love and justice. Are we allowing the nurturing presence of God into our own hearts and souls, as a seed allows in water and sunlight to grow and mature into the plant it is meant to be? Are we allowing the yeast of God’s Spirit to grow within our lives, inspiring exponential growth that keeps us nourished as we keep on keeping on for justice? Just as we slow down to hear parables, we must slow ourselves to attend to the slow work of God inside of us, transforming our fear and greed and false ego and self-esteem that is too low or too high. The Holy One will bring transformation in unexpected ways, if we slow down and pay attention through prayer, spiritual practice, study, service, faithful fellowship.
It’s a spiral process for as we slow down to attend to our own change, we are also a part of systemic change. Automatically, without any organizing or activism – though those activities have their place. Our transformation influences and catalyzes systemic change without us even knowing. adrienne maree brown writes, “As we speak of systemic change, we need to be fractal. Fractals – a way to speak of the patterns we see – move from the micro to the macro.”[iii]
How do we work in community, in this faith community, like fractal patterns of God, like the activity of seeds or yeast? Hmmmm…..I don’t have an analytical answer for that. However, I see the patterns. You all volunteer for ministries in our community, from FFH to children’s Sunday school, to youth group, to making cookies and helping to serve them after a memorial service, to being deacons and trustees, to working with immigrants and welcoming low income and international students back to campus with a housewarming give away, to praying for one another. I could go on and on about all the patterns of God’s activity in the world that I see hidden then revealed within our community. It’s happening! And so, I must assume that the transformations of God’s activity in your lives is happening as well. Hidden, precious, intimate, and yet revealed in your faith and faith works. Keep on keeping on!
One more place, one more reveal, I have wondered about is this… a Beloved Community Covenant. Over the years, we have declared through UCC process, through study, discussion, and prayer. Then finally through a vote that we are a Peace with Justice congregation, an Open and Affirming congregation and an Immigrant Welcoming congregation. We strive to live into these declarations. Now the UCC doesn’t have an official process for being a Beloved Community Congregation. But there are UCC churches that have Community Covenants in which they have through discussion, study, prayer, and discernment laid out a covenant saying, “This is how we will relate to one another through God’s love and justice.” Your staff has an official covenant that we remind ourselves of from time to time. In our staff relationships we will 1.) Speak to a colleague and not about, in the case of conflict. 2.) Once a decision is made in staff meeting, we stand shoulder to shoulder in upholding it. 3.) Always assume the best of our colleagues in their intentions and actions.
What if we took to heart that as a faith community, we are a fractal, a pattern of the greater world? We know the stresses and conflicts, the divisiveness of our culture, our world. If the micro can mirror and transform the macro, what if we extended the covenant we make in membership into a Beloved Community Covenant as a pathway to greater transformation within us and within our wider world? What if in taking this to heart, we had a stated Beloved Community Covenant, created through prayer, study, discussion, and consensus, that we refer to when tough times happen and there are disagreements in discernment about our way forward as church? What if we could always go back to this covenant that has come out of the transforming hearts, minds, and lives of beloved individuals, of you? What if this Beloved Community Covenant reminded us that we hold the seeds, the fractals, the microcosm of God’s love and justice within us to be in relationship with one another? How might we be transformed as a faith community and be greater transforming activity in God’s wider world? What might happen if we truly live out the kingdom of heaven, the activity of God, the good news of the parables Jesus proclaimed? What if … we succeed in revealing that God’s Beloved Community is here among us and within us and active in the world? What if?
Amen and amen.
©The Reverend Jane Anne Ferguson, 2022 and beyond. May be reprinted only with permission.
[i] Douglas R.A. Hare, Interpretation, A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching: Matthew, (Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY: 2009, 147.)
[ii] adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, Shaping Change, Changing Worlds, (AK Press, Chico, CA: 2017, 53.)
[iii] Ibid., 59.
Matthew 13.1-9 (and 18-23)
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning,
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
If you are like me and Jane Anne, you may have expanded your springtime gardening experiments during the lockdown. What better time to germinate some vegetable seeds, nurture them along as they sprout, weed out the strongest ones, mix in some well-seasoned compost to the soil, put in some drip irrigation, and transplant them outside and hope that neither the hail nor the rabbits kill them off. So, if I were writing a parable, I’d use a setting like that, because it’s commonplace, and that is what Jesus used: everyday settings.
