2 Corinthians 1:1-11,
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Last week we finished our study of the book of Job and this week we begin a study of 2ndCorinthians. So today I want to give you a bit of background on this book in the Bible and then focus specifically on today’s passage from 2nd Corinthians as well as the passage from Matthew.
To give you a little background on this book, 1stand 2nd Corinthians are actually made of fragments of a number of letters to the Corinthians. And these are an interesting couple of books because Paul is writing to a community that is unhappy with him, a community with whom he is in conflict. They are upset with him for a number of reasons: some involving money – he wouldn’t take money in the form of a collection for his work from them, but he had taken money from the Macedonians, which some saw as a slight; apparently he made some statement about refusing money for his labor which had shamed some of the other leaders in Corinth who have taken up a collection; some felt his working with his hands was inconsistent with the life of an apostle; and some didn’t like that he used frankness as a means of asking for affection. Also, he had promised a visit which apparently never took place. And finally some in the Corinthian community came to a place of wanting to “test” his apostleship which deeply offended Paul.
Today’s passage comes from a fragment that is believed to be from his fourth letter to the Corinthians and includes all of 2ndCorinthians 1-9. As we hear, he is taking several steps to get into a better relationship with the Corinthians. He pairs himself with Timothy because Timothy has a good relationship with the Corinthians, and he extends the letter to “all the saints throughout Achaia,” because the Achaians, too, were in a good relationship with Paul. Paul’s wish of peace for them is a naming of his wish for reconciliation. He emphasizes that Christians are not isolated from each other, that they are all partners in suffering and in receiving God’s comfort, and he tries to drum up some pity in his description of his suffering in Asia to try to soften their hearts towards him.
I think all of this behavior is familiar to us. We’ve all done or seen others do similar things in attempts to heal or reconcile relationships, and Paul is very human in this way. We will look at this in more depth in the upcoming weeks. But for today, that should give you a solid background for proceeding through the book of 2nd Corinthians.
Where I want to go in terms of today’s scriptures, both from 2nd Corinthians and from Matthew is to take some time to look at human efforts and work, and the results of those efforts. In many ways, Paul comes from the exact opposite place from Job. While Job and his friends came to their experiences with the belief that those who did good would have good lives and those who did bad would have bad lives; that the sign of being a good person was none other than having riches and comforts in this life (an idea that was overthrown by the rest of the book), Paul starts from the exact opposite place. Paul is very clear that people of faith WILL suffer. For Paul, association with the gospel guarantees being at cross purposes with the world, and experiencing affliction, distress and opposition. If you choose to follow Christ, you WILL suffer, according to Paul. We know Jesus did – he died because of his standing up for the oppressed and poor, for preaching love in the face of a society that valued law more. And Paul, also experienced persecution for preaching Jesus’ message and gospel. The ways of Christ are exactly opposite to the values of the world: they do not encourage riches, comforts and ease for oneself but instead ask us to give all we have and follow. This will bring suffering, it will bring conflict, it will bring anger, opposition, persecution and affliction. As a quote by Charles Bowen sent to me this week says it, “The rain, it raineth on the just, and also on the unjust fellow, but mainly on the just because the unjust steals the just’s umbrella.” Paul is clear about that, just as Jesus was.
The story from Matthew today similarly pointed out that no matter what you do in terms of doing the work of God, abuse will follow. If you are truly doing the work of God, the work of Jesus, you will be in conflict with the world. And that means that you will feel at times that you are getting nowhere in the work that you do. But still, you are being called to be a sower, like God. And if you are truly doing God’s work, you will experience some of it falling on land that is rocky, some that falls on shallow soil, some roots that look like they have planted will be torn out by the winds of concern over wealth, power, politics, and worldly comforts.
Being a person of faith, really looking at these scriptures and trusting in them is not for the faint of heart. And trying to do the work of God in a world that focuses and values and uplifts those with money, power and fame – it is hard. It is frustrating beyond measure. I will tell you honestly that there are times when I despair. What am I doing? Have my words made one iota of difference in the way people live their lives? Are people more faithful, more generous, more committed to caring for the poor and oppressed in any way because of things that I have said or done? Has my work made any kind of positive difference in this place or in the world? Or am I just throwing seed on concrete? This is especially true when sometimes I will preach a heartfelt sermon and have someone say to me, “that is exactly what I needed to hear today.” And then they will say something that is exactly opposite of what I tried to communicate.
