July 14, 2020
Play the Long Game – July 12, 2020
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Sermon for July 12 (first Sunday back for in-person worship)
Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9,18-23
Welcome to the next turn on the path through Pandemicland. For four months now, for a third of 2020, we’ve worshiped alone together, gathering via the church’s livestream as we’ve sat on our couches, maybe in our jammies – offering God a sacrifice of thanksgiving in a truly hard time. For the first few weeks, there was some novelty to it all; and we have come a long way since the Sunday when I set my phone upside down in its Kleenex box to livestream worship on Facebook. But after __ Sundays of Morning Prayer online, novelty has given way to resilience … maybe even endurance … maybe even resignation.
So, now we find ourselves back for in-person worship – an experience no one in the room right now would describe as “normal.” As an act of love for the folks around us, we’re wearing these masks. We’re here with other people again, but we can’t sit near anyone, much less offer a handshake or a hug. We get to hear some of our singers again, but we can’t sing ourselves because of the droplets we spew in God’s praise. We’re finally able to share Holy Communion again, but it’s with wafers only; and the intimacy of someone pressing Jesus into the palm of your is replaced by a paper cup you serve yourself. And I’m sure you all at home are wondering: How many people decided to come? Well, I said people should decide what’s right for them about staying at home or coming to church. And “staying at home” is definitely carrying the day. We have about ___ people in the pews now [and for 8:00, the chosen few numbered about ___].
And to top it all off: There’s no coffee.
So, welcome once again to our summer sermon series: “‘What the Heck, Lord?’ God’s Presence in Tough Times.” I mean, as Episcopalians, we put a lot of weight on the idea that we’re sacramental people, folks who like their spirituality with flesh and bones on it. We see Christianity as “the religion of the Incarnation,” emphasizing the beautiful, powerful, scandalous idea that God became one of us to share our experience and that we meet God directly through life’s tangible stuff. We depend on outward, visible, touchable, singable, huggable signs of God’s inward and spiritual grace. So, Lord: This is how we’re supposed to encounter the concrete reality of your love – wearing masks, six feet away from each other? Really?
Well, let’s take a look at today’s Old Testament reading as we continue our journey through Genesis, the beginning of God’s story of personal relationship with us. I think Rebekah and Isaac must have offered up a lot of “what the heck, Lord?” themselves. Tucked away in a clause in this reading about Isaac and Rebekah’s children, we learn that Rebekah was infertile. Wait a minute – that’s a big deal in this Genesis story. Better than anyone else, her husband, Isaac, understood what was at stake here, being the son through whom God had said Abraham’s line would continue. Regardless of anything else Isaac did with his life, his one nonnegotiable requirement was to have kids.
So, his father’s servant had gone off to Abraham’s homeland to find a wife for Isaac. We missed this part of the story last week because we used the readings for Independence Day, but God made it clear Rebekah was definitely the one to bring back. Then, in today’s reading, we find out she can’t have kids? What the heck, Lord? So, Isaac intercedes in prayer, and God responds, and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
But then, once the twins are born, they aren’t exactly models of wisdom or holiness. The older is willing to sell his birthright, a double share of the inheritance, for a bowl of soup. The younger is willing to exploit his own brother, who’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. And, as the story turns out, it’s the morally bankrupt one God’s going to use as the divine steppingstone into the future. Really, God – this was the best you could do?
And thus says the Lord: I know. I get it. But remember: The moment you’re in takes a back seat to the future I have in store. So, play the long game.
Playing the long game … that’s also a way to hear the parable of the sower, our Gospel reading today. The sower, God, casts the seed all over the place. As the story says, some falls on a path, where the birds come and eat it, representing “the evil one” snatching away the word of the kingdom before it can take root in us (___). Some seed falls on the rocky ground, where the hot sun kills the seedlings. This represents people of little endurance, those who initially hear God’s word with joy but give up when life with God gets inconvenient. Some seed falls among thorns, which choke back the growth – the “cares of the world and the lure of wealth” keeping people from putting God’s ways first (___). Finally, some seed falls on good soil, bringing forth grain – disciples who hear God, understand God’s ways, and bear much fruit through their lives.
Now, you can look at this story a couple of ways. The negative way would be that three-quarters of God’s effort here goes to waste. The sower is working hard, but most of that work is eaten up, or killed off, or choked back. Yet the sower keeps sowing. Why would that be?