Parables are a particularly meaty form of teaching that Jesus employed throughout his ministry, and they are recorded primarily in the synoptic gospels — the three accounts in our Bible that see things through a similar lens, Matthew, Mark, and Luke. The Gospel of Thomas, outside our canon, is also packed with parables. Our word “parable” takes two Greek words, para (next to) and ballo (to throw) and combines them to describe a literary tool that throws one thing down next to another. You and I know that this is not essentially a story about sowing seeds…Jesus tosses out metaphors in order to challenge and reveal a truth in a memorable, more engaging, and less obvious way.
Jesus used parables to shake up his hearers, revealing their assumptions, often turning them upside down. For instance, his audience would know that the only good Samaritan is a dead Samaritan…so what could a Good Samaritan show us?
Jesus’ parables also need to be understood as spoken, not written. So, what we have in the gospels is a condensation of a good, long yarn that Jesus may have spent 30 or 40 minutes developing, and the compilers of the gospels gave us their distillation. But imagine yourself being part of the crowd that gathered to hear Jesus on the beach. Don’t you imagine that there would be some dialogue among the hearers and Jesus? Can’t you imagine someone shouting out, “Are you saying that we are the seed or the sower?” or “Is he saying that we are rocky soil?” or to one another, “Crikey, don’t you just wish he’d make his point and move on?” It would probably look more like a scene from Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian” than anything else. So, there is some back-and-forth, some puzzling, engagement, and stimulation of their imaginations.
John Dominic Crossan, one of Plymouth’s past visiting scholars, has written more incisively than any other New Testament scholar about the function of parables. He sees them as fulfilling a different role than stories, which provide a narrative or even a myth that explains something, like the Genesis story we heard last month about three visitors who are offered hospitality by Abraham and Sarah. What Jesus spins for his hearers is akin to a riddle or an example or a challenge, often concerning the kingdom of God.
The Parable of the Sower is in all three synoptic gospels, and the earliest is Mark’s gospel. And here is the odd thing: in all three gospels, a few verses after the parable itself, the writer of Mark’s gospel gives an explanation of the parable. (You just never do that! It’s like explaining the punchline of a joke, which means the joke failed. You can hash it out orally with someone, but the presenter never says, “Here’s what the parable really means.” Jesus would not have done that. It is as if a Zen master offered a koan —a parabolic riddle — to a pupil and then explained what the answer was…it means the student doesn’t learn by struggling with it. That is what we are meant to do with parables.) The Parable of the Sower also occurs in the Gospel of Thomas without “explaining the punchline,” which leads some scholars to think that Thomas provides the earliest copy of what Jesus said.
Let’s look at the text itself. This is the part where you have to really engage…I’m not giving it away, so you might even take down a note or two to ponder. This parable is a long sequence of metaphors. Jesus throws down a word, but alongside it, you, the hearer, have to fill in the blank for each metaphor.
The first character in the story is the sower herself. She sets out to broadcast seed and has some failures and some stellar successes? Are you the sower? Is Jesus the sower? Is God the sower? The parable turns out differently as you cast the role differently, and it’s fun to play with it that way.
What do you think Jesus meant seed to represent? Is it his own ministry? Is it the law and the prophets of Judaism? Is it the alternative commonwealth that he proclaimed?? Is it holy wisdom?
The next metaphor is the birds, who are swooping in to satisfy their hunger by snatching some of the fallen seed that has fallen from the sower’s bag onto the path. What do to the birds represent? Are they the Pharisees who Jesus always seems to tussle with? The Temple authorities? Satan? The occupying Romans?
The third metaphor is rocky soil, onto which the seed falls and springs up quickly, only to wither and perish in the heat of the sun. Is the rocky soil the tradition of pro forma religious observance that looks good from the outside, but doesn’t produce a resilient faith? A faith journey starts out strong but shallow and isn’t sustainable over the long haul? Is the rocky soil the mind and heart of someone who is a bit shallow?
The fourth metaphor is the thorns, and the seed that falls among them is choked by them as they grow, kind of like bindweed does here in Fort Collins. Are the thorns like the things that distract us from spending time studying our faith and developing spiritual practices? Perhaps for you the thorns are the priorities in your life that may need some realignment…priorities that occupy your mental and spiritual space — whether it’s work or worry or acquiring material things or addiction — that block out your ability to really commit yourself fully to God’s service.
