Sermons

Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 18:21-35
September 13, 2020

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

21Peter came and said to [Jesus], “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

 

      23“For this reason the dominion of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Today’s gospel is a continuation of explorations of forgiveness and reconciliation that form the focus of Matthew, Chapter 18. Remember what we heard last week: Jesus in Matthew laid out a three-step process for reconciliation. He spoke of the power of prayerful agreement, gave divine authority to all of the disciples to forgive sins, and promised that he would be among two or three who gather in his name. The message was all about the reconciling power of Jesus’ followers being together.

Because forgiveness and reconciliation are such challenging realities in the human family since we are still in bondage to our fallen state, because we still struggle between being saint and sinner, there is much more to learn and to understand about forgiveness.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 18:15-20
September 6, 2020

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

[Jesus said to the disciples:] 15“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. 16But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. 17If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. 18Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. 19Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. 20For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

The first portion of today’s Gospel reading made it into the constitution for congregations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The three-step process outlined here in Matthew for holding members of the church accountable for their sins is the foundation for the process outlined in Chapter 15 of ELCA congregation constitutions on the “Discipline of Members and Adjudication.” Chapter 15 of our constitution ends up listing many more steps than three.

I find it unfortunate that the focus in the constitution is primarily on discipline and not reconciliation. Moreover, some read the three steps in Matthew’s Gospel as a prescription for excommunication, a process that leads to severing unrepentant members of the church from participation in the life of the church.

Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 16:21-28 August 30, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

21From that time on, [after Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah,] Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. 22And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” 23But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

      24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?

      27“For the Son-of-Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done. 28Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son-of-Man coming in his dominion.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

“Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering…, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This is one of the moments in Matthew’s Gospel when the narrative turns our attention to Jesus’ death and resurrection, occasions known as Passion Predictions.

Peter’s response to Jesus’ revelation of coming suffering was this: “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” This was a perfectly natural response. Peter had high regard for the one whom he confessed as Messiah and Son of the living God. He was personally invested in Jesus and in his perception of Jesus’ mission. Who would want Jesus or anyone whom we love and respect to endure suffering and death?

Here again is Jesus’ reply to Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

Jesus turned and spoke these words directly to Peter, even if Jesus is otherwise addressing Satan, who may have been speaking through the vessel that was Peter. You, Satan, Peter, are a stumbling block – or scandal, suggested by the word in biblical Greek.

The issue is that Peter is not yet understanding the divine nature and logic of Jesus’ mission, a logic that defies typical human understanding: “for you are setting your mind not on divine things, but on human things.”

What a juxtaposition from “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah!” last week to “Get behind me, Satan” this week. But such is the nature of the frail human beings with whom God entrusts participation in the sacred mission. The Bible is filled from cover to cover with such figures, such leaders, such chosen broken vessels.

Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 16:13-20 August 23, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

13Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son-of-Man is?” 14And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” 15He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” 16Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” 17And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. 18And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. 19I will give you the keys of the dominion of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” 20Then Jesus sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The answers were all over the map: John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, one of the other prophets.

And so it has been throughout the centuries. Enormous amounts of time, energy, scholarship, ink, and more have been expended for two millennia on the question of who Jesus is.

This question led to the Christological controversies and debates in the early church about the divinity of Jesus in connection with his humanity.

The question of Jesus’ identity was a driving force behind what would become the three principal creeds of Christianity, the Nicene, Apostles’ and Athanasian Creeds.

Closer to our own day, we’ve had the various “Quests for the Historical Jesus,” efforts to identify which sayings in the Gospels are more likely to have been original to Jesus.

Then think of sacred art through the centuries and the many and various ways that Jesus has been depicted in various historical periods and amidst various nations, ethnicities, and cultures. The gospel writer Matthew has Jesus raising the question in a more personal way to his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” In this way, the question is not just a remote theological curiosity that scholars, theologians, historians might debate from a neutral distance. No, Matthew’s Jesus seems to intend that Jesus’ followers have some existential skin in the game. Again, who do you say that I am?

