FIRST READING Isaiah 55:10-13
10“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 11so 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 shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 12For you shall go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall break forth into singing, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands. 13Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress; instead of the brier shall come up the myrtle; and it shall make a name for the Lord, an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
PSALM Psalm 65:1-13
1You are to be praised, O God, in Zion; to you shall vows be performed in Jerusalem. 2To you that hear prayer shall all flesh come, because of their transgressions. 3Our sins are stronger than we are, but you will blot them out. 4Happy are they whom you choose and draw to your courts to dwell there! they will be satisfied by the beauty of your house, by the holiness of your temple. 5Awesome things will you show us in your righteousness, O God of our salvation, O Hope of all the ends of the earth and of the seas that are far away. 6You make fast the mountains by your power; they are girded about with might. 7You still the roaring of the seas, the roaring of their waves, and the clamor of the peoples. 8Those who dwell at the ends of the earth will tremble at your marvelous signs; you make the dawn and the dusk to sing for joy. 9You visit the earth and water it abundantly; you make it very plenteous; the river of God is full of water. 10You prepare the grain, for so you provide for the earth. 11You drench the furrows and smooth out the ridges; with heavy rain you soften the ground and bless its increase. 12You crown the year with your goodness, and your paths overflow with plenty. 13May the fields of the wilderness be rich for grazing, and the hills be clothed with joy.
SECOND READING Romans 8:12-17
12So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. 15For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.
GOSPEL Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
1That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2And great crowds gathered about him, so that he got into a boat and sat down. And the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, 6but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9He who has ears, let him hear.” 18“Hear then the parable of the sower: 19When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
HOW WELL DO WE LISTEN
As is the case most weeks, the lessons from the lectionary have a common thread that runs through them. In the case of our Old Testament and Gospel lessons, that thread has to do with receptiveness. The promise given, in the Isaiah passage, is that God’s word will not return empty, it will achieve the purpose for which it was sent. This is good news for us, because this means that everything God promises will be fulfilled. As Lutherans, we refer to these types of readings as gospel. When reading the Bible as either Law or Gospel, Gospel passages give us hope, they show us God’s boundless mercy and reassure us of God’s endless grace. However, this passage can also be read as Law, as bad news, in that, God’s warnings will also come to pass if we don’t listen and obey His voice. The law shows us our sin, convicts us of our disobedience and drives us to repentance and the gospel. With such a clear distinction, all we have to do is pay attention and obey. What could possibly be easier?
Bob Woolf, in his book Friendly Persuasion, tells a hilarious story that former talk show host Larry King once shared with him. It seems that Larry was a guest on a morning show in Dallas, TX. The woman who interviewed him was the classic host who asks you a question and then looks off in another direction, not paying any attention to what you say in reply. This host had five questions written out by someone else and she checked off each question as she asked it. Larry noticed she wasn’t listening to him at all. Instead, she was looking at the camera, at the monitor–anywhere but at him. Her third question that morning was, “What do you think is the secret to being a successful talk show host?”
As Larry King started to answer, he noticed that she was again, looking at the monitor, and not paying him the slightest bit of attention. So, he decided to have a little fun at her expense. He said, “In my case, it’s the fact that I’m a CIA agent. They get me good guests and I [broadcast on my show signal words or coded messages] every night for their agents.” “Without missing a beat,” said Larry King, “she fired off her next question. ‘Can you tell us some of the outstanding guests you’ve had?’” Larry King says that her whole crew started cracking up in the studio.
According to Woolf, the inspiration for Larry’s put-on, was a classic routine by an old radio comedy team whom some of you may remember named “Bob and Ray.” This particular skit featured a character on their radio program named Wally Ballou. Wally would be on the street, saying, “This is Wally Ballou, world-famous interviewer. Here comes a gentleman. What’s your name, sir?” “My name is Jim Frizzell,” said the interviewee. “Hello, Jim,” said Wally. “Where do you live?” “Long Island,” Jim answered. “What do you do for a living?” Wally asked. Seeing that Wally was not actually listening, Jim answered, “I’m an agent for the KGB.”
“What brings you to New York?” asked Wally without acknowledging Jim’s answer. “I’m going to blow up the U.N. building,” Jim answered seriously. The oblivious Wally asks, “Have you seen [the Broadway show] My Fair Lady?” Obviously, Wally wasn’t a good listener. And this brings us to the first question for the day; how well do we listen?
