19 July – God’s abundant harvest in a field of failure

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Pentecost 7

Romans 8:12-27
Psalm 139
Matthew 13:18-23

Sermon preached by Rev. Dr Peter Blackwood

Melbourne is living through a second season of pandemic induced shutdown – maybe a suitable time to reflect a little on failure.

Years ago I was talking with a colleague who was a chaplain in a shopping centre. Part of every day he spent walking between the shops of the huge complex. He said that it is very frustrating work. He couldn’t measure the results. On one day someone would pour out his heart and soul to the chaplain. Two days later the same person would not even recognise the chaplain when they came face to face again. What was the use of being the church in the market place? So much of the effort seems to fail.

It is not an uncommon feeling, not uncommon in ministry, not uncommon in all kinds of walks of life. It doesn’t help when we hear wonderful success stories — stories of flourishing businesses, stories of sparkling achievements, stories that shout bigger and better at us and taunt us in our mediocrity and failure.

Between my ordination and my retirement, every so often I had to fill out a profile on myself for the church. The synod liked to keep a few details about me on their files. One question the profile form used to ask was, ‘What do you think are the most important tasks for the church over the next ten years?’ I never knew what to say. I decided to leave it blank rather than write, ‘blessed if I know.’ It seems to me that a church experiencing success and growth and confidence wouldn’t bother asking that question, and a minister who really knew the answer would have put things to rights by now. It would not be a question to ask of a church with 200 in the Sunday school and thousands of young people rushing off to Christian Endeavour on Sunday afternoons. That’s not what’s happening in most churches at the moment so we ask, ‘Does anyone know what we should be doing?’

Why couldn’t Jesus have told stories about failure, stories that speak to those bits of my life that don’t hold together? Why couldn’t Jesus have told stories that dwindling and confused churches might have resonated with? A nice failure story would speak to most churches.

But of course Jesus did tell some wonderful failure stories. He actually lived a remarkable failure story. Most people who heard Jesus preach didn’t follow him. By the time Passover came round in the third year of his teaching career public opinion had turned completely against him so that even his students ran away when he was arrested. When he was taken out and killed I wonder how close he came to saying, ‘Well what was that all about?’ What he actually said was, ‘My God, my God! why have you abandoned me?’

The church has remembered Jesus failure stories. One of them was the story of the sower who went out to sow and he failed. He sowed seed on hard ground and the birds ate it. He sowed seed on stony ground and it couldn’t take root. He sowed seed among thistles and it choked — complete waste of time really. A sower went out to sow and most of his efforts were unproductive, a complete waste of time.

A story that is not all sweetness and light is easier for us to hear because it more closely resembles our story. The sower failed and so do we and so did Jesus and so did the infant church and so does the Uniting Church — and that is disheartening and frustrating. So why don’t we give up. Why bother trying to be winners in the face of defeat? Why bother trying to be the church when we keep missing the goals? Why do we send chaplains into schools and hospitals and prisons? Why do we maintain worship in this church? Because a sower went out to sow, and some seed fell on good soil.

We know from our recent readings from Paul’s letter to the Romans that Paul would want to add something like, ‘Therefore should we try to fail more so there can be no mistaking that God’s kingdom coming is God’s succuss story, not ours.” Then Paul would add a phrase English translators render as, ‘by no means.” One of my New Testament teachers gave a fruitier translation – ‘not jolly likely’ – at least that was the jist of his translation. We do strive, we do try harder. Paul tells the church in Rome, ‘…the Spirit helps us in our weakness…’

Listen, a sower went out to sow and he failed, but because he sowed God triumphed and God has this habit of passing his triumphs onto his people.

We struggle and strive and fail — even so, God brings in his harvest. Keep struggling and striving — keep risking failure — for God’s sake.