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Again he began to teach beside the lake. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the lake and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the lake on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them:‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’

When he was alone, those who were around him along with the twelve asked him about the parables. And he said to them, ‘To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables; in order that
“they may indeed look, but not perceive,
and may indeed listen, but not understand;
so that they may not turn again and be forgiven.” 

And he said to them, ‘Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word. These are the ones on the path where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them. And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: when they hear the word, they immediately receive it with joy. But they have no root, and endure only for a while; then, when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away. And others are those sown among the thorns: these are the ones who hear the word, but the cares of the world, and the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things come in and choke the word, and it yields nothing. And these are the ones sown on the good soil: they hear the word and accept it and bear fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’

Mark 4: 1-20, NRSV

Preached Sunday, August 20, 2017 at Asbury Memorial United Methodist Church in Savannah, Georgia, then on August 27, 2017 at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman

Will you pray with me? Almighty God, speak through me, speak in spite of me. And open our ears to hear your Word of hope and our hearts to hear your word of truth. Amen.

Last year, on the third of September, I preached one of the hardest sermons I have ever had to preach. It was a Saturday and the church was packed, I mean packed, with people most of whom weren’t members of my congregation. They were the friends and family of a man named Taylor Williams. Taylor, a native of the town I serve, lived in Kingsland, Georgia. He was an Army Medic, who went by the nickname Doc, like most medics do. He served two tours in Afghanistan. At age 16, as a junior fireman, he rushed into a burning building to save a family and as a result received an award for Bravery from the state of Connecticut. Taylor was a complicated guy—dedicated to helping people in need while suffering  from PTSD. It’s one of the great injustices of our way of governing our world—the reality of war and how we train kids to defend and kill then expect them to come back and just be OK. Taylor wasn’t OK. But he tried to do right and take care of people. And on August 14, 2016—a year ago tomorrow—at the age of 26 he was stabbed in the back 11 times just down I-95 from here in Kingsland.

And a few weeks later, I stared out a church stuffed with people staring back at me waiting for me to say something comforting or hopeful or profound or anything that might help make sense of the tragedy that had taken place a thousand miles away and yet, in a way, just next door.

I stood behind the pulpit, said a quick prayer just between me and God that I would find the right words, took a deep breath, then started: “The first thing that has to be said is: this is a really shitty situation. Taylor was too young, too bright, had too much potential for his life to end in such a tragic way.  It’s not fair. It’s not right. It’s not OK. It’s not going to be OK. To his family: you have every right to be mad as hell about this—about the injustice of this situation. I wouldn’t blame you if it was all you could do not to stand up right here and shout at God or collapse in your anger. And you know something, if that’s what you need to do, go for it. You’ve got a room full of people who’ll love you through it”

It was a dirty moment. I don’t mean dirty as in x-rated or dirty as in unclean. I mean dirty as in dirt—soil. It was a moment when we, everyone gathered in that old sanctuary that has hosted countless funerals, waded into the muck and mire of life together. It was hard and painful and dirty and beautiful.

In the book of Mark, Jesus is all about teaching and healing, talking and doing. And here, at the start of chapter four, we find Jesus teaching. There’s a bunch of people listening, so many in fact, that he’s teaching from a boat on the Sea of Galilee. Using the vessel as his pulpit, he tells the parable of the sower. Now, here’s the thing about parables and, well, most of the stories in the Bible. We read ourselves into them. Most of us like to think of ourselves, whether or not we like to admit it, as Jesus. In this story, that means we like to think of ourselves as the farmer, as the sower. We like to think that we’re the ones offering opportunity and hope to a community desperate for good news. And while community suppers and NA meetings are essential and good and true, they don’t make us Jesus. Sure, we toss out opportunities for people to encounter Christ but that doesn’t make us the sower.

And  Jesus tells us that the seed the farmer is sowing is the Word and we can all agree that as much as we like to think we’ve got it right, that our story-telling and pithy quips are gospel, they aren’t the Gospel—they aren’t the life-saving, life-giving Word. So, while we might like to be the seed Jesus the sower is tossing around hoping will grow, it seems kind of safe to assume that we aren’t.

So, if we’re reading ourselves in this parable, there’s only one thing left for us to be: the dirt.

Sounds glamorous, doesn’t it?

But in the parable of the sower, it’s the dirt that makes all the difference. The sower is the same as is the seed. It’s the dirt that changes from rocky to thorny to fertile and good. Now, I’m no farmer, but I’m not entirely ignorant when it comes to such things. And it turns out I knowI know one essential fact about farming: good soil is shitty soil. That is, good soil is soil that’s got more than just dirt in it.