If I were to ask your spouse or other family members how well you listen, what would they say? If I asked your employees or your co-workers or teachers, the same question, how would they answer? If I were to ask God, “How well does each of us listen, what would God’s answer be? I mentioned this last week: for communication to actually take place you need four things; a sender, a receiver, a message and feedback. And for communication to truly be effective, meaning needs to be assigned to the message. For meaning to be assigned, active listening needs to take place. And how do we know if the message we send is effective? We reverse the process and effectively listen ourselves.
In our gospel lesson for today, Jesus tells a very familiar parable: A sower went out to sow. Some of the seed fell by the wayside and the birds came and devoured them. Some fell on hard ground and withered because the young plants could not put down deep roots. Some fell among thorns and the weeds grew up and choked them. But some of the seed fell on good ground and they brought forth fruit–in some cases a hundred-fold. The first thing I think we all can agree on, is the fact that Jesus wasn’t interested in teaching them, or us, about agriculture. He’s talking about everyone who is exposed to His teachings–those who hear the (W)word of God.
Jesus, who knows the heart of everyone, knows that some of those who hear the word will leave having heard nothing. In other words, no communication has taken place. Our parents would say, “it went in one ear and out the other.” Others, after hearing the message, will make a half-hearted commitment and then fall away. Something about the message will initially peak their interest, however, not enough of what was said, will make a lasting impression and the message will soon be lost. You could say that true meaning wasn’t assigned to the message. A few will receive the message, will assign meaning, but when the distractions of the world get mingled in, they will waver, and then wither. The last group, to receive the message, will assign meaning and allow it to penetrate their lives and experience the joy, the new meaning and purpose that walking in His footsteps can give. With the understanding of how important God’s word is to our lives, another question we then need to ask is, why don’t more people pay attention, assign meaning to God’s message and then allow Jesus’ words to penetrate their lives?
The truthfulness of the Gospel message is so vitally important, to those of us who have trusted our lives to him. The destructiveness of less worthy styles of living, is also so evident. So why won’t people listen to what Christ says? Why don’t more people live according to His laws and statutes? Of course, it’s easy for us to talk about the disinterest of the outside world, but an even more pressing question today is, why do those of us who are supposedly committed to Christ not listen as well? Why are we, not more ardent, more adventurous, more assertive in our commitment to God? Why do we hold back? Why does the seed of the Gospel sometimes fall on infertile soil even within the walls of the church? And so, I’m asking you as I ask myself: How well do we listen? How well do we listen to others, particularly those closest to us, and how well do we listen to God?
Statistics show that most people simply don’t really listen very well, even in the best of circumstances. Even worse, we don’t remember much of what we do hear . . . even if we do listen. For example, if I were to ask, how much do you remember from last week’s sermon, how much could you tell me? Now to be fair, and in your defense, it was Carter’s first week with us, so that was a very welcomed distraction. And truth be told, unless I review my sermon and notes, I don’t remember as much as I should and I preached it! That’s why humor and stories are so effective.
Studies show that people remember stories, I’m sure that’s one reason Jesus used so many parables. People remember parables . . . which, of course, are a particular kind of story. Note this: The scriptures say that Jesus had much more to say than what is recorded in the Gospels (John 21:25). That’s understandable. Jesus, as far as we know, never wrote anything down–except when He wrote in the dirt as He counseled the woman caught in adultery. Jesus, as far as we know, handed out no lesson plans. He simple spoke and He expected His listeners to remember what He said. This is one reason why the writers of the Gospel included so many of Jesus’ parables, they could easily remember them from His teachings. Stories stick with us. The problem is, listening is difficult business. The problem could be the listener or, it could be simply the nature of the situation.
In Texas, they tell the humorous story of an immigrant from the Middle East named Ahmed who managed a repair service. One day a man called the repair service and asked to speak to the manager, Ahmed. “Hello, Ed speaking, how can I help you?” “Sorry,” said the said the man on the other end. “I was calling for Ahmed.” “This is Ahmed,” came the reply. “How can I help you?” “I thought you just said your name was Ed?” asked the potential client. “I did,” said Ed with a genuine Texas accent. “However, whenever I answer the phone and say ‘Ahmed,’ people think I’m saying, ‘Ah’m Ed.’ So, I figured it’s just easier to be Ed.” Communication is a difficult business. Effective listening is even more difficult. And this is something we need to take notice of this morning.
Jesus’ emphasis in this parable isn’t on the sower or the seed, His focus is on the soil. Is the condition of the soil receptive to the seed? God is the sower, the Gospel is the seed, and the soil is our hearts. The most eloquent preacher or teacher in the world cannot reach a heart that’s hardened to the Gospel, or the life, that is choked with the weeds of worldly concern.
