Tuesday, August 23, 2016

August 21, 2016 Having A Good Heart

How many gardeners do we have here this morning?  I am so sorry that you can’t find a better hobby.  I am not a gardener.  I think my reticence about gardening came from my early experience at I learned at an early age that I was not much of a farmer.

My family moved to our small farm in West Virginia when I was five years old.  The farm was only a few miles outside of my hometown of Wellsburg, West Virginia.  Previously, our home was on the banks of the Ohio River, where we were flooded on several occasions.  I think that my parents wanted to find higher ground after the floods (it’s not hard to find higher ground in the mountains of West Virginia) but I suspect it was really because my father wanted to farm.  In the mountains, however, it’s hard to find enough level ground to farm, which means there would never be enough farm income to support a family.  My father, then, worked in a steel mill to earn enough to raise a family, while my siblings and I did a lot of the work on the farm.  We grew two large gardens, and I spent many a summer day on the end of a hoe, digging weeds and promising myself that I would never have a garden of my own (a promise I have kept, to this day).  When Tanya and I married I told her I would be happy to do anything she asked, with one exception – I did not want anything to do with a garden. 

Though I was not a very good farmer, or gardener, I did grow to understand farm terminology and, certainly, analogies to farm work.  I’ve always enjoyed the Parable of the Sower, from which our message comes this week.  Anyone who has ever worked the soil will understand the comparisons that Jesus makes.  This morning, we are considering the four types of soil of which Jesus speaks, which are analogies of the different types of the human heart.

Luke 8:4-15 –

While a large crowd was gathering and people were coming to Jesus from town after town, he told this parable:
“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up.
Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture.
Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants.
Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.”
His disciples asked him what this parable meant.
10 He said, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of God has been given to you, but to others I speak in parables, so that,
“‘though seeing, they may not see;
     though hearing, they may not understand.’
11 “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.
12 Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.
13 Those on the rocky ground are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away.
14 The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature.
15 But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.

We are people who take very seriously the importance of caring for our hearts.  I have had a few medical issues related to my heart over the years, and when something goes wrong with your heart, let me tell you – it will get your attention in a well, heartbeat.  I’ve carried a copy of my EKG in my wallet for a number of years.  My doctor told me that I have an abnormal EKG – abnormal is normal for me (I tend to hear that a lot).  I can’t help but wonder, though, if I arrive at the emergency room, unconscious, in an ambulance, is anyone really going to go through my wallet to see if I have an abnormal EKG (actually, after one of our worship services, a nurse told me that, yes, the hospital personnel would indeed go through my wallet in such a situation in order to discover whether or not there were any conditions of which they should be aware.  I thought that was nice to know).

While it is important to care for our hearts, it is also important to care for our hearts in a spiritual sense as well.  We don’t, however, have the advantage of connecting a high-tech test to measure the spiritual health of our hearts, but in this parable Jesus describes four types of soil, and compares each type of soil to a condition of the human heart, and he gives us a way to measure the spiritual health of our hear.

1.  The Seed That Fell Beside the Road.
I am not a cynic, but I could be.

When we consider the condition of our world and all of its ills, the struggles of humanity, and the violence and hatred, it is easy to become discouraged to the point of allowing our hearts to grow cynical and hardened. 

When Jesus talks about the first type of soil he refers to the seed that falls beside the road and is trampled under foot.  Between the rows of crops were paths and right of ways where the ground was worn down and hardened by wear and the seed could not manage to penetrate that hard soil.

There are a lot of people who are beaten down by the wear and tear of life.  These are people who have become hardened by life’s difficulties and their hearts have grown cold and bitter.  Just like the hardened pathways, their hearts have become hardened and the good seed of the gospel has a difficult time penetrating their hearts.  They have suffered loss or been through difficulties that cause them to close off their hearts, to become distant to other people, and they make a choice – sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously – not to allow themselves to be hurt again, and they close off their heart and it grows hard, callous, and unresponsive.

The difficulties and struggles of life can harden our hearts.  When we’re young we are idealistic and believe we can change the world and we’re ready to take on any challenge and we don’t need faith to move a mountain because we can pick that mountain up by ourselves and move it somewhere else – do you remember feeling this way?  But life’s realities start to settle in on us, and that idealism and hope starts to slip away.  We are hurt by what happens to us as we move through life and we find we can’t solve every problem in the world so we start down the road to disillusionment.  I know ministers who have started out with the intention of changing the world and when realities started to sink in they close off their hearts and it hardens because of the hurt they suffer in dealing with people and the problems of people.  I know people who used to have the most open hearts but now they are closed off because of the wear and tear of life.

There have been times when I have felt myself consciously closing off my heart.  Because of a time of struggle or other difficulty I could feel my heart become like that hard, beaten down path.

2.  The Seed That Fell On Rocky Soil.
Jesus says this is the kind of soil where there is just enough soil to allow something to grow but not enough of a root system to give it adequate nourishment to survive.

