(I preached this sermon on Sunday, July 12, 2020. The Gospel reading was Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. You can find the entire worship service at www.ststephenlc.org)
I know nothing about farming. I know very little about gardening. We tried having a box garden in our backyard a number of years ago. We got some green beans to grow. There were a few pumpkins that would start to grow – but they stayed small. There may have been a few other things that we were able to grow, but overall, I’m a terrible gardener.
Which is why I’m not all that crazy about today’s Gospel reading – at least on a surface level-reading of the parable. But even for someone like me, when we dig into a bit, there’s something rich in the soil of this parable.
Jesus spoke this parable to a group of people who understood agriculture and growing things. These were people who were in touch with the land after all. The land was about their survival. Have a good crop and you’d survive a bit longer – have a really bad crop and you might starve to death.
Today, we find Jesus out in the country. A great crowd has gathered around him. A multitude of people. All coming from different places, doing a variety of things. Why did they come to hear him? We aren’t told. We are just given that a large crowd gathered.
I wonder if Jesus looked out on the crowd and discerned something – that these people aren’t just numerous and have different professions and are in different stations in life. I wonder if he looked at them and saw something deeper, below the surface – the condition of their hearts. The parable Jesus tells isn’t so much a parable about farming as it is about two things – God and us.
The parable is certainly about God. God is the sower. Jesus tells us that the sower just throws the seeds carelessly, as if the sower has an abundance of seed. The sower isn’t even concerned with being careful with where the seeds land. It just gets thrown out there.
Isn’t that how the Gospel works though? It gets thrown out carelessly – carelessly as far as who hears it. It gets spoken to a variety of people in a variety of ways. It is spoken to those who will listen of course. But it’s spoken out to those who won’t also. Maybe they are busy. Maybe they have a lot on their minds – their retirement, work, school, a sick loved one, politics, where to get enough money to pay a car bill or medical bill, a pending diagnosis from the doctor, anxiety that just sits with people, depression, thoughts of suicide, hunger, and a host of unjust systems that keep people in bondage. It can be tiring just surviving.
The Gospel is spoken to those who have closed their hearts and minds to it – maybe they have been hurt by a church. Maybe they have put their faith in someone or something else – someone or something who has presented a vision of a supposedly fantastic future that offers some kind of “salvation”. Maybe they have been given promises that sound so good that they get sucked in. And they feel it’s too late to turn back when they start to realize they have been lied to and conned.
The Gospel is spoken far and wide. For us, that’s part of our call. To proclaim the Good News far and wide. Our call of discipleship isn’t to hand pick who we share this news with. It’s not to make a determination of who is worthy or ready to hear it – we don’t get to judge that. Nope – we are called to proclaim it. We’re called to proclaim it whether we feel ready and regardless of whether the situation is ideal or not, or if it might cause conflict. The Gospel often causes conflict with those who hear it. It’s a life-changing message after all. Some people have no interest in their lives changing. That doesn’t mean we act like a bunch of jerks who shove it down people’s throats. That’s not Christ-like and that’s not the Gospel either. It’s not about guilting or shaming people. It’s an invitation to new life.
And here’s the crazy thing – God isn’t worried about our success rate with this. It’s not us doing the work anyway. We don’t save anyone – that’s God’s work. It’s not even our news – it’s God’s news. By the world’s standards, the sowing of the Gospel seems to be unlikely and a waste – a failure just based on raw percentages. The parable itself talks about how rare it is that the Gospel actually takes root in good soil.
But when it does, it yields an amazing return. All you have to do is look at Martin Luther King, Jr, or Mother Teresa, or Oscar Romero. They weren’t super humans who had some kind of amazing abilities. No, they were just people. They were broken like everyone else. The seed of God’s word hit them, transformed their soil. And all they did was follow Jesus. They took Jesus at his word. And they sowed seeds.
This parable is also about us. What soil are we? God carelessly throws the Gospel around and at some point it hits us. What kind of impact does it have on us? How does it transform our soil? How does it shape us to follow Jesus?
Dr. Holly Hearon of Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis posed the following questions regarding this parable:
What does it mean to be good soil, prepared to receive the word of God?
How do we assess what kind of shape our soil is in?
What would we need to do for the seed to be able to take root in our bodies and souls?
How will we know if that is happening?
And how might we nurture good soil in those around us?
These are great and probing questions. They require us to do some self-examination, if we are up to the task.
But be careful. The point of these questions isn’t to add more burdens into our lives. It isn’t to showcase our weaknesses and how we fail. It isn’t beat ourselves up. No, it’s to point to God, the sower. We can’t change on our own. We can’t be transformed on our own. The soil doesn’t do anything on its own. Yes, it has nutrients and minerals. But soil, if left to its own device, will never grow anything. It just remains dirt. Doesn’t matter how much you till it. Doesn’t matter how many weeds you pull out of it. Doesn’t matter how much light or water is poured into it. It’s just dirt on its own. Remember, we are dust, and to dust we shall return.
It’s only when a seed is planted into it that the soil becomes something. The seed joins with the soil to produce something wonderful. The seed is needed to get things going. The seed draws on what is there and uses minerals and resources that have been in the ground since the beginning. And you know who put those things in the soil, in us – God.
And so it is with the Word of God. On our own, we’ll never be good enough. We’ll never be able to do enough. We’ll never truly tap into what’s within us – what’s always been there. But with the Gospel, we are changed and transformed. God draws out what has always been there. Not to make us great or successful in the eyes of the world. But rather, to make us life giving to those around us. And life giving, while it seems is a rare thing in our world today, is what bearing fruit is all about. While the world focuses its energy on trampling down signs of life, of resorting to violence, only worrying about getting what you need and want, of proclaiming that might makes right and only the strong survive, the Gospel offers an alternative. Or maybe better said, The Gospel is the norm. The world offers the alternative that has never worked, even though it’s been tried for all of human history. How’s that working out? All those things that I just named – how well are they working for us? Has it brought us peace? Does it offer us rest? Does it sustain life? Does it provide for what we really need? Can you honestly say yes to any of that? So why do we insist on continuing to try ways that have never worked and will never work?
God sows life giving seeds freely. They land all over the place. But when they take root – look what happens. There is abundance. There is life. There is enough for everyone. There is plenty. There is transformation. There is peace. There is healing. There is empowerment. There is justice. That’s the kingdom of God in our midst. That’s Jesus who shows up – taking on flesh and walking amongst us. And when that seed takes root, it spreads to the soil around it. And grows.
What’s the status of our soil? Do we want God’s seed to be implanted in us? Does it scare us how our lives will changed? What seed is God throwing at us? It’s the Kingdom seed. It’s the seed of life. Thanks be to God. Amen.