Listening for God

Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

It looked as if it was just any other morning in the Washington subway system. It was rush hour in the metro station and a young musician took out his violin case and began to play his violin. It really wasn’t just any other morning. It was a social experiment. The musician was Joshua Bell, a world renowned musician who sells out symphony halls around the globe. The experiment tested who would stop and listen.

The head of the Washington symphony guessed that maybe 100 people would stop on their way to their work or morning appointments to hear one of the world’s best musicians playing one of the finest instruments made. It seemed as if only seven or so people stopped! This experiment can be found on u-tube. The film is on fast forward and the few who stop really stand out as the others buzz around behind them. The experiment is called Stop and Hear the Music.

Matthew 13 tells us that the greatest preacher who ever lived was going from town to town preaching the greatest message ever preached. The message was that God’s love was available to all. And yet the people did not have ears to hear.

Remember last week we discussed how the zealots of the Jewish community had certain expectations of Jesus. There was an expectation and anticipation that God would intervene in the world with great military might. Roman oppression would be defeated and the kingdom of God would be ushered in with booming victory.

And yet Jesus teaches that the coming of the kingdom will be more like a farmer walking through his field with his seed bag over his soldier throwing seeds to the ground indiscriminately.

We learn that the kingdom of God is going to advance because the seed has power, and we learn how much the soil matters. Jesus teaches that the seed is the word of God. The word of God has power! It has the power to create because it called the world into being. It has the power to re-create, to reform, to redeem. The question is, is that happening in our life? As that gospel music is being played, do we have ears to hear, or do we walk on by? The first type of soil that Jesus mentions is the hard soil. This is the path that is hardened by traffic, by commerce, by business. This is the path that is hardened by difficulties in relationships. When life is hard and unfair, when people attack or malign, abuse, gossip, slander, or hurt, the natural response is either to strike back or to shield and protect ourselves. When we are hurt we tend to run in order to escape. Whether we rise up, recoil, or run, we have a tendency to hold on to the hurt and play back in our minds the scenes of attack. These scenes that are heard over and over again contain the hurtful words that were spoken and the troubled feelings. The seeds in the parable are being run over again and again by traffic but do not penetrate the ground. This is the hardened path that the word of God bounces upon. If we harbor and do not release difficult images and words and do not allow God to bring healing and help, we can become hardened by bitterness. Through resentment, un-forgiveness, and bitter memories, we can become so hard that we are unresponsive to God’s Word. Obviously, this kind of soil does not allow for us to contemplate spiritual things. The next type of soil that Jesus speaks of is rocky soil, a shallow layer of soil on top of solid rock. Because of the underlying rock the plant is unable to put down deep roots.

