Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Hungry for a Blessing - Genesis 32:21-30

Genesis 32:21-30
So Jacob's gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.
            That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob's hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. Then the man said, "Let me go, for it is daybreak."
            But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."
            The man asked him, "What is your name?"
            “Jacob," he answered.
            Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."
            Jacob said, "Please tell me your name."
            But he replied, "Why do you ask my name?" Then he blessed him there. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, "It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared."

            Many years ago, I was in Jerusalem.  I visited the Wailing Wall and at one point I was sitting on a bench, just taking in all of the sights of this ancient and holy place.

            At one point, an old Jewish Rabbi came and sat with me.  He had a long white beard and he was dressed completely in black.  He could barely move and when he sat down, it was more like he just fell back into the bench.

            He turned to me and asked, “What is your name.”

            Well, being a good Southerner, I thought we were about to have an interesting conversation, so I told him, “Maynard Pittendreigh.”

            What is the name of your father, he asked.

            Well, I thought that was strange, and wondered “does this man know me?”  But I told him, “Bill Pittendreigh.”

            “What is the name of your mother?”

            I told him.

            “What are the name of all your brothers and sisters?”

            I told him.

            Then he raised his ancient hand and said, “Blessings.  On your father, and all of his household.”

            I didn’t know what to say, but I came out with a “Gee thanks mister, I sure do appreciate that.”

            I don’t know what I was supposed to say, but the Rabbi looked at me with horror and asked, “Aren’t you Jewish?”


            “Are you sure?”

            “I’m sure.”

            “Oh well, blessings anyway.”

            You know, blessings like that aren’t part of our society.  No one goes around pronouncing blessings on individuals, nor do we often seek someone’s blessing.

But deep inside, most of us long for blessings in our lives.

            Which brings us to this odd story in Genesis. 

            It seems that throughout Jacob’s life, he was desperately hungry for a blessing.

            We meet Jacob at his birth in chapter 25 of Genesis.  Isaac, the son of Abraham, was married but he and his wife Rebekah had no children.  Isaac prays for a child and the Lord answers his prayer – not with one, but with two sons. 

            Rebekah’s pregnancy was not an easy one.  In fact she says, “I feel like I have two nations at war inside me.”

            Esau is the first born, and then his brother Jacob is right behind, holding onto the foot of his brother Esau. 

            The two boys grow up and they are very different.  Esau is a hunter, Jacob is a quiet man who stayed at the tents. 

Esau was loved by his father, Jacob was loved by his mother.  One day Esau comes in from hunting, and he hasn’t had any luck at all.  He comes home tired and hungry, and he begs Jacob to give him some stew.  Jacob responds by saying, “You give me the right to get the blessing from our father, you give me your birthright, and then I’ll give you some stew.”

            Esau doesn’t think very far ahead, and never does.  So he says, “Fine.  What good is a birthright when you are hungry anyway?

            Jacob, hungry for a blessing, gives his brother some stew and wins the birthright.

            Now you would think that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

He knows that just because Esau gave him the right to receive the blessing, his father would never agree.  So Jacob stays hungry for a blessing.

            So a few years pass, and the time comes for father Isaac to give the blessing.  He is old and weak and almost blind, and so Jacob and his mother devise a way to fool father Isaac so that Jacob gets the blessing rather than Esau.  She dresses her son Jacob in rough clothing, and they use all sorts of things to trick father Isaac. 

            And it works.

            Isaac gives Jacob the blessing.

            Now you would think that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

            Not at all.  Because as soon as Jacob gets the blessing, Esau comes home and he is furious and he decides that as soon as father Isaac is dead, he will kill brother Jacob.

            Jacob doesn’t wait for his father’s death, and instead packs up and sneaks out of the home and heads for the hills.

            Jacob decides that what he really needs make himself happy in life is a woman.  So in search of a wife, he goes traveling around and comes to some distant relatives and while he is hanging around this watering hole, this beautiful woman named Rachel comes along.  She is a shepherdess and Jacob can’t wait to roll away a stone to open up a well for her and her sheep.  It is love at first sight.  He talks to the father and proposes marriage to Rachel. 

            Now you would think that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

            Rachel’s father agrees to the marriage, provided that Jacob work for him for 7 years.

            Well, Jacob is in love, and these 7 years pass by very quickly. 

