Inside the Golden Box

Sermon for Sunday, July 13, 2014 || Proper 10A || Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

InsidetheGoldenBoxOkay, to start off: I’m not going to preach this morning about my rapidly approaching fatherhood. But I just want to point out God’s divine sense of humor in us reading in the Hebrew Scripture a story about the birth of twins. Rather, this morning, I’m going to preach about God’s persistence and God’s extravagance. To do this, I’d like to talk about the second of my three days of Godly Play training.

In Godly Play, Jesus’ parables reside in golden boxes, and on this second day of training, the leader invited the students to pair up and choose a box. Now, I don’t remember if I chose the parable of the sower or if the parable of the sower chose me, but either way, my partner and I opened our golden box to reveal a long piece of brown felt, three types of ground depicted on wooden cutouts, some tiny birds, and a sower with arm sweeping up from his satchel of grain.

We laid out the parable and started learning how to tell it in Godly Play style. We rolled out the long piece of felt underlay and slowly placed the types of ground on it. In Godly Play, everything happens slowly and deliberately. You take each piece out of the box, hold it, look at it, and draw the children into the story through your own focus and intentionality. Well, at that day of training, as I had just learned this theory, I was extra careful to move slowly, deliberately, and intentionally. I studied each piece as I removed it from the golden box. I held the sower. I held the birds. I held the rocky ground. I held the thorny soil. I held the good soil.

At the end of my first rehearsal of the story, all I could think was this: “Why waste so much seed?” Out of four types of ground, only one yielded grain. A mere 25 percent of the seed was successfully planted. The rest was stolen by birds or scorched in the sun or choked by thorns. What kind of sower would waste three-quarters of his seed?

Turns out, God is that kind of sower. Our God is a God of abundance, of surpassing love and extravagant grace. God scatters the seed of God’s word everywhere in creation and within the hearts of all people. What might seem like waste to us who are so often concerned with the scarcity of things, to God the scattering of seed among all things is simply standard operating procedure. The word of God is eternal. The word of God is never going to be exhausted. Thus, God can scatter as much of the seed of the word wherever God wants with no care given to it ever running out.

The prophet Isaiah proclaims such a reality when he speaks this word from God: “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (55:10-11).

So if God’s word accomplishes that for which God sent it, what of the seed that seems to be wasted? What of the seed that fell on the path, on the rocky ground, and among the thorns? These questions were on my mind as I continued preparing the parable of the sower for presentation at Godly Play training. But it wasn’t until I was putting away the parable for the final time that God gave me the gift of a small insight. I had already put the sower, the birds, and the types of ground back into the golden box. All that was left was the long strip of brown felt, the simple underlay for the other pieces. I sat there staring at it.

In a parable story, the felt underlay exists mostly to give shape to the other pieces. But as the first thing you pull from the golden box when you begin a story, the underlay can also serve as a warm-up activity to fire the imaginations of the children. “ ‘I wonder what this could be?’ you say,” as you turn the felt over in your hands, looking at both sides before smoothing it out on the floor. It’s a chocolate bar, a child might offer. It’s a brown snake. It’s a belt for a giant.

But as I sat there staring at the brown underlay all alone, I said, “I wonder what this could be?” and the answer came back, “It could be me.”

The brown felt upon which I placed the different kinds of ground could be any of – is each of us. Each of us, at various moments in our lives, has been the path upon which the birds came and ate. We have been the rocky ground. We have been the thorns. And hopefully, at some points, now or in the past or future, we have been the good soil. Thus, the kinds of ground upon which God’s seed falls are not different people, but different moments in the lives of each individual person.

Sometimes we receive the word with apathy and allow the birds to eat it up. Sometimes we dedicate ourselves with renewed fervor, only to have the fire burn hot and quick and die as soon as it started. Sometimes we allow the cares of the world to drown out the whispers of the abiding promises of God. And sometimes…sometimes we are receptive to God’s word, and the seed sprouts up abundantly.

I said at the beginning of this sermon that it would be about God’s persistence and God’s extravagance. Have you noticed them yet? The sower could plant the seed only in the good soil, but instead the sower flings it far and wide, trusting that even on challenging ground, the seed makes some impact. This is God’s extravagance – an expansive gesture of love and grace on the receptive and unreceptive alike.

And what of God’s persistence? Well, to extend the metaphor of the parable, the birds eat up the seed only to deposit it somewhere else. The seeds that die by scorching sun and choking thorn still sink into the loam to fertilize the ground. Thus, none of the seed is wasted; even the seed that falls outside the good soil can accomplish the purpose for which God cast it in the first place. Likewise, when you and I are at places in our lives when we are not exhibiting traits of good soil, God still casts seed upon us, knowing that even a hint of the word can make an impact, however small. Each seed cast upon us when we are unreceptive prepares us to become good soil at some future time. God yearns for us to be good soil, but God can wait because God is persistent.

