July 13, 2008
St. Mark’s Lutheran Church
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23
One of the signs that we are maturing as adults, I think, happens when, one day, a strange feeling comes upon us when we least expect it. For some people, when this feeling rears its ugly head, it is a time to despair. Some people call it a mid-life crisis. Others just say it’s a restlessness that comes with age. It is a feeling we fight, we try to avoid, we do anything in our power to get around. But sometimes, there’s no escaping it.
This feeling I’m talking about is the feeling of frustration. I’m not talking about the frustration one feels when its rains on a day you’ve planned some big outdoor event. I am talking about the frustration that comes on us when we realize that all those dreams, all those plans we had have simply come to naught. It’s the frustration we feel when we simply face the facts of our life and see our present life for what it really is. And when we compare that present life with what we imagined our life would be like at this point, we definitely find ourselves frustrated. We ask ourselves: what happened to me? How did I end up here? How did I end up becoming this person—this person who looks and acts just like what I disliked the most when I was younger.
Certainly most of us have felt this frustration in our jobs, or as parents. For those of us in ordained ministry, we deal with this all the time. When many people go into the ministry, they imagine all the good they’re going to do in their lives. They imagine all the people whose lives they are going to affect. They imagine all the souls they will save. They imagine all the parishes they will one day fill with believers and how they, single-handedly, will change the sometimes all-too-accurate reputation the Church has of being a close-minded, human-driven organization with all its faults. To use the images from today’s Gospel, they imagine all the seeds they sow will be in good soil and will flourish a hundred times what was sown. They come out of seminary and rise up from having hands laid on them at their ordination with a starry-eyed idealism.
And then, they hit the five-year mark. For some clergy, the five-year mark is that mark when they realize the honeymoon’s over. They’ve, hopefully, been through the wringer once or twice by this time. Their wrists have been slapped, their egos have been deflated, their sermons critiqued to the point they are much more careful what they are going to say when they enter the pulpit. And, more importantly, they face reality.
By five years, one knows if the seed one has sown is producing a crop. And by five years, every clergy person knows that what they are producing is not anywhere near one hundred times what was sown. And it is then that frustration settles in.
Now, I say this as I approach the fifth anniversary of my ordination to the diaconate on July 25. These five years have been a strange rollercoaster of a ride for me. And as I approach this ordination anniversary, I find myself reflecting back to what my goals were in that hot summer of 2003 and what, if any of them, have been met. I reflect back on what I sowed in those early days of ministry. And, although I have seen some wonderful and incredible things in those five years, I also am fully aware that the crops produced are not anywhere near what I had, so idealistically, imagined. And then I face it. I find it right there, staring me in the face—frustration.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us a glimpse of what this frustration is like. If you notice at the beginning of our Gospel reading, as Jesus sits in the boat from which he preaches sort of like from a pulpit, we are told that there is a large crowd coming forward to listen to him. To this large crowd, Jesus then proceeds to preach about seed that fails and seed that flourishes. And for this moment, it seems as though the seed of the Gospel as it comes from Jesus’ mouth is truly falling on the good soil. But when we look at it from the wider perspective of the story of Jesus, what we realize is that what he is preaching is, in fact, falling on rocky ground and among thorns.
Let’s face it: on the surface, from a completely objective viewpoint, Jesus’ ministry ultimately seems like a failure. He is surrounded by twelve men—people he himself chose—who just don’t get what he’s saying. These men will, eventually, turn away from him and abandon him when he needed them the most. One of them, will betray him in a particularly cruel way: one of them will betray him to people he knows will murder Jesus.
By the time Jesus is nailed to the cross, it’s as though everything Jesus said or did up to that point had been for nothing. Not one of the people Jesus helped, not one of the person he gave sight to, helped to walk, healed of illness, came forward to defend him. Not even one person he raised from the dead came forward to help him in his time of need. And certainly, not one person from this large crowd of people that we encounter in today’s Gospel, comes forth to defend him, to vouch for him or even to comfort him as he is tortured and murdered.
Everyone left him except his mother and a few of his mother’s friends. Let’s face it; it would just even worse if even his mother has deserted him. Can you imagine, in that awful lonely moment, to look down and realize not even your mother—of all people—had stayed with you. So, it could have been worse.
Still, as far as his life of ministry was concerned, it seemed very much like a failure. It seems, in that moment, as though the seed he sowed had all been sown on rocky ground and among thorns. It seemed as though the seed he sowed had died. For any of us, frustration would be an understatement for what we would be feeling at that moment.