            The day for the marriage comes and it is a great wedding.

            There is a great feast.  Lots of partying.

            Jacob gets married, wakes up the next morning, looks at his bride, and to his horror, it’s not Rachel with him – it’s Rachel’s less attractive sister, Leah.

            Here’s good advice for any groom – stay away from the open bar until long after the ceremony.

            It turns out that Jacob’s father-in-law planned this all along. 

            Well, back then, it was acceptable to have more than one wife, so Jacob is allowed to marry Rachel a week later, but Jacob is forced to commit to 7 MORE years of working for his father-in-law.

            But, at least Jacob has the wife he wanted – Rachel.  And he has an extra one as well in Leah.

            Now you would think that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

            Leah, Jacob’s less favored wife, starts having babies, and keeps having them.  But Rachel, his favorite wife, has no children at all.

            So Rachel gives her husband her servant so she can have children through her.  I know -- it’s a really strange world in the Old Testament.  When I hear people talk today about biblical marriage being between one man and one woman I know they have never read the Bible.  Back then it was almost like anything goes!  Jacob has two wives and now a servant girl as well - It’s an old fashioned surrogate mother.  And the servant starts having children.

            Then Rachel is really unhappy.  And she makes Leah unhappy.  And pretty soon, everyone is unhappy.

            It’s just one BIG miserable family.

            And finally – finally – Rachel has a son and names him Joseph. 

            Now you would think that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

            Jacob’s father-in-law begins to cheat Jacob in business deals, and Jacob cheats his father-in-law. 

            Everything spirals out of control, and finally Jacob decides he’s out of here.  He gathers all of his sheep, all of his property, all of his servants, and both wives, all of his children. 

            They don’t tell anyone they are leaving, but they try to sneak away.

            Well, I don’t know if you have ever tried to sneak out of town, but when Jacob does it, he has 2 wives, hundreds of servants, thousands of sheep.  It’s hard not to notice a small nation leaving town.

            And people notice.

            And Jacob’s father-in-law shows up and reminds Jacob of how well he has treated Jacob.  Which is nuts.  Jacob has been treated like garbage.  But the two finally come to an agreement.  Jacob will go his way.  Jacob’s father-in-law will go his way.  And they say this to one another.  “May the LORD keep watch between you and me when we are away from each other.”  (Gen 31:49-50)

            This is verse is sometimes referred to as the Mizpah Benediction.  Friends and lovers often say this to one another, and you can even find jewelry with this benediction on it, with a medallion that seems to be broken in half, and the boyfriend wears on half and the girl the other half and each half having this verse on it. 

            Years ago, I went to an adult Sunday School class that always ended with the class reciting that apparently-wonderful verse before they walked out of the room.

            But the meaning of that text is not a loving, “May the Lord watch over us while we are apart.”  The real meaning for Jacob and his father-in-law was more, “I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me, but God is watching so we’ll behave.”

            Well, Jacob leaves his father-in-law and is free.  Free at last, free at last.

            Now you would THINK that would make Jacob happy.  He has the blessing.  But no, it doesn’t make him happy at all. 

            Not ever having read a Thomas Wolfe novel, Jacob decides he can go home again. 

But then - with home just over the next hill, Jacob begins to reconsider.  He realizes this might not be such a good idea. 

            He sends messengers out to greet Esau, and the messengers come back and tell Jacob that brother Esau is on his way.

            Jacob figures his brother is coming with a small army to do battle and to get his revenge.

            Jacob even prepares for defeat and divides his family, thinking that Esau will attack one group and the other can escape.

            Jacob is not very optimistic.

            So Jacob sends 220 goats, 220 rams 15 camels, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 30 donkeys, and sends them to Esau as a gift.

            And Jacob does one other thing, he doesn’t send all of these gifts in one group.  He divides them into more than 3 groups and tells them to keep some distance between the groups.  That way Esau will get one flood of gifts after another, after another.

            These aren’t just gifts.  They are bribes.  Like a weakling giving up his lunch money to the school bully, Jacob is giving these gifts out fear, not love.

            And then the waiting begins.

            And it is during this waiting that something strange happens.

            Yep, even though everything in Jacob’s life is strange and bizarre, this event is really outside the box.

            Jacob is waiting to see what effect his gifts will have on brother Esau. 