Well, the sower is God, after all, so it’s not like the bag of seed will run empty. But more to the point, I think, the sower keeps sowing because the 25 percent of the seed that does bear fruit is so important. These are the people who bring God’s ways to life in the here and now – the folks who love their families, and serve the lost, and build opportunity, and take us to task we look to ourselves and ignore others. Despite the cost, God’s willing to keep sowing those seeds because, when they fall on good soil, they change the world around them.
So, what does that mean for us? Well, we’ve been through a lot, in the past four months, and we’re tired. OK, I’m tired. We’ve come to this new stop on our journey through Pandemicland; but outside, life may not feel so positive. Infections and hospitalizations are rising sharply, and the people suffering most are the poor, people of color, and the elderly. Many folks don’t want to take the virus seriously for fear of where doing so might lead – shutting down the economy again. We may be back to in-person worship, but – as Churchill observed about the war effort after the Allies defeated the Nazis in North Africa, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”1
Well, OK. We have to work with what we’ve got. And more to the point, for people of resurrection, we have to keep turning to God for new life because that’s where our hope lies. Even in situations that look dismal, even when patriarchs can’t have children, God keeps renewing the promise. God keeps planting the seeds. And God keeps bringing forth harvests within us and among us … if we get ourselves ready – if we prepare our soil to receive the seed God sends.
I want to highlight two ways we can do that even when things aren’t normal. The first is by taking seriously those wimpy little wafers in the paper cups. Even if it’s not homemade bread, even if there’s no wine to symbolize Christ’s love poured out for us, receiving Communion is still holding heaven in your hand. It’s the body of Christ making us the body of Christ to serve the world in his name. It’s the bread of life that satisfies hunger we can never quell otherwise. It’s the gift of eternity opened to you – God loving you enough to go through everything human life brings; and take you through it, too; and bring you to the banquet prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
And for all of us who won’t actually hold a wafer in our hand today – you’ll hold precisely the same divine love in your heart, nourishing you every bit as much. The Church calls it “spiritual Communion,” and the theology works like this: There are times when we simply can’t receive Jesus physically. Think about a patient in the hospital, someone who can’t take anything by mouth. We still bring Communion to that person. We say the same prayers, ask for the same healing, open the same gate to eternal life. The bread is there, and the wine is there – Jesus is fully present with that person regardless of whether he or she eats anything. So, if you aren’t receiving bread this morning – either
because you’re at home or because you don’t want to come forward – know you’re still receiving Jesus. And you’ll find a prayer in the bulletin you can use to invite God to bring that spiritual Communion to your heart.
Here’s another good way to prepare our soil to let the seeds of the kingdom take root. Think back for a moment to the good old days, long ago, all the way back in … January, when life was easy. We talked about RenewalWorks – the surveys you took, and the planning we did about how to go deeper spiritually and strengthen our discipleship. We said we’d be working on ways to engage with the Bible more and offer you spiritual resources from people you know and love.
Well, the pandemic got in the way, but not completely. In fact, in some ways, it helped. Our daily 8-1-8 Prayers are still going strong, a chance for you to take a few minutes in the morning, afternoon, or evening to hear God’s Word, and say your prayers, and remember how deeply you’re loved. We have classes and groups online, some continuing from the in-person days and some brand new, like our study of Acts in Eastertide and a class called Signs of Life starting in a couple of weeks. And there’s the Good Book Club, your chance to read Scripture in manageable doses, along with a succinct daily summary from yours truly. If you go to the website and look at the groups and activities for adults, youth, and families, you’ll see that several are on hold because of the pandemic. But many are going strong, including VBS, Sunday school, and youth gatherings, as well as the adult offerings I mentioned. Regardless of whether you’re ready to come back to worship in person, take the opportunity to till your own soil and go deeper in your relationship with God. Invest in your future. Play the long game, even in a time like this.
A tiny seed has power. A thin wafer has power. A few dozen people gathered to praise God, and celebrate Eucharist, and be the body of Christ together, and go out to make a difference in this marathon of a moment – we have power. It’s not a power we own. It’s not a power we earn because we’re so wonderful. Sometimes we’re Esau, unable to transcend our own desires. Sometimes we’re Jacob, unable to let the better angels of our nature guide our way. Most times, we work hard to bring our best selves to the table; but even then, we don’t always succeed. Seventy-five percent of the time, God casts seeds that bear no fruit. But the 25 percent of those seeds that do take root – they change the world. They build the kingdom. They shape this chapter of eternal life to look more and more like what we’ll see in the next one.