Putting Down Roots Rev. Anne R. Atwell July 13, 2014 Just over a week ago, I flew up to Pennsylvania to see my family over the Independence Day holiday. I was really looking forward to the trip. I haven’t been up to spend time with my parents since last September and my father isn’t really […]
Putting Down Roots
Rev. Anne R. Atwell
July 13, 2014
Just over a week ago, I flew up to Pennsylvania to see my family over the Independence Day holiday. I was really looking forward to the trip. I haven’t been up to spend time with my parents since last September and my father isn’t really able to travel these days. So I go and spend some time with them. And I don’t mind doing that. The little town I grew up in is really a pretty place. Very quaint with lots of green maple and oak trees lining the main street. And the temperatures are much cooler than it is down here, particularly in July.
This little town really does a nice celebration on July 4th. There are children’s games, patriotic programs, a car show, a big parade, and fireworks to cap off the day. Growing up, I looked forward to the 4th of July as much as I looked forward to my birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. It was a time when the entire town would gather together in community. It was, and still is, really the picture of Americana. It is a great place to be from.
I was looking forward to this trip, to see my family and my friends. I was unhappy that Amy couldn’t come for this trip but I understood that her work schedule wasn’t going to allow it this time. But as much as I was looking forward to the trip, what I realize and what I have known for a while is that this little town in Pennsylvania is not my home anymore. Sure, my parents are there and my brother and his family live close by. But honestly, if my parents weren’t living there, I probably wouldn’t go back. Things change and our lives change. I’ve been here in South Florida for 18 years and my wife is here and our home is here. And though I have very fond memories of that little town, I feel very distant and very disconnected from it. Like I don’t fit anymore. And I probably haven’t fit for a long time.
Our Gospel lesson this morning comes from Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 13 which is an entire chapter of Parables told by Jesus. Now these parables give us the opportunity to step away from our common everyday world and provide us with a very different view of the world. They challenge us with new ways of thinking and of a new reality. That was true for Jesus’ disciples, though they didn’t always understand the parables. I would guess that was because they seemed to have some difficulty imaging things in new and different ways. And I suppose that can be true for some of us now. It can sometimes be difficult to think of things in new ways, as many of us become very comfortable and set in “the way things have always been done.” But these parables that Jesus shared call each of us to question our current reality, what it is that we do, and the actions that take place in our world.
The parable we heard this morning is frequently called The Parable of the Sower. Or I’ve even heard it called The Parable of the Soil. It seems in all that I’ve read; it has to be one or the other. If we focus on the Sower, the biblical scholars seem to think of God as the Sower. And if we focus on the Soil, then the scholars seem to think that the Soil is our understanding of the sacred. But since we are a different kind of church and many of us are willing to look at things in a different way, how would it be if we changed these understandings just a bit? What if we thought of ourselves as the Sower and the lives that we live as the Soil? It can be a different way of thinking about this as a parable. The story of the Sower AND the Soil, which I think is more applicable to the theology many of us understand or are learning.
Now, picture it, Palestine, year 28. A farmer goes out to plant seeds. The farmer in ancient Palestine would not be like the farmers today. She would not have genetically modified seeds. She would not test the pH level of the soil. She would not be checking The Weather Channel to make sure that the environment would be perfect for the seeds. The farmer in ancient times would cast the seed, just kind of throwing it about and then would plow the land. Backwards from what is done today. With this scattershot approached used by ancient farmers, it really is no surprise that some seed would fall on hard soil and some seed would fall on the ground that is too rocky to grow anything and some seed would land in the weeds and the thorns. That was simply a fact of life for ancient farmers.
But this story, this fact of life for them, was used by Jesus to teach a lesson. And this story can be used by each of us to understanding or focus upon a more fulfilling way of living our lives, even today! When we focus on the Sower as ourselves, we can reflect on what it is that we’ve done with our lives. What actions or choices or decisions have we made in our lives? So often we hear from this pulpit a quote from the Rev. Dr. Johnnie Colemon who says, “I am the thinker that thinks the thought that makes the thing.” How true is that?? When we make choices in our lives, when we move into those areas that we think are the best for us, we truly are sowing the seeds that will impact all that we do. We can sow seeds of disappointment and discord and guess what we will reap? Nothing but a lot of hard feelings and sadness. Or we can devote ourselves to dreaming wonderful, fulfilling dreams of hope and joy and contentment, which will break us open to deep beauty and happiness – by sowing seeds of light and of love. It is truly our choice.
Of course, it really isn’t all that simple. We must be in a place that will allow those dreams to grow and flourish and spring forth in new life. We must have the soil that will nurture those dreams and that will allow us to put down roots which will encourage new growth. We heard in the gospel reading of different kinds of soil and I would guess that these different environments are something that many of us can identify with.