            He is alone.

            And out of the darkness comes a stranger.

            And the stranger begins to fight Jacob.

            Who is this stranger?

            It isn’t Esau, but is it someone sent by Esau?  No.

            Is it an angel?  No.

            The two fight until the sun begins to come up.

            Jacob seems to have the stranger pinned down and defeated.  And then with no effort at all, the stranger reaches and dislocates Jacob’s hip.  It is as if the stranger has been playing with Jacob all night.  He doesn’t hit Jacob, or use any sort of force at all.  The Bible says, the stranger simply touched Jacob’s hip, and it was dislocated.

            The stranger orders Jacob, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.”
            But Jacob replied, "I will not let you go unless you bless me."

            Even now, after all these many years, Jacob is still hungry for a blessing.

            “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

            The stranger asked Jacob, "What is your name?"

            "Jacob," he answered.

            Then the man said, "Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome."

            That is a strange thing to say. 

            First, Jacob has not overcome.  He has not won.  He is defeated.  His hip has been dislocated.  He is in pain.  The stranger is victorious.  But this stranger, who now reveals himself as God, declares Jacob victorious – and blesses him.

            Jacob may well have his blessing he has been wanting so desperately to receive.

            Or maybe not.

            Throughout his life, Jacob has thought he was blessed, only to find out he was cursed.

            The stranger disappears.

            Esau arrives.

            But Esau does not arrive with an army, but with a welcome.

            Jacob finally has the blessing he has been searching for.

            He is welcomed by his brother.  The past problems are resolved.  Jacob finds land and settles down.

            How did he get his blessing?

            He tried to deceive his way into getting a blessing, but that did not work.

            He tried to succeed in business, and while he became very successful and wealthy, that did not give him the blessing he hungered for.

            He tried everything – but only thing worked.

            When he stopped struggling with God, when he finally submitted to God, that is when he was blessed.

            Jacob lived a different life after that.

            It still had pain.  It wasn’t an easy life.  A blessed life doesn’t mean things are easy. 

His daughter, Dinah, is raped. 

His son, Joseph, is sold into slavery, although Jacob believes for many years that his son is dead. 

A terrible famine devastates the land. 

But in all of his pain and joy, Jacob is never the same after this wrestling match with God.  He no longer struggles with God like he did before.  He submits to the will of God.  And he is blessed.

            We all hunger for a blessing.

            We look for it in all the wrong places.

            We look for more money, but that does not bless us.

            We get the biggest car, the biggest house, the biggest debt – none of that has the power to bless us.

            We don’t get our blessing from our father, or in-laws, or from anyone else, other than the One who has the power to bless.

            We get our blessing from God.

            When we stop struggling with God and we finally submit to his will, that is when we find the blessing.

         You want a blessing?  Look to God.  Follow God.  Trust God.  All other things are distractions.
Copyright 2014 Dr. Maynard Pittendreigh
All rights reserved.  

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The One Great Thing I Know - Romans 8:18-39

Romans 8:18-39
18 I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of Godto be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that[h] the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.
22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all.Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
26 In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans.27 And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who[i]have been called according to his purpose. 29 For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstbornamong many brothers and sisters. 30 And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
More Than Conquerors31 What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? 32 He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? 33 Who will bring any chargeagainst those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:“For your sake we face death all day long;    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”[j]37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons,[k] neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

          Early in my ministry, I experienced one of the worst moments of my ministry.

I was visiting the home of some church members. The family had just experienced the tragic loss of a young member of their family. A nephew, six years old, had been on his way to school when a drunk driver ran over and killed the child.         

It was one of those terrible moments that unites a community in its grief. A young child, bright and handsome, snuffed out in a moment by a dirty town drunk. There was no justice in the tragedy. There was no fairness.

When I visited the family who were members of my church -- the aunt and uncle of the child who had died, the uncle told me, "Well, preacher, it was God's will. I have to believe it was God's will, it is the only comfort I have."

I look back on that experience as a bad experience, because I know now what I was just beginning to suspect those years ago, and that is that this man's comfort was probably a lie.

For the life of me, I simply could not believe that God had been sitting in heaven and decided that what the world needed was for the Almighty to make a grown man become a drunk. For God to put that drunk behind the wheel of a car and to have that mortal drive down the road until he reached the child, whereupon God made the drunk turn at just the right moment and hit and mutilate and kill that poor child.

