July 10, 2011

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

On the day that Jesus told the parable of the sower, the author of Matthew’s Gospel tells us that the crowd of listeners was so large that Jesus got into a boat and sat there to speak, while the crowd stood on the beach to listen. You might imagine that at this point in his ministry, Jesus would have been pleased with how things were going. What could be a greater sign of success than the crowds clamouring to get close to him, to touch him, to be healed by him, or to hear his words of wisdom, as they were doing on this particular day?

But I wondered, as I reflected on the parable this week, whether Jesus might actually have been feeling a bit discouraged. After all, when Jesus told parables, most of the people didn’t really understand what he was on about. Sure, they came in droves to listen to him for a while. But as we hear in the Gospel accounts several times, even Jesus’ closest disciples were confused by the stories that he told. So Jesus probably didn’t have any illusions about the fact that the average person in the crowd that day was going to completely miss the point of his speech.

If the story is an allegory, maybe Jesus himself is the sower, scattering the seeds of the Word of Life here and there and everywhere he goes… watching and waiting and hoping for those seeds to sprout and grow into people of faith and love and goodness and joyful discipleship. But while Jesus’ efforts are admirable, and the seeds of his teachings are good, many of those seeds have fallen on rock-laden, thorn-strewn ground.

Jesus may be experiencing the Pharisees and other religious leaders as weeds that want to choke out his message. And he’s soon going to find himself trying to plant seeds in the hard soil of his home town as the people of Nazareth reject him completely. And even his closest disciples, whom he might have thought were starting to get the point, suddenly lose their faith during a storm at sea. As one commentator puts it, “Jesus does not just tell this parable, he lives it.”

Jesus knows what it feels like to put your heart and soul into your mission, what it feels like to spend yourself completely on the work that God has called you to do, and to see, over and over again, the seeds being blown away in the wind, the seedlings shrivelling up and dying, and the small plants being choked out by the weeds. And Jesus’ followers in every age can relate to the challenges of doing ministry, of sharing the gospel, and trying to pass on the faith successfully. With this parable, Jesus reminds us today that rejection of Jesus’ message does not mean the message is wrong or our efforts are folly. It is simply a fact of life, whether in farming or in faith.

It would be simple for me to cast myself and other Christian preachers in the role of the sower. After all, we stand up in pulpits like these, Sunday by Sunday, having poured our hearts and souls into our sermons. We trust that our words are somehow God’s words for this day, and we hang on to the hope that the Word of Life will take root… knowing all the while that the odds are not any better than the sower’s. That is the preacher’s particular job, our calling. To sow the seed and to bear the heartache when it falls on rocky, arid, or weed-infested ground.

But in accepting this calling, we stand in solidarity with all those who know the hard truth of this parable. The parent, whose words of guidance and compassion fall on their teenager’s deaf ears, understands hard-packed ground. The businessman, who produces a quality product and pays employees a living wage, only to see his clients go where things are cheaper, is well acquainted with shallow roots.

Whether we are preachers or teachers trying to get a message across, or social workers, nurses, or volunteers trying to make a difference in people’s lives… Whether we are scientists or researchers trying to make the world a better place, or friends or family members trying to be present for one another… or certainly, if we are Christians trying to pass on the Word of Life, the parable reminds us where to keep our focus. We can’t get caught up in the temptation to spend our resources – time, energy, and hope – trying to coax, cajole, and beg for growth from inhospitable places and people. And we can’t let ourselves spend too much time despairing when the seed does not take root.

That’s not what the sower does. Instead, he accepts the reality that some seed, a significant portion of it, will fall on bad soil, and he simply keeps sowing. As the next fifteen chapters of Matthew demonstrate, Jesus keeps spreading the word, no matter how dry, rocky, or weed-infested the ground. His followers are called to do the same.

When I planted my garden this Spring, I used a different strategy. I didn’t go out into my back yard and just toss the seeds everywhere and anywhere. Nick and I actually built some garden boxes a few years ago on the sides of our deck. We lined them with a gardening cloth that lets through the water but not the weeds, filled them with good soil, and that’s where I plant my seeds.