It’s at this point that Simon erupts with his confession: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

This confession of faith about the identity of Jesus results in a name change for Simon, son of Jonah. Name changes in the scriptures have significance in imparting new identity and purpose. Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah in relation to God’s covenant promises to them. Jacob becomes Israel after his sacred wrestling match. Saul becomes Paul after his conversion on the road to Damascus.

Matthew’s Jesus gives a new name to Simon when he exclaims, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” The name Peter involves something of a pun, as in petra or petrus, which means rock.

This statement recorded in Matthew about the rock on which Jesus will build his church has also resulted in enormous discussion and debate in the church throughout the centuries. “On this rock I will build my church.”

Who or what exactly is the rock? Is it Peter, the person? Is the rock the confession of faith about Jesus being the Messiah, the Son of the living God? Is the rock, in fact, Jesus himself as the Son of God?

As you can imagine, Christians have answered this rock question variously throughout the ages. For some, the focus has been on Peter, which helped pave the way for viewing Peter as the first Pope and a resulting focus on the Petrine succession of Bishops of Rome, popes, throughout the centuries.

Other Christians among various protestant groups would emphasize the rock being Christ. Lutherans themselves have answered variously, but with some significant emphasis on the confession of faith as being the rock.

There is no way in a brief sermon to explore the ins and outs of the biblical, historical, and theological debates about who the rock is. That’s best reserved for a Bible Study and not a sermon.

Thus, for our purposes here, I’d like to cut to the chase with my response. Is the rock Peter? Is the rock Peter’s confession of faith? Is the rock Jesus Christ himself? My answer is, “Yes. All the above.” The rock is Peter. The rock is the confession of faith. The rock is Christ.

I will say that my Lutheran sensibilities are drawn most to the rock being the confession of faith in Jesus as Son of the living God. But people make such confessions. Confessions of faith don’t happen without people doing the confessing. So, Peter as person of faith is crucial.

Moreover, when we are talking about the rock on which the church is built, elsewhere in the scriptural witness Christ is identified as the rock. There are several references to Jesus being the stone which the builders rejected but who now is the chief cornerstone. And Christ is the spiritual rock from which we drink (cf. 1 Corinthians 10:4). The church as the body of Christ is built on the rock which itself is Christ.

So, again, the answer to the “who is the rock” question is for me all of the above. The Christ event is too rich and complex and mysterious for single, easy answers, even as the various individual and particular depictions of Jesus in art and history and theology fail to capture the entire, wondrous mystery. Thus, we benefit from a rich array of features of Jesus’ identity as the Christ, the son of the living God.

Well, there you have it, my touching briefly on a number of theological points that have been central to Christian identity for so far two thousand some years. There’s a lot packed into these few verses from Matthew’s Gospel.

Why explore all of this now in this sermon? I don’t do it as a theologian or historian or as a teacher primarily. I explore all of this with you as a person of faith, first of all, and then as a pastor who is called to nurture your depth of faith life as persons in my care.

That is to say, as your pastor, I want you to know some of the rich history and theology that have emerged over the centuries from the biblical witness so that your faith can be enriched, so that you can answer the question, “But who do you say that I am?” with a sense of the wisdom of the centuries.

This wisdom was entrusted to Peter, and through generations of apostolic witness and teaching, it’s been entrusted to us as well. And we, too, have been given the keys of the dominion of heaven.

And we, like Peter, have been given this promise that “the gates of Hades [that is, the powers of death] will not prevail against [the church].”

That is good news indeed when the forces death can seem at times all around us.

Let me leave you with this final statement of good news. Jesus in Matthew exclaimed, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.”

That is to say, Simon didn’t come up with his confession of Jesus as son of the living God on his own. No, that confession of faith is itself a gift of God. Even as our own faith is also God’s gift to us.

Linger with these grace-filled, wondrous, healing, saving mysteries. Amen.

And as you linger, you may want to ponder these questions:

  • So, who do you say that Jesus is?
  • How do you experience the rock in your journey of faith?
  • What difference does your confession of faith make in your life and work?

Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 15:22-28 August 16, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

21Jesus left that place and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. 22Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” 23But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” 24Jesus answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” 25But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” 26He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” 27She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” 28Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

If I were to give a title to last week’s sermon concerning Peter’s fear of walking on the water, and Jesus’ reported quip, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” it would be something like “The Paucity of Faith.” Or maybe, “The Scarcity of Faith.” Today we hear the story of the Canaanite woman, a foreigner, and as a contrast, I might give the title for today, “The Audacity of Faith.” The stories contrast greatly.

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 14:22-33 August 9, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

22Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, while he dismissed the crowds. 23And after he had dismissed the crowds, he went up the mountain by himself to pray. When evening came, he was there alone, 24but by this time the boat, battered by the waves, was far from the land, for the wind was against them. 25And early in the morning Jesus came walking toward them on the sea. 26But when the disciples saw him walking on the sea, they were terrified, saying, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. 27But immediately Jesus spoke to them and said, “Take heart, here I am; do not be afraid.” 28Peter answered him, “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” 29He said, “Come.” So Peter got out of the boat, started walking on the water, and came toward Jesus. 30But when he noticed the strong wind, he became frightened, and beginning to sink, he cried out, “Lord, save me!” 31Jesus immediately reached out his hand and caught him, saying to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” 32When they got into the boat, the wind ceased. 33And those in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

I have a confession to make: I barely know how to swim. For a variety of reasons, I was never taught how to swim as a child. As an adult, I did take swimming lessons, so I know the basics, and can manage to swim, more or less, in a pool. But it is not elegant.

The main issue for me is that I end up flailing, trying too hard. I don’t trust my body’s natural bouncy, and so I don’t relax into the act of swimming. To put it in theological terms, my swimming is works righteousness, trying to save myself by my own effort. My attempt at swimming is not an act of faith alone, of trusting my body’s natural capacities.

Perhaps my situation in the water is not unlike Peter’s in today’s Gospel reading. It’s clear that Peter had trust issues – his fear reveals that. He became frightened when he noticed the strong wind. That’s when he began to sink, and Jesus in the story made the observation, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”

Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 14:13-21 August 2, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

13Now when Jesus heard [about the beheading of John the Baptist], he withdrew from there in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. 14When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. 15When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” 16Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” 17They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” 18And he said, “Bring them here to me.” 19Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. 20And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. 21And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Listen again to these words from today’s gospel reading: “Taking the five loaves and the two fish, [Jesus] looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds. And all ate and were filled.” (Matthew 14:19b-20a)

When I read and hear those words, I cannot help but think of the Words of Institution that are part of the prayers of Thanksgiving at the Table when we celebrate the Eucharist.

During this increasingly long season of fasting from Holy Communion, these blessed words seem to echo hauntingly from a distant past. The last time I shared in the Holy Communion was Sunday, March 15, the Third Sunday in Lent. Maybe that was Resurrection Church’s last celebration, too. The last time I presided at Holy Communion was with you on the Sunday that you called me as your pastor, March 1.

So, we’ve been fasting for at least 20 Sundays now. Many of you and I can remember when Lutheran churches more commonly had Communion only once a month. By that count, if that were our practice, we’ve missed four Holy Communions. Some may be old enough or from traditions where Holy Communion was celebrated only quarterly. By that count, we’ve missed maybe one.

Happily, in the recent decades of worship renewal, the Eucharist, along with Baptism, have come to take a more central place in our Christian practice. Thus, our hearts may be stirred by the words of the prophet in today’s first reading from Isaiah: “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” (Isaiah 55:1)

Except that we cannot come to the gracious free banquet to eat and drink. So, we are left with our hunger, our thirst, our longing. Hearing the words that Jesus “looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them” – do I receive these words as a tantalizing taunt, or still words of promise?

How do we retain a central place for the sacrament of Holy Communion when we have not celebrated it for 20 Sundays already and counting, and are not likely to celebrate it again anytime soon?

Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52 July 26, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

31[Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The dominion of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in a field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches."

      33Jesus told them another parable: “The dominion of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

      44“The dominion of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

      45“Again, the dominion of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.

      47“Again, the dominion of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

      51“Have you understood all this?” They answered, “Yes.” 52And Jesus said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the dominion of heaven is like a householder who brings out of the household treasure what is new and what is old.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Given the pandemic and its interrelated crises, there is so much bad news out there that a new term has been coined: “doomscrolling.” Doomscrolling is when we move from one news feed to the next on the various formats on our devices that proclaim doom and gloom.

Our current realities, not just that there is a global health crisis, but that leaders in various settings are making choices to make matters worse, bring to mind words of one of the stanzas of Martin Luther’s hymn, “A Mighty Fortress is our God.” The first line of stanza three goes like this in translation: “Though hordes of devils fill the land all threatening to devour us….”

Hordes of devils filling the land with devouring threat – that seems to me to capture the most publicly evident aspects of the spirit of our age. Where’s the good news amidst all the bad news? Where is there obviously available, public evidence of God’s reign of justice, love, and peace in our current realities? How do we make sense of the apparent absence of the sacred in our very profane world?

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43 July 19, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

      24[Jesus] put before [the crowds] another parable: “The dominion of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field; 25but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. 26So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. 27And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?’ 28He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ The slaves said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29But he replied, ‘No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. 30Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’ ”

      36Then Jesus left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37Jesus answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son-of-Man; 38the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of God’s dominion; the weeds are the children of the evil one, 39and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41The Son-of-Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, 42and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the dominion of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

We have before us a wonderful parable from Matthew’s Gospel, that of the weeds among the wheat, one of my favorites. In the servants' query about whether or not the Master might want them to pull out the weeds that had been sown among the wheat, the Master offers this punch line: "No, for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest..."

I suppose this makes sense from a certain point of view. You don't want to endanger the wheat by inadvertently ripping it up along with the weeds. Having done a bit of gardening in my day I have known that danger firsthand – inevitably some of the flowers get pulled up along with the weeds, especially as they are all tangled together when they are fully grown.

But letting the weeds grow together with the wheat persists in being counter-intuitive in other ways, as we know that this is not a story about gardening, but about the dominion of God. The first impulse is to get rid of the weeds, lest they sully the divinely intended plantings. The parable says, no, let both wheat and weed grow together until harvest time.

But before we stop with this punch line, the parable raises still other issues for us as we let the parable evoke and call forth other implications (and parables at their best and on their own are quite expansive in the meanings that may emerge...).

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 July 12, 2020
The Rev. Jonathan Linman, Ph.D.

The holy gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.

      1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And in the sowing, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”

      18“Hear then the parable of the sower. 19When anyone hears the word of the dominion of heaven and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”

The gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.

Having lived in intense urban settings for the last 30 years, I am relishing my renewed exposure to the delights of greenery in Arlington. I am especially enchanted by all the trees, how the leaves shimmer in the breeze and the branches wave in the wind. I am fascinated with the intricate structures of trunks and branches and twigs and leaves and how it all unfolds high into the sky. I am drawn to imagine how what is visible is paralleled by root systems as intricate below the ground that we cannot see.

And the wonder of it all – these towering, magnificent organisms, so very essential to the possibility of life on earth, have their origins in comparatively tiny seeds. The contemplation of this wonder causes me to erupt in praise and thanksgiving to our creator God. All the genetic material that makes a tree possible, that makes a tree a reality, is contained in a seed. Wow. Isn’t that magnificent?

Which brings us to the parable of the sower, the focus of today’s gospel reading. Today’s gospel is all about seeds, how they are scattered, and under what conditions they grow and thrive and bear fruit – or not.

God’s word is likened to seeds – scattered, growing, bearing fruit among God’s people.

When you think about it, a word is very much like a seed. Each word contains the potentiality to become what the word signifies, what the word means. The word ‘love’ can lead to the embodied expression of true love. Shouting the word, “stop!” can make people stop. So it is with words.