And the final metaphor is the good soil: the kind that has had good, rich compost mixed into it, that is aerated and well-watered. It’s ready to receive the seed and provide an environment that will not only allow itself to flourish, but to provide a huge yield of new seed for future generations of the plant. So, what is the good soil? Is it the life of a person who lives faithfully? Is it a community that nurtures and nourishes people in their faith? Is it the world itself, ready to provide all we need, if only we can learn to be good stewards and share resources?
Imagine what it would be like to create a parable for the middle of the year 2020. Perhaps we could see God as the sower and the wisdom of Jesus as the seed.
Perhaps the birds who come and consume the seed is the busyness in our lives. Maybe we ourselves feel as though the pandemic has tested our faith, since we don’t have the physical community to rely on, and the coronavirus birds came along and ate up what we thought was at the core.
Perhaps our faith isn’t as resilient as we would like, and its roots aren’t as deep as we think they should be. Is our sense of scarcity like rocky soil? Do we fixate on the lack of money, influence, health, or ability and let that form our dominant narrative?
I wonder if fear is the thorn bush that holds many of us back: the fear of not being acceptable or accepted, the fear that we aren’t [blank] enough: young, rich, thin, fit, smart, confident…whatever descriptor keeps you hamstrung.
And where do we find good soil? How do we become good soil from which the kingdom of God can rise up? We can add the compost of our faith, which is historically and theologically deep. We can fertilize it with truth, which can be tough to take, but it increases our yield. We can aerate it with time to contemplate and pray, which is so hard to find if you are a young parent or trying to occupy your kids and work from home. And we can water it with love, patience, kindness, and understanding.
We need to bloom where we are planted, and my prayer for you this week is that you will find something that makes your life and your faith flourish and grow.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
July 16, 2017
Plymouth Congregational Church UCC, Fort Collins, Colorado
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Will you pray with me? God, great gardener of our lives and of this planet, I pray that my words this morning may be nourishment for your soil, for this plot, for this congregation, of your embodied, earthen, earthy people. Amen.
I have been told that the raising of the rafters of this Sanctuary was very much (or pretty much exactly) like a good old-fashioned barn raising also known as a “raising bee.” Ethnically German farmers who emigrated from the Volga region of Russia founded Plymouth. One of our senior members here at Plymouth whose parents helped found the church, Ray Becker, often likes to tell me about the tractors, the excitement, the rooting and planting of community on that day. It was a day when the culturally German farmer immigrants from Russian and their families gathered in a field (then far away from CSU) down the road from the renowned pig farms (yes, the NW corner of Shields and Prospect was a pig farm) for the raising, the cultivating of a new fellowship barn… our church.
This place was built to gather the harvest of the beloved community, just like the barns they were building for each other on the edges of Fort Collins. The rugged and community-minded (not wealthy) Russian-German immigrants saved every penny they had to build it, leveraged noodle making dinners for fundraising, used their own tractors and hands to make this Sanctuary for us to sit, sing in, preach from, and worship God safely within today. Our recent consultant, John Wimberley, was fixated and fascinated by this fact that we built our own church. This is our barn of blessings. This is our storehouse of love. Can you still hear the loud hum of the 1950’s John Deer 94 horsepower tractors and the thick accents, many still speaking German, murmuring, blessing us through the walls? [PAUSE] I can. I do every day as one of your ministers.
Learning the agrarian roots of our congregation and digging in that dirt (getting my hands dirty in that history) has helped me to better understand the deep rootedness of our Scripture passage today and what it can mean for us as we move forward as a congregation in this barn that love built. So taking these agricultural roots seriously, how can we best understand this Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23 passage on July 16, 2017?