"It is the will of God!" -- That is the comfortable lie.

A child is born with a serious defect.

"It was God's will," someone will say, but is that true?

A young  father  is  killed  by a disease that robs his heart  of the ability to sustain his life, and he dies just  days  before his wife gives  birth  to a  son  "It was God's will," someone will say, but is that true?

A family business is bankrupt.  God's will?

In the earliest teachings of the Old Testament, no one would ever look at suffering and declare it to be the will of God. It was, instead, the result of evil in the world. It was in every sense, something that was contrary to the will of God.

In the book of  Job,  the man Job suffers from a  painful  disease and  is  visited  by friends,  one  of whom reflects  this early theology that  suffering  is caused  by evil.  This friend tells Job, “I have seen people plow fields of evil and plant wickedness and evil. Like a storm God destroys them in his anger...Evil does not grow in the soil, nor does trouble grow out of the ground.  NO! Man brings trouble on himself."  (Job 4:8-9,5:6-7)

Why is there suffering?  Is it God's will?

No, says the friend of Job, suffering is the result of the evil we do.

The purpose behind this kind of suffering was to draw people BACK to God.

In Jeremiah, the voice of God is heard saying, “I will abandon my people until they have suffered enough for their sins and come looking for me.   Perhaps in their suffering they will try to find me."  (Jeremiah 6:15)

There are times when suffering is caused by the evil we do. Our sins bring the suffering upon us.

So forget about saying “it was God's will that poor Joe Blow suffered.'   Now we can say, “Poor Joe must have sinned mighty badly.  Wonder which commandment   he broke to suffer this badly."

is this always the case with suffering?

The child on the bike who is killed by the drunk driver --- what   sins did he commit? Or did his father commit some sin that caused God to kill the son in order to draw a wayward sinful father back to the Almighty.

That is not an original question.  In Luke’s Gospel, a group of people approached Jesus with this issue. Reminding him of the time when a group of devoted Galileans went to make a sacrifice to God and Pilate decided to sacrifice them, they wondered if this meant that they were worse sinners than anyone else.

"No indeed,” was Christ’s answer.  (Luke 13:lff)  In  fact,  referring  again  to Job's situation,  while  one  of his friends declares that people suffer because of   their  sins, we know that  Job  was not suffering for such a reason.  The opening passages of that book take us behind the scenes so that we can read about the conversation between God and Satan.

Job is described as a good man; "careful not to do anything evil" (Job 1:1).  God himself tells Satan, "There is no one on earth as faithful and good as Job is. He worships me and is careful not to do anything   evil." (Job 1:8)

And yet, Job suffered terribly -- suffering in ways few of us must endure.

Which raises an interesting question.  If suffering is caused by the evil we do, why do the righteous have to suffer and why do the bad guys often end up on top of the world?

In the Old Testament, the psalmist sang "I nearly lost confidence; my faith was almost gone because I was jealous of the proud when I saw that things go well for the wicked.  They do not suffer pain; they are strong and healthy.  They do not suffer as other people do; they do not have the troubles others have." (Psalm 73:1-5)


You see, this thing about suffering is a complicated matter -- as complicated as life itself. Why do we think that there is a simple answer to the issue of human suffering? Why do we think that there is simply ONE answer as to why terrible things happen to us?

It is the will of God," someone will say. And they may be right. Or they may be terribly wrong.

"It was because of the sins they did," someone will say. And they may be right. Or they may be terribly wrong.

"It is because of the nature of evil in the world," someone will say. And they may be right. Or in that particular moment they may be terribly wrong.

We look at suffering and we want to know WHY this had to happen. Maybe it was God's will. Maybe it was Satan’s. Maybe it was my own fault and no one else’s. When get out of bed in the middle of the night and I stump my toe in the darkness it was not so much God's decision or Satan’s --it was due to the fact that I was just too lazy to turn the light on.   

We   want to know something   about suffering.  And the one great thing that we want to know is WHY.

And it is the one great thing that we cannot always know.

When a child is hit by a car driven by a drunk,   and the child with a flash of understanding knows that he is about to breath his last breath -- that child   does not know why. It is one great thing he will not know.

