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When the Word Takes Root

July 11, 2011

“When the Word Takes Root” Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 © 7/10/11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Let’s be clear and up front about it. Living a fruitful and distinctive spiritual life is hard. It takes a great deal of work. It doesn’t just happen. That’s why the farming and gardening images in the Bible are so appropriate. Whoever grew veggies or flowers and shrubs and didn’t have to deal with weeds, insects, blight, and the weather? Yes, sometimes we get that volunteer tomato plant outside our back door or the sunflower growing up from a seed dropped by a bird, maybe a crepe myrtle that just appears outside your window and becomes a lovely addition to your yard. But usually we have to approach growing something with intention, attention, and determination. So it is in the spiritual life.

That being said, God gives the increase. “We plow the fields and scatter the good seed on the land, but it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand” as the hymn reminds us. “We are God’s own field,” as another one puts it. That was the starting point for the new Christians who first heard this parable in their community. They were preparing for baptism, learning the faith, and they were asked to consider whether their hearts were rocky and hard or whether they were open to the germination and growth of the Word in their lives. Was the gospel likely to produce fruit in them as it grew in the good and ready and rich soil of their soft hearts? Or would the good seed be gobbled up on the path of their pilgrimage by worries and woes, distractions and cares as if by birds? Would it be burned up by the rush of their busy lives, consumed in the fire of their passion for something else as if by the hot, relentless, summer sun?

God can and will grow that hundredfold harvest, but sometimes it’s not easy, even for God. I would like to think I am always open to what God wants to accomplish in my life, but who am I kidding? There are plenty of times my heart is as stony and dense as the asphalt on the four-lane. And I dare say that’s true of all of us. Maybe our hardness is a shell to protect ourselves. We’ve been hurt one too many times, cheated, battered, assaulted, betrayed, and we’re just trying to survive. If we open to God, won’t he hurt us, too? How do we know he will keep his promises anymore than somebody else we trusted? And whom can we trust in this world? It’s so full of fakes and lies and Photoshop and deception and pain and violence that we may decide it’s better to insulate ourselves as best we can and just keep to ourselves. “Splendid isolation” is what the late singer Warren Zevon called it. Not a crack of the door, not a crack in our hard hearts, lest something bad take hold. The irony, of course, is that the same hardness that keeps out pain and injustice also blocks the growth of the hopeful good Word that produces peace and joy.

Other times we’re too busy and distracted for God as we rush along, too occupied with what we consider urgent, too focused on our agendas to pay attention to what our Lord may be saying. Most if not all of us wear so many hats and are trying to do so many things at once that we can’t remember where our heads are, much less pay attention to the state of our hearts. The heat of hurry burns up the precious seed of the Word like the relentless sun.

In our headlong pursuit of whatever, we’re victims of the age, as my late friend Mark Heard once put it. This is the way the contemporary world is, with our instantaneous communication, sound bites, and constant demands to be better, faster, more efficient. The novelist Ursula LeGuin once commented: “It is hard for us to conceive, harder to approve, of a serious adult person not in a hurry… Hurry is the essence of city, the very soul. There is no civilization without hurry, without keeping ahead. The hurry may lurk invisible, contradicted by the indolent pose of the lounger at the bar or the lazy gait of the stroller along the hotel walkway, but it is there…” (Always Coming Home: 434). We abbreviate and make acronyms of everything; we have to condense our thoughts into 140 character tweets; we can’t pay attention longer that it takes to watch a sit-com with commercials. There is no serious political or religious discourse much anymore, just people trading barbs and bullet points for the consumption of the media and the distracted public.

I’m usually in a hurry as well as distracted, so what I’m about to say indicts me. Still, even if I don’t practice it, I believe it. Somewhere along the way, in all this rush, if the Word is to have a chance in our hearts, we have got to slow down and reflect and listen and learn. We won’t get much from the Bible if we want to get it in sound bites or by scanning it like we might some email news service or checking the stories at the top of the hour on a TV news show. To use another contemporary image, we have become fast-food Christians, gulping down our verses like burgers and fries on our too-short lunch hour. So our taste buds become accustomed to that fare, and we think it’s good food.

But the Bible is meant to be savored and lingered over like a fine meal with friends. That kind of dinner is typically more expensive; it might even take a little planning, for example, getting a reservation or even picking out something a little nicer to wear. And a meal like that costs not just dollars, but time. You give an evening to it. The purpose is not just to get filled up and go on; it’s to enjoy fellowship, to share an experience.

In a classic work, the writer Helmut Thielicke suggested that if we find the Bible boring and prayer ineffectual, it may be “because we read…and pray as if we were skimming through a picture magazine or chatting with a neighbor.” We’re not really in earnest, he claimed, and insisted that we face the demands of the Word of God: “It demands a stretch of time in our day—even though it be a very modest one—in which it is our only companion. We can’t bite off even a simple ‘text for the day’ and swallow it in one lump while we have our hand on the doorknob. Such things are not digested; they are not assimilated into one’s organism. God simply will not put up with being fobbed off with prayers in telegram style and cut short like a troublesome visitor for whom we open the door just a crack to get rid of him as quickly as possible” (The Waiting Father: 55).

In the end, though, this parable of our Lord is not about demand. If the gospel is expensive, it’s also expansive. I mean free and generous. A word that brings hope for a future that’s open and full of possibility. There is good soil in us; we are good soil. Our rockiness, our hardness, our hurry are not the last word about us. They never are with God. His gracious seed Word takes root and grows to produce thirty, sixty, a hundred times over. We can understand; we do bear fruit. We’re affirmed as much or more as we’re challenged and called. The hard work of engagement with the Word will be rewarded by a new perspective and fresh energy. Our imaginations will be green with new growth. And if we persist in some ministry, however difficult, we will reap a harvest of faith, hope, and love. With Thielicke again: “To take the Word seriously… means confidently to cast to the winds all my doubts as to whether my acts and sacrifices are worthwhile…. It means simply to believe this Word… (The Waiting Father: 59).

Such faith means the confidence that efforts and possibilities that seem frustrated and ended by circumstance will prove fruitful. I recall the story of a minister who came to America in the 17th century. His future seemed bright, but within a year of his arrival, he was dead. He did leave a library of 200 books and 700 English pounds to a new college, but what legacy was that in the long run? At the time of his passing, no doubt someone said that John Harvard’s life had counted for little, but God gave the increase.

We would say that Harvard reaped a hundredfold with Harvard University. Others will reap perhaps only thirty. But large or small, there is a harvest. God-given, graciously provided. Whatever the growth, it’s there, and it’s miracle, surprise, gift (see John Dominic Crossan, In Parables: 50-51). As someone has put it: “In spite of every failure and opposition, from hopeless beginnings, God brings forth the triumphant end which he had promised” (Joachim Jeremias, The Parables of Jesus: 150).

Slow down. Open up. Let the seed Word in. And even as it is sown in us, let us sow the gospel seed that yields kindness and peace, love and hope and faith, trusting in God who gives the increase, thirty, sixty, a hundred times over.

All those with ears, let them hear.

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