When I first read the Scripture for today, I started out thinking about the soil as different kinds of churches in the metaphor. Meaning that I started thinking about this as if you fall into (join/ attend) a rocky church, a thorny church, a “good soil” church, or a hard path church your outcome for faith formation and life will be different. Initially, that seemed to make some sense. The sort of church community we encounter to help nurture us as we journey together forms the soils of our hearts and our openness to the Divine. I have since decided that this interpretation in 2017 gives all of way too much credit to the power of the institution of the Church, for, as you all know with your busy and full lives, the church is not and cannot be the only soil you encounter. In Jesus’ day and even maybe 60 plus years ago when this building was built, you could self-isolate in that way (existing within the culture of a church institution)—BUT that is not how we live in
2017, is it? Our lives are constant transplanting, blending, fertilizing, realigning, crop rotation soils (plural). We no longer live in a world where the church is our soil identity or sole identity. We all now have many soils that compose our hearts and our identities. We are rooted in many communities.
Now for a fancy seminary word I have been saving for two and a half years: What is the Ecclesiological theology of this passage? Meaning, this makes me ask, if the church isn’t the soil itself anymore, what is the role of the church in this parable for today?
The answer is in the sacred, Sanctuary barn-like structure we sit within. The church is where we gather to raise each other-up and store our harvest of love for the days when the soil is hard out there is thorny out there, is good out there, or is rocky out there.
Church is where we store our tractors, our spades, our weed whackers, trimmers, seeds, hay, combines, international harvesters, our fertilizers (organic and sustainable only of course)… this is Plymouth after all, and our supplies to return to the world for the work of justice, of peace, of growing a more just and perfect world. This is our barn where we learn the way to make growth in all of the complex soils we live within. Amen?
Make no mistake, fellow gardeners in Christ, there is a drought raging, prairie fires burning, insects eating, there is a flood pouring, pesticides of hate proliferating, corporate farming faking out the masses, there is a lot of adverse factors (more than just thorns and hard paths these days) trying their damnedest to harm our fields of love and grace and peace we have been growing and nurturing these many seasons. This barn is where we come to get our supplies to keep the love, keep the faith, and keep the social justice growing from the grassroots of our souls!! This is our supply house in a season of drought or flood or fire. It is a safe place to store all of those seeds and tools, supplies, nutrients to go out and dig in the soils of life with God.
Today, we will not exclusively be or encounter, as Jesus implies, only a hard path soil, a rocky ground soil, a thorny soil, or good soil. As if we had a choice anyway. Even in the course of a single day, we all often find ourselves operating in all of these soils of our lives as Gardeners with God. Let me quickly examine the four categories of spiritual soil Jesus presents and see what they might mean today:
The Hard Path (superficiality): The hard path soils we encounter today are the many times of inauthenticity or just staying on the surface, skimming, losing the meaning of deeper living. Maybe at work or in family life if in the endless small talk that is now required of us, we encounter soils, and places, and people who are the hard path to our spiritual beings—Superficial, surface level, never going deeper. This is just skimming the surface of life consumed by Social Media or work. Surviving for survival sake. How many of us encounter people or places that are to us superficial or inauthentic?
When we meet a hard path, we can come to this barn to pick-up a spiritual sprinkler of patience, vulnerability, and authenticity that can turn the hard path and hard people to soft, fertile mud. We must water/ DRENTCH the hard paths with brutal, loving honesty.
The Rocky Ground (anger and fear): The Rocky Ground is where Jesus says there is not much soil. This is a place of anger and fear. It is a place where we are on edge trying to grow and root as fast as we can because we fear even a slight wind might blow us away. When we garden in places that are rocky ground we root in anger and fear. These are the places and spaces we operate in that come from politics, bad policy, or family systems and conflict that have never been resolved. How many of us know what it feels like to try and farm rocky ground? When we meet a rocky ground, we can run to the barn of Plymouth and pick us a study spade of compassion, truth, and love. We must dig in the rocks, FRIENDS, face the hard stuff, and find the soft soils of love underneath, but first we must face the rocks.
The Thorny Soil (pain and loss): Thorns grow-up a choke out the solid, joyful plants. When we go forth from this place, many of us encounter thistles, weeds, and thorny soil. I know because I am still trying to get a thorn out of my thumb from gardening yesterday. More importantly, this symbolizes pain and loss. This is the soils that we thought was fertile and growing and healthy… until a weed (cancer, divorce, a break-up, a job loss) surprises us and takes away a loved one, we lose a job, and we uncover pain and loss deep within. This is unexpectedly bad soil, but it is soil that this barn called Plymouth is well equipped to help with. When we encounter the thorny soils of life, which are inevitable, we run to the barn of Plymouth and grab our gardening gloves of grace. We all still need to work through our weeds, but at least with the gloves of community support, protection, and gloves of grace and care, we can work towards a whole garden once again. Amen? We must always remember that the gloves of community and grace are here to accompany us even through the thickest thorns and thistle.
