Still Strong

Luke 8:4-8, 11-15    

Last week I began my sermon with a story that I said I would be preaching on throughout January, and so for those who did not hear it last week, here it is again:

On December 28th, my sister’s five year old granddaughter, Leona climbed into my sister’s bed and declared, “In three more days, it will be a new year.”

My sister Wendy nodded, “That’s right. In three days it will be 2019.”

Leona contemplated this fact for a moment and then declared, “It will be a new year but I am still five and I’m still brave and strong and kind and a little bit silly.”

I heard in Leona’s statement a description of the Christian life — those who follow Christ will find that they are able to be brave, strong, kind, and a little bit silly because of him — and last week I began where Leona began, talking about the paralyzing effects of fear and how Christ gives us the courage to be brave, to move forward even when our hearts quake. Today, I will be talking about her second characteristic, which is strength — in Christ, we are strong.

The scripture reading is from Luke and is the familiar parable of the sower and the seed. 

When a great crowd gathered and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell on the path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on the rock; and as it grew up, it withered for lack of moisture. Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. Some fell into good soil, and when it grew, it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”…

“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear; but as they go on their way, they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.

Last Sunday was the official end of the Christmas season and after church, several of our church elves packed away the creche and the decorations and then in what always feels like the lowering of the flag, John Buckwalter fetched a ten foot pole, hooked the wreath that hangs on the organ pipes, and took it down, his parting gift before he left for five months in Ethiopia. Within a day or two, my house also will finally be stripped of its Christmas finery: I will take down the tree from my living room and prop it near the bird feeder outside for the chickadees’ comfort, I will wrap Mary and Joseph and their new born babe in old dish towels and cradle them in the bin with the sheep and donkey, and I will remove the sleigh bells from the front doorknob to Cody’s disappointment who has been using them as his personal door bell to tell me when he wants to go out. Yes, everything will be back to its drab wintry dress except for one spot of color that I purposely leave up for weeks on end; this year, in fact, I will leave it until nearly spring. For seven more weeks, a small tree at the end of my driveway will continue to twinkle its lights in the darkness because they are not Christmas lights any more; they are now Epiphany lights and I will not turn them off until March 6th, Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent.

As many of you know, I have been following this tradition of leaving my tree lights on throughout Epiphany since my oldest son John was a child and the end of Christmas simply meant that the flurry of school activities began once again. It was then that I felt the need to mark time by a different calendar, a spiritual calendar. In today’s world, we have lots of choices about the way that we mark off our days: some people ground their year in the changing seasons of the marketplace, scheduling events around Black Friday, Presidents Day sales, and spring clearance. Many of you, of course, follow an academic calendar, thinking in terms of fall semester, spring semester, exams, and the High Holy day of graduation.  For the political creatures among us, the countdown has already begun – only 661 days until the next Presidential election.  And many of us move through the year marking time by the changing of the sports’ seasons. But none of these other seasons can reach deep into our souls to give us the strength we need to face the living of our days. I know, for example, that no matter how much the opening of spring training delights me with the promise of summer days and the crack of a bat, the baseball season cannot protect my spirit from the battering of a world too full of cruelty and sadness; for that I need the words of Christ saying, “Come to me and I shall give you rest.” And when we receive an email asking us to pray for a beloved church member who is in the hospital, we don’t turn to the sign announcing the Spring Clearance Sale at J Crew to ease our burden but to the promise that Christ’s light will shine in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.  And when we read of oppression and bigotry and we wonder if we have the energy to continue to do battle against injustice, it isn’t the academic calendar that steels our hearts and strengthens our spirits for the work but Jesus’ declaration that, “Those planted in good soil, are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.”    