When the mother hears the news from the police officer that her child is dead,   she and her husband will have a lifetime to consider the question   that their son may have considered in only the   last instant of life --why?  But they will not know.  They may find comfort in saying, “It was God's will." Or they  may  inflict  a  greater  pain  upon themselves  by  producing  a needless  guilt, believing  that  it was  their  own sins that caused their child's   death.  But the fact is, this is one great thing they   will never know.

God’s will, result of evil, product of sin?

Who knows? All they know for sure is that their child suffered, and they now suffer.

Suffering is a part of our life.  It is woven into the fabric of our being and into the texture of human history and none of us avoids it. The Old Testament Psalm says,   "Seventy years is all we have --eighty years   if we are strong; and yet all they bring us is trouble and sorrow; life is soon over   and we are gone." (Psalm 90:10)

A life full of trouble.  Even the best of us have friends who die.  Relatives who are sick. Even the wealthiest among us have financial fears that keep us awake at nights.

And each of us is being stalked by death.   At some future time, we will die.

We suffer.  Our loved ones suffer.  And there is never any certainty as to why these things happen.   The Bible gives many reasons behind the issue of human pain,   and any one of these reasons may apply to our particular troubles -- but who is to say which reason?

Man – what a depressing sermon this turned out to be!
But  in our  New Testament  lesson from Paul's letter to  the Romans  is a message of comfort to everyone of us who   has ever lost a loved  one, or  received a distressing report from our own doctor,   or struggled  with the pain of day to day living.

There is one great thing that Paul is able to know.  In the midst of suffering, he may not know why -- God’s will, or Satan's temptation -- but there is one thing that Paul does know -- there is one thing that he can know -- one thing that we can know.

In his letter Paul says, "I am certain that nothing can separate us   from God's love: neither death nor life, neither angels nor other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present nor the future, neither the world above nor the world below. There is nothing in all creation that will ever be able to separate us from the love of God which is ours through Christ Jesus our Lord." (Romans 8:37-39)

This beautiful statement comes at the conclusion of a section in which Paul deals with suffering. He begins that section by saying, "I consider what we suffer at this present time cannot be compared at all with the glory that is going to be revealed to us."

Easy for Paul to say, we may think to ourselves. After all, Paul was a saint of a man. What did he know of suffering?  Did he ever lose a child to the careless driving of a drunk, or be told by a doctor that the spot on his x-ray is cancer, or have his marriage dissolve at the end of years of discord?


But Paul did know what he was talking about when he used   the word "suffering."  In one of his letters, Paul listed his own unique sufferings:
"I have worked ... I have been in prison 
·       ... I have been whipped 
·       ... I have been  near  death
·       Five  times  I  was given the 39 lashes by the Jews
·       ... Three times I was whipped by the Romans, once I was stoned.  
·       I have been in three shipwrecks, and once I spent 24 hours in the water.  In  my many travels 
·       I have been in  danger  from floods and from   robbers, 
·       in danger  from fellow  Jews  and from Gentiles;
·       there have been dangers in the cities,   dangers in the wilds,  dangers on the  high  seas,  and
·       dangers from false friends. 
·       There has been work  and toil, 
·       often I  have gone  without sleep;
·       I have been hungry
·       and   thirsty; 
·       I have often been  without  enough  food, 
·       Shelter or clothing.
·       And not to mention other things, every day I am under the pressure of my concern for all the churches."

Paul knew suffering.  Perhaps not the same pain as you, or me, but that is true of anyone. Each of us lives a different life, and we each suffer in a different manner.

Paul suffered greatly.  And yet, he still wrote in our New Testament lesson, “In all things, God works for good with those who love him." (Romans 8:28).

You  see, Paul  knew that knowing WHY he suffered  was  not  nearly  so important  as something  else  to be known. 

The one great thing that we can   know  is that  God  is with  us  in our suffering,  and therefore,  our  suffering  cannot  defeat  us, separating us from the love and comfort we can have  in  Christ.  Again, our Scripture this morning said, “What can separate us from the love of Christ?  Can trouble do it, or hardship, or persecution, or hunger or poverty or danger or death?    No, in all these things we have complete victory through him who loved us!  I am certain that nothing can separate us from his great love."  (Romans 8:34-38)

          In the end, there is only one great thing that we can know about our suffering.   We might learn why we suffer. We might be able to see what good God is able to work through our suffering. But we might not. But one great thing we can definitely know is Jesus Christ, the crucified, the one who suffered, is with us.  And none of the suffering we endure can separate us from His love and comfort.

