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The First Congregational Church, Columbus Ohio
Sunday, July 10, 2005
A sermon delivered by The Rev. Timothy Ahrens

Dedicated to Matty McKenna Provenzano on her baptismal day, to the memory of The Rev. George Parsons, and to twenty youth and adults from Dublin UCC and First UCC who toiled in the sun to help one family in need and always to the glory of God!
The Story of Life
Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Jesus was a storyteller. In the context of his times, in the reality of his people's lives, he wove the stories of life. One day, the story in our Good Book tells us, Jesus left his house and sat on the beach. In no time the crowds gathered around him at the seaside and he stepped into a boat, which became his pulpit, and told the story of a farmer planting seeds. As he cast his seeds upon the earth, some fell on the roads, where the birds ate them; some fell on the gravel, where the seeds sprouted quickly, but with no roots withered in the sun; some fell on the weeds where they were strangled as they grew, and some fell on the good earth where they multiplied beyond his wildest dreams.

In our times, in the reality of our lives, sitting beside our youth and adults pounding nails on a hot roof in Edgewater, Florida, I couldn't help but imagine Jesus telling the story of the roofers. Like the parable of the sower, it is the story of life. It may have sounded something like this (with background sound of constant pounding all around). The roofers went out to lay shingles in the steaming hot Florida summer. As they pounded their nails, some nails slipped and fell off the roof into the grass where the ground crew picked them up by hand or with magnets. As some nails were pounded, they went crooked and caused the roofers much anguish and lost time as they tried to straighten them and reset them in the roof. Some nails went into the roof, but when people started walking on the roof they popped out and needed to be replaced. And most nails were hit strong and straight and remain in the roof this morning, bracing it for a period of time which will withhold all hurricane winds and keep that roof in place for years to come!

Like the seeds sown, the nails in this story have meaning for our lives. Once we were re-hydrated and resting in air-conditioning, I can hear Jesus telling us the meaning of the parable of the roofers. As in the ancient of days, this master-story teller would not waste words, each metaphor having meaning in the story of life.

The first nail which slipped and fell from the roof is like the person who hears God's word and doesn't take it in. It just remains on the surface and the Evil One comes along and plucks it right out of the person's heart.

The second nail which bends upon pounding is like the person who hears God's word and instantly responds with enthusiasm. It seems to be going into the heart, but, the nail really hasn't held in the wood and so when the emotions wear off and some difficulty arrives, there is nothing to show for it.

The third nail, which goes in and then pops out later is like the person who hears the good news of God's love, but when the something shakes them, or moves them ever so slightly, they start to worry and doubt what they received. They want more and more and they fall away and only a hole is left where the nail once held in the roof.

The fourth nail is like the person who hears God's word and it holds in his or her heart. It is strong, steady, sure. Driven like a power-driven nail gun into the consciousness of the faithful one, the Word of God is so strong nothing can shake it. In this person, we see the fruits of faith and stability of belief hold firm and grow throughout their lifetime. No storm will rip it from the wood. No one will tear this believer away from their Savior. Such faith produces hope, life, light, and love beyond your wildest dreams!

Now in Matthew's gospel, Jesus goes on to tell another story. But, let's just stay here for a moment and reflect upon its meaning for our lives. Let me ask you a few questions: How do you hear God's word? In this story, with which seed (or nail, as it were) do you identify? Also, how receptive are you to hearing God's word? In other words, what type of soil are you? What kind of wood are you? Does hearing God's word lead you to understanding and does it guide you to a living faith? Or has God's Word simply remained on the surface of your life; OR gone in for a moment in time and been swept away with the first storm OR been initially strong, but when shaken given way to doubt and disbelief? In other words, what fruit of faith have you borne?

How we hear and respond to God's word is at the heart of Christian faith. Because how we live our faith really matters. I John 3:18 puts it this way, "Let's not just talk about love, let's practice real love. This is the only way we'll know we are living truly, living in God's reality." In other words, "just do it - just live in love - people of God." Share the moral values you have gained from walking with Christ through truth and action. If we live well and right, God is glorified and through this, Christ has brought real disciples into his fold of faith.