The season of Epiphany carries us through the bleak midwinter reminding us that the light that came into the world at Christmas didn’t go out on January 7th but burns on and cannot be overcome. A weaker love than Christ’s would give up at the smallest sign of difficulty but Christ’s love for us is strong, persistent, and stubborn, and will not be overcome. Even if it means that he has to carry a cross to Golgotha for us, and to suffer and die for us so that we will believe that not even death itself can kill his love for us, he will do it on our behalf. In the words of Paul, whose own worst self could not prevent Christ from believing in him, “….Neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

This is the strength we discover in Christ and proclaim throughout the long dark months of Epiphany, and when we wrap ourselves in his grace, he promises we too can demonstrate such strength of love. We become that good soil, the ones who, having heard this word, “hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.”

A Methodist minister, James Harnish, tells of a seminary professor he had who asked each new group of seminary students, “What made you feel that God was calling you into the ministry?”  

Harnish writes, “And sometimes some poor unsuspecting soul will say, ‘Well, I like working with people.’  The professor [would look] the student right in the eye and say, ‘You haven’t met many of the people you’re going to be working with, have you?”

This seminary professor knew that a weak and idealistic love for others would not sustain those students through the rough roads ahead; it they were truly to accomplish the ministry to which Christ had called them, they would need the strong love of Christ, a love of stubborn persistence that endures in spite of the foibles of the congregations they would be serving. And this is not just true of those in ministry but it is true for all of us, no matter where we work or who we are trying to help. Maybe you went into teaching because you felt called to mold student’s minds and you discovered that many students don’t want their minds to be molded. The weak teachers quickly give in to their cynicism and simply go through the motions but the strong will persevere: they will try new strategies and reach out again and again, renewing their hope every semester that maybe something they do will have lasting significance for those they teach. Or closer to home, how many parents enraptured by the birth of a baby suffer despair when plunged into the day-to-day challenge of raising that child to adulthood?  A weak love will easily dissipate leaving the child to grow up on the shifting sands of a parental love that comes and goes depending on how hard it is to love at that moment, but a strong love endures through the challenges and thus bears fruit. Our society throws that word “love” around easily enough but love that really makes a difference is not an easy thing; it has to be stubborn, persistent, enduring, and unending. Like the light of Epiphany, it will continue to shine through the dark bleak days of winter and refused to be quenched by the cold. It is only this strongest of loves, the love we know in the Christ we follow, that is a love that can bring real change to our world.

Group magazine, a magazine for church youth leaders, ran an article once about a suburban church that decided to start a mentoring program, matching adult volunteers with kids in the youth group. Jim, a long-time church member, decided that he would volunteer, and he was assigned to Alex, a 15 year old who, it turned out, was not at all an easy kid to deal with. Alex had frequently been in trouble at school and had what adults called, “an attitude problem.” Jim was anxious about the assignment, and he quickly discovered that his anxiety was justified. For the first few months, every time he went to Alex’s home to drive him to a church event, Alex wasn’t there in spite of having promised to come. This happened seven times in a row. On his eighth trip, Jim went to the house as usual, rang the doorbell several times, but, as had happened previously, no one answered. In frustration, he marched back to his car vowing to himself that he would never return but just as he was about to drive away, a head leaned out the bedroom window and called, “Wait!”

It was Alex. The boy raced out to the car and jumped in without a word of explanation and Jim didn’t ask for one. He simply greeted the boy warmly, drove him to the event, and took him home afterward. From then on, Alex was always there when expected and Jim became a father figure to Alex continuing to keep in touch for years afterward. It was in those later years that Alex confessed to Jim that he had actually been home on those first seven visits and had been watching out his window but he was testing Jim’s commitment. He wanted to find out if Jim really believed in him so much that he was willing to go farther than anyone ever had.

In Christ, we discover a love that will go farther than anyone ever has for us, all the way to the cross and beyond for us, and Christ calls us to trust in the power of that love and to remake our own lives into vehicles of strength for others, stubbornly persisting in compassion, pestering the world with our continued demands for peace and justice, enduring when everyone else has given up, and going farther for others than anyone ever has. May we be the good soil, the good and honest hearts in whom Christ’s word is planted where we hold it fast in patient endurance so that it may bear fruit.

In Christ, we are strong.

Still Brave
Still Kind