I remember doing a bible study in which the pastor was discussing the fact that his sermons made little difference and how he then decided to do everything differently and now his congregation lives in intentional poverty, giving almost all they have to the poor in some truly amazing ways. And I hear stuff like that and know I don’t have the power, authority or charisma to make anything like that happen. So it’s easy to start feeling that the seed I’ve tried to scatter is no good, that I have no chance of doing the work God wants me to do.
I know I’m not alone in this. Whole faith communities can start to feel like they are not really succeeding. Congregations yearn for younger families and when they don’t come they can feel that they are failing at planting any kind of seed. They aren’t succeeding. Within our own families it can feel this way. Talking to our teenagers, talking to family members with whom we disagree can feel like beating our heads against the wall.
I want to share a story with you that I found in a commentary: Theodore J. Wardlaw wrote:
I once caught a glimpse of God and God’s mercy in such a place. I was with a group of civic leaders—lawyers, politicians, foundation representatives, journalists—touring various outposts of our city’s criminal justice system. It was near the end of the day, and we were visiting the juvenile court and detention center. That place was so depressing, its landscape marked by wire-mesh gates with large padlocks and razor wire wrapped around electrified fences. When the doors clanged shut behind us, I imagined how final they must always sound when adolescents—children!—are escorted there. We were led, floor by floor, through this facility by an amazing young judge who worked there. She showed us the holding cells where the new inmates are processed. She showed us the classrooms where an ongoing education is at least attempted. She showed us the courtrooms where cases are prosecuted.
Near the end of our tour, she led us down one bleak hall to give us a sense of the cells where young offenders lived. Each cell had a steel door with narrow slots about two-thirds of the way up, through which various pairs of eyes were watching us as we walked down the hall. Some of these children were accused of major crimes; some of them were repeat offenders. Most of them, we learned, had had little or no nurture across their brief lives—not from a primary adult who cared about them, not from family, not from neighborhood, not from church. It was hard to notice those eyes staring through narrow slots without doing something. So I lingered at one door and whispered to one pair of eyes: “God loves you.” The eyes did not appear to register much, and sometimes I wonder what, if anything, happened next. Did that news fall on the path to get eaten by birds? Did it fall among thorns to get choked out? I will never know.
As the tour went on, the cumulative effect of all this brokenness got to one member of our group, who finally just stopped in the hallway and began to cry. When the judge noticed this, she paused in her narration, walked back and put her arms around that person, and, with tears in her own eyes, said, “I know. I understand.”
I thought to myself, “If I am ever to be judged, I want a judge like that.” Then it dawned on me—like a seed thrown onto my path—that indeed I do have a judge like that! …
Ultimately, though, with all due respect to the well-meaning allegorist, this parable is not so much about good soil as it is about a good sower. This sower is not so cautious and strategic as to throw the seed in only those places where the chances for growth are best. No, this sower is a high-risk sower, relentless in indiscriminately throwing seed on all soil—as if it were all potentially good soil. On the rocks, amid the thorns, on the well-worn path, maybe even in a jail!
Which leaves us to wonder if there is any place or circumstance in which God’s seed cannot sprout and take root.
(Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 3: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16).
Stories like today’s passage from Matthew are encouraging. And this parable in particular is extremely comforting. We all know that soil can surprise us. We can plant things in the best possible way and have the plants die. We can avoid planting things where we know they can’t possibly grow and discover something gorgeous growing there on its own. Different soils lead to the growth of different plants, but beautiful, fruitful plants seem to grow in all kinds of different types of soil. And things happen that can give us pause to think. A friend of mine told me that she had a beautiful planter and she took great care to prepare the soil, to make sure everything was right and she planted petunias in it. But they wouldn’t grow. In a weird fluke, however, she noticed one day that apparently some of the petunia seeds had fallen out of the planter and had planted themselves in the crevice in the concrete near the planter box. And out of this crevice she found that there was a beautiful petunia plant growing!
