Receptivity and Responsiveness

A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, August 5, 2012

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 GNT

One spring day while I was walking along a dirt road, I happened to spy a glass bottle embedded in the roadway.  Only about one-third of the clear, glass bottle was visible, and it was glistening in the morning sun.  With a sharp stick I pried the bottle loose from the ground.  The bottle was about half-full of dirt, and since the bottle was slightly tilted upward in the ground, the dirt had filled and blocked the bottle opening.  To my surprise, a live plant was growing inside the bottle.  The forces of Nature had created a natural terrarium.  A seed that had been present in the dirt had sprouted and started to grow, and was doing quite well, actually.  Though this happened several years ago, that chance discovery said something to me and became a metaphor that I have never forgotten: We never know when and where the seeds that are dropped along the way may be warmly received, sprout and grow in ways we might never have expected. 

Such is one meaning we can draw from Jesus’ parable.  For Jesus, the seed is the Word of God.  Not necessarily the written words on the page, but that spiritual word, that spiritual entity that almost defies description or definition, that has the power to take root in a person’s life and grow (metaphorically speaking), leading to joy, abundance, positive change, and a desire to go forth and make a difference in the world.  We might think of the seed of Jesus’ parable as being that spiritual truth that draws us, that motivates us to things spiritual and theological.  Or we might say the spiritual seed is that teaching or truth that speaks to us of the Sacred or of ultimate concerns of life.

One thing I have learned over the decades as a minister and preacher is I have no power over the way that spiritual teaching is received and the responses that may or may not result from it.  Sometimes what I thought had been my best efforts in ministry proved to produce less than desired results.  In other words, some persons I have worked with, and some projects I had high hopes for and had labored over, produced little results in return.  It is sort of like my experience with trying to grow morning glories.  The last few years, I have come to appreciate the lowly morning glory flowers.  The deep blues and the dark pinks.  But I have had no luck the past two years growing them at our house.  Now, as a boy growing up on a farm, we didn’t care much for morning glories.  We didn’t want them growing in our vegetable gardens or on our fence rows.  We didn’t want morning glory vines wrapping themselves around our cornstalks or bean vines.  We would pull them up or cut them off at the ground.  But back then, I didn’t have the eye for beauty that I have today.  I had to go all the way to Nicaragua three years ago to learn to appreciate the beauty of morning glories.  Some of us would take an early morning walk on a big hill outside of Matagalpa.  And there growing in a barbed wire fence we saw some beautiful blue morning glories.  Ever since then, I have been trying to grow them at our house on the west side, but all to no avail.  Either the vines don’t get enough sun, I guess, or if I plant them in the sun, the deer eat them.  So in spite of my best efforts, I can’t raise morning glories, even if I plant the seeds in the best soil.  So it is sometimes with things churchy and spiritual.  In spite of our best efforts, we can’t force our teaching on people and expect everyone to believe and do as we do.

 But then, on the other hand, I have also learned that the lessons we teach and the good we do sometimes falls and takes root and grows in people and projects where I least expect it.  United Church of Christ minister Martin Copenhaver tells of an incident the summer before he went to divinity school.  In fact, it was Martin’s story that sort of served as the seed for this morning’s sermon.  Martin was working with the children and youth of a small, rural church in Connecticut.  His aim was to visually illustrate the Parable of the Sower that I read today, to show how the seed that is sown is received by the good soil and grows and produces abundantly.  So he worked with the kids to plant a bean seed beside the road, one on rocky soil, one among thorns, and one in fertile soil, just as the parable says.  They kept watch on the seeds they had planted.  In a few weeks, Martin expected that the bean seeds that had been planted by the side of the road, on rocky soil, and among the thorns would have died, while the bean seed planted in the good soil would be thriving.  The meaning of the parable would be clear, and all the children would become good soil and go forth to sin no more.

As the weeks passed, however, Martin noticed with horror (and the children with glee) that the bean seed planted among the thorns was keeping pace with the bean planted in the good soil.  After four weeks, only one plant remained—the one among the thorns.  It was doing so well that it yielded a handful of beans.  The children thought this was so hilarious; they planted one of the beans in a pot and gave it to Martin as a gift.  Martin observes, “Bless their little hearts. . . That summer I started out to teach one lesson and ended up learning another lesson entirely.  The parable teaches that some people will be more receptive than others to what Jesus called the ‘word of the kingdom.’  But what I noticed only after attempting to act out the parable is that we cannot know where the rocks are, where the good soil is.”1

Now, I certainly do not think of myself as some spiritual Johnny Appleseed going about sowing the Word.  But as I hinted earlier, sometimes I have been surprised at the people who responded to my teaching and preaching in life-changing ways.  For example, I think of Jeff, a young college student who attended the church I pastored in Denton, Texas.  Now, Jeff and I had a casual relationship, but we were not what you would call close.  He attended North Texas State University and wasn’t even a member of the church I was serving.  I just looked upon Jeff as another one of the many college students who attended services occasionally.  But a few years later, after I had left Denton, Texas, and moved to Franklin, Tennessee, the Denton church invited me back for a week of special services.  While there that week, Jeff informed me that he had decided to become a minister, and it was because of the influence I had exerted upon him during my time as pastor there.  I never knew.  And I would have never guessed.  Sometimes the spiritual work we do takes root, as it were, in people and places we might never imagine.

But then there is one more thing: a question having to do with receptivity and responsiveness.  Why is it that today a person may not be receptive to things spiritual, or the idea of God, or to being open to that which is Sacred, but then later on there is an openness and receptivity and responsiveness?  It is like the words can fall on their ears time and time again, and like the seed that falls on the hard path or rocky soil, just rolls right off and never takes root.  Then all of a sudden, the heart is opened, and spiritual teaching is received gladly, and new life is embraced, and their whole outlook on life and the world is changed, and they go forth to make a loving difference in the world.  Why is that so?  Why is it that a person may not be receptive today but may be quite receptive and responsive one year, five years, or even ten years from now?

Could it be that life events and life experiences sometimes have to line up in such a way so as to make a person open and receptive to things spiritual or to that which is Sacred?  A rite of passage (such as falling in love or getting married, or having a baby), or a life crisis (such as a loss of a loved one, or a serious accident, or a near death experience)—such things may sometimes serve as the catalyst that prepares a person’s heart, that breaks open a person’s heart like a farmer breaks open hard soil, to be open to those things spiritual, or that which is Sacred, or that which is of ultimate concern.  From our week of Vacation Bible School, I was reminded that seeds can lie dormant in the desert for years until conditions are just right for them to sprout and grow.  It can be that way with people, too, I am inclined to think. 

So as church leaders and teachers of youth and school teachers, we never know when the words we are sharing may lie dormant for years, and then all of a sudden, when conditions are right, they may take root and grow in wonderful ways we may never have imagined.  And in a general way to all of us, we never know when the kind, encouraging words we may share with someone may take root and grow and make a positive difference in their life.  Finally, may all of us be open to that spiritual mystery that draws us and will take root and grow within us and bless us, if we will let it.  Amen.

 1United Church of Christ, “Stillspeaking Daily Devotional,” May 2012.

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About randykhammer

Minister and writer
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