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Wait to Be Amazed”
Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (Isaiah 55:6-11)
The last time we saw Jesus in a teaching mode, he was delivering what we have come to know as the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus teaches everywhere: on mountainsides, at the beach, in the Temple of Jerusalem, and today, in a fishing boat tethered to the shore. In a complete reversal of how we expect a speaker to command his audience, Jesus sat down in the boat before he started to speak and the crowd stood on the shore to listen to him.
The Sermon in the Boat is different in both style and substance from the Sermon on the Mount. 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.” But now he begins to speak in parables, or what were called in Hebrew “dark sayings.” “Dark sayings” were not spooky or ominous, they were just obscure and not readily understood. We tend to think of parables and fables as common-sense stories with a moral take-away: think “The Fox and the Grapes” or other Aesop’s Fables. But the parables of Jesus don’t really sound like moral instruction at all. They are more like poetic visions, brief, impressionistic stories that reminded people 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.
When Jesus spoke in parables, he knew that some people would catch on right away, that they would see the miracle and mystery of God’s kingdom in these homespun stories, but that others would be without a clue. “Getting” the parables of Jesus is less about intellect than about being attuned to the mystery of Jesus himself and what he shows us about how God operates.
The Parable of the Sower defies common sense. “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 deeds] fell on good soil.” This does not strike me as a very practical or cost-effective way to plant seeds and expect a crop. Seed was by no means a cheap commodity in ancient Palestine – apparently in the first century they actually had to take out loans to buy seed from neighboring countries. No farmer in his right mind would go out just flinging it all over the place.
But, of course, Jesus is not giving a lecture on sound agricultural practice, he’s trying to tell us something about the workings of the kingdom of God. The Sower throws the seed with confident, if reckless, abandon. It doesn’t seem to matter to him where it lands. He doesn’t parcel out his 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 this farmer. 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 will get blown away, swept away or eaten by birds is entirely to be expected. What is unexpected is the way some of the seeds will take root and produce 30, 60, 100 times the amount of grain that would be normal. In spite of all the wasted seed, this farmer still brings in a bumper crop.
Who is the farmer in the parable? Is it God, who bestows grace and mercy in the most unlikely ways and the most unlikely places? It seems that the seed is the word of God, that word that goes into the world and does not return empty, as Isaiah said. Or is the farmer Jesus himself, who flings his words of grace and challenge far and wide, to anyone who will listen to him? After all, Jesus didn’t reserve his teaching for the ones who might have seemed like the most likely recipients: the religious insiders, the well-educated and socially respectable. He spoke to the crowds, who included the religious outcasts, the poor, the morally dubious, the riff-raff. He had confidence that his message about the kingdom would still take root in enough people who took the time to listen to him that the word of God would make its way in the world. When he spoke he threw caution and carefulness to the wind, letting his words fall and take root where they would.
In a way, it is a shame that the Parable of the Sower couldn’t have been left to stand on its own, without its interpretation in verses 18-23, the second part of our reading. Most scholars believe that the interpretation was added later, by the early church. The interpretation seems to take all the fun and wonder out of the parable itself. It takes the focus off the carefree abandon of the Sower and puts it on the soil, or the different kinds of ground. It moves the attention from God and Jesus to us. It takes a parable of joy and turns it into a moral lesson. The interpretation leads us to ask ourselves what kind of soil, or ground, we are, and based on our response, try to discern whether or not we are suitable recipients of the word of God. The interpretation makes it seem like it all depends on us. Woe to the ones who are like pavement, or rocky ground, or thorns, in whom the Word cannot take root and grow!
The truth is, all of us are one of those kinds of soil, or ground, at one time or another. Faith and discipleship may ebb and flow in our lives, depending on our circumstances – our attentiveness to the word of God may have on and off seasons. There are times in our lives when it seems that God’s word is wasted on us. Matthew and his church already knew about resistance and opposition to the church’s message, and how easily church members could internalize those outside messages, and drift away, like those who have no root. They knew that persecution could do even more damage, driving new Christians away before they had had a chance to take root. The Parable of the Sower is a word of confidence that these failures and setbacks will not deter God, that the divine word will indeed “go forth and not return empty.” Human resistance will not ultimately stand in the way of God’s purpose.
Think about a new members’ class in any Presbyterian congregation. Most congregations receive a certain number of new members every year, but not all of them stay. Some get distracted by their many work and family responsibilities and don’t actually participate in the life of the congregation. Some lose interest. Some find that other church members are not as friendly and welcoming as they seemed at first. Some joined so their kids would have a church to be part of, but as soon as the kids graduate, they are gone. Some get burned out with too many church responsibilities and withdraw. Some simply find another church that feels more congenial to them, that fits their spiritual needs better.
When you’re the preacher, the designated person to convey God’s word, you can take it kind of personally when people drift away to other churches or other pursuits, but if you have the Sower’s frame of mind, you don’t dwell on it. Congregations should always be looking for ways to attract and engage new people, but it will always remain a mystery to us where and in whom God’s word will take root, grow, and flower. Whether it does or not is not primarily about the preacher, or the congregation, or the pressures of secular society, or anyone else we might want to make responsible. We have no idea how or when God’s word might begin to shape the life of a given person or community. We are only responsible for making sure that word goes forth, whatever obstacles it may encounter.
This means that we can go about the mission of the church with a certain lightheartedness. It means that we can try new ministries and not be discouraged if they fail. It means we can explore numerous ideas with the understanding that probably only some of them will stick. It means we can take risks and go to some unlikely places. We can scatter seeds far and wide, and wait to be amazed at where they take root and blossom. There is no limit to the new places where God’s grace may flourish.
Lisa D. Kenkeremath
Manassas Presbyterian Church
July 16, 2023