And if this was the end of the story, if it ended there, on that cross, on that Friday afternoon, then it would be truly one of the greatest failures. But this is one of the cunning, remarkable things about Christianity—one of the things that has baffled people for thousands of years. In the midst of this failure, in the midst of this frustration, God somehow works. In that place of broken dreams, of shattered ambitions, God somehow uses them and turns them toward good. Somehow, in a moment of abject loneliness, of excruciating physical pain, of an agonizing murder upon a cross, God somehow brings forth hope and joy and life unending. Ands what seems to be sown on rocky ground and among thorns does, in fact, flourish and produces a crop that we are still reaping.
In my own life I have found strange moments, when God has broken through my own failures, my own shortcomings to work, when God has taken the seed I though I had sown on land unsuitable for growth and somehow made it grow. I love to tell a story of when I was in Clinical Pastoral Education.
In Clinical Pastoral Education—CPE—I worked in a hospital as a chaplain. I enjoyed my work as a chaplain. It was very rewarding and very exciting for me. It was also very exhausting work.
One day I had worked very hard all day long going from floor to floor, ward to ward, doing visitations. My usual procedure for the day usually involved my going to the head nurse and asking if anyone needed a chaplain. Sometimes the nurses would be very accommodating and would instantly direct me to one or two patients. Other times, the nurses would treat me as though I was nuisance and wouldn’t give me the time of day. But on this day, the head nurse told me that, yes, there was a woman with diabetes who was scheduled to have surgery to remove her foot the following morning. So, I went to visit her.
I was tired at this point, after a very long day of visitations. And so, when I went in to the see the woman, I realized she was not in a good place. She was crying. She was in despair. As I talked with her, she told me in no uncertain terms that she did not want to lose her foot. She said, “I wish there was a prayer I could pray so that they won’t cut off my foot.”
Of course, I didn’t want to instill any false hope in her, nor did I want to make any unreasonable promises. And because I was tired and exhausted, I really didn’t have it in me to say much to her. So, I offered to pray with her. Now usually, in my visits, I followed a particular regimen. I would usually say a little prayer at the beginning, I would recite a psalm and then we would pray the Lord’s Prayer. And that’s exactly what I did that day, without even thinking twice. So, we prayed, and I begin my usual psalm, which was Psalm 121.
For those of you who might not remember Psalm 121, it goes like this:
“I lift up my eyes to the hills; *
from where is my help to come?
My help comes from the LORD, *
the maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot be moved…”
He will not let your foot be moved?
Oh no! How could I be so stupid?
I quickly looked at the woman, hoping she hadn’t heard. When I looked her, her eyes were shut tight.
Good, I thought. Maybe she didn’t hear.
I finished up the psalm, we prayed the Lord’s Prayer together and I left as soon as I could, promising her as I left that I would pray for her and that I would visit her after surgery. Since it was my last visit of the day, I went home and, all night long, I beat myself up about it.
How could I be so insensitive, I thought. How could I be so irresponsible? How I could install false hope in this poor woman in her time of need?
To say the very least I felt like a pastoral failure that night. I thought, I have no right to be a priest. I might as well give it all up and find something else to do.
The next morning, I decided I had to face the band, so to speak. I had to go and visit this woman and try to make right the wrong I had done to her. So, I went right to her room—not really expecting her to be there—I though maybe she would still be in surgery. But when I went into the room, there she was sitting up in bed. She looked at me and she, “there you are!”
Great! I thought. Now I’m in trouble.
She said, “Thank you. Thank you Thank you.”
She said, “They’re not taking my foot! They’re only going to take a couple of toes. I can deal with losing a few toes.”
She then said, “It’s a miracle, because all night long, all I prayed was, ‘He will not let your foot be moved. He will not let your foot be moved.’ And He didn’t.”
This, of course, is an exception to the rule, but it taught me two very important lessons.
First, it taught me that I had to stop being selfish and self-centered. What God did had very little to do with me personally. It wasn’t all about me all the time. It was truly about God using even me in those situations.
Second, it taught me that, even in those moments in which I, myself, was, if in no one else’s eyes but my own, a failure, still, somehow, God works. God truly can use our flawed and fractured selves for good and turn our failures and our frustrations into something meaningful. What we can take away from our Gospel reading today is that our job is not always to worry about where or how we are sowing the seed. Our job is to simply do the sowing. And God, will produce the crop.
What I have realized in these five years of ordained ministry is that I simply need to let God do what God is going to do. Our job, as Christians, is simply to sow. And God will bring forth the yield. And when God does, then we will find crops flourishing even in rocky soil and amidst thorns.
So, all you who have ears, listen. We will all feel moments of frustration in this life, but for those of us who hope in God and who sow the seed of God’s Word in this world simply cannot allow frustration to triumph. Frustration and despair are the thorns and rocky soil of our lives. We must be the rich soil in which that seed flourishes. And when do, the crops God brings forth in us and through us will truly be one hundred times more than what we sowed.