Before I planted this year, I waited for the weather to get reasonably warm, I pulled out any weeds that had found their way into my garden, and I carefully did the planting at the appropriate depth and distance apart. And still, I’m just hoping for a good harvest of beans and tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.

So what should we make of a sower who just throws the seeds everywhere, even in such unlikely, seemingly unproductive places? We may scratch our heads and wonder at such a foolish waste of seed and other precious resources. Even if we are not farmers or gardeners, the lesson here seems easy to apply to our situation as Christian churches.

If we ever set out to plant a new church, we should plant it in a carefully scrutinized, sure-to-grow neighbourhood. If we ever decide to develop a new mission, we should choose one where the odds are good and the possibilities are promising. If we ever decide to double our church’s membership, we should craft our message for a promising demographic and reach out to people who are motivated and purposeful and driven enough to receive and do something with it. We should be strategic about the location we choose – like any self-respecting hamburger or gas station or grocery chain – and maximize our effort towards the arena of greatest result. Find the good soil and throw seed on it! It’s just good business!

But that is not what the sower in the parable does. The sower just seems to fling those seeds anywhere and everywhere. I wonder, does he do it this way to remind us that the gospel might be bigger than good business principles, bigger than just good soil? Does he do it to suggest that “anywhere” is, in the final analysis, the arena of God’s care and redemptive activity. The sower throws seeds not only on good soil, but also amid the rocky, barren, broken places. And we are called to do the same – despite our best guesses that many, if not most of those seeds will not grow.

In “Feasting on the Word” (Year A, Volume 3, pages 239-241) Theodore Wardlaw tells the story of an experience when he caught a glimpse of God and God’s mercy in such a place. Let me end this morning with his story, and his reflection on this parable:

I was with a group of civic leaders – lawyers, politicians, foundation representatives, journalists – touring various outposts of our city’s criminal justice system. It was near the end of the day, and we were visiting the juvenile court and detention center. That place was so depressing, its landscape marked by wire-mesh gates with large padlocks and razor wire wrapped around electrified fences. When the doors clanged shut behind us, I imagined how final they must always sound when adolescents – children! – are escorted there. We were led, floor by floor, through this facility by an amazing young judge who worked there. She showed us the holding cells where the new inmates are processed. She showed us the classrooms where an ongoing education is at least attempted. She showed us the courtrooms where cases are prosecuted.

Near the end of the tour, she led us down one bleak hall to give us a sense of the cells where young offenders lived. Each cell had a steel door with narrow slots about two-thirds of the way up, through which various pairs of eyes were watching us as we walked down the hall. Some of these children were accused of major crimes; some of them were repeat offenders. Most of them, we learned, had had little or no nurture across their brief lives – not from a primary adult who cared about them, not from family, not from neighbourhood, not from church.

It was hard to notice those eyes staring through narrow slots without doing something. So I lingered at one door and whispered to one pair of eyes: “God loves you.” The eyes did not appear to register much, and sometimes I wonder what, if anything, happened next. Did that news fall on the path to get eaten by birds? Did it fall among thorns to get choked out? I will never know.

As the tour went on, the cumulative effect of all this brokenness got to one member of our group, who finally just stopped in the hallway and began to cry. When the judge noticed this, she paused in her narration, walked back and put her arms around that person, and, with tears in her own eyes, said, “I know. I understand.”

I thought to myself, “If I am ever to be judged, I want a judge like that.” Then it dawned on me – like a seed thrown onto my path – that indeed I do have a judge like that!

Our blessed judge – the holy One towards whose ultimate judgment we now make our way – is like the sower in this text. The parable, true to its form, is more like a riddle, hiding as much as it reveals about God. It must have been confusing to its original readers and hearers too, because an allegorical interpretation was finally added to clean things up and drive home a good point about good soil.

Ultimately, though, this parable is not so much about good SOIL as it is about a good SOWER. This sower is not so cautious and strategic as to throw the seed in only those places where the chances for growth are best. No, this sower is a high-risk sower, relentless in indiscriminately throwing seed on all soil – as if it were ALL potentially good soil. On the rocks, amid the thorns, on the well-worn path, maybe even in a jail!

Which leaves us to wonder if there is any place or circumstance in which God’s seed cannot sprout and take root.