But sometimes words are just words – talk is cheap, they say. Cheap words are those scattered amidst conditions which inhibit germination, taking root, growing, and bearing fruit.

Still words do in fact sometimes become what they signify. As I am fond of saying, we combine words into sentences which become ideas. And ideas shape policies. And policies become realities governing how we live.

So it is also with God’s word, words which have great efficacy in the power of the Holy Spirit. The prophet Isaiah, in the passage appointed as the first reading today, makes this point:

10For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
      and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
   making it bring forth and sprout,
      giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
11so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
      it shall not return to me empty,
   but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
      and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)

What makes the difference between words that are mere words and words which have the power to become the reality to which they point?

Jesus makes this pretty clear in his explanation to the parable of the sower. The seed of God’s word could not take root and bear fruit on the path, on rocky ground and among thorns, and he compares such conditions to conditions of the human heart which inhibit the fullness of growth.

In contrast, the seed of God’s word comes to fruition in the good soil. And good soil is characterized in this way by Jesus: “But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:23)

The one who hears the word and understands it bears fruit with a variable, but good yield, a hundredfold, sixtyfold, thirtyfold. Hearing and understanding – that’s what makes the difference between mere words and words that do things and create realities.

Hearing and understanding. How best do we cultivate the conditions in which we can hear and understand God’s word?

One way is to take the time and spend the energy to really dwell with God’s word of scripture – such dwelling is especially opportune at this time of fasting from assembling in person on Sundays for the Eucharist.

I am eager to introduce to you a practice of scriptural engagement that helps us really hear and understand God’s word. It’s a practice rooted in the Benedictine tradition called lectio divina, or sacred reading. Suffice it to say for our purposes here, lectio divina involves reading the same Bible passage multiple times so that you can really listen for and hear the passage’s main points.

Lectio divina is also a method of scriptural engagement that builds on traditional Bible Study, encouraging participants to listen prayerfully and in quiet to what the Spirt may be saying to God’s people in our own day. In these ways, lectio divina helps us understand God’s word, because we hear it more deeply.

But there are any number of ways to engage the scriptures for deep listening and toward deepened understandings. The main point is to slow down when you read the scriptures and really let the words soak into your heart, mind, soul, and body.

So, I encourage you: be about those practices that can nurture the conditions for you to really hear and understand God’s word such that the seeds of God’s word can germinate, take root, grow and bear fruit.

But I leave you with this crucial, final thought: germination, taking root, growing, and bearing fruit are not the result of our efforts, our activity. Rather it is God who gives the growth.

Consider trees once again. They are not mobile in the way animals are. Aside from waving in the wind, trees are stationary. They don’t go anywhere. They don’t do anything in the way we and other animals try to do things. Their growth, their fruit-bearing is emergent, organic; it unfolds over the course of years because of what’s in the seed, even as the trees stay put, growing where they’re planted.

So it is also in the Christian life. We can scatter the seed of God’s word with reckless abandon amidst all types of soil conditions in our lives and in our world. We can attend to the conditions of our individual and communal soil – through deeply hearing and seeking to understand God’s Word. But any fruit that we bear emerges organically through the power of the Spirit acting in God’s word, we merely being the vessels of God’s activity in us. Again, God gives the growth.

Therefore, trust the power of the seed of God’s word planted in you, for it contains everything necessary to become what it signifies, and to accomplish that for which God sent it. To God be the glory. Amen.

Here are some questions for your quiet reflection and/or holy conversation. If you’re watching the video, pause it if you like:

  • How would you describe the “soil conditions” in your life right now in terms of how receptive you are to deeply hearing and understanding God’s word?
  • What would it take to improve those conditions for better hearing and understanding?
  • Where do you see God’s word bearing good fruit in your life and in our world?

God in Christ bless your dwelling with these questions, your reflections, your conversations toward bearing fruit in the power of the Holy Spirit.

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