1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13
2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17
This sermon was preached at Grace Episcopal Church in Martinez CA on June 14, 2015.
Six years ago, I preached my first sermon in an Episcopal church on today’s Gospel parables about the farmer who scatters seed and then goes to bed while the seed sprouts and grows. My seminary roommate Ed and I were both Episcopal youth ministers in LA at the time; and when Ed first heard that I was preaching on these parables, I remember him saying, “That’s a great parable for a Youth Minister to preach on since our work is all about planting the seeds of the Gospel in young people’s souls.” Ed then continued to ponder the parable and said he was actually considering changing the format of his Sunday School so that the first half would be him sharing the Gospel while the second half would be him sleeping, thus allowing God enough time to grow the seed he just planted. I’m not sure he ever tried that approach; and it’s not one that I would recommend; however, there is some wisdom in it.
Youth ministry (and all ministry for that matter) is about planting seeds and then practicing patience, as God’s Spirit nourishes, waters and fertilizes the seed in God’s own time. Like the farmer, we don’t know exactly how God inspires the growth of the seed we planted, but we are called to patiently trust in God’s work, even when we see little or no evidence of growth. I have been working in youth ministry for more than a decade now and although I am honestly still trying to figure it out, I have learned to trust that God inspires growth even when all the initial evidence points to the contrary. Over time, the smallest of seeds becomes the greatest of shrubs.
In my junior high youth group, I had a student named Connor who refused to remain still and quiet for more than a few seconds. Now this is fairly common for junior high boys, but Connor was exceptionally disrespectful and rambunctious and no matter how many times we took him aside, spoke with him, and prayed with him, his behavior did not seem to improve. Even so, I continued to plant seeds by assuring him of God’s love for him.
When I visited the parish a few years ago, I saw that the seed I had planted in Connor had begun to sprout. He was just starting high school and when we spoke, he told me how much he had enjoyed youth group and how much he had learned. I then felt inspired to take a bold risk and teach him some fairly demanding prayer and meditation practices. Surprisingly, he responded with interest and, even more surprisingly, he sat with me in prayerful silence for ten minutes, which is a long time to sit with anyone in silence, let alone a teenager and let alone this teenager! To me, it felt like a miracle! I even took a picture of him meditating to prove it to his parents! The seed I planted years ago had begun to grow.
Also, in the high school youth group, there was a young girl named Kelly who seemed to always complain about nearly everything we did as a youth group and nearly everything that I did as the leader. Although the volunteers and I initially tried to accommodate her, I quickly learned that she was going to find something to complain about no matter what we tried to do. So we decided to patiently respond to her complaints by continuing to plant seeds of love and kindness, even when her criticism persisted. We continued to plant seeds, assuring her of God’s love.
It was about a year ago that I received an email from her in which she wrote, “Hey Daniel! Thank you for everything you did for us when you were at COS [Church of Our Saviour]. I sometimes think of the memories that you gave to us and I cannot thank you enough. You taught me a lot and I hope that you know that whenever I talk to the kids from COS, you are always remembered as a determined, tenacious, loving man of God who always spoke to us with grace and compassion.” I share this message with you not to ‘toot my own horn’ but to toot the horn of the Gospel seed that God caused to sprout and grow in Kelly, transforming her into a kind, generous and deeply grateful young woman. And when it comes to Kelly, I feel like the farmer who scatters the seed and then seems to stand in awe and wonder at the radical and mysterious growth that took place before him: “He would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.”
A French Jesuit priest named Teilhard de Chardin also stood in awe and wonder at the radical and mysterious growth that took place before him. He had devoted his life to learning more about the growth that occurs in the spiritual world and physical world, which to him, were really the same thing. Along with being a Jesuit priest, he was also a renowned philosopher, a paleontologist (some called him the “clerical Indiana Jones”) and a geologist who believed in Evolution at a time when the Roman Catholic Church held Darwin’s theory in suspicion. Because of his progressive beliefs in science and spirituality, the Church censored many of his writings and ideas about spiritual and physical growth and evolution. But he did not despair when his Church called his ideas “dangerous” and “offensive” because he understood intimately, as a scientist and as a priest, how the “slow work of God” inspires both spiritual and physical growth in hearts and minds. Today he is hailed as a modern-day Galileo and is considered one of the most influential thinkers of the 20th century. His spiritual wisdom resonates with my experience in youth ministry, it encourages me as I slowly plug away now at my dissertation and I offer it to you as you begin the hard work of discernment together during this transition. In a collection of Jesuit prayers and proverbs called Hearts on Fire, Teilhard writes,
Above all, trust in the slow work of God.
We are quite naturally impatient in everything
to reach the end without delay.
We should like to skip the intermediate stages.
We are impatient of being on the way to something
unknown, something new.
And yet it is the law of all progress
that it is made by passing through
some stages of instability—
and that it may take a very long time.
And so I think it is with you;
your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,
let them shape themselves, without undue haste.
Don’t try to force them on,
as though you could be today what time
(that is to say, grace and circumstances
acting on your own good will)
will make of you tomorrow.
Only God could say what this new spirit
gradually forming within you will be.
Give Our Lord the benefit of believing
that his hand is leading you,
and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself
in suspense and incomplete.
The Gospel and Teilhard de Chardin invite us to trust in “the slow work of God.” Our job is to simply plant the seeds of love and then patiently let God accomplish the wondrous miracle of growth in us and around us. So let us give Our Lord the benefit of believing that his hand is leading us and even learn to accept to anxiety of feeling ourselves in suspense and incomplete. Because we know that the smallest of all the seeds can become the greatest of all shrubs, we can believe boldly that what God has begun in us will be brought to fruitful completion; and the parts of us that might seem most broken today can become the most beautiful and robust tomorrow. The parts of us that we might want to dismiss in the same way Jesse dismissed his youngest son David can become the parts of us that God most wants to empower and inspire.
“If anyone is in Christ,” Paul says, “there is a new creation: everything old is passing away; see, everything is becoming new!” Let us give God the time to do his slow work in us because “only God could say what this new spirit gradually forming within you will be,” but whatever it may be, I am confident that when the grain is ripe, the harvest will be plentiful indeed! Amen.