As you take stock of your current relationship with God, ask God what kind of ground you are right now. What steps can you take to partner with God to till your soil into the kind receptive to God’s word? Trust that God continues to shower seed upon you because of God’s extravagant grace and persistent love no matter how many rocks or thorns stand in the way. The good news is this: sooner or later, in this life or the next, God’s word will take root in each of us because the sower will never run out of seed.

Art: The Parable of the Sower Godly Play story

Once there was a man who found a pearl…

So, the United States is mired in the worst financial fiasco since I was four years old. Because of my early developmental stage back then, I was more concerned with fire trucks than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Now, I still get pretty excited when I see a fire truck, but the economic crisis occupies my mind with far more regularity. Every news cycle seems to have a direr story than the one before, the presidential candidates talk about little else, and the crisis is the number two topic at coffee hour right now (after college football, which, of course, is more important, especially when my team is ranked #2 in the AP).

With the Dow taking a nosedive and 401Ks across the land going on the South Beach diet, can you think of a better time for churches to start their fall stewardship campaigns?

I know the previous sentence sounds sarcastic, but it’s not. Of course, I wish we had never gotten into this mess in the first place. But we’re in it now, and the best thing we can do is take hard looks at our priorities. The economic crisis is forcing us to reevaluate how we allocate our resources. The first step in this evaluation process is realizing “our” resources are not ours at all.

Jesus tells this parable: “Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it” (Matthew 13:45-46).

A bishop I knew a long time ago used to tell a story about this passage from the Gospel according to Matthew. I was very young, so I might get some of the details wrong and I might embellish others, but it goes something like this:

Once there was a man who found a pearl. This pearl was the most magnificent specimen. Indeed, only in the wildest dreams of clams did a pearl like this one exist. It was the size and weight of a golf ball, but no one would think to compare the two. The pearl was in a class by itself. It shone with a light all its own. The light might have hid some imperfections if the pearl had had any. But it didn’t. The pearl, thought the man, was, quite simply, perfect. The trouble is, the pearl was in a glass case and very visible alarm wire crisscrossed the case and a wrinkled shopkeeper hovered over the case. The man opened his wallet, thumbed through the small bills in the billfold and pondered his several credit cards. He pulled out one especially shiny card and, pointing to the pearl, tried to hand the card to the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper raised her eyebrows and shook her head.

So the man went home. He wandered through his house, into the garage, and onto the deck. He gathered up everything not nailed down and sold it all—his car, his computer, his beloved grill. He went back to the shop. Not enough, the shopkeeper’s look told him.

So the man sold his house. Not enough. He cashed out his stock options. Not enough. He even gave up his mint-condition Nolan Ryan rookie card. Not enough. The man stared plaintively at the shopkeeper. Then his eyes wandered down to the pearl. He knew somehow that obtaining this pearl was why he was alive, what he was made for. He didn’t know how he knew, but, looking at that pearl, he just knew. He looked back up at the shopkeeper. “What about me?” he said, “What if I give myself?”

The shopkeeper smiled, brought a jangling set of keys to eyelevel, and began searching for a key. She found it, unlocked the case, and slowly lifted the pearl off of its bed of velvet. “Here you go,” the shopkeeper said. “And by the way,” she continued, “you were willing to give up everything for this pearl. Your house and grill and baseball card are still mine, but I want you to look after them for me. And remember, you are mine, too.”

This story has been with me for quite a while, and I share it because I think it centers the discussion of stewardship better than anything I can come up with myself. To understand the importance of stewardship, we must first acknowledge that everything we have comes from God, and is, in fact, still God’s. We are just holding onto God’s stuff for a while.

Indeed, a steward is someone who manages the assets of another. So when we talk about stewardship in a Christian context, we are saying that we are blessed with abundance from God, and we are striving to use that abundance justly and wisely. When we think of Christian giving—of time, of talent, of monetary resources—we should really tack on another word. We should think of it as “Christian giving back.”

Stewardship always entails some form of giving. Stewardship has at its base a certain kind of giving that we do every Sunday. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are literally “giving thanks,” for that is what Eucharist means. By starting with thanksgiving, we acknowledge that our gifts, our lives, our livelihoods come from God. Stewardship must start with an “attitude of thanksgiving.”

The reevaluation of our allocation of resources begins with humbly acknowledging that we are not the owners of the stuff we accumulate and gratefully giving thanks to God for what God has given us to look after. In the end, this all comes down to trust. The financial crisis in which we are currently embroiled is predicated on untrustworthy practices; indeed, we don’t even know how much certain things are worth any more because of deceit and mistrust. But God is trustworthy, and God has entrusted us with God’s stuff. How will we respond?