Sunday, July 10, 2011

Becoming Dirt

Sunday, July 10, 2011
Sermon by Katie Mulligan

Scripture Readings:
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


It occurred to me this week, when I looked at the lectionary, that it has been exactly 3 years since I first preached here at this tiny church. I remember it well, and perhaps you will indulge me in telling the story again of how I came to be at this little church.

I received an email some time in early June of 2008 from Carol Belles at the seminary. She was in the habit of emailing several of us students when an opportunity for pulpit supply came along through her office. The email said that a church in Mt. Laurel was looking for someone to preach for 8 weeks over the summer as the church was in the process of looking for a new pastor. I was intrigued by the thought of such a thing, and then I set it aside. I hardly felt qualified, even if I was two years through my seminary program. And besides, it was summer. And besides I had the children. And besides, well, etc etc etc. You know how it is, and I set aside the email with the half intention to respond to it.

I went to church that Sunday, and perhaps the Sunday after, and then one of those mornings, as I sat in worship, my mind wandered (as it is wont to do). I wasn’t so much listening to the sermon as meditating on my presence in that church, and suddenly the thought came to me, “What are you doing sitting here? I told you to apply for that job.”

Now for all my practical ways, there is a fanciful side to my brain—the side that suspects strongly that leprechauns do actually exist. As I told friends of mine the other day, just because you don’t believe in leprechauns doesn’t mean they won’t try to drown you in a bucket, the sneaky little things. And so there is a part of me that takes very seriously the thoughts that seem to come from other than my own. The epiphanies and half remembered dreams. The thoughts that come to a person just as they lay their head down to sleep or in that hazy moment of awakening at 4am. The sudden insights that run you over like a mack truck when you’ve been driving for hours. In the meditative boredom of our daily living there come to us moments when we know exactly what to do next, even if we do not know why we would do it.

It’s silly, perhaps, to put so much emphasis on a call to preach at this little church for 8 weeks, but that moment in worship was a very real push, shoving me out of the nest like a baby bird to go do something I didn’t really feel ready for. I could scarcely wait for worship to end—such was my anxiety. And suddenly it felt like I had waited too long—as if surely someone else must have already filled this pulpit. I gathered my children from Sunday school and we dashed home. I pulled together my resume with a long list of jobs that surely this church didn’t care much about. I added a sample sermon about a young gay man who had been murdered in California (his name was Larry King), and I emailed Iain here at the church with what I am sure was a proper and enthusiastic cover letter explaining why you should hire me.

A week later or so I heard back that there were two of us in consideration, and would I come to preach this second Sunday in July? I was delighted to do so, and you know the rest. And of course my first Sunday was filled with as many challenges as we often have at New Covenant: the sound system broke down, the piano broke, my children were unruly during the reading of the scripture. All in all it was an awkward affair for me, prying my youngest literally out from under my skirt, and feeling certain I had blown this audition.

And yet you all gathered in the hallway as I scooped my children out the door, and before I could drive away Iain had hollered a job offer across the parking lot. “Session met!” he yelled. “Could you start next week?” And so I did that—I preached for 8 weeks to the end of summer. And then I said, “Thank you, it has been wonderful. Have you found someone to begin next week?” Iain looked at me in horror and said, “You’re coming back next week, right?” So I did. This began six more months of a delightfully peculiar relationship between me and this church. Every week I brought a sermon and you brought a check for $155. At the end of each service I said, “Do you need me next week?” And someone on session would answer, “Yes!” And so I came back.

We formalized our relationship late in the spring of 2009, and I was ordained to this position that fall: Part-time temporary supply pastor. A pastoral relationship doesn’t get much more tenuous than this: part-time (as in I must do other things to support my family); temporary (as in not permanent, not planned to be here forever or anything resembling longevity); supply (as in not installed, not a voting member of session, not contracted with the congregation but with the session). And yet, nevertheless, pastor. We have worked out our way of being together over the last three years, and I will say, looking back, that our identity has continued in the way it started. We are connected, but lightly. We have never been sure how long I can stay. And we have never been too sure what my function here is as a pastor, nor what the church’s role is here as a congregation. It has been a complicated joy.

The reason I was reminded of this anniversary was two-fold. One is that we are without Joe (our pianist) this morning and so will be singing our hymns acapella. He is a regular fixture in this church—I can count on one hand the number of times in three years that he has missed church, even for vacation, on one hand. Church feels empty without him here. The other reason I was reminded of this anniversary is the scripture itself—this passage of Rebekah’s pregnancy, with the twins fighting in her womb. I looked back at my sermon from that day, and with your indulgence, I will share a bit of what I preached:

Jacob and Esau were the grandsons of Abraham and Sarah. They were the only children of Isaac and Rebekah, and they were born late in Isaac’s life, when Isaac was sixty years old. For twenty years Rebekah had been barren, unable to conceive children. Isaac prayed to the Lord, and God answered their prayers for a child. In God’s usual way, the prayer was answered mischievously, with a pair of twins. From the very beginning, even in the womb, Jacob and Esau fought with one another. They were so rowdy in their mother’s womb that Rebekah sought advice from the Lord. Foreshadowing the pain and struggles to come for their little family, Rebekah asked the Lord, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” Siblings who fight can cause unimaginable grief in a household, and these two were already going at it before they were even born. The Lord’s answer can hardly have been all that reassuring. Two nations at war in her womb, the elder shall serve the younger, a recipe for disaster in a world where peace in a household was maintained by birth order.