My mama died in 2008, but before she died one of her favorite pastimes was gardening. She’d spend hours tending her flowers, planting countless annuals. She loved her peonies and the rose bushes she cultivated from clippings taken from her hometown—Raytown in the corner of Taliferro County about halfway between Atanta and Augusta. She’d watch them bloom year to year and tell me stories of the quiet little crossroads she grew up in

But out of all her flowers, her favorites were her day lilies. They were bold and delicate, the blooms lingering for just a few days—maybe a week. We’d go to local nurseries on the hunt for day lilies. Every year, I remember we were each enamored with some new color. I remember Mama going outside early in the morning, before it got hot and humid—y’all know about that here, don’t ya?—and she’d weed and tend.

But before she did all of that, before those plants could grow, before they could thrive, Mama knew she had to take care of the dirt. She’d bribe me with ice cream if I’d go with her to a local nursery and help her load up the car with peat and manure. Then we’d get home and she’d turn over some that of hard, Georgia red clay and we’d work that peat and manure into it. We’d both be breathing hard and sweating, and we’d get dirty. And somewhere along the way, she’d say: This is how you get plants to grow. You’ve got to give them good dirt.

That sounds right to me—that for the joy and hope and compassion and mercy of God’s love planted in us to grow, we’ve got to give it good dirt. It doesn’t matter how often you go to church, how many people you help, how often you pray. If you’re not taking care of your dirt—if you’re not living a dirty life—God is gonna have a hard time taking root in you.

But here’s the thing about making good dirt. It’s hard work. Rarely is garden dirt good enough on its own. No, you’ve got to add nutrients and fertilizer. And you’ve got to work it and water it. Working the dirt isn’t easy. It’s sweaty and exhausting. And sometimes it leaves you with aches and pains.

But if you don’t work it, if you don’t nourish it and if you don’t till in the smelly stuff and if you don’t tend it—the dirt of your life— you’re gonna get shallow roots and when the heat of the day comes, you’re gonna wither.

Now my congregation has done a pretty good job of of getting dirty. If I can just gush for a minute, they’ve been tilling the soil they were planted in more than 300 years ago and figuring out just what it means to be faithful Christians in the little town we’re growing in. Fifteen years ago, they were talking about closing or merging. Sunday mornings often had 20 or so in worship. Sound familiar to any of you here at Asbury? And they made some hard decisions and big choices and figured out what they were willing to sacrifice to keep going—to keep caring for the heart of Killingly just as they had been doing for nearly three centuries. They chose to get dirty, to deal with the hard stuff, to show up again and again to till and to tend what God had given them.

And it worked.

In 2014, we became an Open and Affirming Congregation—a similar designation to the United Methodist’s Reconciling.  And we’re good at it. We’re good at being Open and Affirming. Our God’s doors—six doors each a different color of the rainbow with “God’s Doors are open to all” written across them—have garnered nation-wide attention. And we just launched our Every. Single. Other. Campaign that is helping our next faithful steps come into focus by wondering what it means to love every single other as expressed by an eleven foot tall banner on the front of our giant steeple that reads “Love each other. Every black other. Every republican other. Every LGBTQ other. Every white other. Every democrat other. Every Jewish other. Every straight other. Every refugee other. Every despairing other. Every hopeful other. Every. Single.Other.” And my folks are dirty enough to know that’s not the entire list—that there are many more “others” that we could add.

We’re out there—we’ve worked hard to be fertile soil of hope and promise for our little community that was devastated 60 years ago when the mills left and people lost their jobs and livelihoods and are still waiting, decades later, for something to come replace them. And it’s easy for us, as the leading congregation in our community that’s reveling in revitalization and new life, to think everything is daisies and petunias and day lilies. 

But you and I both know that even in the good soil, thorns can grow.

Two weeks ago, my first Sunday away from y’all, a woman confronted one our church members in the Key Bank parking lot before worship that day. One of our members was walking across the lot, clearly headed to Westfield, when a woman in rolled down her window. “You know that pastor’s gay,” she said incredulously. Our member said something about coming to see what Westfield was about for herself. The woman scowled a tad  and drove off. It wasn’t any big thing, and yet, we had a few members who sat in this very room that week, anxious about what would happen if that particular woman actually did show up.

Here’s the thing: It’d be easy to get caught up on that quick encounter—to let the rocky insinuation of the words she spat out take up space our dirt. But we can also look at that exchange in a different way with a single question—how did she, in a sentence sputtered in a parking lot, fertilize my faith?   Sometimes, it’s those hard moments, those awful experiences are also the fertilizer that help God’s Word of love to grow within us.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t believe that God throws rocks in our paths so we can work toward good soil, so that we might grow to know God’s word more deeply. But the God I proclaim is a God of redemption—and that redemption looks like empty tombs and the sick made well and the hungry being fed. And redemption works only if you’re somewhere you need to be redeemed from.

