Faith In Real Life Blog

Rev. Vernon Gramling

Decatur Presbyterian Church

August 11, 2022



Deut. 11:18-21
“You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. 19 Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise up. 20 Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 so that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your ancestors to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth.
Luke 8:5-8 & 11-15
4 When a large crowd was gathering, as people were coming to him from town after town, he said in a parable: 5 “A sower went out to sow his seed, and as he sowed some fell on a path and was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. 6 Some fell on rock, and as it grew up it withered for lack of moisture. 7 Some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew with it and choked it. 8 Some fell into good soil, and when it grew it produced a hundredfold.” As he said this, he called out, “If you have ears to hear, then hear!”
“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones on the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 The ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe only for a while and in a time of testing fall away. 14 As for what fell among the thorns, these are the ones who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 But as for that in the good soil, these are the ones who, when they hear the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart and bear fruit with endurance.
The first topic of our series on ‘Developing the Seven Marks of Congregational Vitality’ is nurturing discipleship. A disciple is simply someone who decides to follow and learn from a teacher.  We can nurture that relationship in at least two ways.   We can help create circumstances in which it is more likely we (or someone else) might choose to follow and then we can develop practices which encourage ourselves (or, again someone else) to continue to follow.  It is one thing to want to be on the swim team and another to practise long enough to to fully enjoy our God given talent. The reasons we choose to follow are quite varied—it used to be socially expected that someone belonged to a church—that is obviously much less true now.  RG told our FIRL group that he could often convince some of his peers in Viet Nam to go to chapel because they could get out of the office and be outside for an hour.  Some of us follow out of familial habit—some because our hearts are empty and some because we want our children to grow up in a church.  There are many reasons but it is not up to us to try to determine what is a ‘good’ reason.  Nobody is going to be able to follow if they have never heard the good news.  How we hear and why we are willing to listen at all is beside the point.  We have to start somewhere.  
The disciples of Jesus’ day were a motley, largely uneducated crew.  Most, not all, wanted what Jesus promised—a way of life that brought them closer to God.  And more particularly, a God who offered love and regard for all of us.  Every person’s worth is a given and a gift.  God gave purpose and meaning to existence and is a God who faced hardship, suffering and death squarely.  In traditional  language, Jesus promised salvation from our self centered attempts to earn our place in the world by promising  that our place was already granted.  Jesus offered a God who is steadfastly present and who frees us to new life.  
All of this and more are embedded in the biblical record of God’s saving acts.  Discipleship begins with hearing these stories and is sustained by repeating them.  We do not have to understand these stories when we first hear them but we have to hear them to have something to understand.
Early in High School, my family went to visit an elderly couple that were distantly related to us.  The husband had been a principal during the depression.  He took it upon himself to give me the advice that if I wanted to learn something and have it stick, I needed to engage as many senses as possible.  He must have engaged a lot of senses because it is virtually the only thing I remember about the visit.  The Jewish religious practices are replete with this wisdom.  The bible stories are called to mind in conversations, in the phylacteries, in meals, in prayer and in worship.  All of these practices help “put these words of mine in your heart and soul…” 
Protestants have relatively few ritualized practices.  They certainly exist, but in general, are not practiced broadly across the church. If worship participation is on the decline, personal prayer and/or devotions are much more so.  We are vastly more likely to depend upon the proclamation of the Word than adult bible study, small group participation or even intentional time for prayer and meditation.  Nor is it sufficient to rely upon examples.  “They’ll Know We Are Christians by Our Love” is a great hymn but unless we can differentiate between good social work and Christian mission, it will be very difficult to nurture discipleship in ourselves, much less others. Again, we need to learn the stories and we need to struggle with their applicability.  
The second scripture is one such story.  It is one of my favorite parables and has been enormously nurturing to my own discipleship.  For me, the parable builds a bridge between the biblical narrative and real life.  Without flinching, we are told that most of the time love does not lead to deep connection—with God or with each other.  It is more likely that kindness offered will not be received, or will fade after initial enthusiasm or be lost to routine or distraction.  It is only a fraction of the time the word of God (loving regard) bears fruit.  But in that fraction of time in which love grows, it is transformative.  And if we imagine God as the sower, God keeps planting in the full knowledge that most of his love will be unrequited.  He does not condition his planting upon the receptivity of the soil. We can argue that God is not very bright when it comes to planting and secularly that would be true.  But spiritually, God’s planting does not depend upon us.  We can be hard and unforgiving, shallowly engaging, growing but unproductive, God loves us still.  
In the parable and in real life, our capacity to respond to God is treacherously uneven.  God still loves and loves steadfastly.  That is something to count on and something to live by.  No human can match that depth of care.  No matter how much we love our friends, our spouses or even our children, we humans will tire of loving.  Hopefully not for long, but we will want a break from the work of loving. 
We must always remember discipleship begins with God—not the soil.  It is all too easy to make this parable about catoragizing ourselves as one kind of soil or another.  In real life, we are all four and we run into all four in the process of loving.  Jesus encountered the hardest soil imaginable.  He kept planting.  As his disciples we are called, within our many limitations, to do likewise—in the promise that God’s love never fails.  
In my practise I have found over and over again that most people can deal with hard truths if they are told the truth.  In the early days of Hospice there was a reluctance to tell patients they were terminal.  The fear was that such news would be so depressing that more people would commit suicide.  But that is not the case.  If the truth is spoken in love, most people deal.  I find encouragement in the biblical truth that none of us are protected from adversity and suffering, that all of us are profoundly limited even when we are trying to do our best, that secular perfection is without flaw but Christian perfection is living in the confidence that our secular flaws do not define us.  God’s love does.  
If we are going to nurture discipleship, we must learn the stories and lean into God’s steadfast love. 
Let it be so.