The Good Soil (love and joy): And yes, oh yes, the barn of Plymouth is also here for the good soils of weddings and baptisms, communion, and fellowship, learning, pilgrimage, births, birthdays, anniversaries, proposals, job offers, promotions, pay raises, new homes, new leases on life, reunions, celebrations. We run to the barn (this church barn) to support us and celebrate the love and joy of life in the good soils too! This is the seed and the hay, and the tractors we keep in this barn with hope for the next season. We must always return to the barn in celebration.
So, regardless of which soils you find yourself in today or tomorrow, know always that the farm’s storehouse of hope, this barn of love, honesty, authenticity, dirty/gritty
realness, and welcome of formation and forgiveness of Plymouth Congregational Church
of Fort Collins is always here to outfit, refuel, store, and raise you up. This is your barn,
our barn, and your resource space to assess and prepare for the soils I know you face out there.
The Open and Affirming process for Plymouth to become an LGBTQ inclusive church was deeply hard even hurtful for the German-Russian farmers and their families who felt like the UCC left them, and in many ways it did. Many left us because of out gay ministers like me, but I still feel connected with them and the need to reconcile and grow through (NOT DESPITE) but through the nutrients their legacy. Naming this is important as part of the rocky soil, the thorny soil, the good soil that we have to live in. So, today, I
want to honor their barn raising, the hum of the tractors, the voices that built a barn of love, of community, of hope that we have today as a shelter, a storehouse, a resource in the complex soils we all garden within every day of our lives. Here we are always assured that we are gardening with God, with the divine energy that lives within each seed and within our core, and that we have a safe barn to call our spiritual home as we discern what that means in the weeds, the rocks, the hardness, and the rich, deep, thick, messy, earthy goodness of life. Amen.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Hal preaches on Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
July 2, 2017
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
40 “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. 41 Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward; and whoever welcomes a righteous person in the name of a righteous person will receive the reward of the righteous; 42 and whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.”
There are some commercials running on TV these days that intrigue me. They are commercials for a credit card program that purportedly says what it does and does what it says. They wonder what it would be like to say exactly what you are thinking to people.
In the latest version that I’ve seen a woman goes up to a front door carrying a pie and rings the doorbell. You immediately think she is welcoming a new neighbor. The woman in the house answers the door. The woman with the pie says: “Hi, I’m your neighbor. I know you are new to the neighborhood and brought you this pie to see how weird you might be.” The second woman says, brightly, “Oh, well it smells....(pause)” The first woman, “Intrusive?” The second woman, “Yes! Would you like to come in and snoop around?” First woman “Why yes! That’s exactly why I came.” The voiceover asks, “Wouldn’t life be easier if we just said what we were thinking?” Would it? Maybe yes, Maybe no!
As I read our words from Matthew about welcome I thought about these commercials and our culture of plain speech. Which isn’t always so plain or so simple. Or is sometimes so plain that it is hurtful and divisive. Or is so plain that it hides the truth in plain sight.
And we all know that the old adage, “Stick and stones my break my bones but words will never hurt me” is profoundly false. Words do hurt...they can burn and wound and leave a mark on our souls. AND they can be like a cup of cold water after a hard day’s work. Or on the lips of someone dying from thirst. They can be like springs bubbling up in the desert. Water is essential to life...so are words of kindness, compassion, love....words of strength and truth and justice proclaimed without malice or hatred.
I also thought about our sincere efforts here at Plymouth to offer extravagant and even radical welcome to people who walk through our doors. We do a pretty good job with our words and in our actions. We believe fervently and remind one another frequently that welcoming the stranger is welcoming the Holy among us.
The Greek word, dechomai, translated as “welcome” in our passage today using the NRSV can also be translated “receive.” I think receive can take the action of welcome deeper. Does receive open the door to relationship? I can welcome you at my front door but not receive your presence into my house. Even the woman in the commercial surprised by the nosy neighbor with the pie receives the woman into her house. You wonder if no matter how awkward their beginning, there is still a possibility for relationship. According to the dictionary, to welcome is “to greet gladly.” To receive is “to accept, to take in” as well as to welcome. A truly meaningful welcome to someone needs both actions.
