Sermon: Seedy Work
July 16, 2017, Proper 10, Cove Presbyterian
Psalm 119:105-112, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Rev. Dr. Jill Duffield
Civil Rights leader and Congressman John Lewis has been arrested many times, most recently in 2013 while protesting for immigration reform. Over the course of his innumerable sit-ins, marches and acts of non-violent resistance, he has been on the receiving end of spit, clubs and tear gas. In Selma, he suffered a fractured skull as a result of the beating he endured. In a recent article about how the comic book, “March” came to be, writer Alex Johnson says, “Lewis and those who marched with him confronted bats and guns, wielded both by uniformed authorities and lynch mob terrorists. They were armed in their pursuit of peace with only how-to guides for resisting violence. It takes courage to eschew anger for kindness in the face of snarling dogs and fire hoses.” Courage indeed. Johnson continues, “While violence is loud and easy, love is quiet and calm and must be sought.” (http://bittersoutherner.com/good-trouble-john-lewis-andrew-aydin-march)
We might put it this way: Love is patient and kind. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, even snarling dogs and fire hoses. And, truth be told, time after time, this seedy work of gospel love, yields nothing. That’s the Word of the Lord we get this morning. Jesus tells us the seeds of the Word are thrown on paths of rock and engulfed by thorns and burned up as soon as they hit the ground, pummeled with clubs, drowned in the water of fire hoses, silenced by hateful rhetoric and easy, loud violence.
Sometime, when you are feeling centered and grounded, visit the website for the Equal Justice Initiative. The home page alone will make you shudder. Just the tabs across the top are daunting. They read: Lynching in America, Challenging Wrongful Convictions, Children in Prison, Racial Justice. How many Gospel seeds of grace and mercy have been chewed up and spit out, trampled and choked, with people along with them, when you click on any one of those tabs?
In the Equal Justice Initiative’s latest annual report I read this: “In 2016, EJI won the release of several people who had been sentenced to die in prison as children. We continue to represent scores of child offenders across the country.”
“We’ve won the release of several…we continue to represent scores…” Their success rate is worse than the sower’s of this parable. The sower’s seedy work yields nada, nothing, zippo three out of four times, but those working for justice that truly is just, their yield is even worse. The report says in 2016 they won the release of nearly a dozen condemned prisoners facing execution. That’s the number they lead with, “nearly a dozen”, less than twelve, the disciples minus one or two. Do you know how many people are on death row in the United States? As of October, 2016, the most recent data I could find, there were 2, 902. Make that
2, 901 thanks to the state of Virginia last week.
This seedy Gospel work of justice and mercy and grace and forgiveness and enduring love, as one scholar on this text so understated, “is often unrewarding.”
The work of sowing seeds for Jesus is, to say the least, “often unrewarding.”
But this kind of work: justice work, mercy work, grace work, love work is exactly the kind of work we are called to do as disciples of Jesus Christ.
Maybe that’s why Jesus told this parable to the crowds and then explained it in detail to his closest followers.
Jesus says, “If you are going to get on the Way with me there will be countless occasions when all your hardest, heart-felt, gut-wrenching work will yield not a little, or some, but NOTHING. In fact, it will be actively resisted. People will come after it and come after you, sometimes with clubs and snarling dogs, with fire hoses and tear gas.”
But as hard as this seedy work is we are called to it and we must keep going and sowing regardless of the outcome. We are to be the light of the world. The salt of the earth. Sheep among wolves. We are to welcome little children. Wash the feet of the weary. Give the hungry something to eat. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Love our enemies. Pray for those who persecute us. Heal the sick. Jesus even tells us to raise the dead. This is not the way to win friends or influence people, no get rich quick, or go from good to great on the disciple track. Our best lead is “almost a dozen” out of over 2,000 were transformed as a result of our best efforts. Time after time, no matter how hard we worked, we had no measurable results to put on the grant application. No feel good story for the promotional materials. Nothing, as far as we can tell, changed. But we are going to keep working anyway. No matter the results because Jesus has called us to this work and sent us out. The very one whose career culminated on a cross is the one we follow, so we are going to keep going until we witness resurrection life.
I had the great joy of hearing John Lewis speak at Montreat two years ago. He is so unassuming and humble despite his storied and celebrated life. He looked small as he paced back and forth across the stage in Anderson Auditorium, the very place where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had spoken fifty years prior. Lewis noted that he had been arrested 40 times by the time he was twenty-years-old. He said of his first arrest, “When I was arrested I felt free, I felt liberated, like I had crossed over and I have not turned back since.” (http://pres-outlook.org/2015/08/dont-give-up-dont-give-in-and-dont-give-out-john-lewis-speaks-at-montreat/)
His exuded a joy and peace that really does pass understanding. He admonished the overflowing crowd: “Be happy! Be happy because we serve a God of love and mercy and grace. Be happy because our time on this planet it too short to be mean.”
