Gardening Faith

Passage: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Date: July 16, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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My dear friend Alison is one of the brightest and kindest and most thoughtful people you will ever know. She and her husband, Fred, are godparents to Sarah, and every day we wish they didn’t live on the other side of the country.

A few years ago we spent our vacation with them in New England, and I noticed Alison was wearing a Fitbit, the little bracelet thing that measures your steps for the day. We were walking to their mailbox at the end of the driveway before setting off for the day, and she gave a little squeal of excitement. I looked at her funny, and she told me her Fitbit went off because she had attained her goal of steps for the day. I look at her funny again, and she told me she set her daily goal at 500 steps a day so she would have a sense of accomplishment every day. It gives her a small joy every time that Fitbit buzzes to announce she met her goal. Any steps after that are bonus.

Most of us take the advice that we should take 10,000 steps a day. If you wear a Fitbit or use your I-phone step tracker or go the old-fashioned route of a pedometer, you may not always have that sense of accomplishment in taking 10,000 steps – there is still the joy of accomplishment, but it takes a little longer to get there. And all of this has got me thinking about the parable.

As with the parables of Jesus, there are at least nine sermons in this story and at one point this week I considered doing three mini-sermons, but reason took over. So I’d like to spend a little time with you this morning thinking about joy and abundance and what we do to make those things happen and what God does to make those things happen.

Jesus tells this parable about a sower who is a bit careless throwing the seeds, but nonetheless, when a seed reaches the good soil, the yield of grain is extraordinary – thirty-, sixty-, and a hundred-fold! Normal yield would be between three- and ten-fold. One of the things this parable teaches is about abundant joy that gives life.

I will never forget a video I saw once. In a square in the city of Sabadell, near Barcelona, a man in a tuxedo steps out in the middle of the pavement, puts his hat on the ground, and begins to play the opening lines of the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony. A few people walk by and smile, toss coins in his hat. Then he is joined by a man with a cello. Then people playing violas and violins join in, and a guy in a striped polo shirt starts conducting them. Soon the brass shows up – French horn and trumpets and trombones, and a guy with mallets goes to kettle drums that have appeared as if out of nowhere, and flutes and clarinets, and then, right after those three little pauses, an entire chorus of what we thought were bystanders breaks out into the Ode to Joy. (

I think about what it must have been like to be a tourist in that square that day, how you thought you might be getting a cup of coffee and a pastry and you end up with Beethoven’s Ninth. What an abundance of joy and surprise – a hundredfold yield.

Perhaps you heard the story this week that started off quite badly. On a beach in Florida, a woman heard her two sons screaming for help as they were playing in the ocean. They had gotten caught in a riptide. She and three other adults from her family sprang into action to save the boys, but only got themselves swept up in the current. “I honestly thought I was going to lose my family that day,” the woman said. “It was like, ‘Oh, God, this is how I’m going.’”

A different woman on the beach didn’t realize what the commotion around the beach was. She thought it may have been some marine life before finding out it was an emergency. Without a lifeguard on duty, she and her husband decided they were going to help.

“These people are not drowning today,” she said. “It’s not happening. We’re going to get them out.” For 20 minutes, the first woman and the rest of her family were fighting for their lives. Meanwhile, beachgoers began to form a human chain, which got longer and longer as the first couple swam out.

Dozens of strangers worked together to rescue eight swimmers who were in distress on a beach in northwest Florida. The brigade eventually reached about 80 beachgoers who locked arms. They grabbed the children first, who were passed down the chain back to shore. One by one, each of the swimmers who was caught in the tide was back safely on shore, thanks to that chain. (

They thought they were going to die, and instead, because of courage and quick wits and a community of strangers coming together, everyone lived. Another huge yield.

I think about those experiences of surprising abundance in my own life – how at the age of 37 I thought I would never get married or be a parent. How in January of 2011 Gregg and I were resigned to spending the next ten years in Wisconsin, living out our Plan B. How I thought that hip pain and a limp would be my companions for the rest of my life. And yet – because of a friend who worked very hard to get us together, and because of a Pastor Nominating Committee that gave a chance to a clergy couple, and because of eventually finding the right doctor – well, here I am, with Gregg and Sarah and without pain, with you.

I know that the world and life can throw us some awful curveballs. If we counted all the pain we in this room have known the weight would be unbearable. And then I think about a Syrian living their life twenty years ago, and where they might be today. I think about those girls going to school in Nigeria, and where they might be today. I think about the guy I passed by in front of Peet’s last week – he had no teeth, and was filthy, and had wild blue eyes and grinned at me in such a way my heart just stopped. Sometimes there is no Beethoven’s Ninth or a human chain of lifesavers. Sometimes there is just ominous, empty silence. It’s terrifying to be that alone and vulnerable.

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who served as the Chief Rabbi in the United Kingdom, gave a recent TED talk in which he talked about facing the future without fear. He said, in part, “So is there something we can do, each of us, to be able to face the future without fear? I think there is. And one [thing] … is to ask: What do people worship? People have worshipped so many different things -- the sun, the stars, the storm. Some people worship many gods, some one, some none….

“What do we worship? I think future anthropologists will take a look at the books we read on self-help, self-realization, self-esteem. They’ll look at the way we talk about morality as being true to oneself, the way we talk about politics as a matter of individual rights, and they’ll look at this wonderful new religious ritual we have created… [c]alled the ‘selfie.’ And I think they’ll conclude that what we worship in our time is the self, the me, the I.”

Rabbi Sacks continues. “But don’t forget that biologically, we’re social animals. We’ve spent most of our evolutionary history in small groups. We need those face-to-face interactions where we learn the choreography of altruism and where we create those spiritual goods like friendship and trust and loyalty and love that redeem our solitude. When we have too much of the ‘I’ and too little of the ‘we,’ we can find ourselves vulnerable, fearful and alone.”

Near the end of his talk he says, “Do you know something? My favorite phrase in all of politics, very American phrase, is: ‘We the people.’ Why ‘we the people?’ Because it says that we all share collective responsibility for our collective future. And that’s how things really are and should be.”

The orchestra in that square outside Barcelona and those eighty people rescuing the people caught in the riptide took a collective responsibility for others. I think there is great hope in that.

I have not forgotten about the sower and the abundant yield and the joy.

A farmer would never plant a single seed – a farmer plants many. Those seeds do not grow on their own. They must be sown. They need dirt and water and sun and some tending. The yield of one stalk of grain does no one any good. Many seeds, nurtured and harvested, produce an abundant yield.

Likewise, we do not experience joy of our own making. I think the primary author and giver of joy is God, who created us to love and enjoy the creation. But we also need other people. We need people who are like thorny ground to us so that we are prepared for opposition and debate. We need people who shower us with the water of grace so that we can move on from the past and thrive. We need people who put some heat on us so that we have to face what is important to us and so that we get up and do something.

You and I cannot always manufacture joy in abundance, but we can live in such a way that the ground is fertile for joy to flourish. I’d like to give Rabbi Sacks the last word for today.

“So here is my simple suggestion. It might just change your life, and it might just help to begin to change the world. Do a ‘search and replace operation’ on the text of your mind, and wherever you encounter the word ‘self,’ substitute the word ‘other.’ So instead of self-help, other-help; instead of self-esteem, other-esteem. And if you do that, you will begin to feel the power of what for me is one of the most moving sentences in all of religious literature. ‘Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.’” (

May we face the future not with fear, but with abundant joy, and with each other. Amen.