A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

God’s love, children swearing, failure and other realities of sowing seeds July 13, 2014

My first teaching job out of college was as a lead preschool teacher at a childcare center name Over the Rainbow that was shortly bought out by a local church in Lincoln, Sheridan Lutheran. My very first day was Dec.26th, 1993, I had just graduated on the 18th (so you can imagine how happy my parents were that I already had a job!) and honestly, I was fairly confident at 21 in my teaching abilities. I had graduated magna cum laude and had been awarded the outstanding student teaching award. I had it goin’ on. So, I came in my first day with lessons, songs, stories, and lots of lovely ideas of how the children and I would spend our days learning, playing and growing. The morning went fairly well and it was time for recess. Which in NE in the winter is a process with young children. I had 16 four and five year olds to get coats, hats, gloves and boots on. Even that went well. They dutifully made a little line and we went outside. They played well for about 15 minutes and I gave the two minute warning as you should with young children and then called out it was time to line up. All of the children did this except Daniel. Daniel kept doing whatever he wanted. I walked over to him and said, “Daniel, you must not have heard it was time to line up.” He looked up at me and said, “No, I heard you b*^%$.” Well, this was not covered in any of my classes, needless to say. He and I went back and forth for a bit and then I realized I was going to have to break a rule of teaching and simply pick him up and drag him inside. I was fairly certain I would be dismissed and go to jail for child abuse as he fought me and didn’t go quietly. He screamed obscenities in front of all of these other young children. So, on my first day, I was going to need to explain to a young mom why her sweet, four year old princess now knows the F word. The rest of the day did not go any better. Daniel screamed obscenities all the way through nap time, hurt other children and was so disruptive that I couldn’t even get through a lesson, a story and any of my lesson plans. Turns out that Daniel came from a difficult living situation of dad in jail for armed robbery, deep poverty and neglect. Any seeds of boundaries, love and even education seemed to not take root. And I was pretty sure that none of the other kids were getting anything either because all of my time was spent dealing with his behavior. Most of the time I felt like a failure as a teacher (and maybe even as a person) to this class and all they would remember is chaos. I know very little of what happened to Daniel, only that in elementary school his behavior did not improve despite all of the work and love myself and others had done with him. He didn’t thrive and I’ve always wondered what more I could have done.
We live in a culture that tells us to avoid failure at all costs and if you do fail, for all that’s holy, don’t tell anyone or admit it. Blame someone else for the shortcoming. But if you succeed, take all of the credit and know it’s because you earned it and deserve it. But here’s the reality of life: what takes root and grows and what doesn’t, is a mystery. And an example we’re all familiar with is our own faith in Jesus Christ.
In our 21st century pluralistic and global world, Christians are not the majority in many parts of the world. In the US and in CO, Christianity is the minority. And those of us who proclaim Jesus as the way, the truth and the life wonder, why? The story of God’s amazing and unconditional love and grace took root in us somehow at some point. Now maybe we can point to all of the ways that the seeds of faith were scattered to us: Sunday School, or a good pastor, or a loving church community, parents and grandparents who passed on the faith, and those things are good. But how many people around us had the same experiences and yet don’t believe? What do we do about that?
I don’t think our situation as 21st century followers of Jesus is that far off from that of the first followers of Jesus. Those following Jesus were in the minority, most definitely. Jesus was walking around, in the flesh, performing miracles and teaching people and yet far more people didn’t follow than followed Jesus. For the disciples this was perplexing and curious. Why didn’t others see what they saw? What would it take to convince them? Should they work harder? Offer whatever the people want to hear? Was this ministry of Jesus a failure?
In this section of Matthew, Jesus and his message were meeting resistance and it was getting hard. Jesus decides to share this parable of the sower to the large crowd, and the disciples, who heard it very differently than I think we do today. We tend to focus on if we are the seed or the sower or get all hung up on the types of soils that Jesus talks about. We wonder which soil we are or which type our neighbor is, but I don’t think any of that is Jesus’ point. I think that the point of the parable comes in verse three, the very first sentence: “Listen! A sower went out to sow.” Or hear it this way: Listen! God went out to love. God went out to spread the seeds of love and mercy in all sorts of unlikely places not worried about the outcome. God wasn’t afraid to go to the hard, rocky places, to the thorny places where one can get hurt; to the hot, dry places where life is difficult. God didn’t stick to the soil where success was assured. God was’t worried about failure, only that the seeds went everywhere to everyone.
Jesus is naming some realities of ministry and of life that we can’t escape. We will go out with this amazing story of God’s abundance, grace and love and there are rocks, thorns, birds, hot sun, lack of water and nutrients, and all sorts of obstacles to the word of God taking root in the lives of people and in us. There will be more failures than successes in ministry. We will try ways to nurture the growth of the word of God in ourselves, the neighborhood and in the world that maybe won’t work. We will try different ways of worship, education, Sunday School, youth group, confirmation, walking with the community, and serving that may or may not take root. But…what if something we try does take root and is more fruitful than we ever imagined? What if we quit focusing on what didn’t go well and focus on what is growing and is bearing fruit right before us? I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Jesus ends the parable with the witness of the abundant harvest. Even in the face of failure, there can be a harvest that defies imagination.
Last October when Lois and I went to Aspen for the think tank on faith formation, there was a young lady there, Katie. We got to talking and she mentioned that my name was familiar. After putting together that she was a life long member at Sheridan Lutheran, she realized I had been her preschool teacher in that class with Daniel. But she didn’t mention Daniel at all. She did say she remembered stories I had told, songs I had taught and the prayer we did before snack and lunch. She told me how much she had loved going to preschool and that she used to cry on the days she didn’t go. It seems despite what I thought of as failure was a seed taking root in Katie.
She was at the time the worship leader for a mission development in Lincoln and she is now spending this year with Young Life and then will be going to seminary. I’m not taking credit for the Holy Spirit’s work in Katie, but I was sure I was such a failure of a preschool teacher to that class and I have thought about that many times. But God says what might look like failure to us, look again, for God is at work. Don’t miss what God is doing abundantly right in front of us because we are obsessed with the failures. That doesn’t mean that we give up on the Daniels but we shouldn’t lose sight of the Katies either. We keep following God out to all kinds of places for God’s seeds of love to be sown through us in people and places we would never expect. God understands that following Jesus is hard and won’t always take root how we expect but God promises to be with us on the path, in the rocks and in the thorns and to love us no matter what. God says there is always more than we can imagine, always more than enough and always room for everyone. And Jesus proclaims to us “Listen! God is going out” with us, to sow seeds in us and through us for the sake of the world. Thanks be to God.