He proclaimed: “Don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t give out. Keep the faith and move on continuing the story.”
He drove home the need for followers of Jesus Christ to keep sowing, doing the seedy, difficult, oh-so counter cultural work of the Gospel, and do it joyously, despite the odds. Because we are the ones called to do the difficult, seedy gospel work of seeking love, quietly, calmly, relentlessly.
Dr. Elizabeth Ford, currently Chief of Psychiatry for Correctional Health Services in New York, was, for many years, in charge of the men’s criminal psychiatric units at Bellevue Hospital in New York city. She’s written a memoir from that time, “Sometimes Amazing Things Happen.” (Regan Arts, 2017) The book details heartbreaking stories of poverty, abuse and mental illness. Her work is some of the hardest I’ve ever heard described. She throws bags full of seed on ground that does not produce anything, day after tragic day. At one point, she is burned out and must leave for a season but she couldn’t stay away from the people she’d come to care deeply about. People like Jamel, who suffered from schizophrenia and who was in and out of Riker’s Island and in and out of Ford’s unit. He had delusions that caused him to be violent and he was consumed with paranoia and fear. None of the medications had helped. But Dr. Ford knew of a new medication that had shown promise in patients like Jamel. After a lot of conversations, Jamel agreed to take it. The risk of the drug was a rare but serious side-effect. Jamel started the medication and within two weeks he was markedly improved, no longer afraid or abusive, but by week four he had to be taken off the medication, because he was one of the few impacted by the rare side effect that could be fatal. Not long after, he was back at Riker’s Island, untreated, and then out on the street after taking a plea. The next time Dr. Ford heard of Jamel, was from one of the nursing techs on the unit who’d been approached and threatened by him on the street outside the hospital.
Then months later as she was headed home from work she heard someone call her name. “Dr. Ford, wait a second!” It was Jamel. She writes, “He is dressed in a red bomber jacket over a checkered button-down on top of a T-shirt…If it hadn’t been for his face, fuller than I remembered from his last hospitalization, I would never have recognized him.”
She asks him how he is doing.
“I’m hangin’ in there,” he says. “Trying to figure things out. I just had a baby girl not too long ago.” A big grin appears on his face.
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” I say. “Congratulations!” I am struck by how little he resembles a psychiatric patient.
“You look terrific. Are you working?”
“Sort of,” he says. “Just some odd jobs here and there. I’m taking my medication, though,” he announces with great satisfaction. “You remember the clozapine stuff you started?”
I nod slowly, also remembering why I stopped it.
“They tried it again—I guess you can do that after a while---and it’s working. I ain’t sick at all; my blood counts look good; and I ain’t been arrested in six months. What do you think of that, Doc?”
I want more than anything to give him a big hug.
“Amazing!” I cry. “You feel OK on it? Do you like your doctor?”
“Yeah, yeah, that’s all good. I even told my mom; I said, ‘Dr. Ford would be proud of me.’”
You see, sometimes amazing things do happen. Sometimes the seed finds the smallest spots of good soil and the light hits it just right and someone remembers to water it and lo and behold there is miraculous growth and we have the unspeakable privledge of witnessing the transformation. One out of four times or maybe one out a thousand, or one out of a million, the seed we’re given to sow takes root and justice is no longer denied, or the prisoner is set free, the poor get really, truly good news, the blind receive their sight, the son we’d thought was lost forever appears at the end of the driveway, or the demoniac is clothed and in his right mind, or Saul becomes Paul, and maybe once in a lifetime of faith the gardener in the graveyard is the Risen Christ and because we were stalwart enough to go to the tomb, we are the first to see him. That’s why we keep going, keep sowing, keep throwing seeds of justice and mercy and grace and enduring, unending love.
For Jamel and his mom, and his baby girl, too, and countless others who’ve been trampled on or ensnared by thorns or left to wither in the sun, all of whom are God’s beloved children, for them, for us, for the world God so loves, we will keep doing the seedy work of the Gospel no matter the results because odds are 100 percent that when we do we will have the joy, of being part of in the explosive, abundant, mind blowing, resurrection-life of Jesus Christ. And all of those other times when nothing, absolutely nothing came of our efforts but maybe scorn or disappointment or frustration or pain, they only prepared us to be awed by the power of the Most High God whose ultimate victory of grace and mercy and justice and kindness and love and life abundant are certain, for everyone.
So, let’s get to work and start throwing the Gospel seed around with abandon on this hard, rocky, thorny world. Don’t give up, don’t give in, and don’t give out. Keep the faith and move on continuing the story. Feel the freedom that comes with following Jesus Christ, and be filled with joy, no matter the results, because nothing will be better than seeing that kingdom harvest when it comes and knowing through the grace of God, we contributed to its growth.