Copyright Maynard Pittendreigh, 2014

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Sowing Seeds - Matthew 13

Matthew 13:1-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.”
18 “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: 19 When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path.20 The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy. 21 But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. 22 The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful. 23 But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.”

          I have a jar here.

          It is my grown-up version of a piggy bank.

          At the end of the day I put my coins in it.

          It has a special lid with a special slot and when you slide coins into it the lid keeps track of the amount of money I put in.  If I put in a penny, the electronics in the lid can tell it is a penny and adds one cent to the total amount.

          If I put a nickel in, it can tell that.

          I can even put in a dollar coin – you know, those coins that were supposed to replace the paper one dollar bill years ago that no one ever uses.  The lid can tell a dollar coin from a quarter or a half dollar.

          Right now, I have $53.32.

          I think I’ll open the lid and throw some money around and see what happens.

          (Open the lid, throw some coins here and there).

          By the way, I’m not picking up these coins.  If you want them, take them.

          (toss a few more)

          Just think – yours for the keeping.  All you have to do is pick one up.

          I’ll even toss one into the front rows – nobody ever sits there. 

          And I’ll toss one to the back row because there are lots of people back there.

          You know, one thing about preaching is that every week, someone will drop a note in the offering plate telling me about a mistake I made in the sermon.  Or they will send me an email on Monday morning about something they didn’t like that I said in the sermon.

          I can see it now – someone will criticize me for throwing money away and wasting it.

          What kind of an idiot preacher just throws money away?

          Well, kind of like the idiot farmer in today’s lesson.

          Jesus tells this parable about a sower who went out to sow.  He went to plant seeds in the field.  He throws all the seed out in a willy nilly sort of fashion.

          Some lands on the rocky soil.  Some in the thorns.  If that isn’t bad enough, he even throws some on the road.  What a waste of seed!

          What kind of a farmer just wrecklessly throws out good seed like that?

I read an article this week about farmers.  Farming is a complicated process, and the writer had this to say:

“Where I live there are vast fields where local farmers grow potatoes by the truckload as well as tons of corn (both feedcorn and sweetcorn).  These farmers are very careful to “fit” their fields each spring.  They have special machines that gather up the rocks and stones that have pushed their way up to the surface of the earth, and so each spring you can see large piles of these stones in the corners of the fields.  They then disc the soil to break up clumps of dirt, put down fertilizers to prevent the growth of weeds, and only then do they sow their seed in fields that, when the seed is all sown, look like a vast but neatly combed plot of earth.  There’s nothing like seeing a nicely fitted field.  Indeed, even before the plants begin to grow a fitted field has its own kind of organized beauty.”

And here is Jesus telling a parable in which we see a farmer who apparently knows nothing about farming.

One of my professors in seminary said of today’s Scripture passage from Matthew that this was evidence that Jesus was a carpenter and not a farmer.

I mean, what kind of farmer plants seed like this, scattering it without thought of preparation onto rocky soil, on the path, in the thorns, and some on good soil.

Seed is valuable.  You don’t waste it.  You use it wisely.

Throwing seed onto the different types of soil as happens in this parable is like throwing good money away.

          It makes no sense.

          What is Jesus telling us here?  Well, he is definitely NOT giving us a lesson on farming. 

          But he is giving us a lesson on sharing the love of God.  He is telling us how to share the Good News.

          We live in a market society.  We are capitalists.  When we try to do something, we plan for success. And no company invests time and money into a venture that does not have a high likelihood of success.

          You look at McDonalds and how they operate.  You never see a McDonalds on a country road in the middle of nowhere.  You see them where they can sell the most burgers.  They are more likely to buy on a street corner where there are intersections of two roads – that increases their business.  Or they open a store in Walmart where people are already gathering.

          You look at Blockbuster.  Great company.  They rented videos all over the country.  Where are they now?  Gone.  You’ve got to work hard to stay competitive.  It is all about success.  If you don’t succeed in the market place, you’ve had it.

          Sharing the Good News of Christ is the one place where you do not have to worry about success.  All you have to do is share Christ with others.  That’s all.  Just share.  Scatter the seed here there and yonder.  Let God do the rest.  Your job is to throw out those bits and pieces of the Good News.