Jesus tells us about the seed that grows and springs up quickly but is soon withered by the sun. It is important to understand that the real reason the plant dies is not because of the trial of the scorching sun, but because it doesn’t have deep enough roots to deal with the trial. The same trial that destroys one plant will prove the quality of another plant. Everything depends on the roots. If the roots are shallow the plant will be scorched and die. However, if the roots are deep, the plant will survive, and its very survival proves that it is a strong, healthy plant. The sun is absolutely necessary for a plant to grow. Without sunlight the process of photosynthesis cannot take place and the plant will die. What proves to be a devastating trial to the plant with shallow roots also proves to be a life giving source to the plant with deep roots. We need deep roots so that we can not only persevere in the face of challenges, but somehow even grow. There was a ten year old boy whose parents decided to have him study judo despite the fact that he had lost his left arm in a devastating car accident. The boy began lessons with an old Japanese judo master. The boy was doing well, so he couldn’t understand why, after three months of training, the master had taught him only one move. “Shouldn’t I be learning more moves?” the boy asked the master. Not quite understanding, but believing in his teacher, the boy kept training. Several months later, the boy attended his first tournament. Surprising himself, he won  several matches easily. When he reached the finals, he faced an opponent that was bigger, stronger, and more experienced. The boy said, “No way!” but the master said, “Yes, way, you can do it!” The match was close until his opponent made a critical mistake and dropped his guard, and the boy used his move to pin him. The boy had won the match and the tournament. He was the champion! The boy asked, “How did I win the tournament with only one move?” “You won for two reasons,” the master answered. “First, you’ve almost mastered one of the most difficult throws in all of judo. And second, the only known defense for that move is for your opponent to grab your left arm.” The boy’s biggest weakness had become his biggest strength because his roots went down deep as he mastered that one technique. “What a great judo lesson I learned!” the boy exclaimed. “What a great life lesson you learned,” the master replied. Many times we wilt when we face the scorching heat of trials and tribulations. There are many ways that we can develop deep roots. One way is to find a time during the week to devote to your faith. It is very difficult to grow deep roots if we only exercise our faith on Sundays. Like athletes who become weekend warriors, we exercise hard on weekends but are sore for the next few days and have to wait until the weekend again until we are ready to compete. There are so many devotionals in publication that I am certain there is one for every type of person. The confirmation class will receive Listening to Your Life, by Frederick Buechner, as a gift from Rev. Garcia. Hopefully the confirmation process of inquiry into the mystery of faith will continue with this excellent devotional tool. Of course there are other ways to develop your faith in the mid-week, such as participating in a church service project, attending an outreach or fellowship event, or hosting a church gathering. Some even use meditation, contemplation, and other spiritual disciplines such as guided prayer. Please seek your way. The third type of soil Jesus discussed was thorny or weedy soil. The thorns grow up quickly and they choke out the plants. The weeds consume the water and nutrients that should be used for the plants’ nourishment. Jesus teaches that these thorns represent the cares of life and the desire for wealth which choke the word of God out of the lives of people. The pursuit of worldly wealth consumes the energy that should be used in the pursuit of spiritual wealth. This hits each one of us and is something we need to pray about especially. We must guard against materialism and greed. There was a news story recently about a movement to try to limit our possessions to 100 things. A man is actually almost there! He was struggling over the decision of which old blue jeans to discard. There above the headline was the little picture, a stack of blue jeans, because Americans always feel as if we can one day fit into our old blue jeans! Materialism crowds our ability to recognize the spiritual, to hear what God is saying to us. Jesus said to the disciples, he who has ears to hear, let him hear. Jesus said this on several occasions. Why did Jesus say this? After all, don’t we all have ears? What could he have meant? A Native American was touring Manhattan and he was troubled by the noise. There was too much noise, but he was glad to still hear a nearby cricket. His guide was shocked. How could you hear a cricket with taxis going by, horns honking, people screaming at each other, brakes screeching, subways roaring beneath? The Indian stated, “My ears are no different from yours. It simply depends on what you’re listening to. Here, let me show you.” And he reached in his pocket and pulled out a handful of change. Then he said, “Now watch.” He held the coins waist high and dropped them to the sidewalk. Every head within a block turned around and looked in their direction! Maybe we catch ourselves looking, but it takes more effort to recognize the internal weeding that needs to be done. Jesus teaches that we need to weed through the internal thorns of life. The fourth type of soil is deep and fertile. What does it mean to have deep roots? A deep-rooted Christian went to the doctor and received the worst news, news of imminent death, The doctor said, “Your time is up, you have a condition that means the end is near. I am so sorry. This must be devastating.”

“Yes, but I will keep the faith,” the man replied calmly. The doctor was perplexed at this answer and asked what he meant. He said to the doctor, “I mean that God has held me in the palm of his hand for 85 years, and he holds me even now. I may be sick, but nothing I have heard yesterday, today, or tomorrow will change the fact that God holds me dear.”

What a witness! Are we able to say, “I have not heard anything today that could change the fact that I am still being held in the palm of God’s hand…” ? The leadership of Jesus in this parable comes through. He mentions that the kingdom of God is like a harvest. Paul gives us the image of the body. We are the body of Christ. Some Christians have interpreted this to mean we should isolate ourselves because a body needs to be protected from danger, corruption, and disease. One of the strangest movements in church history was a group called the Pillar Saints—during the 5th century A.D. The leader of Pillar Saints was a man named Simeon the Stylite (pillar in Greek). Simeon built a pillar nine feet tall on the edge of the Syrian desert. He lived there for six years. Many people came to see him and asked what he was doing. He explained that this was the way for him to separate himself from distractions and temptations and get closer to God and become a truly spiritual person. Other people got into the act and built their own pillars. They became known as the Pillar Saints. Many people who admired them for their commitment to Christ would bring them food and water and listen to their preaching. As bizarre as Simeon and the Pillar Saints were, they represent a way of thinking about the Christian life that continues to this day. If you had asked Simeon: “How can I, as a Christian, live a truly spiritual life? How can I have deep roots so I can nurture and grow the seed of God’s Word?” He would have probably said something like this: “Focus on your private relationship with God. The more private you can be, the more you can get away from distractions, the more you can get alone with God, the more spiritual you will be.”  Sometimes it does seem that true spirituality is something that takes place in private. However, although we know that a private spirituality is important, Jesus himself advocated it as a part of life when he separated from the disciples to spend time alone in prayer. Real spirituality, real faith, is found in the harvest of God’s word growing in the community of faith. A member of my former church told me a story about a small farming community in Massachusetts where she grew up. During the Depression a farmer was notified that in the morning the bank was going to take the farm, a farm that sustained the whole village. Her mother told the farmer, “Whatever is in the ground now, though, is yours, and we can get it out before morning.” The whole community came out and brought lanterns and they gathered all night. In the morning, he lost his farm, but at least “he had something he could sell to help him along,” she said. When we have deep roots we find ways to help others as lights in the darkness. When we have deep roots the one armed handicap becomes a championship. When we have deep roots we can hear the still small voice of God even in busy downtown. Let us stop, pause, and listen to that glorious gospel music, and let the seed of God’s word grow with deep roots into our hearts. Amen.