July 12, 2020 Sixth Sunday after Pentecost The text is Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.
1 That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea. 2 Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3 And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4 And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5 Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6 But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7 Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8 Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. 9 Let anyone with ears listen!”
18 “Hear then the parable of the sower. 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; 21 yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. 23 But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to You, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours from God the Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.
This morning’s Gospel reading is the first of three in Matthew, that we will hear over the next few Sundays. At least a portion of each of them speaks to agricultural concepts; I like to call them the “Seeds and Weeds” parables. And while planting, weeding, good soil, and mustard seeds are the metaphors used, each of the parables is being utilized by Jesus to explain the coming kingdom of God. More on that later. In this time and place it can be challenging for us to follow along as Jesus draws analogies relevant to the three most common vocations of the people he was preaching to. Think about nearly all the parables you remember Jesus teaching through; they were concerned with herding sheep, catching fish, or, like the one this morning; farming. Jesus invited his listeners to learn about the kingdom he preached, and he did so by speaking in parables that related to them as the farmers, fishermen, and shepherds they were.
It’s a bit ironic that the second portion of the reading this morning speaks of the disciples asking Jesus to explain the parable to them. The disciples were fisherman; but the crowd to which Jesus originally spoke would probably have understood it without the explanation. The allegory is actually rather obvious, even though Jesus has to unpack it for the disciples. Seeds cast onto a hard-beaten path remain on the surface, never take root, and turn into bird seed. Thus, the Gospel message falls on deaf ears of some who simply choose not to take it in. The seeds that land in the gravel-strewn soil take root quickly, but the roots don’t burrow deep into the rocky dirt. Plants may sprout, but without a strong, healthy root system, they wither and die. This is a metaphor for people who respond to Christ’s message of the coming of God’s kingdom, but as soon as the excitement and emotion of hearing the word wear off or some difficulty arises, the message is abandoned. Seed cast among the weeds is soon choked out. These are the folks who hear God’s word but the weeds of worry, and greed, and selfishness strangle the Good News of the Gospel message before it can grow and flourish. And finally, the metaphor about “good soil”. This is the easy one, right, and the one we all want to identify with. Those who are willing to hear the word of God and live by its teaching, will be the ones who will reap a harvest beyond their wildest dreams.
So let’s examine the basic pretense of this agricultural parable. Even if the disciples didn’t get it, the farmers in the crowd surely would have. No prudent farmer would ever spread seed in such an inefficient manner, tossing it about without regard for where it might land. The sower would first prepare the soil by tilling it over, adding fertilizer, and ensuring it was free from stones and weeds. Farming then, and now is the epitome of efficiency and exactness. “Good soil” would be guaranteed, well in advance of the planting time. The underlying, yet unspoken revelation in the story is that of God’s extravagance; the Good News of the kingdom of heaven is scattered over everyone, whether they are of “good soil” or not. God doesn’t wait for a person’s heart to be ready to hear or accept God’s Word. If we happen to be like the hard path, the rocky dirt, or the weed-infested plot, the message of the kingdom is still broadcast, still dispersed over us. And that’s a reassuring thought. After all, I’m not really sure how many of us would qualify as “good soil” anyway. But the opportunity to accept the seed of God’s promised kingdom is made available to us, no matter the condition of our “soil”; which is really the openness, the willingness of our hearts to be instilled with the Word.
Which brings us to the component of the “garden” of our spirit that is seemingly overlooked in the parable of the Sower. Yes, there is the “Sower”, the farmer who scatters the seeds of the word of God. And there is the “soil”; good, or bad. Fertile; or barren, inhospitable to growth. In this parable there is no mention of, what I think may be the most important character in the story. Every garden needs a “gardener”. The one whose job it is to maintain the fertility of the soil, to ensure it remains a rich, lush, productive field where God’s word will take root, bloom, and flourish. “Good soil”, in order for it to remain conducive for growth must be fed, fertilized, weeded, and watered.
If the place where seed falls is hardscrabble and unyielding, it may be tilled or plowed to prepare it to receive seed. Stones can be removed from earth to render it acceptable for planting. Even the most stubborn weeds can be defeated if the gardener is persistent, and determined to eradicate them.
