4th Sunday after Pentecost
Elizabeth M. Deibert
I cannot remember a time when I did not love plants. I had a flower garden of marigolds and petunas when I was less than ten. As a teen I had a bedroom full of tropical houseplants. As a young mother, I planted and nursed big beds of zinnias and vinca while the children played in the fenced in back yard. I suppose I have always delighted to see the growth of a plant from a tiny seed. Perhaps it has something to do with spending my childhood in a farming community in eastern North Carolina, surrounded by fields of soy beans, corn, sweet potatoes, cotton, and tobacco. I have a vivid image of those fields with endless rows of plants, but there were always a few empty or dead areas, spots of bad soil – the corners where the tillers had no thoroughly turned the soil. Germinating gospel requires good soil too. I invite you to hear the parable with attention to the four types of soil. Switch out the i in soul and think about your soul too.
Matthew 13:1-9; 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the sea.
2Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there,
while the whole crowd stood on the beach. 3And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. 4And as he sowed,
some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up.
5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil,
and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.
7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.
8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold,
some sixty, some thirty. 9Let anyone with ears listen!”
18“Hear then the parable of the sower.
19When 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.
20As for what was sown on rocky ground,
this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;
21yet 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.
22As 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.
23But 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.”
What kind of soil or soul are you? Has life’s hard knocks pounded you down, so that your soul is hardened like a well-worn path? How many of us relish having our insides churned up like hardened soil is with a plow. But with rocks in the way, roots of the word cannot take hold, so we wither and perish. My soul has some favorite weeds. Even though they clutter my life, and make it more difficult for the Gospel to take root in me, my soul clings to them. What weeds are growing in your soul, making it difficult for the Gospel to grow deep roots?
The people who first heard Jesus’ Parable of the Sower lived closer to the earth than we do today. Though we rarely eat anything we have grown ourselves, they were much more accustomed to the ups and downs of food production. They understood the value of good earth, good root development, and strong plants, and the potential disaster of rocks and weeds and bird eating seeds.
Jesus offered this parable as encouragement to his disciples, who were apparently frustrated with the Gospel harvest. And Jesus himself had hit a hard patch – having one controversy after another with religious authorities, the crowds, and even his own family: It was that very day that he told the Parable of the Sower, one of his best known stories. If the Gospel is not thriving, then pay attention to the soil, the soul and keep sowing.
The Sower sows broadly, lavishly, even wasting seed in places where little growth is possible. Because the fruit of the harvest is worth the waste. Because it is the nature of the Divine Sower to sow extravagantly, to cover the soil with the seeds of grace and mercy.1
Friends, we are the ones who know the mysteries of the kingdom. We know the wonder of this grace and mercy which God in Jesus Christ has lavished on all the fields of the earth. We are God’s field hands, and it is our job is to keep sowing extravagantly.
In a time when the field is supposedly worn out with traditional Protestantism, we are still planting PC(USA) here in the eastern of Manatee and Sarasota Counties. We keep inviting people to be part of this new congregation. Some may think it is time for crop rotation, but we say the earth still needs Presbyterians who have a deep faith in Jesus Christ, open doors to all people, and a compassionate outreach and generous stewardship. We may have a growing appreciation of the world’s religions and that’s great, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ embodied in the wholesome fruit of a vibrant church still transforms lives like nothing else I know. So we keep sowing seeds of grace because we want others to know the secrets we see and hear – the mysterious goodness of Jesus Christ which brings life.
But sowing extravagantly is not all we need to do. No. As field workers for the kingdom, we must till the earth to loosen the down-trodden soil along the path. We must work to clear away the rocks and thorns in our community and in our own hearts. Whether we are talking about ourselves or our neighborhoods, the earth beneath our feet needs some work. It’s time for some groundwork.Only a well-established deep-rooted plant can survive a packed down pathway. At times we who have been Christian a long time forget to explain why we do what we do. Sometimes we lose our joy in serving God or we get stuck in traditionalism, what Jaraslov Pelikan called the dead faith of the living, which he contrasted with tradition, which is positively the living faith of the dead.
