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“My Word Will Go Forth”
Sermon on Matthew 13:1-8, 18-23 (Isaiah 55:6-11)
15th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year A
Jesus does more teaching in the Matthew’s Gospel than in any other Gospel. In Mark, for example, he’s always in action, moving from town to town doing healings and exorcisms and other miracles. He does these things in Matthew, too, but in Matthew they are short bursts of activity sandwiched between big blocks of teaching material. Jesus teaches on mountainsides, at the beach, and at the Temple of Jerusalem, drawing crowds both friendly and unfriendly to him. In Matthew, school with Rabbi Jesus is almost always in session.
When we get to chapter thirteen, there is a change in Jesus’s pedagogical approach. The Sermon on the Mount was fairly straightforward spiritual and ethical instruction: “If you want to be my follower, you’ll do x and you won’t do y.” People might not like what he was saying but they could understand it. But now Jesus begins to speak in parables. The parables don’t sound like moral instruction at all; they are more like poetic visions, brief, impressionistic stories that reminded people of the stuff of their everyday lives: kneading dough to make bread, clearing or planting a field, casting a fishing-net into the sea. The images are rich and earthy, full of familiar things through which Jesus shines the light of God.
Not everybody “got” the parables. Jesus knew they wouldn’t. As we observed last week, people had been resisting his message. When he spoke in parables, he knew some would catch on right away, that they would see the workings of God’s kingdom in these homely stories, but that others would be left scratching their heads in bewilderment. Understanding the parables, it seems, has less to do with intelligence than with being attuned to the mystery of Jesus himself, and the strange new world of the kingdom he announces.
To be honest, I wonder how well we would have done with these deceptively simple stories. Many of them describe behavior that defies common sense. Take today’s farmer, for instance. “A sower went out to sow, and as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path…other seeds fell on the rocky ground….other seeds fell among thorns….[and finally, some seeds] fell on good soil.” What kind of incompetent farmer is this? Did he have a hole in his seed-sack? Apparently seed was at such a premium in ancient Palestine that twice in the first century they had to take out loans to buy seed from neighboring countries. They would not have called flinging seed all over the place good agricultural practice! Surely the farmer should have saved all the seed for the good soil instead of just tossing it into all kinds of hostile environments. The road? – that’s like throwing grass seed onto the church parking lot and expecting a lawn to come up.
Matthew gives us not just the parable but also its interpretation, which many scholars say was added to the Gospel later by someone who liked to tidy things up more than Jesus was apparently willing to do. Having the interpretation is a bit of a mixed blessing, because reading it, we are inclined to forget that this is the Parable of the Sower, and not the Parable of the Different Kinds of Ground. As we consider it, we start trying to fit ourselves into the picture, wondering what kind of soil we are: hard, rocky or thorny, or soft and fertile and receptive? In other words are we, each one of us, bad soil or good soil for the planting of God’s word? Does the word of God have staying power in us, or does it get snatched away with the slightest trouble or distraction? Certainly these are reasonable questions to ask ourselves, but they divert us from considering the nature of the Sower and his work.
The Sower flings seed all over the land with confident, if reckless, abandon. It seems not to matter to him where it lands. He doesn’t parcel out the seeds, carefully depositing them in the most promising soil. Even if they fall on a highway, where they haven’t got a chance of taking root, that seems to be of no concern to the sower. What he is concerned about is spreading the seeds around, as far and wide as they will go, not calculating the cost or the consequences. The fact that some seeds get blown away, swept away or eaten by birds is entirely to be expected. What is unexpected is the way some of the seeds take root and produce 30, 60, 100 times the amount of grain that would be normal. In spite of all the wasted seed, the farmer still brings in a bountiful harvest.
This is a parable that preachers take comfort in. We are in the business of words – we produce thousands of them each week, and we hope that through prayer, study and imagination, our words will somehow, mysteriously, convey God’s word. But we never know. We never know if a single word we say will take root in someone and lead that person closer to God. But we take comfort in knowing that God is the real sower, not us, and that God’s word will go out into the world and not return empty, as the prophet Isaiah said. That’s why for centuries the church has sent missionaries all over the world to point to Jesus and try to show something of his grace and compassion. There is no guarantee that anyone will respond. But there may be amazing, unexpected results with the few who do respond.
Jesus himself, of course, was the original Sower, flinging his words of grace and challenge far and wide, to anyone who would listen to him. He didn’t reserve his teaching for the ones people thought would be the most likely recipients – the religious insiders, the well-educated and socially respectable. Consider this: if Jesus had waited for a receptive environment in which to carry out his ministry, we would never have heard of him. He went to places where he wasn’t welcome, and preached the kingdom and showed God’s love. Eventually, the environment got so hostile for him that some people took him to the top of a hill outside the city and nailed him to a cross. After that, contrary to anyone’s expectations, the word of God, the word about Jesus the Son of God, went out more powerfully than ever.
The kingdom of God will never have anything other than a hostile environment through which to make its way. The word of God does not take effect by selectively going out to a few listeners carefully chosen for their intelligence and spiritual discernment. It goes out wherever it can be heard, wherever it can be either accepted or rejected: equally by scholars and high-school dropouts, social workers and substance abusers, judges and offenders, peasants and philosophers, church people and secular people. As long as there is someone to listen, even if 99 out of 100 turn away, there will be someone in whom God’s word will take root, grow and flower. The Word is going to make its way in the world regardless of what kind of environment it finds itself in.
I don’t know about you, but to me this feels like permission to stop worrying so much about what kind of results I will get from what I do. It’s permission for all of us to stop worrying about what kind of soil we might be working with, and about what kind of soil we are. It is actually a summons to just get out there and do something, and let God worry about the results.
This parable is a challenge and an invitation to the church. We are doing ministry in a completely different environment than we were even four months ago, and our way of being the church is likely to be different from now on. Online gathering has become the new norm, and may not be easily put aside once we’re able to get together inside these walls again. More than ever, we need to be thinking of new ways to take our ministry outside the church building and into some spaces – including virtual spaces -- that may seem pretty unlikely from our perspective.
God is planning for a great, bountiful harvest – and God, like the farmer with a burlap sack so full of seeds he could fling them all over the place, is confident that the harvest will be brought in.
Manassas Presbyterian Church
July 12, 2020