What about “good soil”? Even properly prepared earth that is fed, weeded, and watered needs the constant attention of the gardener if the yield of the harvest is to be maximized. Jesus tells the disciples there is a wide spectrum of how much fruit God’s Word may yield, even if it flourishes in “good soil”.
Let’s take a moment to consider what role we might play in this garden of God’s Word. At some point we may be the Sower, helping to spread the Gospel message to others. Often, we are the soil; sometimes hard-surfaced, firm, and unwilling to hear. At other times, we’re a bit stony, and not allowing the Word of God to establish deep roots in our hearts. And occasionally, we might succumb to the pressures of the world and allow the weeds of doubt, sin, and brokenness to stifle the growth of the Word within us. But I like to think we’re always trying to be the “good soil” that thrives on Jesus’ message of hope, life, and truth. That rather leaves us in the role of the gardener. If we’re to produce a bountiful harvest that proclaims Jesus’ message of hope, love, and salvation to the world, we must ensure that we maintain hearts and spirits that continually work to nurture for the Word to flourish.
And, I’ve never met a gardener that didn’t have soil under their fingernails. Who didn’t have patches of dirt on the knees of their jeans, where they knelt down to ensure that their garden was weed-free and that the sprouts of new growth were given every opportunity to reach their greatest potential. As gardeners in God’s fields we are called to cultivate our own little plots of spiritual land; to continuously nurture our own faith farms. And if we succeed at this, we may find that we have produced an abundant harvest that we are then able to share with those who are most in need of God’s saving Word.
To be honest, there has been quite a bit of metaphor concerning sowers, seeds, soil, and gardeners this morning. But if Jesus felt it was important to use farming and gardens as allegories for the spread of the Gospel it’s only right that we consider his symbolism and learn from it. That said, we gardeners, blessed as nurturers of the soil that brings forth the harvest of the kingdom of God must now determine how we distribute the bounty of the harvest of God’s Word, “seeds and weeds” metaphors notwithstanding.
We’re Lutherans, we’re not about to stand on the corner holding signs, shouting ‘the end is near’; we’re a bit more subtle than that. We acknowledge that Jesus has planted the seed of the Gospel within our hearts and that we are called to share that Good News with the world. And here is where we necessarily diverge from the agricultural allegory that was relevant to Jesus’ listeners in first-century Israel. Especially in this time of pandemic and the resulting isolation, worry, and fear. We are called to bring the Gospel message to those who yearn to hear it; to the lonely, the disenfranchised, those who long to know that they are cared for, and that they too have a place in the coming kingdom. Not with signs, street-corner proclamations, or end-of-times fearmongering. But with actions that show that we have taken Jesus’ message of the coming kingdom into our hearts and that we are ready to proclaim it to those who most need to hear it.
We don’t have to plant the seeds that result in a harvest of grain, but we can donate cereal to the Guild of St. Agnes, so they might serve breakfast to hungry children. It’s not likely that we can produce cotton or silk in our backyards, nor can we shear sheep for their wool, but we can easily bring clothing to ‘Emanuel’s Closet’ so that our neighbors might shop for their families with dignity and respect. We might not know the exact meaning of the words, “Rescatando Vidas”, but we can open our building to a Latino church that desires to worship the very same Christ that encourages them to nurture their garden of faith.
If the soil is not tended, if the stones and weeds are allowed to overtake the shoot, the harvest is lost. Let it never be said that the people of Emanuel, we who claim “God is with us”, allowed God’s garden to wither, permitted the Gospel message to fade and die. There is much to be done. Let’s get dirt stains on our overalls and some rich soil under or fingernails!
Will you pray with me? Good and gracious God, give us fertile hearts and rich spirits, that we might become the sowers, gardeners, and good soil that you call to bring your Gospel to harvest. Help us to look beyond our small fields, to the open expanse you call us to plant. And we pray these things the name of Jesus Christ, who calls us to scatter the seeds of your kingdom. Amen.
God is Good, all the time. All the time, God is Good. Amen.