The surprise of today’s parable story is not the frustration of years of planting work that ends up with most of the plants failing for one reason or another. Instead, the miracle here is that despite persecution, lure of wealth, hardened hearts and “evil” that there are still disciples: that despite all the values of the world and the lure of wealth and fame, and the greed and “me, me, me” thinking, that there are still people who learn to love those who are different from them, those who are “other”, those who don’t have the same color, or background or social or economic class. And that is an amazing, miraculous gift from God. We are called to speak God’s truth of love. We are called to work for justice and empowerment of all people. We are called to feed and to serve and to offer grace in unexpected places. We don’t know who will take what we do and run with it, grow from it, learn from it, deepen in their faith and their trust in God and in love. We don’t know, but we are called to have faith in God’s abundance, to follow God’s model for sowing in abundance and trusting in abundant results. Note that God, here, is not a “good business person”. God doesn’t care about that, doesn’t measure value around that at all. God, as the sower, throws the seed EVERYWHERE. On the hard rock, on the weedy patches, on the shallow soil; trusting that there will be growth somewhere and that even one seed that sprouts is worth the effort of the sowing.
Note also, that in part the success of all of this seed is not just on the sower, but on the community. Do we help to till the soil? Do we feed, water, and care for the seed that God has scattered? And so, too, when we scatter seed: when we speak words of hope and truth and love. It is not just up to us to do the work. We have a community that then must take those seeds and nurture them, plant them deeper, do the work of caring for the plants that have begun to grow.
There is a story of a man who moved to a new community that had incredibly rocky, inhospitable soil. He tilled the ground, he mixed the soil with good soil, he nurtured and cared for the area and after years and years of hard work, he had an incredibly beautiful garden. One day a visitor to the area came by and said to the man, “wow, God has created an amazing garden here!” To which the man replied, “well, when it was just up to God it was a mess!” The point is that God includes us in the work of sowing and caring for the earth. And that is NOT just about other people, and this applies on the small scale as well.
What I mean is that we all have places within each of us, every single one of us, that are rocky, that are weedy, and that are shallow. And we need to be intentional, not only about learning, and listening, but about beating those rough rocky places within into a softer soil, adding nurturing soil to the most inhospitable places inside of us, making sure we water and feed the soil of our lives so that we have fertile places where words, wisdom, love, compassion and grace can grow, being available for opportunities to get to know and hear new people and new things.
What does any of this have to do with God? Well, as Paul said, God’s consolation comes in measure to the suffering. And it is always in great abundance. When Jesus here in the parable of Matthew describes the yield – one hundred to one in some cases, or even the thirty to one in another case, he is talking about enormous abundance. For a farmer, a 30 to one yield is enough to feed a village for a year. A hundredfold would allow the farmer to “retire to a villa by the Sea of Galilee”. That is the abundance of God.
But in the end we have to remember that ultimately we are not in charge of the outcome. Our job is simply to do that which is in front of us to do. We then have to let go of the results. It reminds me of a scene from the movie “28 days”. In the movie, everyone is at a rehab center dealing with their various addictions. The main character, Gwen is talking with a professional baseball player. She picks up a ball throws it at the mat that he has set up to practice his pitching and ball goes wild. “Great” she says, “just one more thing I’m terrible at.”
“What were you thinking about? When you threw the ball?”
“… I don’t know… the mattress. You’re thinking about hitting the mattress”
“Well, that might sound funny to you but that’s all wrong. You get all locked in on the strike zone and the next thing you know it’s looking about the size of a peanut. And you’re thinking, ‘wow! I got to get that little ball in there?’ And you’ve psyched yourself right out of the game. The strike zone, the call, the count, the batter… forget all that! You got to think about the little things. The things you can control. You can control your stance, your balance, your release, your follow through. Try to think about those little things and only those little things. Cause you know, when you let go of the ball, it’s over. You don’t have any say over what happens down there. That’s somebody else’s job.”
I think about the Amy Grant song, “All I ever have to be”
“… And all I ever have to be is what you made me. Any more or less would be a step out of your plan. As you daily recreate me, help me always keep in mind, that I only have to do what I can find. And all I ever have to be is what you made me.”
All we have to do is what is in front of us to do, and to trust that God will take care of the rest. Our job therefore is not just to sow the seed, but to celebrate the abundant harvest when it comes, to celebrate when seed grows and people experience life in new ways. Thanks be to God. Amen.