Monday, July 17, 2017

The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost [Proper 10A/Lectionary 15A] - July 16, 2017 (Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23)

As many of you may know, our family just returned from a week of vacation down in South Carolina and while we were down there I took my daughters to the OD Pavilion, a very ramshackle, old school amusement park in North Myrtle Beach. Our youth group has gone there a few times for a night of fun while they’ve been on service trips in that area, and I have memories from my own early childhood of the OD Pavilion and its larger counterpart down in Myrtle Beach, which closed several years ago. It’s very much a place time has kind of forgotten or skipped over by choice. It consists of about a city block of some very basic county fair-grade rides like a ferris wheel, a carousel, Tilt-a-Whirl…But what makes the OD Pavilion famous, of course, is that it is the birthplace of the Shag, a laid-back version of the swing popular in the southeast. The dancefloor, open to the air, backs right up to the dunes, but adjacent to the dance area under the same roof is a very rudimentary arcade, and this is really what I wanted them to see. In an age of high-tech, personalized video games, arcades like that are hard to find. You purchase tokens out of a machine—four to a dollar—and those become your currency at the SkeeBall tables and the dozen or so other games of chance and borderline skill they have in there.

I gave my daughters each one dollar worth of tokens and told them they could choose how to use them. They treasured them as they held them in their hands, but I could also tell they knew those tokens held great, new power. I was initially hoping to see some SkeeBall action but instead they settled on those machines where you insert a token down a track which leads to a flat, rotating disc where an arm slowly sweeps it to the edge. If enough tokens get swept to the edge they start to accumulate there and hang on precipitously until one more—who knows which one?—nudges all of them over. And they’re all yours. There’s also a bonus hole in the flat level—a small opening about the circumference of a token—and if your token goes down that, which is highly unlikely, you win big.

I’ve always thought those machines were the number one way to throw away your token because I’ve never seen those coins get pushed over the side, but I had told my girls it was their choice, so I had to submit. Right as Laura was about to stick her token in the slot, this young boy appeared out of nowhere and inserted himself between us. He was wearing a neon green shirt and he said, “I know the secret to that machine. I know how to put the token in so it will get the bonus.” His presence kind of caught us off guard, but then he got quiet for a second, staring at the machine, then suddenly he nudged Laura and said, OK, drop it…now! And she did, and we watched that token go down the track, plop out onto the rotating disc in front of the arm, and then begin to get pushed by that arm…and doggone it if Laura’s first little token on her first night at the OD Pavilion didn’t drop right into the Bonus hole! 40 tickets shot out of the machine.

In awe, I asked him his name and he said, “Kendall. And I know the secret to the other machines too.” We bent down to tear off our tickets and when we turned back around, Kendall was gone, as if he had come out of the salty air and disappeared right back into it.

Kendall knew the secret to getting a good return with that one token. He knew just how to aim it and time it. If he can apply that wisdom and diligence to other things, along with his generosity, he’ll go far. And yet if Jesus were in the OD Pavilion arcade and had appeared out of the salt air he might explain how to play the game God’s way. That is, you don’t wait for the perfect time or figure out the right “trick.” Rather, you just keep plunking in token after token—

over and over again, back and forth from the change machine with more tokens, night after North Myrtle Beach night, without any kind of skill or care about where they might land on that disc with the rotating arm.          It’s not exactly the example I’d like to leave with my daughters, especially when I’m the one buying the tokens. Too wasteful, too careless.

That’s probably exactly what other farmers would have thought as Jesus told this parable about the sower. Seeds are valuable. They are to be treasured and protected and only used wisely and judiciously. A wise farmer, one with lots of experience, probably named Kendall, would figure out exactly when and where to concentrate his seeds so that he’d get the best result. But when it comes to the fruit and harvest of his kingdom and all its righteousness, Jesus explains that God is not going to go about it like that. God is going to model grace when he spreads his word. God is going to demonstrate lavish love when he pours forth his kingdom. In other words, Jesus means to say God’s doesn’t look at the world and think, these people over here are ready to hear about my goodness and these people over here aren’t. As he goes out to establish his kingdom, God’s not going to consider the hearts of different people and decide whether or not they’re worthy of it. He’s going to blanket the earth. The whole world is his planting ground, and each and every person that God has made will receive in some way, over and over again, whether or not they realize it, the token of his love in Jesus Christ.

As important as that message is to hear, Jesus is also trying to explain to his new disciples that ministry in this God’s name is going to involve the same kind of grace. Since God himself is lavish with his word, letting it fall wherever it may, even among the people who don’t show receptiveness to it, we should be, too. I believe Jesus told this parable in part as a way to prevent some frustration among the disciples as they went about their ministry. He knew that oftentimes they were going to bust their rear ends to share God’s love, to make the world look more like how God wants it to look, and they’d feel like nothing was happening.

Jesus knows that we are prone to make just about everything about us, and that applies to our mission as well. It is so tempting to do God’s work because we want to get a feeling of reward out of it, a feeling of satisfaction a feeling that we have the power to “make a difference in the world.” That feeling is so seductive, but it runs the danger of making us cling to our token of faith a bit too much, to count it as valuable only as long it’s in our hearts. That is to say, we forget that this message isn’t about us. It’s about God’s kingdom, sharing it freely, and letting that kingdom spring up wherever it may. After all, who knows where the good soil may be? From the cross Jesus may know, but he dies anyway, letting his forgiveness and mercy grow for all and in all.

Jesus’ parable is a good one to hear on the Sunday before over 100 young children will enter our doors for Vacation Bible School. Our songs this week may be the catchiest ones ever. The games we play may go better than they ever have. The system our volunteers have spent months setting up may flow better than ever and people may feel a part of something special, that, like Kendall, we’ve figured out the exact way to pull this off. But all of that will be secondary to the spreading of the Word that happens. Some will fall on rocky soil this week. And there will be some thorny patches. But there will be some bonus holes in there, some good, rich soil waiting to experience God’s love. And that will be the reward. And here’s the thing: you may never know it. You may never see that precious yield.

I was reminded of this aspect of the ministry of God’s Word last month when I met Mona. Mona was one of the Bible study leaders Melinda I and were paired with up at Lutheridge. We shared ideas and bonded over funny and cool things we were experiencing with our campers.  On the last day, after we had spent a week sharing meals together, Mona explained that she had lived in Richmond for a brief spell. As it turns out, it was actually a turnaround time when she went through a brief period of homelessness, although they were never actually out on the street. Mona and her children were served through the lunch feeding program that several downtown Richmond churches hosted. (These were the days before CARITAS and Family Promise). They briefly found shelter at the Capitol Hotel before a few members from an area Lutheran church stepped in and helped pay rent on an apartment in order to get them out of the vulnerable situation they were in.

Mona now serves as the director of a women’s shelter in South Carolina where women who are escaping abusive relationships and other personal hardships can come and turn their lives around. She is flourishing and pouring God’s love out on so many more people, leaving a trail of promise and hope wherever she goes. She graciously and willingly gave me permission to share her story with you knowing you are a congregation engaged in all kinds of gospel ministry, trying in your service and evangelism to toss tokens everywhere, working in the community and sharing God’s love, as thankless as it sometimes feels. She said it was the grace of people in that congregation going out of their way that allowed her family to eventually be engaged in the ministry she is now in, people of God who sowed some seed not knowing how it might go.

Or, as Jesus himself says it, ‘Other seeds fell on good soil and it brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’”

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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