Rev. Susan M. Hudson, St Pauls Presbyterian Church, March5, 2014

Ash Wednesday

Preparing the Soil
[Joel 2:12-30; Psalm 51:1-17; Mt. 13:3-9]

            Our Old Testament Scriptures for the evening are rich in repentance.  When we follow Jesus into the shadows of the cross, Jesus wants us to be REAL. Real about our past regrets.  Real about our present struggles. Real about our fears of the future. 
The prophet Joel talks about the years the locusts ATE in Israel’s history.  Apparently God sent armies against Israel because of their sinfulness. God describes the armies as cutting locusts, swarming locusts, hopping locusts and devouring locusts.  But then God PROMISES to repay his people for those lost years.
 I remember a woman in our previous church calling me out of the blue one Sunday. She wanted to start back to church and happened to drive by ours.  She was in her late 50s, had just concluded an unhealthy relationship and was full of regrets. But when she heard the prophet, Joel’s words that God would give back to her the years of her life that the locusts had eaten, her heart danced with joy.  She joined the church and before long became a deacon, an elder, a Stephen minister and Stephen Leader, and the church’s liaison with the local Family Promise organization, which helps shelter homeless women and children.  She found a church family in a hurry, made up for lost time, and experienced great joy in the process.
God allows bad things to happen in our lives.  God allows us to reap what we sow.  God allows the consequences of our decisions to come home to roost.  However, Max Lucado beautifully reminds us in his Guideposts article, “A Time to Grow,” that “God is at his best when our life is at its worst.”  Lucado is a popular pastor and writer of Christian books. In “A Time to Grow” he reflects on the beauty that arises out of the ashes of our lives. He has seen it over and over again in his ministry and even in his own family. 
But it does not start until we “get REAL” with God about our own lives.   Even though God already KNOWS what’s going on, God wants us to “fess up…” and acknowledge our profound need for God’s love, God’s healing and God’s presence in our lives.
Psalm 51 is all about “fessing up…” to sin. It is King David’s greatest Prayer of Confession, following his desire for Bathsheba and his murder of her husband by putting him in the front lines of battle.  David’s deep dark hole of shame motivated him to write Psalm 51, which has been used over and over again to help people “fess up” and come clean with God.  Many songs have been written from this psalm. Google the words: Create in me a clean heart… and you will come up with many different versions. Created in me a clean heart, O God and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your presence and take not your Holy Spirit from me. Restore unto me the JOY of my salvation and set my spirit free.
Repentance helps till the soil of our lives, breaking up the hard ground, loosening the clods of dirt, preparing us to HEAR the words of Jesus, which are the seeds of new life and new growth.  Ash Wednesday reminds us we come from the earth and to the earth we shall return.  WE ARE THE SOILS that Jesus talks about in Matthew 13.
Some people call it the Parable of the Sower, who is God, but others call it the Parable of the SOILS. The farmer or sower is God scattering seeds far and wide to all people and into all types of soil. Some farmers would say it sounds quite extravagant, even foolish, because a wise farmer scatters the seeds onto the plowed & fertile fields where growth would be more certain, but for some reason, Jesus’ scatters seed over all types of ground with great generosity.
We are the SOILS where the seeds fall. Some of us have not taken time to prepare ourselves to receive God’s words of life, so the roots can’t grow deep, birds come and eat the seeds and there is not a great yield.  But if we open our ears to hear this teaching of Jesus, I think we can learn something very important.
 Our spiritual lives need to be PREPARED to receive the grace of God.  Our soil needs to be plowed, fertilized and readied to receive.  What does the season of preparation look like?  I believe that’s the gift of LENT. Many churches and individuals “give something up” for Lent, which began long ago in the Catholic Church, but has become more popular in Protestant Churches. 
For 40 days some people may give up meat, or chocolate, or alcohol, or cursing, whatever God leads them to do, but I think it’s important not to trivialize this spiritual practice.  One person told me that “whatever we are holding behind our backs” is what we idolize… and what we most likely need to give up. Anything we do not want to tell others about, or anything we are holding onto too tightly is probably something which interferes with our spiritual well-being and growth.
Giving up something might be the wrong angle for you. You may need a new practice or discipline, such as regular prayer times, journal writing, attending worship or serving the needy.  That might be the discipline God is inviting you to embrace for the next 40 days.
Whether God is leading you to “let go” or “jump on board and start paddling,” OPEN YOUR EARS THIS EVENING to hear God’s urging, to feel God’s wooing of YOU to prepare the soil of your life for God’s words and wisdom in the coming days and weeks leading up to Holy Week.
How are you spending your time?  On what does your mind dwell regularly?  Is there a need for re-prioritizing or re-structuring your life? 
I learned a really important lesson from a couple of Master Gardeners in our neighborhood the other day.  I was confessing that I do NOT have a green thumb and manage to kill plants rather than keep them. They told me about the importance of watering plants at the BOTTOM of their pots, not at the top of the soil.  That encourages the roots of the plants to grow DOWN deep into the soil.
Pretty simple, but I never thought it before. I wonder how that translates in relation to our spiritual roots in Christ.  We need to water our lives at the very base…what does that mean?  Perhaps we need to study the Bible more intensively, as the foundation where faith can take root in knowledge.  How can we water and nourish our lives so that our roots grow deep in Christ?
My gut feeling is that… putting in the time… of reading the Bible, of praying, of worshipping… of simplifying our lives, of good stewardship… all culminate in healthy roots, so that when the storms of our lives come, WHICH THEY WILL AND THEY DO, the deep roots we have grown in Christ will hold us securely and keep us connected to Christ, our Source of spiritual nutrition.
Being reminded of our mortality…ashes to ashes and dust to dust… helps us CHERISH and SAVOR the days of our lives… and helps us CULTIVATE… the deep roots we need.
I have copied the Guideposts article, A Time to Grow, by Max Lucado… so you can read it at your leisure.  But I want to highlight one of his stories: about his own wife, Denalyn.   Years ago, she was fighting depression. Her life was loud and busy – 3 kids in elementary school and a husband who didn’t know how to get off the airplane and stay home.  She became severely depressed, which is not a good condition for any pastor’s wife, since congregations expected her to radiate joy. Denalyn did not play those games, so one Sunday when she was suffocating from depression, she could barely drag herself and the kids to church, she decided… if people ask how I am, I am going to tell them. And she did.  When asked she said: “I’m depressed. Feeling completely overwhelmed. Will you pray for me?”   Obligatory chats became actual conversations that led dozens of people to pray for her. Denalyn traces the healing of her depression to that particular morning, when on her darkest day, she found God’s presence among God’s people by being REAL and honest with them.
Instead of avoiding church when we are in pain, coming to church and being REAL has the potential to heal us.  I believe that with all my heart.  We are preparing our SOILS together, when we worship… we are tilling the hard ground… breaking up the clumps and waiting for God to sow the seeds which will become our own resurrection.  Let us pray.