How many times have we chosen a place where the soil is dry or lifeless? How many times have we stumbled because we’re in a rocky area and we didn’t check things out as thoroughly as we might have? We can go into a new job or relationship or anything kind of a new situation thinking that it’s going to be great! We may have this really great new idea and think that everything will simply work out for us because we are sowing the seeds of new possibilities? Well, we need to take the time to really look at where we are in our lives before we jump into sowing these seeds of promise and new beginnings. Is this going to work for us? Are there issues that I need to be aware of? Will this job or relationship be tough or rocky? Can I put roots down in this place or in this situation? I think when we can take an honest look at what is happening around us and by being very intentional about listening to that still small voice of God’s Spirit in our lives, we will hopefully identify, with our eyes wide open, the potential for joy and happiness over the difficulties and stressors in our lives.
AND, if we are willing do the necessary work, as difficult as that may be sometimes, and if we can be open to those spaces where the soil is rich and deep and allows for growth, the seeds we spread will provide us with opportunities we never expected. And that type of imagery is included in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel, as well. We hear that when seeds fall on good soil, we can reap, “…a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” That means for each of us that when we do the hard work of looking for the best and most uplifting situations, we can receive blessings beyond our wildest expectations!
One of my very favorite writers and theologians is Barbara Brown Taylor and when I preach you will hear a good bit about her. She is a favorite of mine. She was named one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English speaking world by Baylor University and I believe that she frequently has much good to say and to share in her work. She was ordained as an Episcopal Priest in 1984 and worked as part of the Episcopal Diocese in Atlanta, GA for many years. She was the associate pastor for a church that had multiple weekly church services in a building that held hundreds of people. When the opportunity came up for Barbara to have her own church in the very small town of Clarksville, GA, she jumped at the chance to try something new. She felt that this very small town was a place in which she could put down roots that would fill her and would allow her to answer her personal call to ministry. Barbara had this wonderful idea that by having her own church she would be able to minister to people exactly where they are in their journey. She would be able to preach and to teach and to spend time with the families that made up the church. She would marry people who are in love and joining their lives together. And she would be with these congregants when they buried their beloved friends and family members.
But the one thing Barbara didn’t realize, even after spending time with this congregation was the resistance they would have to a woman priest and to any kind of change in the way things had always been done. And she also realized that she lacked the skills she needed to deal with these tough issues. When you’re used to being part of a church with a large support staff, I would guess that to be on your own could be very overwhelming, very intimidating. She began to question her call and her place within the Episcopal Church. Ultimately she made the decision to leave this small town church, but not for the reasons you may think. Barbara had an epiphany about the structure of many churches and the hierarchical way in which they are run. She writes, “The way many of us are doing church is broken and we know it, even if we do not know what to do about it.” She realized that she had planted roots not in soil that would allow for growth and change, but in a dry area that resisted growth and new way of doing things.
Another realization she had while ministering in this very small church community was that she could continue to minister, but in a very different way, in an unexpected way. She could minister in a very new and exciting way by educating those who are working towards vocational ministry and by teaching in seminaries and divinity schools. The message that she shares with her students is that God does not live in the seminary or in the church building. God lives in the world and that seminary exists and churches exist so that people can try to make sense of their experience in the world. In these spaces, people can find the words, the useful language that will help them to explain what we experience. And if we can move through our lives with this kind of understanding…. the understanding that sometimes we need to make an unexpected change and that not all change is a bad thing….if we can understand that and accept that, then the roots we will put down will continue to feed us for many years to come. We have a choice to make. We can spend our time despairing when the seed does not take root or we can keep sowing until we find what allows us to grow and to flourish.
The late Mujerista Theologian, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, wrote, “The only way we can move ahead is by living the reality we envision. Our preferred future…will only flower if we allow it to be firmly rooted in us and among us. It is up to us to change our lives radically if we want our world to change. That is why I keep trying to plant my garden. That it has been uprooted several times does not keep me from trying again.” My friends, when we are working towards our best possible lives, when we sow seeds that we hope will find roots in positive and healthy situations, we must be aware that all of who we are and the baggage we carry goes along with us. That realization can either hold us back OR it can help us grow in more uplifting ways. It really is entirely up to us.
I opened my message this morning by telling you a bit about my experiences during a recent trip. Not really a trip home but a trip to a place in which the soil has become kind of dry and unfulfilling to me. Not necessarily a bad place but not the place for me. I’ve put roots down here now in South Florida, in a place that I can be myself and in a place that allows me to grow and to flourish and to be fully loved. Each of us has that opportunity to find our space and that is how the parable from Matthew ends. We are challenged to believe in God’s abundance and, with that, we can reap a hundredfold . It is our job, each of us, to trust that this goodness is possible and to celebrate the plentiful harvest that is available in our lives. And this is the good news! Amen.