Mark 4:26-34 (The Message)
A few weeks ago, I found myself hiking in the woods with a young woman.
As we walked down the path together and the bright sunshine warmed our faces, getting to know each other, a couple walked past us in the opposite direction saying, “Hello!”
“Hello!” We responded back in unison.
“Wow,” my companion said afterward, “It’s so nice to have people say hi. In the city where I live, no one ever does that. People pass each other on the side with their eyes focused straight ahead.”
“Really?” I said surprised, “Cities are so dense.”
“Yeah, well, cities can be a lonely place to live.”
The young woman told me that she barely knew any of her neighbors. She lived in a sea of people and yet everyone passed by each other as they lived their life anonymously.
The woman’s experience is not unique. Shannon Kearns, a writer and theologian who lives in Minnesota, recently reflected on a growing sense of isolation that he has noticed in his own life. Shannon writes how there have been times when he wanted to reach out but resisted because he was afraid of being rejected or misunderstood. He didn’t reach out because he didn’t want to look weak or afraid or vulnerable. And so he suffered in silence.
Yet, in these moments of isolation, Shannon wonders, “What if my longing to connect with someone is just as strong as their longing to connect with me? What would change in my life if I went out of my way to connect with others?”
He at once longs to connect with those around him and, at the same time, is afraid to.
Shannon’s experience is symbolic of a greater shift that has happened in the American culture. A study in the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community points out that an increasing number of people are bowling alone these days and less people are bowling in leagues. This trend is indicative of the state of America – more people are doing things alone and less people are participating in community.
Not only have people’s participation in community decreased, but connections in the workplace and with family and friends have declined as well.
Loneliness is a growing reality in our nation.
And yet, we gather on Sundays to celebrate that God has gathered us from the scattered corners of the world and made of us a people.
We have Good News to share, but how do we share it?
What does the Good News look like in places of isolation and loneliness?
What does it sound like?
How do we reach out?
God calls us as a people to plant of love in the world around us. Yet, if we are to sprout seedlings effectively, it requires us to understand the soil in our backyards and in our neighborhoods.
This is the lesson that we learn from Jesus’ teachings today.
In the first story, at first glance, the farmer who sprouts seedlings makes it sound so easy! The man scatters seed on a field, goes to bed and forgets about it. The sun rises, the days pass until at last the seed borrows its way through the ground: first the stem, then a bud, then the ripened grain.
Yet, what the story leaves out is how the farmer studied the landscape, picked up the soil and rolled it around in his hands, how the farmer intimately learned the seasons and so he would know what the right place and time to plant would be.
If we are to sow seeds on the shoreline, we too must crouch down close to the earth, touch the soil, roll it around in our hands and gain an intimate understanding of it.
This is after all what Jesus did.
In the Scripture today, the author of Mark writes that Jesus fits “stories to [the people’s] experience and maturity.” Throughout Jesus’ ministry, Jesus takes scenes of everyday life – scenes of scattering seeds and of harvesting, scenes of kneading yeast into dough and gathering fish, scenes of parents and children, of bosses and employees – Jesus takes these ordinary scenes and uses them to connect with people and sharing the Good News in a way that speaks directly to their heart.
In Jesus’ ministry, time and time again, Jesus takes a risk and reaches out. Jesus wanders into towns and when he sees a stranger sitting up in the tree, Jesus says – hey Zacchaeus, let’s have dinner together – and, as Zacchaeus enthusiastically shouts “Yes!” from the tree, Jesus discovers that Zacchaeus is as hungry to connect with Jesus as Jesus is to connect with him.
Jesus wanders into another town and sits at the town’s main drinking well where a talks to strange woman who has a different religious affiliation than himself.
“Why are you talking to me?” The Samaritan woman asks aloud, “So many of your people have prejudices against folks like me.”
Jesus’ heart breaks as he hears this, as Jesus hungers to connect, to reach past the walls and borders that humanity erects.
“I have come,” Jesus explains, “to offer living water.”
The woman, however, remains skeptical about Jesus. “Tell me this,” she says, “Our ancestors worshiped God at this mountain, but you Jews insist that Jerusalem is the only place to worship, right?”
Jesus replies, “The time is coming – it has, in fact, come – when what you’re called will not matter and where you go to worship will not matter. It’s who you are and the way you live that count before God. You worship must engage your spirit in the pursuit of truth. That’s the kind of people our Holy Parent in heaven is looking for: those who are simply and honestly themselves before God in their worship. God is sheer being itself – Spirit. Those who worship God must do it out of their very being, their Spirit, their true selves in adoration.”
“I don’t know about that,” the woman responds, “I do know that the Messiah is coming and when the Promised One arrives, we’ll get the whole story.”
“I am the One,” Jesus says, and just like that Jesus shares his heart the world. Perhaps Jesus wondered how the woman would respond to his bold declaration: Would she criticize him or laugh at him or stare at him in disbelief and say something sarcastic like, “You’re the Promised One??”
Yet, Jesus understanding the soil of the woman’s soul, sees how hungry she is for acceptance, for welcome, for connection and for love as he is, so Jesus takes a risk and reaches out.
Is this what it looks like to share the Good News in a world of loneliness and disconnection?
Shannon Kearns, the writer and theologian I mentioned earlier, writes – after mentioning his growing sense of isolation – “I want to risk … I want to reach out … I want to connect … I don’t want fear to cut me off from love … Maybe we are all just afraid and if that’s the case and I can be the first one to reach out a hand … So here’s to risk and vulnerability and reaching out a hand in the darkness.”
Reaching out a hand in the darkness.
Like a seed sprouting through the dirt, reaching toward the light.
Like Jesus inviting a tree climber over for dinner.
Like strangers risking a hello on a walking path.
Like Jesus sharing himself with the people around him.
Reaching out a hand in the darkness.
Perhaps that is the task to which Jesus calls us.
What does it look like here in Essex and on the shoreline?
Perhaps, as people of faith, we are called to share the truth about our lives — to speak honestly about our experiences and struggles, to say I am afraid, or I struggle with depression or anxiety or I’m worried sick about my children or my marriage is falling apart or I’m addicted to my pain killers or sometimes the violence in this world is more than my heart can take or I worry about the veterans and the gay and lesbian youth in our world or I am lonely and just want to connect.
Perhaps, in this holy space, Jesus calls us not to put on our armor but rather to take it off like a seed shedding its sheath and sprouting new life; Jesus calls us to show our hearts that we might know even in these places of tenderness, God cares for us like a prodigal mother, who shares her love extravagantly and welcomes her children home again and again, no matter how far they wander or how lost they get.
Jesus calls us to care for the soil, to make it soft and tender for the planting.
For the kin-dom of God is like this —
Soil is felt and tasted, seeds are scattered, the sun rises, the days pass and a green shoot, ever so gingerly, sprouts from the seed and begins to inch its way up through the dirt.
A farmer walks by and doesn’t notice any changes to the field, perhaps forgetting that he had planted seeds in the first place.
The sun rises, the days pass and, slowly and tenderly, new life takes root.