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The Ictus of the Christian Journey
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

A sermon by Dr. Phil Mitchell, Associate Pastor
Richmond’s First Baptist Church
Richmond, Virginia
July 13, 2014

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 [link]

 
 
I'm frequently surprised on mission trips, especially youth mission trips, because the best-laid plans of a youth mission trip never actually turn out the way you plan it. We estimate costs, we do the schedule, we make a visit to the site and talk to the people there. We plan the schedule, we redo the schedule, we redo the redo of the schedule. We change the schedule after we've done the redo of the schedule, and we train teams, all knowing that when we get to the trip, and we get to the end of it, it probably is not going to look a whole lot like what it looked like on paper. But, in order to have a successful chance of bearing fruit we have to do preparation.

This year we went to Marion, Alabama. How many of you know where Marion, Alabama is? Thanks to both of you! We went there to throw seed, that's what we went to do: to throw seed of the Good News of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It's a small, fledgling little town of about 3,600 people, where the average per capita income is $10,000 a year. That 35% of the people live below the poverty line, and 70% of all the children receive food stamps. And if one were to stand ten elementary school students in Marion, Alabama shoulder to shoulder, of those ten, two of those could read at grade level, and some cannot read at all. We went there to plant seeds.

I want to go back to the passage from Matthew, chapter 13. I would invite you to take your Bible and look at it with me. I'm only going to read just the first few verses. Chapter 13, beginning with verse one. 'That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him, that he got into a boat and sat there while the whole crowd stood there on the beach. And he told them many things in parables saying, "Listen, a sower went out to sow, and as he sowed some seeds fell on the path and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly since they had not depth of soil. But when the sun rose they were scorched, and since they had no root, the withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain. Some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen."

This is the first of seven parables beginning at the thirteenth chapter of Matthew, and this is the only parable that is in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke; it's the only one. And so Jesus tells these parables back to back, beginning in this chapter 13, and it's the story really of two parables. One is the sower who indiscriminately and generously throws seed just everywhere, and then the soil, four different kinds of soil. First is the hard ground, the place where seed will be rejected and devoured. And then some of it falls on rocky ground where there will be limited success, and even the limited success will be short lived. To add a pun right here as an aside, the old adage says, "When the rowing gets rough, the rough quits growing." It's the best I can do. The seed also fell among thorns where it sprouted up but eventually had the life choked out of it by vicious thorns. But the seed also fell in rich, receptive ground that received it and carved out a womb where it would eventually bear fruit. The condition of the ground largely determines the fate of the seed. The soil was a birthing place for the seed, a place where growth could take place, and eventually a plant would emerge that would bear fruit.

Now, I am not a farmer. I did grow up going to my grandfather’s farm in the summer, and I remember really just basically two things. One is, never touch an electric fence! And the other thing is, farmers get up about the same time I go to sleep. I am one of the most non-agrarian people you have ever known. In fact, in the Guinness Book of World Records, on page 74, I'm noted as the person who has changed the most potted plants into compost. I've sealed the fate of many a potted plant. God rest their souls. But I do know enough to know that a seed needs fertile soil, water, sun, fertilizer and attention. To get the most out of this parable, we look at the actions of the sower and the conditions of the soil. The sower’s job is very simple: he sows seed and sows lots of it.

But where I want to focus this morning is on that place and moment where the seed and the dirt produce fruit. Dirt is dirt. Rich, vibrant soil without a seed is dirt. No fruit, just dirt; dirty dirt. Messy, dirty dirt. Unplanted seeds on the other hand are good for birds, but seeds and fertile ground that join together can produce beautiful fruit. So Jesus tells us that there's this generous, vibrant sower who sows everywhere and in every condition, and those seeds fall in a variety of conditions and environments. And once again, there are four types of terrain. One: a hard, unbending, indifferent, unreceptive place of the path. Two, the rocky, root-choking, restrictive, shallow soil mixed with rocks. Three, there's the soil that produces some live, but is soon controlled and distracted by forces outside of itself. There is intermittent life, but there's not time for fruit because the forces of distraction and anxiety eventually have their way.

Now, there's an obvious progression here from indifference to seeds that started well, to seeds that can survive for a while, and then there's some that can survive for a while and still produce absolutely nothing. And finally, we all know it's coming: the good soil. There's good soil that not only provides a place for life, but provides a place where life might bear life. The big idea here is three. THREE IS THE KINGDOM. Jesus came to bring its way into the lives of people in varying degrees depending on the receptivity of the hearer. But these hearers are not just them, those in the crowd and on the shoreline, those who have not embraced the principles of the kingdom. You see, the hearers are the disciples too, and those are the people who theoretically understand God's kind of kingdom, the kind of kingdom where the meek inherit the earth. The second big idea is without good soil, there will be no fruit. And the third big idea is that good soil won't produce fruit it it's neglected it becomes hard and stale, if it's seduced by shortcuts and easy believing, or if it's overrun with troubles and distractions.