At times we forget the meaning behind the habit and the habit takes on a life of its own, with no attention to context, people, place, or time, no theological justification. Sometimes we are arrogant and pack down the path, resisting the Spirit of God at work in us. But we need churches full of deep-rooted disciples. We need people mature enough to work out the peace, unity, and purity of the church, to serve the people with energy, intelligence, imagination, and love. We need to loosen the soil by listening to one another. We have people for whom the circumstances of life have calloused their skin and hardened their souls and the seed has no where to take root. We need to get down on our hands and knees to till that soil with them.
Perhaps the mainline churches are losing members every year because too many of our people were planted in rocky soil. You know, there was a little dirt warmed by the sun, but with a big rock underneath, deep roots were not possible. The children we baptized and the youth we confirmed, the adults we welcomed by profession of faith were dropped down on a little supple earth, but a rock was in their way. So they grew for a short while and then stopped – no deep roots for the difficult journey of life. When being Christian in our post-modern world became less popular, required more sacrifice, then those planted in shallow, rocky soil withered. When there were more exciting things to do on Sundays – like delicious brunches, shopping and professional ballgames – some people stopped coming to church. When church no longer served their individualistic needs, when it was not the place to climb the social or professional ladder of the community, they left.
There are rocks and hard places, and then there are thorns. Jesus calls them the “cares of the world” (he merimna tou aionos -- literally "the anxiety of the age") and “the lure of wealth” (he apate tou ploutou -- literally "the deceit of riches"). These things make growth nearly impossible, even for a plant in decent soil, because thorns take up too much space. Thorns crowd the root space below, and above ground they surround and choke with their parasitic tendencies. The real plant receives almost no sunshine and rain because thorny weeds are covering and consuming everything. Have you ever tried to move through a briar patch? Have you ever watched a pervasive weed take over the garden or lawn? So it is with the anxieties of our culture.
Oh, the field of church and society is full of thorns. Thorns that tell us we should be the center of our universe and the masters of our destiny at any cost to others. Thorns that rob us of our God-given sense of security. Thorns of consumerism and the resulting debt that choke off our very lifeblood. Thorns of compulsive work and excessive leisure options that starve us of rich Sabbath rest. Sabbath – stopping time. Time when the waters of eternal life refresh us, when the bread of heaven & overflowing cup of divine love fill us with the peace that passes understanding.
If we are in the business of germinating gospel (and I do believe that is our calling as field hands of the Lord), then we have three tasks:
1. Sow generously, remembering that the harvest will be worth the waste, the expense of proclaiming and embodying the gospel everywhere. It is not our place to decide who is open to the message. We don’t know exactly where to find the best soil, so we just sow good news everywhere. Dropping a Gospel seed is not bulldozing someone over, it is just a simple invitation.
2. Till continuously, so the Word of God may find a soft, supple deep place to grow in people’s hearts. Tilling the soil is hard work; it requires great creativity and compassion to nurture in faith those who are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Tilling can only happen in authentic relationships which move beyond mere friendliness. Get involved. With the fresh waters of God’s grace in worship and the loosening peat of God’s love in small nurturing groups and authentic friendships, even calloused and distracted Christians may find deeper places to sink their roots.
3. Weed bravely. Uproot the myths of worldly success and comfort, security and wealth. Subvert self-absorbed culture for the freedom truth brings, as we discussed last Sunday. Weed the garden, so that all will see thorns as thorns. Pull roots of weeds carefully so as not to disrupt the good growth. The most troublesome, shallow weeds are those which deceive us with their fast growth and their deceptive promises.
Sow generously. Till continuously. Weed bravely. That God’s garden might be exceptionally fruitful. And remember: Our responsibility is to plant and water, but God is responsible for the growth. As Paul said to the Corinthians, “Neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Cor 3:7).
Things are happening that we cannot see. Not only is the seed at work under the surface of the ground, but God the Creator, the Master Gardener, is also at work. So go out get your hands dirty. Get your feet wet. Perspire in the hot sun pulling weeds. Get involved in God’s gospel germination. There will surely be an abundant harvest of love in the garden of Christ Jesus our Lord. Flowers will bloom when you least expect it.
1 The sower "sows the seed extravagantly, as widely as he can, oblivious to the risks, much as God lavishes mercy upon humanity" (Thomas G. Long, p. 147, Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).