Rodney Cooper tells about a woman who was frantic when she discovered her daughter was missing in the Rocky Mountains. This woman went thrashing through the woods, frantically screaming her daughter’s name. After a short while with no success, the distraught mother went back to the campsite and called for help. Within half an hour, a search team had been organized. The team began sweeping the area, calling the little girl’s name out at regular intervals. Exhausted from searching, the woman sat down on a rock for a moment to rest. How would she ever find her little girl? She was listening for her daughter’s voice, but all she could hear was the volunteer search team pounding through the woods, calling to her daughter and to one another.
Suddenly, she realized that she and the other searchers were making so much noise that they couldn’t hear the girl if she was yelling or crying. She relayed this information to the others and in moments everyone was silent, standing quietly. The woman then simply stopped and listened. Nothing. She listened harder. With every pore of her body, every fiber, with every muscle she strained to hear the one voice she would recognize above all others. Then she heard her little girl calling for her. By carefully listening and following the sound of her voice, the woman was reunited with her daughter.
Sometimes we need to simply get to a quiet place and listen. Of course, that’s a major part of what prayer is all about–listening. We need to separate ourselves from the distractions of this world and spend time in God’s presence. Someone has called this a centering prayer. Author, sociologist and pastor Tony Campolo practices centering prayer. He says it’s hard to describe just what happens in this time spent exclusively in God’s presence.
He cites Mother Teresa who once explained to an interviewer that when she prayed, she often said nothing to God. She just listened. When asked what God said to her as she prayed, she answered, “Nothing! God Listens!” Then she added, “If you don’t understand what I am talking about, I can’t explain it to you.” Pastor Campolo says he knows what she was talking about. The Psalmist described it poetically by saying, “it is the deep speaking to the deep” (Psalm 42:7.) In another place, the Bible says that such prayers are “groanings that cannot be uttered” (Romans 8:26.)
Tony says that when he rises after engaging in this centering kind of prayer, he senses a fullness in his soul. And with that fullness comes an awareness that God is a living and guiding presence within him. He feels like he will be led into encounters with others in which he will have opportunities to share something of what God has given him. One rather dramatic example of this took place one day, as he stood on a street corner on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, where he once taught.
As Campolo was waiting for the traffic light to change, he heard the Duck Lady come up behind him. They called this homeless woman the Duck Lady, because she made an incessant quacking sound wherever she went. She seemed to be omnipresent on campus, so it was no surprise when he heard her. “Quack! Quack! Quack!” There she was, standing beside him. Then, he says, he sensed the Holy Spirit at work. He turned to her, and she turned to him. Their eyes met and they connected. He didn’t just look at her, he focused on her. It was as if he looked into her. Somehow, he felt empowered to reach down into the depths of her being, and he had an eerie sensation that he had touched her soul. What surprised him even more was that she was doing the same thing to him. Suddenly, she stopped her quacking. He says he had never heard of her doing that–but in that moment, she stopped quacking. Then she lifted her eyes and looked around at the sky and the trees and the people nearby, and she said, “It’s wonderful, really is wonderful, isn’t it? It’s really wonderful!”
Before he could answer, the traffic light changed, several people rushed by them. As one of them brushed the Duck Lady, he watched her head jerk ever so slightly. The distractions of the world took over and choked off the working of the Holy Spirit. As she wandered across the street and disappeared into a crowd, he once again heard the quacking sound. Campolo says that he understands the Duck Lady needs the help of a psychotherapist or a psychiatrist.
But, he writes, when the psychotherapists and psychiatrists have done all that they can to no avail, he believes that there is still “a balm in Gilead” that can heal the troubled soul. That balm becomes available to him when, in prayer, the Holy Spirit saturates his soul. He writes, “In centering prayer, something happens to me that is strange and blessed. I feel the Spirit expanding within me ‘like a fountain of living water,’ as Jesus said, and I begin to experience a transforming presence and a sense of empowerment from God.”
For us to experience what Mother Teresa experienced in prayer, it takes a real commitment to set aside the time to truly listen to God. Kind of ironic, isn’t it? We can resolve to spend an hour each day exercising our bodies at the gym, or going for a brisk walk, but we won’t spend half that time each day getting our soul in condition spending time in God’s presence.
Jesus told a parable: A sower went out to sow. Some of the seed fell by the wayside and the birds devoured it. Some fell on hard ground and withered because the young plants could not put down deep roots. Some fell among weeds and the thorns grew up and choked them. But some of the seed fell on good ground and they brought forth fruit–in some cases a hundred-fold. The seed falling on good soil, he later explained “refers to someone who hears the word and assigns lasting meaning to it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown.” Which of the four examples of ground are we? Are we receptive? The answer to this question depends on how we answer another question; when praying, do we take the time to actively listen to God?