Of course, Reinhold Niebuhr says, "The world is full of half-believing believers, and half-believing un-believers." The health and the abundance of the fruit are directly linked to the health of the soil. Or to push the metaphor just a little further, a willing and nurturing heart can and should produce abundant fruit. And it's God who stands at the intersection of this seed and the soil and produces the fruit. And it's a mystery.
 Now I'm a choral conductor, and I've been a choral conductor for about 35 years. And I've been privileged to study with some really great teachers, and I'm still learning about conducting. And one of the very first terms that conductors learn is a term called the “ictus,” i-c-t-u-s. It's from the Latin “Ictus,” which means to strike, or in poetry it's the rhythm or flow of the words. Ictus, we've changed it, made it easier to say ictus, kind of like icky, ic, and tus, like once, twous, threeous, fours, threes, ictus. So, I'm going to give you all a two-minute conducting lesson. So what you need to do is you need to free your hands up, those who are willing and still awake. Put stuff over on a chair, or give it to someone who's sleeping and free your hands up so that you can learn a very fundamental principle of conducting. So, the conducting pattern really has two parts. One is the upbeat, and one is the downbeat. Now I could teach that to a rhesus monkey I know, it's up and down. So let's try it: up, down, very simple. Upbeat again, up, down.

Now, an upbeat without a downbeat would be very frustrating. It would be like this. I was getting ready for you to sing "Holy, Holy, Holy" as we did earlier, and I went up. If we did that for a while we'd hyperventilate, and the truth is, I'd have all of this, this is called the preparatory beat, all this preparation, but there would be no music. There would be no fruit; a lot of preparation and no fruit. So, I'm going to ask you to with your right or your left hand depending on which one you feel most comfortable with, to do the pattern with me, and it's going to be like this. We're going to go up, down, this kind of pattern. All right, here we go. With me… ah, it's beautiful. Alright, good.

Now, it's not all that easy conducting, could be distilled down to that, but there's a little bit more to it than that. And ictus' can be found all over the place. If I'm doing 4/4 time, I'm going to do one, two, three, four. And all those little bounces are ictuses. So what I want you to do, is I want you to do this again, and I want you to give a little bounce at the bottom like this. Alright, do it again. So, that place where the bounce occurs, where the beat is indicated, is called the ictus.

Now, I think that there is an ictus in this story. I've sketched with you three images. One: an indiscriminate sower who's just sowing stuff everywhere. Secondly, the different kinds of ground, the hard path, the rock infested soil, the ground that's overrun with thorns, and then this healthy, productive soil, and the third image is this ictus thing, it's ictus, it's not ichthus, that's the fish on the back of a car. Ictus, ictus.
 One way of viewing this story and seeing the different kinds of soil in the story is to see them as different kinds of people who have varying levels of receptivity to the word. I've heard lots of sermons about that, and maybe you have too. That's true, and it's a safe way to look at it. It's objective, it's non-invasive. It allows the point to be made and we don't have to confront it. It points fingers at other places, and honestly when we read the story, treating the different types of soil as different fruits and types of people, we get off the hook. But when we read this parable and assign the different types of terrain to what people do in general, we likely make ourselves into the good soil, don't we? Admit it, you're the good soil. I mean, I got up really early this morning and put on a suit at like 7 o'clock in the morning, been here almost 5 hours. I want to be good soil, I'm trying. Don't I get good soil credit for wearing a suit for five hours? Don't you want to be good soil? Sure you do.

But let the story shift from “they,” to you and me. Change the language from “they” to “I,” and rather than reading the story, let the story read you. No doubt, we are frequently soil, nourished by worship and study and a supportive community, and these are practices that nourish our hearts. So much so that fruit-filled ministry from this congregation is all over this city because of that nourishment. But you know, sometimes our hearts are hard and deflective. They may be hard by choice to protect what lies below the surface. Maybe we think we've lived with this hard soil so long that it would be too risky to expose it to water. Maybe we chose to keep the soil of our hearts hard because we believe there's no chance that anything will ever penetrate it and change us. Or maybe, the church as an institution is so dysfunctional that it produces a factory of calluses. It's tempting to describe others like this and not take a closer look at our own soil. Our hearts may be hard because we've been wronged by a family member one too many times. Or we've been hurt by someone in the church, or someone in our family, or someone at work and it just won't go away. Or maybe our hearts are hard because we want that mature, tough-looking exterior because we think that's what a real Christian is like.