          The sower didn’t prepare the soil like a good farmer would do.  He just threw out the seed.

          And in the same way we do not need any special training.  We don’t need to take classes. 

          All we have to do is to share.

          I’ve been in the barber shop and in the check out lines at the grocery store – people share their political views with me.  I’m not interested in their views but they share them.  Are they trained to do that?  No.  Did they take classes?  No.

          You don’t need to be trained.  Just share.

          That is what evangelism is.  Some people might organize going door to do, some people might buy time on the television.  But for most of us, all we have to do is share with someone something that has changed our lives.

          And remember – this is  the  area of life in which success is not something you have to worry about. 

          Your job is to throw out the seed – let God worry about whether or not anyone picks up on it. 
          Everywhere I go I tell people I go to the Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church.  I usually tell them we are open every Sunday and they should stop by some time.  I tell them this is a great bunch of people.  Here is a place where people care about one another. 

          I don’t get much results.

          Statistically speaking?  I’m not sure – I’ve never kept records on who I invite to church and who shows up.  If half the people I invited showed up, that would be great – but it is not half.  It’s whole lot less than that.  Ten percent?  I doubt it.  One percent?  Maybe.

          But you see, I don’t have to worry about being successful.  That’s not my job.  My job is just to scatter the invitations.

I should just let God worry about the rest.

          Some of you may have heard me share a story about Mother Teresa.  She was visited by a group of US Senators and one of them was discouraged by the enormous number of sick people who came to the hospital in Calcutta, India, seeking help from Mother Teresa.  This saint of a woman calmly knelt at one person’s side, then another.  There was no way she could visit all of them.  One of the Senators asked Mother Teresa how she felt when confronted with the sheer hopelessness of the numbers of people and the lack of resources.

          Her answer?

          “God did not call me to be successful, but to be faithful.”

          And that is our calling.  We are to be faithful in sharing the Good News.  Let God worry about the success of our efforts.

          The farmer in this story is so wasteful.

          It’s time for us to be that wasteful.  To be lavish with the Gospel.

          In fact, one of my my favorite preachers, Tom Long, says, “The church is called to ‘waste itself,’ to throw grace around like there is no tomorrow, precisely because there is a tomorrow, and it belongs to God.”

          Years ago one of the members who joined a church I was serving created quite a controversy.  One of the elders came up to me to provide me with what he thought was helpful advice.  “We don’t need trouble in our church,” he told me.  “Jane is trouble.  She’s just not our kind of people.”

          Well, Jane was different from the rest of the members.  She was a stripper, had been arrested for prostitution.  I have no doubt that she had a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Her fashion sense was a bit off. 

          But she joined our church.  She got a job – one that was not in the adult entertainment business. 

          Five years later, she was a Sunday School teacher and was ordained as an elder.

          Don’t worry about whether or not a person is good enough to be here.  Just welcome them.  Invite them.

          When I graduated from college I worked in a state prison system.  Rance Cobb was my supervisor.  He was an atheist who looked down upon all Christians.  I was always open about my faith, and we would often talk about the Bible, Christ, church.  But there was no way he was ever going to change.  As long as I knew him, I never saw any indication that he would change.

          A couple of years ago, I tried to look him on the Internet.  I just wondered what became of him.  I was thinking about connecting with him again. 

          I came across his obituary.  He had died just a short time earlier.

          The first line said something about how he “went to be with the Lord” and I couldn’t help but think that Rance Cobb would have hated that.  He wanted nothing to do with the Lord.

          I read further and discovered he was a member of the West End Baptist Church.

          He was a deacon in that church.

          Who would have thought? 

          Anyone looking for success in evangelism would have passed him by and gone after other potential members.
  But I had thrown a few seeds his way, someone else continued to throw seeds his way.  One day, lo and behold, he responded.

          Don’t look for success in evangelism.

          Just do it.

          And leave the rest to God.

          (Throw some coins out).

          Now you may think that I’m wasting my time throwing this money around. 

          But I know that eventually someone is going to pick up this money.  I don’t have to see them do it, but I know this money won’t be on the floor next Sunday. 

          And so it is with all those invitations we throw out to people to join us in Christ.  Sooner or later – people will respond.