The words we heard about welcome from the gospel of Matthew come at the end of a long discourse of instruction that Jesus gives the 12 disciples as he sends them out as missionaries to preach and teach all Jesus has been teaching them. And to be agents of healing in the world. “As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. ... whoever gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones in the name of a disciple — truly I tell you, none of these will lose their reward.” Because we are attuned to the story of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25 we first assume that the “little ones” are the “least of these” in our world. Or maybe you thought about the children in Matthew 19 that the disciples are shooing away. Jesus says to them and to us that we must become open and receptive like the children to enter the kingdom of heaven. However the “little ones “ in this passage are not the least of these or the children. They are the disciples...the ones sent on mission proclaiming God’s good news, the ones healing and bringing new life. The little ones are the disciples sent out to do the work of God’s kingdom...they are us.
Jesus wanted the disciples to be received! Not just glad-handed....”Oh, hi! How are you? Glad to have you here!” ... Next.... Greeted gladly, yes AND received! A reception that is like taking in a cup of cold water to restore life...to keep it thriving! When the disciples are greeted and fully with life-giving welcome, Jesus said that it was like receiving him which was like receiving the one who sent him....receiving God. Greeting and receiving with a “cup of cold water” welcome is receiving God in our midst....It goes way beyond just being nice, polite people.
So this poses some questions in my mind....Starting from the inside and moving out... How do you greet and receive your self as one of Christ’s beloved disciples? If your self-talk is anything like mine....it is not always so generous. I once said something self-depreciating in a conversation with my son and he said to me, “Don’t talk about my mother that way!” I believe God is often saying to us...”Don’t talk about my beloved that way!” We are not perfect and God knows that. But God is always ready to receive us with that cup of cold water welcome.
How do we talk to those closest to us....our family and friends? Do we see them first as God’s beloved disciples even when we are frustrated with them? And maybe for good reason! How do we have conflict with them and still see them as God’s beloveds? And welcome them as such in the good times and the not so good?
How do we welcome one another in this community as disciples of Christ as we go about building the realm of God here in northern CO? How we use our words and our actions to greet and receive one another has everything to do with how we receive our guests! Are we willing to step outside our comfort zone to welcome those we do not know but who may have been members and friends of this congregation for years? Or may be new? Or may be a very different age from us? Or may disagree with us on some issue? How do we use this deep sense of welcome to work across the silos of boards and committees and competing mission initiatives within this very community?
And moving out one more circle.....I have often noted that it is easier for us as Progressive Christians to have interfaith dialogue than it is to speak across the divisions of Christendom....than to speak to our more conservative and evangelical brothers and sisters. It sounds more exciting too, doesn’t it? More exotic. More difficult somehow. Yet it is harder to speak with family members that are estranged. How sad that we cannot speak to our own family members and welcome them. And that they may shy away from being welcomed by us. And vice versa. This is part of my excitement about the IAF community organizing work...it is an opportunity to learn relationship, to reach across the conservative/liberal boundaries and work with Christian brothers and sister on issues that can change lives.
In an interview with Krista Tippet on her radio show, “On Being”, American poet, Marie Howe quotes one of her poetry professors, the exiled Russian poet, Joseph Brodsky: “You Americans, you are so naïve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn’t come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language.”
Friends, we all know in this day of highly inflamed language, how much words as well as actions shape who we are. Marie Howe goes on to say to Krista Tippett... “language is almost all we have left of action in the modern world. ... action has become what we say. The moral life is lived out in what we say more often than what we do.”
Let the Spirit of God work in words of deep welcome from the inside out in you....gladly greet and receive yourself as a beloved disciple of God’s realm, gladly greet and receive those you are closest to, those in this community that you love and work with and those you do not yet know, those who enter our doors as guests....and those whom you meet when you leave the doors of this sanctuary to bring God’s good news and healing into the world. Your words will inform your actions and your actions your words! You will say what you mean to others and what you say will be compassionate, just and loving. You will be a cup of cold water for this thirsty world! Amen.
© Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. May be reprinted for publication with permission only.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.