July 12, 2020
All this month we are going back and forth between Matthew’s gospel and Paul’s letter to the church at Rome in our online and outdoor services. So this morning… outdoors… we hear from Matthew’s gospel and the telling of the parable of the sower. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you today.
READ Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Over the last few years… well… for about a decade now… as this passage has come around in the lectionary’s three year cycle, I’ve focused not on the soil, but on the sower in this parable. And this year too… I don’t want to miss out on the sower… but instead of getting to the sower in the exciting conclusion of the sermon… like I have been doing… I want to go ahead and talk about the sower here at the beginning.
And I think it’s because of a movie I watched on Friday that kept showing this verse from Hebrews… Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The sower in this parable is the same yesterday, today, and forever. This sower is pretty free and generous with the seed that is being scattered. I read this parable and my imagination is now always filled with this image of a sower reaching down into his bag and grabbing huge handfuls of seed… seed spilling through his fingers… flinging the seed this way and that way… indiscriminately… almost sloppily. I mean, there’s no precision to the sower’s method. It’s not as though neat little rows have been made in the soil… carefully prepared with specific holes for the seed every few inches or so that the sower carefully and deliberately drops a few seeds into those and plants them. There doesn’t seem to be a plan outside of the free and generous sowing where the seed seems to be going everywhere… landing on all manner of soil. It’s almost like that bag of seed that the sower is working from… it’s almost like that bag is bottomless… like there’s no concern that the seed is ever going to run out. This is not a sower working from scarcity. It’s not like the seed itself is precious… and we need to be careful and conserve because there’s only so much to go around. No. It is great big handfuls that send the seed flying every which way.
Clearly… as I look at this parable… I see Jesus as the sower. Free and generous with grace. Generous with the creative Word of God that can take root and grow and yield an amazing harvest. I look at the sower and it makes me hopeful because the sower keeps throwing that seed on the path… and on the rocky ground… and even among the thorns. That less than perfect soil receives the seed just as much as the good soil where the seed is able to take root and produce as it is intended. The untiring generosity of the sower fills me with hope. Untiring hope… the same yesterday, today, forever.
I feel I have to highlight the sower so much because this is undeniably a parable about the soil… it’s a parable about us. Us. Not them. Us. Because that’s the trick when it comes to these types of passages… aren’t we always the good soil? Isn’t that our first thought? Isn’t this more an opportunity for us to talk about them and not us? I’m ready to go. I know that would make my job a lot easier.
The rocky soil… that’s those Christians who like to attend those churches that put on a good worship show… the kind we can’t do with their bright lights and high production quality… with their in house bands who know how to get the crowd on their feet with their upbeat toe tapping songs. As I’m the example of the good soil, I am all ready to rip these rocky Christians a new one. What happens when you can’t go to the show, huh? What happens when what is needed are disciples of Christ stepping out in faithful work in their communities instead of adoring fans of your church? What happens when a prolonged pandemic hits? Then, of course, I realize that these churches are probably not having too much difficulty putting their show online for all to see and be entertained by. Still… surely… surely these are the shallowest of Christians who when push comes to shove… who if you were to take away their worship entertainment would fall away… wither and die because there are no roots to be found. Surely that’s the case, because that helps me to be a better example of the good soil.
Or thorny Christians… those are those Christians who can’t tell the difference between their politics and their religion… who when hypocrisy strikes and when there is clear disconnect between the two… thorny Christians will grab hold first and work hardest to preserve their political outlook over their theology. Or if there is a threat to their pocket book or place of privilege… thorny Christians will cast off or reshape their faith to support their particular thorn instead of following Christ’s ways.
I know. I know that’s how it’s got to go.
Those who are like the path… well, I guess they’re the most to be pitied since they just don’t understand. They just don’t get it. Or maybe… maybe they’re the lucky ones since the rocky Christians and the thorny Christians… they get it… they just don’t trust it enough… or have enough faith to let go of what they’re holding onto in order to embrace the seed and what’s trying to grow from it.
What’s so tricky about the rocky soil or the soil covered in thorns… is that while we can point the finger and criticize… these conditions can describe us as well. As much as I would enjoy jumping all over what I perceive as shallow Christians… I can’t begin to tell you how much brain time I’ve spent in thinking about just what is worship… especially what is worship when we can’t gather together… what makes the weekly production of worship worshipful… I mean, is this more worshipful than what we are doing online simply because there is a live element to it… you all being gathered here together makes this really worship… but watching something is not worship? We are still shooting for a minimum of production value. We felt singing was important enough to risk. I mean, there’s a reason in my mind why I want this service to be different from the service we are creating online… for the music to be different… the scripture and sermon to be different… because something didn’t feel right to just repeating and doing the same thing. Is that idea in itself shallow… or is it pointing to a deeper struggle as to what is worship in this day and age?
How do I really know that I’m good soil and not one of those other soil types. I could be the path and just be that unaware that there isn’t anything growing on me that is coming from the seeds that generous, gracious sower.
I guess that’s what trips up those of us who are so sure that we are the good soil… how are we defining our own goodness? Is it because we are not like those other Christian sinners and their shallow faith or their attempt to use God and their faith to prop themselves up into a position of power and dominance? Is it because we do this Christian thing right… we are the good soil of our own making… of our own tilling and fertilizing?
This is where I want to remind us again of the sower by going back into the scripture itself… and looking where Matthew places the telling of this parable in his gospel. It’s always important for us to ask, “What’s just been happening in the story?”… because the gospel writers are very intentional in their storytelling. If we go back a bit we see where the conflict lies in this section of Matthew’s gospel… and it is conflict with the Pharisees. The Pharisees were making demands of the community that they would bring together. Things had to be a certain way in order to be acceptable to their theological understanding of themselves. Their community was about devotion to a certain set of religious rules… or how closely the people adhered to the accepted orthodoxy of the day both in belief and practice. Their community was about who was good enough and in… and who was not and out. Sounds like typical good soil thinking doesn’t it… because, after all, something makes me the good soil and you one of those lesser soils. But as the gospel writers of the day like to point out again and again, sometimes strict adherence to the accepted orthodoxy of the day led to good orthodoxy, but it could also lead to people practicing bad theology. Sometimes… as the gospels teach us… being religiously right sometimes meant doing wrong to another… often to another in need of the love and the grace that was supposed to be the reason for the religion in the first place. Or for us out here today we might say… sometimes what’s growing up in what we believe to be good soil reflects neither the sower of the seed or the seed itself.
Jesus challenges the Pharisees to seek out and do the will of God… a will that may move them out of their religious comfort with their established rule and ritual. Jesus told the Pharisees to “Either make the tree good and its fruit good; or make the tree bad and its fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.”
In the same way… what defines good soil is the seed that grows in it. Good soil is bad if the seed still won’t grow. Not that the soil is unlike those other soils… because that’s the thing about sowing so generously… you never know where that good seed will take root. There might be a crack in the path… and there grows that seed and suddenly that’s good soil. Or there might just be something right about that one spot in the rocky soil where a root might go deep… and there grows the seed and that soil is good. Or the thorns might not be able to choke off that one good seed shoot as it makes it way toward the sun. Bad soil can become good soil as fast as that… as soon as the seed of the sower grows and brings forth grain. That’s how we recognize and understand.
And Saints… that’s as good a place as any to say, Amen.