But the parable says that the Word has little chance in such soil. And to be fair, hard hearts are sometimes hardened by persistent and difficult circumstances. They're hardened by neglect or abuse. A hard heart can be a residing place for hurt. And all too often this hurt follows us around like a shadow. And ironically, it is the brightest when we are at our darkest place. Sometimes hard soil can only be made fertile again through faithful and loving attention over a long period of time.

Sometimes we are rocky, shallow soil. We live with the illusion that shortcuts and passive growth will produce results, and it might, but the fruit will be shriveled and the crop will be meager. This shallowness can come from thinking that there is an easy, short path to a fruit-filled life. But spiritual roots take a really long time to grow. Deep roots can even be made among hard places with patience and attention, but growing spiritual roots happens best alongside other people who are trying to do the same thing. Nurturing a heart can continually get stronger means being in community. And yet, we can be in church and not be in community. We come to church, the institution, but community comes in loving and open give and take.

Eugene Peterson in his delightful book along obedience in the say direction says, "A common way to avoid community is to turn the church into an institution, and in the process the church becomes less and less a community." That is, people who pay attention to each other, brothers and sisters in Christ, and more and more, a collection of contributing units that take on projects. Growing deep roots in the faith is hard to do in isolation because of the rocks. The troubles of everyday life, and sometimes those rocks are just too powerful to overcome. Sometimes we're—the good soil is—overrun by thorns. The story says that this is the allure of things, that these thorns are the incessant appetite for things. Things can be distracting, and things don't have to be things. They can be issues that distract us, financial burdens that distract us; an adult child that won't grow up; the thorn of trouble at work or at home. This distraction leads to anxiety, and the anxiety and fear chokes the life out of us. These distractions are competing for our hearts attention, and often those distractions have their way, and when they do, the fruit never stands a chance.

But the parable tells us that the seed and the soil were made for bearing fruit. Our heart is tended, so that it might become the birthing place for the seed of the word of God. So this morning, I challenge you to find the courage to see your soil in this story. Rather than saying, "O, those hard-hearted people. Those people! Those people!" What about you, and what about me? In our repertory list for the youth choir mission trip this year there was an anthem that contained these very brief lines, "O Jesus, friend of sinners, open our eyes to the world at the end of our broken fingers. Open our eyes to the world at the end of our pointing fingers. Let our hearts be led by mercy. Help us reach with open hearts and open doors. O Jesus, friend of sinners, break our hearts for what breaks yours."

The ictus in the Christian journey is the place where preparation meets yielding. It is that place where all of this discipleship comes down and bears fruit. Earlier I mentioned the youth mission trip, and there were 66 other people besides me who went to Marion to throw seeds. And it is, it is a marathon. You get up early, you work all day, you take a shower, you go do a concert, you stay up late and giggle, you get up the next morning and you do it again and you don't sleep a whole lot. In fact, you don't sleep at all. One of the surprising moments in this trip was when we were in a nursing home, and we were presenting a concert with about 50 singers and hand bell tables in a room just a little bit, maybe two McDaniel rooms. I mean, it's very small: two large living areas. We're packed in there like sardines, and we're into the concert about 15 minutes, it's going pretty well, and all of a sudden the activities director of the nursing home stood up and said, "We'd like to present some music to you." And I thought, "O boy!" What do I do? I'm a guest, present all the music you want. So this guy gets up, this blind gentleman gets up and stands and starts singing, "I've Got Peace Like a River." And it's beautiful, this beautiful, melodic voice. And all of a sudden the kids and the adults are singing, "I've Got Peace Like a River" in perfect harmony. And it was magic! And then someone else got up and sang, and then someone else got up and sang. And then finally, a very feeble 101 year old African American lady who was in a wheelchair, kind of withered, was breathing with the aid of an oxygen tank started singing, "I Want Jesus to Walk with Me." And it was powerful! She found oxygen somewhere to sing that song, and my suspicion is it came from the depths of her heart. She sang it, and she threw seeds all over us unexpectedly. We were there to sow, but we were the beneficiaries of that fruit. It was an ictus that I will never forget.

So what are we going to do with all this preparation? Jesus ends the parable by saying, "Well, as for what is sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, and indeed bears fruit and yields in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty. Let's go do it.
 
Phil Mitchell 2014
 
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