Esau was born and he was red and hairy at birth. Jacob was born shortly after—so quickly in fact that he was holding on to his brother’s heel as he was being born. The name Jacob means “to take by the heel” or “to supplant,” and so their lifelong relationship was defined at birth by their names. Esau was strong and older, Jacob was younger and crafty.

Isaac loved Esau best because Esau loved to hunt and spend time in the fields, things that were important to Isaac. Rebekah loved Jacob best as he spent his time quietly among the tents of the household. The situation was a ticking time bomb waiting to go off. No matter how much affection there might actually have been between the family members, the competition between Esau and Jacob was too strong for there to be a lasting peace, especially with each parent playing favorites.

So one afternoon, after Esau had been working hard in the fields, he came in to the house and smelled the lentil soup his brother had made. And he said, “Give me some of that, I am starving!” And Jacob said, “Sure, but you have to give me your inheritance.” I can imagine that it might have started playfully between the two brothers, but Jacob made Esau swear, which made the transaction permanent and very serious. A few years later, when Jacob schemed with his mother to also steal Esau’s blessing from Isaac, the situation turned deadly as Esau threatened to kill his brother. And Jacob fled from his home, away from Esau, away from the birthright he’d bought with lentil stew. Jacob’s story takes up 24 chapters of the book of Genesis in which he has spiritual encounters with God, marries four women who bear him thirteen children, and makes and loses his fortune a few times. Ultimately his twelve sons become the twelve tribes of Israel, and one of his sons brings the family to Egypt to live during a time of famine. Jacob’s story explains how the Israelites came to live in Egypt before the time of Moses. The whole story is a fascinating portrait of a deeply flawed man, who yearned for God’s blessing, and who creatively and sometimes unethically schemed to gain that blessing. After leaving home, Jacob met his brother many years later and reconciled, but they never lived together again. They met only one other time, to bury their father, Isaac.

The story of Jacob is the story of how God made something good out of Jacob’s scheming. It is the story of family conflict that never fully healed. It is the story of our spiritual ancestors. Perhaps it is also the story of our own lives.

R. Paul Stevens wrote a book called Down-to-Earth Spirituality: Encountering God in the Ordinary, Boring Stuff of Life. He wrote,
Jacob’s story is so universal because it is so personal. He grows up with an emotionally distant father and bonds deeply with his mother. The family is fragmented and messy. While his parent’s marriage began in love, his mother and father grew emotionally distant from each other, and each parent sought intimacy and solace in a favorite child. A distant father, an overbearing mother, an overpowering brother, wives he cannot please, a manipulative father-in-law, children alienated from each other—this is the stuff not only of Jacob’s story but all too often of our own. It is in this messy complexity of family life that Jacob’s own identity, his vocation and spirituality are forged and hammered. 
I was struck by this message from Stevens—this reminder that we are formed so intensely by our bonds with one another. The messy complexity of family life is something we are all familiar with. I was thinking this morning about how implacable it all seems—how is it even possible to break the cycles and patterns and habits that form over a lifetime? I think about where I was three years ago in my own life and where this tiny church was in its life, and I can see that the patterns we developed in that first year have continued. There have been small changes, sure. Improvements in some areas and slips in others. But we are largely recognizable from that moment we met in July 2008. The Shaws were here last week, and I asked if the church was much different from when they first came. And of course the answer was, “Yes, it is very different! There have been several changes.” Yet those changes are certainly consistent with the character of this church—I think it is not a surprise to find ourselves where we are as a church, as individuals.

We are, in many ways, so much like Jacob. We flee the familiar, seeking out new ways, transformation, a break with the past. Yet we come face to face with the same patterns we always have. New challenges, new struggles, old ways of doing things. We get along as best we can, often without a plan, reacting to what comes our way with not too much thought for the future. It’s hard to know the future, isn’t it? How does one plan for something one cannot know?

