July 12, 2020
Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23
+ Well, today is of course, our first public in-house Mass since March 15.
March 15! Four months!
And it feels good.
It’s so good to see people in the pews
But, I do want to stress—and I know this easy to forget:
Worship here at St. Stephen’s was not “on pause” during these four months.
We still continued to celebrate two masses a week, every week during that time.
We still worshipped together.
And I would like to thank all those who worked hard to make sure that worship continued here at St. Stephen’s during the worst days of this pandemic.
Our wardens, Jean and Jessica, our new deacon John, James and the music he faithfully provided for us. Michelle and the cantoring she did for us and Matt Patnode, who provided such beautiful pieces by Bach each Wednesday night (and which he continues to do).
It is important to remember that just because we didn’t meet together as we did before, the Church was not closed.
St. Stephen’s was never closed.
We still were together, at least virtually.
And, in fact, through that little camera in the middle of the nave, we had people join us for worship at St. Stephen’s who would not normally worship with us.
People from all over the country and the world.
We even had a person join us for worship all the way from Kenya.
And because of that, we will continue to livestream these masses.
Look at that tripod in the middle of aisle as about 75 people attending our service.
But, I gotta say, it feels good to have the people who are here in the pews, even though this is so different than before.
But baby steps.
Baby steps in the right direction.
During these last four months, those of us who were in the church building for Mass did the best we could.
The fact is, we were all travelling in uncharted territory during this time.
And for those of us who kept things going, who kept things together, who kept everything “here” on task, we did the best we could under the circumstances.
And, dare I say, we did a pretty darn good job.
I certainly didn’t know anything about livestreaming anything before this.
Now I have an extra hour and ½ in my schedule each week to download and upload videos to various social media.
And there were many time when we first tried to do it when I felt like we were being those Holy Fools of Jesus that I preach about on a regular basis.
You know, those “Holy Fools” in the Eastern Orthodox tradition who just kind of goof things up just to keep all the “proper” Christians on their toes.
And many times, especially during the absurd moments of the pandemic, I thought of those Holy Fools for Christ.
Just as a reminder: for the Holy Fools, our job as Christians is not to be perfect Christians or even “successful” Christians.
Our job as followers of Jesus is to follow—to follow in our imperfection, as fractured, imperfect human beings. Not the best, but the least.
And let me tell you, nothing shows our imperfect nature better than trying to navigate social media.
Thank God none of you saw me trying to download and then upload videos for the first time onto our Youtube Channel.
That was not a pleasant day!
Or when our livestream feeds cut out on us in the middle of Mass.
This pandemic, like the Holy Fools for Christ, has taught us some important lessons.
The pandemic has challenged us on how to be the Church in the hard times.
Remember all those sermons I preached over the years from this pulpit about how the Church was changing and we should be ready for that change.
Remember how I preached about how we should think about “doing church” in a new way.
Well, this is it!
Call me the prophet! (Actually don’t!)
The reality is that, we were prepared in many ways.
Despite the flub-ups, despite the frustrations an the extra work, we really prepared for the most part for this change in the way of doing church.
And we went with the flow.
And the Masses went on.
Holy Week went on.
Two masses a week went on.
I don’t know how successful we were during this time.
But then, the fact is, nowhere does Jesus expect us to be successful in our faith, or perfect.
Now, today’s Gospel, at first glance you would think would not be a reminder to us of this fact.
But…but…it actually is.
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 is ultimately a failure (or seems to be anyway).
Let’s look very hard at just this instant in Jesus’ ministry.
On this particular day, he is surrounded by twelve men—people he himself chose—who just, let’s face it, just don’t get what he’s saying.
And they won’t for a very long time.
In fact, they won’t get it until after he’s dead.
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 people 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 dear mother and a few of his female friends.
And maybe his beloved apostle John.
As far as his life of ministry was concerned, it seemed very much like a total 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.
We would be feeling that not only our friends have abandoned us, but God too.
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 failure, in the midst of frustration, even in the midst of a pandemic, God somehow works.
In that place of broken dreams, of shattered ambitions, (and we experienced broken dreams and shattered ambitions several times during he pandemic) God somehow uses them and turns them toward good.
Somehow, in a moment of abject loneliness and isolation, of excruciating physical pain, of an agonizing murder upon a cross, God somehow brings forth hope and joy and life unending.
And what seems to be sown on rocky ground and among thorns does, in fact, flourish and produces a crop that we are still reaping this morning.
God truly can use our flawed and fractured selves for good and turn our failures and our frustrations into something meaningful.
Look at all those people who are worshipping with us by our various social media this morning (or who will be watching this later during this next week), many of whom have never stepped inside this church building!
We wouldn’t have had the opportunity to reach to any of them if the pandemic hadn’t happened.
See, even in the midst of something awful, can come much good.
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.
It is not our job to produce the crop.
What I have realized in my many 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.
The pandemic is not over.
We still have a long way to go before it is.
There is still going to be frustration ahead for us.
There is still rocky ground and thorns ahead of us.
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.
Rather, let us heed the message of the Holy Fools for Christ.
Let us be Holy Fools for Christ.
God loves us our weirdness, our eccentricity.
God loves us when we are the misfits, the fools.
God uses and works through our imperfections.
God blesses us even when we’re bumbling along in the middle of pandemic, trying to do church in a new and unique way.
And in our weirdness, in our imperfection, even in a pandemic, we become the rich soil in which that seed flourishes.
When we do that, the crops God brings forth in us and through us will truly be one hundred times more than whatever we sowed.
Let us pray.
Lord, God, in your goodness, you somehow are able to bring abundant fruit even in the midst of thorns; help us to sow the seeds of your Kingdom so that your Word may flourish and you may triumph. We ask this in the Name of Jesus. Amen.