This past Sunday, we heard the parable of the sower from Matthew 13. My sermon touched upon the strangeness of the sower, who doesn’t seem to care where the seed is cast. It is extravagant and wasteful to our eyes. Why not focus efforts to where they will receive a higher rate of return. I used the image of a picture I took on a hike, of a tree growing out of a granite boulder. God sows the seed of the gospel in ways that seem foolish. Most importantly God sows the seed of the gospel in the life and death of Jesus. Couldn’t a more effective method have been devised? Evidently not… at least not to God. God loves the world so deeply and passionately, that he used the greatest and fullest expression he could find so that we might know that love, even if it causes us to ponder greatly this mystery.
Now having preached this message about God’s love for all, after the service I was approached by two people who needed assistance. Well, I had been approached by one of the people, Pete, a local homeless man, before the service, but after a brief conversation I asked him to wait until after so I could attend to the things that needed to be cared for. The other person was a woman, Mary with her young daughter Jasmine. (Note: I have changed their names here.) Two further pictures could not have been painted. Pete looked every part of a person living homeless. Unshaven, dirty pants, poor speech, couldn’t sit still. Mary on the other hand sat there with her daughter through the whole service. Brought Jasmine up for the children’s sermon, and came forward for Communion. I merely thought she was a visitor. She was but she needed help.
I was thoroughly impressed by the way the congregation responded to both of them. People welcomed and greeted both. They reached out and engaged them in conversation. I had numerous people tell me about these folks who needed help. One of our teenagers had even approached Pete, although she didn’t know what to do when he told her to stay away. Nonetheless I was pleased that the reaction from many was one of welcome and hospitality.
I talked with each one in turn. I had to spend a little more time with Mary first, since I knew part of Pete’s story already from our brief encounter prior to worship. Mary had come to town from out west about a week before, following a man. When she realized things weren’t going to be any better here than they were out there she knew she had to go home, but she lacked resources. Pete was looking to get to North Carolina because his uncle had died. Of course, he had no way to get there.
Pete told me of people he knew in town, one other pastor, Pastor Mike, in particular, and he gave me the name and number of his brother in North Carolina so I could call them. I called them both. I knew the other pastor and I figured I knew who this guy was since Pastor Mike and I had spent a good deal of time talking as we waited for our kids to be dismissed from the same primary school. I was right. Pastor Mike had reached the end of his rope in dealing with Pete. Pete’s family, when I got through to them, wanted nothing to do with him due to drugs, theft and violence. Pete was no saint. And yet here he was… a patch of rocky ground. How would I sow the seed of the gospel there?
Mary seemed more like a plant being choked by weeds and thorns. After telling me her needs, when I was ready to move on helping her, providing her with gas money to get back home, she abruptly blurted out, “How do I find happiness?” If Mary was putting on a con, it was the most convincing con job ever. Never in all of my time here have I had any person who needed help wonder about this. She spoke of her bad decisions, and the way she kept making them. Her unhappiness was compounded by the poor relationship with her pastor since he had excluded her from the sacrament, telling her she was not forgiven for having a child out of wedlock. That she asked about happiness is no surprise. All of her relationships were ruptured and falling apart. Her question might seem like a dream for some pastors, seeing themselves as gurus with the opportunity to impart some gem of wisdom and pull her from despair. It terrified me. I had nothing. Nothing, except of course, Jesus. I replied, “I have no easy solution Mary. The best I can tell you is that happiness has to do with life with Jesus.” Upon further reflection, I realize part of my fear. I did not have, and would never have since she was leaving, any long-term relationship where we could discuss and discern where happiness was coming from in her life. Happiness comes from relationship with God and neighbor.
Pete was more difficult. He was demanding and ruffled my feathers. Nevertheless my own words from my own sermon echoed in my ears. It was Sunday and I could not help him get a bus ticket right then. He asked about a hotel room for the night. I told him I could not do both. He wanted a room. Of course the first hotel we stopped at was booked. The second had one. I gave him a gift card for a local restaurant so he could get some food before he was allowed to get into his room. Throughout the night he called the church about a dozen times. At eleven o’clock at night he called me on my cell phone from a nearby drug store where he wanted to get some food. He had the cashier call me to vouch for him, to say I would pay. I did not and I was none too pleased. On Monday the saga with Pete continued and culminated in the police being called to warn him about trespassing and harassment. Very rocky ground indeed.
Yet one thing that I told Mary holds true in both cases. Mary felt terrible that she had to ask for help and wondered how she might be able to pay us back. Pete thought if he did some tiny odd jobs around the church or for parishioners he could earn the help we might provide. I told Mary that it was not necessary for her to repay us. I said, “We help others so that they might have a concrete grasp of the way God loves them.” For Mary, this brought her to tears. I don’t know if Pete would ever understand. Before Mary left, she gave me a hug as we stood beside the gas pump. Pete left the following day by cursing at us.
Yet as I said in my sermon, we sow the seed of the gospel as an act of faith. We trust that God will not let it come back empty, that our labor will not be in vain. As such it means we must take the long view. When we share the gospel with others, we should not expect grand conversion stories to spring out of them. We plant seeds and it might take a while to germinate… and maybe it never does, but we continue on, sometimes appearing wasteful and foolish using resources on the likes of Pete and Mary. Oftentimes we might think we are being hustled and conned and we should have some sort of guard in place to protect the resources we have. But we share with others not because they look like good investments, but because God loves them no less than he loves us. And our actions help make that love known… hopefully, sooner or later. I pray we all might sow God’s love so extravagantly as the sower.
This post also served as my newsletter columm for my congregation's August newsletter. We have been focusing on the spreading of the gospel. We do so in many ways.