Curious Theology

God-talk in the form of a question.

SERMON: Leave a Trail (presented at Judson Memorial Church, 7/20/14)

(The Parable of the Sower)

I come before you today with a confession: I might be the only thirty-something-year-old man who has ever Googled the question: “Does Estée Lauder still manufacture Youth-Dew?”

If you don’t know what Youth-Dew is, it’s Estée Lauder’s oldest fragrance and, to me, it’s always smelled something like the chemical combination of damp wood, dried flowers, and deep regret.

I love the stench of Youth-Dew.

My grandmother Ruby Marsh, for all the years I knew her, kept her bathroom stocked with not only multiple bottles of this liquid regret, but also a gigantic mint-green box filled with a powder puff the size of a baseball mitt and a seemingly-bottomless pool of regret-infused beige powder.

Ruby Marsh is the reason I love the stench of Youth-Dew.

Next month marks the one-year anniversary of Ruby’s death and it also marks the one-year anniversary of one of the most affecting spiritual moments I’ve ever had. This moment occurred as I arrived at her home in Marshville, North Carolina, walked into the room where I had slept every summer of my childhood, put down the suit I would wear at her funeral, inhaled the trail of Youth-Dew that filled the empty space she had once inhabited, and suddenly saw her, plain as day, standing in the room with me. She didn’t say anything, but my mind began to flood with memories I had long forgotten. And when I say my mind flooded with forgotten memories, I don’t mean that I suddenly remembered how much I loved her or got an intense sense of peace. I mean that I got zapped by the details of specific events that I had literally erased up until that moment.

As my nostrils filled with the scent of this perfume I had never liked, this holographic grandmother sent messages straight into me: I recalled a smack on the bottom when I was acting particularly ornery and hearing her drawled proverb, “Pretty is as pretty does.” I recalled telling her that I dreamed of having a huge black mole on the top of my foot just like she had. I recalled asking her for this beautiful doll she owned and her saying that I could have it when she died and me crying that that day would never come.

My grandmother had left a trail, not only of her perfume, but of her Self, her actions, her love, her Southern sass, her simple faith, her everything. And the trail was floating there, quietly, waiting for me to decide what to do with it, if I could stop for a moment, step outside the path I’d been rushing along, and allow her trail to change me.

Today’s Ancient Testimony features another trailblazer, the world-famous Sower. And we’ve heard this story so many times it probably seems far from radical. But today, I want to point out two things: First, this little parable takes on even greater significance when viewed next to the text surrounding it. Here, Mark’s Jesus takes extra care to bookend the Sower’s story with the same exclamation: Listen! According to Jesus, this isn’t just about seeds and soil. The whole point is about listening and hearing. Second, this Sower is actually quite indiscriminate with the seeds he sows, letting his seeds simply fall, not only into the birds’ path or onto the rocky ground or among the thorns, but even into the good soil. Some might call this laziness; I choose to call it generosity. He’s scattering what he has to give and he honestly doesn’t even seem to know which of his seeds will actually take lasting root.

Now, any time I’ve heard this parable in church, we’ve always focused on Jesus as the Sower and we humans as the soil, with the seeds representing the good news of the coming Kingdom. But I believe Jesus’ words also teach us how we might listen to and hear one another, here on earth, as we strive to create that Kingdom together.

What if we are always both the Sower and the soil? What if Jesus intends for us to straddle a line between blazing our own trail of lessons, like the Sower, and absorbing the trails of lessons blazed by those around us, like the soil? This is really, really hard work. It’s truly difficult to be a human being and an inanimate object at the same time. And that’s why both roles must be constantly active. It means we have to stay true to sowing our own seeds, while at the same time listening to and hearing the seeds sown by others, even the ones we don’t immediately want to accept, let alone absorb.

Now, as in all human endeavors, there’s an added complication here. Trails don’t just continue, uninterrupted and unending. Trails get severed and abandoned. They have detours and new directions. They get truly knotty when the trails of individuals are asked to coexist in a system of communal trails. But this is reality. We must listen to ourselves when blazing our individual trails, but we must also listen to everyone else when blazing our communal trails. When we don’t listen and when we don’t hear, the seeds we’re all sowing get devoured by the birds of misunderstanding, scorched by the heat of indifference, and choked by the thorns of self-interest.

And that’s why, in all the knotty possibilities and opportunities packed into our intersecting trails, we must do our best to take that ancient-modern prophet The Eleventh Doctor’s words to heart: “The future revolves around you, here, now, so do good!”