You can’t get out of the tomb without a little dirt on your clothes. What I mean is, redemption means getting dirty. It means standing up to white supremacists when they rally in Charlottesville, Virginia or wherever the sin of racism and white supremacy rears its head. It means showing up to again and again and again to say that’s not who we want to be, that’s not who we are. That Saturday morning two weeks ago, when the Charlottesville rally was at its worst, our denomination’s Minister for Justice and Witness ministries, Traci Blackmon, was there. In fact, during an on screen interview, a network staffer rushed her off the camera mid-interview because of an immanent threat to her safety. All you could hear was her saying“Gotta go, gotta go.”  Tilling and tending and becoming the soil we need to be is back-breaking, scary work.

And sometimes, redemption looks likes standing in front of 350 people and speaking the truth about a soldier murdered 10o0 miles away from connect and just a couple of hours away from here. A few months ago, we got news that the District Attorney wouldn’t be filing any charges in the murder of Taylor Williams. That despite eye-witnesses including one man who was stabbed by the same person in the same encounter and survived, there wan’t enough “evidence” to charge anyone. When his mother told me this through tears, I didn’t know what to say. I was at a loss. Like her, I wanted to know why. And somehow that night, I found myself re-reading Taylor’s eulogy—the one I delivered nearly a year ago:

“We want to know why?” I said that afternoon. “Why this one whom we loved so much? Why this family? Why this situation? Why this violence? And those are fair questions to ask. And they’re ones I wish I could answer.  And one day, maybe we will find answers to those questions, but for now, all I can say is I don’t know.  I don’t know why Taylor or why now or why there.

But there are some things I do know. I know that God doesn’t leave us orphaned. So I am confident Taylor is in the arms of our Heavenly Parent.  I know that God knows what its like to lose a child. So I am convinced God’s heart is broken over the loss of this one, too. I know that God is faithful. So I am certain that God was always with Taylor and was always with each of us, and always will be.”

Friends, it’s a rocky life we lead. And just the time we think we’ve gotten the last stone out of our dirt is when we find the next one. But the Great Sower calls to us to till and plant and prune and grow. Not sure where to start? Don’t worry about what you don’t know—start with what you do.

And get a little dirty.

Today, we starting our Year of Mark—a 51 week journey through the gospel of Mark. But what we’re really doing is discovering the way of Jesus for ourselves. Earlier this Spring, I sent out a survey to all of you as part of my doctoral studies. Along with my colleague Sara, the pastor of Old West Church in Boston, our goal was threefold. (1) We wanted to gain a deeper sense of how you relate to your church. (2) We wanted to explore the notion of Biblical literacy within our congregations—that is, how well you know the scriptures that we claim as holy. (3) We wanted to understand how you understand the scriptures in terms of how they influence your day-to-day life. We’ll call that Biblical authority. What we were really getting at, the question we were really wondering about was this: How is our congregation living in the Way of Jesus?

Now these three areas: how you relate to your congregation, how well you know the Scriptures, and how you let scripture influence your life certainly aren’t the only indicators of living the Way of Jesus—not by a long shot. I’m not going to stand up and tell you that you for sure are or aren’t living in the Way of Jesus because I don’t know. I do know that as a congregation, we try hard to take care of people—and that taking care of people, loving them, is a big part of what it means to live into the Way of Jesus. But I also know that when our scriptures tell us about the “way” they’re not referencing the easy thing or comfortable thing. The Way is a harder path. And a much more rewarding one.

Here’s what the survey revealed to us. It told us that nearly 85% of you attend church to be part of something bigger which is revealing in two ways: (1) people aren’t feeling that sense of community elsewhere which means we’ve got something to offer other places don’t and (2) is a noble and good reason to be part of a community of faith. But it shouldn’t be the only one. So we’ve got some work to do. In terms of Biblical literacy, I’ll confess that I found the results to be…shocking. While nearly everyone correctly located the story of Creation in the book of Genesis which is definitely a start, less than half of our survey participants were able to tell us where the story of David and Goliath was. And when we asked how often you read the Bible on your own, nearly 2/3 of our participants replied “rarely.”

There’s lots of interpretive work to be done here, but at the core is this: We’re really great at helping people feel like they’re part of something bigger; but we’re not so great at helping them uncover just what that is. We’re really great at teaching the individual stories; but, we’re not so great at helping you understand how those stories fit together to tell God’s story. We’re really great at helping people lead better lives; but, we’re not so great at helping people live better lives formed and influenced by our scriptures.

So here’s what we’re going to do: Over the next 51 weeks—don’t worry, we’ll take a couple of breaks—we’re going to work our way through the gospel of Mark. I want you to hear the stories and to understand how they fit together. And I want you to hear the stories to understand how you fit into the arc of God’s Story. More than anything, I want us to uncover the Way of Jesus—a Way that begins in Mark with a wild man in the wilderness prophetically clamoring for us to “Prepare the way of the Lord!”

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