As I ponder this text, I often wonder: Was Jesus trying to explain why there is failure in the mission of the church or was he trying to encourage his disciples by proving good soil brings an abundant yield? It is my belief that Jesus was offering both an explanation for failure and encouragement for discipleship.

Speaking of failure in the mission, one of the questions I most often receive from strong, growing faithful members of the church relates to people who have dropped out and disappeared from church. You point out that they entered church so enthusiastically and now, have seemingly become lost. When ask where they are, you need to know it is a question which plagues me on many levels. As I pray for the church each day, I ponder this more than you will ever know. Often I have called, emailed, or dropped notes - all to little or no avail.

Through 20 years, I have found that most folks on the drop-out track fall into one of the three categories of this parable. Either they have shut their minds to something they have heard and walked away, or they have enthusiastically received the Word and then simply moved on to something else, or the other interests of their lives have crowded out the importance of God's word and the place of faith in their lives.

When people ask me about the missing, I often respond, "Pick up the phone and call them. Find out for yourself where they are and what is going on." I mean this in the best possible way. I believe your relationship with this person and/or your desire to see them in fellowship with all of us has the best possible chance of bringing them back. Reach out to them. Call them. It is the best thing you can do to support them and encourage them. A call from a layperson to another layperson is the most effective call in the church dating back to its beginning of the church!

If you have been missing one or more people from church, I want you to write down their names right now. Make a commitment to pick up the phone and call them this week to see how they are doing and invite them back to church. Keep me in the loop. Let me know what you discover.

Having said this, remember this parable of the sower. If a person is going to be a growing disciple of Christ and walk in the way of Christ, they need to let the word of God settle deeply and richly into their soul. No one else can do this for them. It takes practice. It takes prayer. It takes commitment. It takes investment of self and soul.

Rich soil for the God's Word needs to be nourished by fertilizer. When Susan and I moved into our first home, the ground in the back of our house was clay. We couldn't grow anything. As we became friends with Bruce and Desi Vaughn and Bruce's folks, Clyde and Elva, we hauled horse manure off their farm and out of their barns and dumped it into our soil. It took years of working the soil and literally a ton of manure to grow great gardens in our garden boxes behind the house. It did not happen over night. It happened in the seasons of life and living. It happened through the up-building of soil. Jesus was right. Growing faith works the same way. You cannot expect to get this faith by coming to church a few times, hearing a few sermons, listening to a few anthems, singing a few hymns, and joining in a few prayers. You need to come regularly, listen and respond to God's word regularly, study God's word on your own and in Bible Study, listen to and sing the faith over a lifetime, and pray to God daily, without ceasing.

At the end of our mission trip to Florida, we roofers had blisters, burns, a few holes in our hands, sore bodies and, of course, phenomenal roofing fatigue. We worked beside each other in sun and rain, in tremendous heat and humidity, through any number of bent, lost and flying nails (I believe some are still in flight!). But, we also gained something more precious than gold. Our faith and friendships grew deeper. No one can or ever will take our laughter, our love, our friendship and our faith away from us - for the soil of our souls is richer and more determined to live for Christ!

Matty, today you become part of the story of life and faith at First Church. Through water and the Holy Spirit, you join our family of faith. I pray that the soil of your soul is receptive to God's word. I pray that you will be nurtured and supported in a household of faith that will encourage you to become open to God's word. I pray that one day, when you walk down the hallway of the Christian Education Building and pass by the painting of the Parable of the Sower, you too will be sore, blistered and burned from a mission trip to some hot and humid place. You too will be a living parable - still under construction - but strengthened by the friendships and faith you have gained on your journey. And I know, as I pray, that no one will be able to take the blessings of this foundational faith away from you. God bless and keep you, Matty, and everyone in this story of life listening today. For you, and everyone here, is a child of blessing and a child of promise. Amen.

Copyright 2005, The First Congregational Church