Of course, the idea of doing “good” is a daunting task. And for communities who have organized themselves around a common interest in doing what’s best for all, “good” is a devouring, heated, thorny thing. Our timeline would be so comforting if it ran just as linearly as we desired. But, as another regeneration of The Doctor once said, time doesn’t follow the straight course we often wish it did. Instead (and this is in very, very scientific language) time is a “big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey-wimey stuff.” Things don’t go the way we think or even hope they would. We are often surprised.

Just last week, our community learned that a beloved pastor and his partner will be blazing a new trail across the country, taking root at a new church in a new city with a new community. Like all of you, my soil-self is having a very hard time absorbing this information, let alone listening, hearing, and allowing the news to take root. But that’s what’s so annoying about Michael’s trail and Alana’s trail. I don’t have any control over them. I only have control over how I support them in this new direction and how I allow the seeds they’ve scattered here to take root inside my memory, my heart, and my actions. Michael and Alana have changed me, they have changed this place, they have changed each and every one of us, in big ways that have us grieving our loss, and in tiny ways we won’t recall for years to come. Michael and Alana have touched us and we have touched them and, as Octavia Butler says, “All that you touch, you Change. All that you Change, Changes you. The only lasting truth is Change. God is Change.”

Change is the possibility found in the space between being the Sower and the soil. And straddling this space gives us the permission to straddle a sense of mourning and a sense of opportunity. We want Michael and Alana to blaze the trails they need to blaze. They might be leaving the trail we wanted for them, but they are also leaving a trail in their wake, a trail littered with PopLabs, and prayer groups, and Bailout Theater, and flash mobs, and obscure science fiction references, and the memory of one of the most gorgeous, homemade weddings ever erected by a community of Sowers.

I would probably be embarrassed to offer this talk if Michael and Alana were here with us, so this can be our little secret. I am so happy that we have this trail of astonishing memories that will continually be resurrected in this community, even after they’re living a few miles away, but I am also so sad to see them go. And while it’s just us, I want to sit for a bit longer in this happy-and-sad state.

In a moment, you’ll hear Michael Conley and Matt Cleaver perform two of Tom Waits’ most beautiful musical parables. One is for Michael and Alana, two trailblazers who must now straddle the reluctance to leave a community who loves them with the sense of possibility that comes from a new opportunity. The other is for us, the ones who must now straddle the joy we feel for them as they take a detour from our knot of trails with the deep sadness we feel at the thought of not having them by our immediate side.

But, even in the wake of change, trails don’t just lead us to and from places. They also do something even more remarkable: Trails linger. They inform every choice we make for the rest of our lives, as long as we let them. As long as we listen and hear. One Tom Waits song speaks of a long-forgotten melody suddenly heard again that takes him back in time to a love long lost. This room, this gorgeous, old, quirky, ever-changing room holds both ancient and brand-new melodies. This room is filled with the trails of every single person who has spent ten years, ten months, or even ten minutes in it. We don’t always listen to all of those trails or to all of the tiny seeds scattered along them, but they are there, wrapped up in the wibbly wobbly timey-wimey history of this place and this community.

So let’s take a moment to listen extra-hard right now. Let’s listen to the trails left by the sermons of former pastors, by the palpable passions of eclectic activists, by the ostentatious offerings of authentic artists. Let’s listen to the trails of departed friends and lovers, those who passed from this life too soon, those we miss, those who changed the air in this place and the chemistry of our hearts. And let’s allow those trails to do all sorts of things: anger us, sadden us, remind us. But let’s also allow those trails to inform, affect, and continue to change our own ever-blazing trails.

We’re not done. Our work continues. Our service never ends. We’re still sowing. Those who move to other communities carry our trails with them and connect our trails to trails we never thought we’d meet. Those who die leave trails of stinky perfume, and raucous laughter, and honest tears, and memories that swirl around our ears, begging to be heard and absorbed and remembered and, most of all, used for good.

Everything you touch, you change. Everything you change, changes you. Be the sower and be the soil, and always remember that our trails blaze and linger. Listen to and hear the surprising directions our timelines take. Possibilities take root even along the darkest paths. Somewhere in the Universe there might be fixed moments in time, but, luckily, this isn’t one of them.

Let us pray:
Creative Hands of the Universe:
Keep us conscious of the trails we leave.
May we always seek new ways to intersect.


For Your Meditation:
“Do not go where the path may lead, go where there is no path and leave a trail.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ancient Testimony
The Parable of the Sower
Again, Jesus began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.” And he said, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”

Modern Testimony
Doctor Who, Season 5, Episode 9: Cold Blood
“There are fixed points throughout time where things must stay exactly the way they are. This is not one of them. This is an opportunity! Whatever happens here will create its own timeline, its own reality, a temporal tipping point. The future revolves around you, here, now, so do good!” — The Eleventh Doctor