A Sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
Genesis 25:19-34; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
In the summer of 1962, my father took a new position in his company and moved us back east from Cincinnati to Philadelphia. I would be entering the seventh grade, and this move meant that I would need to exchange an elementary school that contained a kindergarten through eighth grade for a separate Junior High building that held only the seventh and eighth grades. It was a big change -- in many ways. In Junior High we not only changed classrooms for every class, but we also had different teachers for each class. This meant that we didn’t keep the same desks, in which we could store our books and pencils; but we were given hallway lockers with combination locks to keep our personal stuff. (That I soon traumatically forgot my locker combination lends itself to another story for another time.) But all this change simply pointed to bigger changes to come. Living in suburban Philadelphia was different from the small town outside Cincinnati; and one way a twelve-year-old boy could notice the difference was by listening to the radio. Life in America was changing, and what was playing on the radio was a very clear, if not universally appreciated, foretaste of this new wave. “Rock and Roll is here to stay…”, the boastfully rebellious refrain from what is now one of the “golden oldies”, proved to be true, a no-brainer in retrospect. So it was that when my dad bought me a clock radio to awaken me for school (a sign of change in and of itself), I rose to the sound of the rock and roll music and to the disc jockey’s voice who provided that music. The disc jockeys became celebrities among my cohort because they not only played “the music” but also because they became our voices. One of the most influential voices was the morning jock from one of the first radio stations in America to host rock and roll programing. In the early 1960’s, WIBG (known as “wibbage” to that part of the world) eventually held 70% of the Philadelphia listening audience. It was a radio behemoth, connected to a demographic that continues to shape American culture and economy. Every school morning I woke up to the voice of Joe Niagara, who successfully promoted himself as the “Rockin’ bird”, famously asking his rhetorical question: “What’s the word, rockin’ bird?” Although at the time we couldn’t name it as such, all of the music and its presentation was a kind of “church” experience for us, a sacred liturgy of a gathered radio community, sharing the music, the talk, and the new life gurgling in our midst. Now, perhaps some of you are wondering where I am going with this brief historical tour of the emergence of rock and roll on American radio, and if so, I appreciate your sticking with me. Where I am going is to the “Parable of the Sower”, the parable we have read from Matthew’s gospel. Among the many elements this parable presents, we are most apt to focus our attention on the issue of the soil that Jesus describes and how receptive the various types and conditions of soil are to the Sower’s seed. Yes, the parable’s soil image and its meaning matter, but as with all of Jesus’ parables, the main character in them all represents God. This is to say that in latching on to the issue of the soil, we may easily wonder (especially we who garden and compost) – we may wonder what we might do to improve the chance of our soil’s fertility, specifically the soil of our souls and hearts and minds. However, this focus leads us to miss the parable’s point. It is good, sound, biblical theology to realize that each of us is responsible for receiving what God alone as can and does give. Specifically, the “seed” the Sower sows is given so that it might take root in and among our own lives. Clearly, the “Sower” is not an example of agricultural best practices. At first glance, the “Sower’s” throwing seed hither and yon appears to be shockingly wasteful; but this concern is irrelevant when one stops to remember that God, the “Sower”, has an infinite supply of “seed”. As such, why bother acidulously planting seed in uniform lines, one-by-one? God’s seed (that is, God’s life) is boundless and never ending. So, Which now brings me back to my earlier reference: “What’s the word, rockin’ bird?” Our natural and understandable tendency to focus on the parable’s soil notwithstanding, a more careful reading realizes that the catalyst in the parable consistently is the “seed”. The undeniable truth of this emerges when Jesus uniquely explains the parable’s meaning, identifying the “seed” as the “word” -- God’s Word, God’s life. No matter what condition the soil is in, “seed” is sown by the “Sower”. The Sower can’t help this. It is his divine nature. This is to say, that no matter what the level of the heart’s hardness or the mind’s distractive rebellion is, God’s “word” is given, is present, and is at work, giving us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves. And this circles back to this discerning question: Is it God or acid indigestion? “What’s the word, rockin’ bird?” Two closing points. The first: In the beginning was the WORD, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. So goes the majestic and soaring prelude to the gospel of John. Applied to this day’s Matthean gospel parable, the “word” and the “seed” in Jesus’ telling quietly, humbly, and ironically refer to the one who tells the parable. “Let anyone with ears listen!” Let anyone with eyes dare to see. The second closing point concerns the status of our own soil and to what extent our soil receives God’s seed, God’s Word, God’s life. It should be no shock to any of us who dare to be honest that our lives are a mishmash of “soils’. Internally, we all have hardpan soil over which we have compacted our lives, walking only in the controllable and familiar paths. There is also “rocky ground” within us that is receptive to the “fun” of being God’s people but as soon as times of testing emerge that part of us runs for other types of entertaining distraction. “Thorns” also exist in our interior gardens. These prickers pierce our souls and torture our minds to the extent that we are choked with anxiety and fear. Then, too, there is fertile ground within us all. And it is amazing what God can and will do with this generative dust and dirt, of which we were originally made. And, my friends, this is the “Word,” rockin’ bird”: God is not done with us . God is not done with us either as people, his people, nor with this parish church, this St. Philip’s. Don’t neglect any of your soil – fertile or otherwise because God is on the move among us. Those with ears to hear and eyes to see, spread the Word. Amen.