There is rocky soil, which doesn’t mean you always see the rocks, as they are just below the surface.  There is a thin layer of soil that is not deep enough to produce any kind of mature or worthwhile crop.  And when you have shallow soil that does not allow for any root system to develop the crop quickly withers because there is no support system, there is no way to get adequate nourishment and sustenance. 

Years ago, at another church, we were preparing to remove some shrubs that grew alongside the sanctuary.  We thought we could just pull them out of the ground with little effort.  They didn’t come out as easily as we had hoped.  We kept increasing the machinery we used to pull them out.  We used a tractor and a chain, but the back wheels of the tractor spun on the blacktop and would not budge those shrubs.  Next, we used a backhoe, hooked up a chain, and then put down the feet of the backhoe in the pavement.  When he drew the bucket back the roots of those shrubs were so deep, even with those feet down, the backhoe was pulled across the pavement.  Those were some deep, tough roots.

It is so important to be rooted – to be connected – to something.  When Jesus talks about a faith that exists for a while but then fades away during a time of testing he is talking about a faith that is not rooted to anything.

We are, in our society, becoming more and more a rootless people.  The old bonds and ties that used to exist are passing away and with their passing there is a loss of a support system that helped people to weather the difficulties and struggles of life.

The church, the body of Christ, provides a rootedness that connects us to something beyond our own life that is absolutely essential to a faith that is growing and alive.

Shallow faith turns people into spiritual consumers rather than servants, it’s a faith that reduces everything down to a few slogans or a few things to be against rather than what we are for.  But a deeply rooted faith is one that blossoms into maturity, it is one that will sustain us through difficulty, and it is one that will keep our hearts open and loving.

3.  The Seed That Fell Among the Weeds.
Some years ago I was working on flower beds around the house and I cleaned them out, sprayed the ground with weed killer, put down a cover to keep any weeds from growing, put some decorative rock down, added clean topsoil, and then sprayed weed killer again.  And guess what I grew?  Weeds!
There is the essence of the problem I have with yard work.  No matter how hard I work I have never been able to grow a good stand of grass.  Lawns need to be fertilized and treated and seed sown every year; there’s a multitude of things we have to do in order to have a nice, healthy lawn.  Isn’t it amazing, though, that nothing is required to grow a nice stand of weeds?  I can grow the best crop of dandelions and weeds by simply doing nothing.

The third condition of the heart that Jesus describes is when we life and love are choked out by what he calls life’s worries, riches and pleasures (verse 14).  Worries will certainly do that.  And riches and pleasures fall under the category of distractions.  But there are a lot of distractions in life, and many of them are very good distractions.  They are good things, worthy of our time and consideration.  But they are not the best things in life and should not crowd out the best things.  The greatest enemy of the best in life, says William Barclay, is not the worse; the greatest enemy of the best in life is often the second best.
(The Gospel of Luke, revised edition, The Daily Study Bible Series, by William Barclay, page 100).

One of the greatest dangers in life is not that we pursue things that are unworthy or bad, but that we allow necessary things in life to rise to the level of the greatest importance.  Everybody needs to earn a living, but is earning a living all there is to life?  No.  Everybody needs recreation and entertainment in life, but is recreation and entertainment all there is to life?  No. There is, unfortunately, a strain of faith in our society that is very puritanical and wants to remove all the pleasures and enjoyments out of life.  They don’t need to be removed; they just need to find their proper place and their proper role in life.

It is very easy for life to rearrange our priorities, even without us noticing.  Have you thought about your priorities lately?  Are they aligned with what matters most to you?  Do they reflect your spiritual priorities?

4.  The Seed That Falls Into the Good Soil.
Jesus said this seed produced a crop a hundred times over.  That’s a pretty good return.  This is an encouragement to remember that the gospel still takes root in lives and when it does it results in an amazing return.  This is an encouragement to not despair.  There are times when we wonder if what we do makes any difference – it does.

I read once of a group of archeologists who discovered some seeds in an ancient Egyptian tomb.  Out of curiosity they planted them to see what would happen.  Guess what happened?  Some of them actually grew.  Isn’t it amazing there was still life in some of those old seeds?

What matters here is not how well the disciples understood the message or how well received it was by the crowds either then or now, but the power of God’s work to bring transformation.

A healthy heart doesn’t just happen.  A healthy heart is, first of all, my responsibility, and I must work at it.  It’s easy to assign blame for things elsewhere, but it is my responsibility to work at growing a healthy heart and spirit.

Do you identify with any of the types of soil of which Jesus speaks?  Do you feel worn down by life?  Do you feel as though you have not put down any permanent roots, especially spiritual roots?  Do you feel as though the many responsibilities and chores of life choke out some of the more important matters of life?  Do you feel as though your life is bearing good fruit?  How healthy is your heart?  Which soil represents your heart?

Having a good, healthy heart is important, but not just in a physical way, but also a heart that is healthy spiritually.  Does your need a check-up?

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