I think it’s exhausting to find ourselves once more faced with transformation and change—or maybe it’s just exhausting to acknowledge that we never really were NOT faced with change and transformation. The story of Esau and Jacob doesn’t end with this passage—we know that! Jacob and Rebekah scheme to rob Esau of his birthright blessing and inheritence from Isaac. The habitual patterns of conflict and deceit lead to murderous rage for Esau, and Jacob leaves the family to start a new life far away from the old. Still, the new life is not easy, and Jacob faces his old demons until the end of his days, even though he leaves quite a legacy with four wives and a dozen children and vast wanderings upon the earth. Change, as Jacob could tell us, is a constant part of life, if a frustrating one.

Yet there were times in Jacob’s life that could almost be termed peaceful, quiet, tranquil. Those were not necessarily times of joy—some of those quiet times in Jacob’s life were prompted by grief and loss. But those quiet times laid a foundation for busier times in his life. Perhaps we might see our way to that here in this tiny church.

Our new testament passage is about gardening and growth, the scattering of seeds and the quality of the soil. We hear about a sower who sows seed upon the earth. He takes a bag of seed and scatters it upon the ground, not paying attention to where it falls. The proof is in the pudding, as they say, and we see how good the soil is by the fruit it bears. Sometimes the birds eat the seed before it can take root. Sometimes the soil is bad or rocky. Sometimes the weeds come up and choke the new growth before it can take firm hold. But sometimes the soil is good and rich, full of nutrients and the right shade and sun and water. Sometimes the seed is the perfect match for the soil (a gardener knows that some seeds need different soils). When it works, when the seed and the soil match, and the right sun and water and shade and temperature work together, well then the seed takes root, and grows, and bears fruit, perhaps 100 times what was planted.

Perhaps what I wish to note is that there is no gardener in this story—nobody who carefully cultivates the ground and tends the soil. No planting of the seeds in a special way or special seeds utilized. We speak in the church of “church planters”, those who seek out ground and deliberately plant seed where it seems best. This makes sense, doesn’t it? But at least from this parable it would seem that our job as a church is not to plant the seeds—our job is to receive the seed scattered by God. Which means we have work to do to prepare the soil. We may not get to choose what kind of seed grows in our soil, but how we prepare the soil will determine what will grow here and what will die.

I’ll set aside metaphors and parables here to speak plainly. We are in a process of preparing this church for the next step of its history. We are planning how and when to turn the church over to the next generation of people who will love and care for it. This sounds momentous when we speak in such terms, but this is nothing new. Long before each of us was here in this church others were preparing the church for us (who are scattered seeds ourselves). We have been left with a certain legacy to carry forward, which we have done faithfully. But perhaps what we have not finished doing is preparing the legacy that we will leave to those who come after. We are often focused on the fact that we do not have a next generation within our church to leave this legacy to. But perhaps we might set this aside and take some time to think about our current existence and how we would hope to pass it on to others. What seed will flourish here in our church? What nourishment does each of us provide? When new seed is scattered here at New Covenant, in the form of visitors or rental groups or grandchildren or whoever we are blessed with, what is it exactly that we offer to them?

We might go on as we began, somewhat haphazardly bringing it all together on Sunday. And I admit that one of the things I often do is pull things together haphazardly at the last minute. In this, I think we have been a decent match, I as part-time temporary supply pastor to this tiny church. In many ways we have gone on as we began, with me bringing a sermon and you bringing a check and the question each week, “Do you need me next Sunday?” I couldn’t tell you which of us is the seed or the soil, but we have grown together and perhaps grown together to the point where we both want more. And this is a good thing.

Our quest this next few months is to work the soil and prepare for the seed God scatters next. If we wish for this church to be the kind of soil in which longer lasting plants thrive and take root, then we have work to do. Much like the sandy soil in the front of our church, it can be difficult to grow much here. But we could till the earth. We could add mulch. We could plan for a future vision. We could pay careful attention to what we have to offer.

I’m not much of a gardener, I’ll tell you that. I overwater plants or forget about them. A friend said the other day, “Just get a bamboo plant, those are easy to grow.” I display here the 6th bamboo plant I have tried to grow. What happened to it, you might ask? It’s fairly simple, really. I placed this bamboo in it’s pot and added water. And then I placed it on top of a shelf in my bedroom where it looked pretty. And then I forgot about it entirely except to glance at it and smile occasionally. It dried out and died, and I couldn’t even tell you how many months ago.

To be the soil for seed takes time and intentionality. It requires that we do more than put the plant up on a shelf and admire it. All I needed to do to grow this plant is to make sure it has water, but you can see how that worked out. To be this church we must make sure it has water. We must till the soil. We must think, in the way that soil thinks, about the kind of seed that we desire, long for, hope for. And then, despite our habits, our lifetime patterns, the nurture and legacy we have had so far, despite all of that (or perhaps because of it), we must become the kind of soil that will allow the gospel to take root, flourish and grow, and bear fruit one hundred times over.

1 comment:

  1. AMEN. Great sermon, Katie. Very meaningful for me at this moment in time. I will carry that last sentence into the coming days and weeks...

    ReplyDelete