I do not know how familiar you are with hashtags, Twitter, and secret decoder rings, but as we pause to listen to the Word today, glance about. In the news, across social media, at family reunions, we hear stories of fear. Anxiety. What is real? What is false? Divided opinions rift across the country. Immigration. Healthcare. Gun violence. And Jesus tells us that it is in this soil that God is planting. Sowing seeds of hope in the midst of despair. A Divine scattering of great love to overgrow the ravages of fear.
But we – you, I, us - also need to listen. To see. To understand. And to respond.
This is where the parable of the sower, the seeds, and the soil comes in. THIS is God’s secret decoder ring. Did any of you ever have a secret decoder ring as a child? I popped onto YouTube this week, a website on which over 5 billion videos are watched each day (https://fortunelords.com/youtube-statistics/), and searched for results to the phrase “secret decoder ring.” There it was. A scratchy, gray video from the 1950s. Caption Midnight and the Secret Squadron. Some of you might remember the 1983 movie A Christmas Story and Ralphie’s encounter with the secret decoder badge. Theologian Ted Jennings points to the parable of the sower as Jesus’ secret decoder message. Jennings says that it is THIS parable that we need to understand “(to unlock) the key to all other parables” (online lecture, Introduction to the Gospels, Fall 2013). The root of the word parable comes from the Greek word “to compare” (Merriam Webster), to put “something alongside of something else” (Karoline Lewis, Sermon Brainwave #549 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost). Today, we are called upon to listen. The Contemporary English Version of the Bible reads like this: “If you have ears, pay attention!” (Matt. 13:9, CEV).
So –listen to the story again. Hear the story told with God in the role of the sower. A God who goes out and wildly scatters seeds everywhere. This is not a God who creates neat rows in deep, rich soil and carefully places seeds in the earth to ensure the best yields. This is a God who plants with joyful abandon. Growing up in Wisconsin, my family relied on the food that we planted in the garden each spring. Carelessly spattering seeds just any old place would have been reckless. A waste of time. A waste of good seed. Yet in the parable of the sower, it is God the extravagant Planter that we hear about today. A God that creates with “wild inefficiency.” A God that takes risks. And a God – that in God’s great creative folly of tossing seeds all over the place – promises us “that the harvest will be there…” (Rolf Jacobson, Sermon Brainwave #549 – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost).
In Jesus’ story, in addition to the sower, there is the soil. The soil that takes an active role in the creation. And in the harvest. The soil itself is a character in the story. The soil is us. The seeds are us. We are the soil upon which Jesus shares the Good News that life… that life overcomes death. And love overcomes fear.
Jesus tells us that the soil in which God plants is four-fold. God takes risks in spreading the Good News, and three out of four times it doesn’t go well (Jennings, online lecture, Introduction to the Gospels, Fall 2013). And yet, there are those seeds that “get it.” Those individuals and church communities that grasp the key to the everlasting presence of God’s transformative love. THIS is the secret code. God’s kin-dom is here. God’s kin-dom is NOW. If we get THAT… if we understand… if we have ears to HEAR…
This is where I need to ask you to hold on! For if we do have ears to hear… the story flips. Because once we hold God’s Great Mystery in our very being, our lives are forever changed, and we bear fruit. We become the sower. We are created in the image of this God – A God that sows seeds of Great Hope with wild abandon here and everywhere. And now? Now, created in the image of this God, it is our turn to sow.
People of God: Hear the Good News! The time of God’s kin-dom is now. Not in the past… in some Garden of Eden. Not in some yet to be revealed future. The kin-don is TODAY. HERE. NOW. And I believe that we, in the United Church of Christ are uniquely positioned to not only hear God’s voice today, but to be God’s prophetic voice. We cannot be silent. We cannot be still. As planters, we must take risks to:
You might be wondering about this concept of a “hashtag.” Even if you are unfamiliar with hashtags, I bet you have seen them. For some of us, the symbol looks like a pound sign, or a tic-tac-toe game. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a hashtag as “a word or phrase that starts with the symbol # and that briefly indicates what a message is about” (http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/hashtag). On social media, hashtags are used as a way for people around the world to connect with and respond to current events. A hashtag is used to search out specific topics.
For example, couple of week’s ago, members of UCC churches from across the country gathered in Baltimore, Maryland, for General Synod (or “GS”). Delegates representing each of our denomination’s 38 conferences meet every two years to discuss, debate, and vote on resolutions and business of the Church. Topics this year ranged from the use of gender neutral language to issues of immigration, economic justice, disability justice, and environmental justice.
I was not able to be there in person. Yet I was able to be there digitally, following General Synod activities via FaceBook and Twitter using the hashtag “UCCGS” (short for United Church of Christ General Synod). I ask you to now hear this story. A contemporary parable about scattering seeds, and the unexpected sprouts that burst forth.
In 2015, I traveled to General Synod, which was held in Cleveland, with 10 youth from Wisconsin. There, the teenagers with whom I traveled experienced the wider Church in all of its “good, bad, and ugly.” For, in 2015 the schedule for Youth @ Synod was not integrated with the General Synod sessions. Instead, there was a separate space in the adjoining room for the youth. Breakouts sessions for the teenagers were scheduled separate from the adult activities—and the youth with whom I was traveling were frustrated with being excluded.
But listen to the Good News. In the midst of the unsettling, the Spirit was present. The youth voiced their disappointment to representatives from the Wisconsin Conference and national leadership. In response, newly elected to his role as General Minister and President of the UCC, John Dorhauer made a point to show up unexpectedly at an evening youth group gathering. He talked directly to the teens about the importance of their voices. He affirmed the role they would each play in shaping the future of the Church.
But the listening didn’t end there and then. Changes were made purposefully made for this year’s General Synod session that just ended in Baltimore. This time, youth were actively incorporated into committee meetings. They were invited to introduce resolutions up on the main platform, before thousands of people, during the large plenary sessions. The youth were given opportunities to learn and participate in “how Church works”.
And then the harvest burst forth. On Twitter. A seedling sprouted and was revealed in a tweet. One of the members of the Youth @ Synod delegation that I traveled with two years ago, who is now a college sophomore, was a delegate for the Wisconsin Conference at Synod in Baltimore. She tweeted:
“In 2015, I was a very frustrated youth at General Synod. This year I get to see youth with a rightful voice on the plenary floor. #UCCGS”
But the story doesn’t end there. For we, as Church, still have work to do. New narratives continue to emerge. This same young adult subsequently tweeted:
Elder UCCers to me: “What are the youth doing at GS today?”
Me: “I’m actually a delegate so…”
The NOW, not the future. #UCCGS
On Twitter, an older adult responded:
“Ouch. Again a reference to the youth as the ‘future of the church.” They’re delegates now! They’re the church NOW!”
People of God: How are we to sow in the 21st century?
What is the soil upon which, in our communities, we need to wildly sow the Good News?
How shall we, as Jesus followers, tell our stories of faith with passion and joy?
People of God: This day I challenge you to #sowwildly
Go forth and sow seeds of hope, where there is despair.
Go forth, scattering kernels of love, in the midst of anxiety and fear.
Go forth, leaning into and responding to the injustices all about.
People of God: