Sermon: "Seeds and Good Soil," July 16, 2017

Sixth Sunday After Pentecost
Rev. Ryan Slifka

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away.Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them.Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

 ‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When 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. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet 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. As 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.But 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.’
— Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 (New Revised Standard Version)

Jesus has just been squeezed off a beach. There are so many people gathered to hear him speak, it’s so crowded on the shore that he’s forced to hop into a boat. Here, Jesus turns the prow of the ship into a makeshift pulpit. And he begins to teach.

Jesus begins to teach from his seabound lectern, with this parable, which begins a string of seven. Farmer went out one day to seed his field. He just went out and tossed it everywhere, from one end of the field to the other. This wasn’t a perfect field. Some of it was all rocky, and the seeds had nowhere to dig in. Some of the soil was good, but only an inch or so deep so the root system wasn’t able to retain the kind of moisture that would keep the plants from getting scorched by the sun. Some of it was overcome with brambles that choked out and dominated any seeds that sprouted between. But then there was some other soil. Rich, deep, well-fertilized and perfect ph balance. These seeds not only sprouted and stretched out towards the sun. Seven fold would have been a decent year. Tenfold would have been surprisingly good. But these grain stalks in the good soil, it says, “brought forth grain, some a hundred fold, some sixty, and some thirty.” These seeds exploded with life. This little patch went crazy. Three out of four—seventy-five percent of all those seeds that farmer tossed out there, the majority of seeds went to waste, never wormed their way into soil. But that little portion—one in four—did. And the harvest was so massive that the number of wasted seeds paled in comparison. The abundance brought forth by the few—that made up for the loss of all the rest.

Many interpreters of this parable down through the ages have thought of this parable as a kind of encouragement for its listeners, especially in hard times. To see ourselves as sowers, and to see the seed as Jesus’ Good News.  Scattered wide, many will hear it. But few will respond. And we shouldn’t be disheartened when people aren’t immediately drawn in in droves. That like the seed that falls on the path, the rocky soil, and in between the weeds, the message of Jesus won’t root down. Many who hear it won’t respond, or be fully compelled by it. But others will. The seed will sprout, and their lives will bear much fruit. Others will hear and be changed by it. You can imagine that this interpretation is favored by those who in the Christian church identify with a more evangelical persuasion. When things look bleak for us and our churches, the message of Good News in this parable is vigilance. It’s perseverance with the trust that the spiritual seed we scatter will land in good soil and will sprout. At least eventually. So have faith.

                Nearly all of the sermons I’ve heard in modern churches present a similar take. But with a twist. This interpretation sees the seed less as the Good News we hear. And more as seeds of God’s kingdom. God’s kingdom being the world as God wants it to be, as God has always intended. The world set right where every tear is wiped away, every wrong righted, and where justice flows down like the waters and righteousness a mighty stream. Where we’re called through good deeds, through compassion and justice, to plant God’s kingdom locally, nationally, globally. We may feel discouraged at times, is how the sermon goes. Like this important work seems to have little impact, more often than not. Show loving kindness to the loveless. Serve the poor and disadvantaged. Agitate and advocate for system injustice for the least of these. Keep scattering the seeds far and wide, and eventually, some will root in. Tears will be wiped away. Wrongs will be righted. And justice will flow down like water. You can imagine that this is the interpretation gets the endorphins of United Church people and other liberal Protestants. Keep sowing, keep planting. And one day the kingdom will explode like a garden overflowing with God’s goodness. One day. So have faith.

                And, you know, I think both of these interpretations are true. That disciples, followers of Jesus Christ are called to scatter the Word of God’s kingdom near and far. You can’t have one without the other. The people of Jesus are called to plant God’s kingdom both in word and deed. And I believe Jesus’ promise--that him and his Way, if scattered as seed widely, will find its way to flourish. Through it God will touch hearts, transform lives and bear fruits of mercy, forgiveness, justice and reconciliation. To paraphrase Field of Dreams: if you toss ‘em, they'll grow. So have faith.

                But as true as they are, I think we’re missing something we need to hear. A crucial step. One that comes before we get to the work of scattering the seeds of God’s kingdom in the world. Before we think of ourselves as doing the work of the sower in planting the kingdom, Jesus encourages us to think of ourselves first as the soil meant to receive the seed. And bear fruit in our own lives.

Because you seen, often there’s an open-endedness to Jesus’ parables. People are stunned, confused. They’ve got to tease meaning out of them. In fact, when Jesus tells this parable in two other gospels--Mark and Luke--he just leaves it right there. But here, Jesus does something uncharacteristic: he explains the meaning of the parable. And in doing so, he refocuses the parable. He alters its meaning.

“Remember those seeds that fell on the path and the birds ate ‘em?” Jesus says. “That’s like when someone hears the Good News and just doesn’t get it. The seeds got nowhere to root in, so the devil just comes and snatches it away. It’s wasted.”

“Oh, and the ones that fell on the rocky ground? Just enough topsoil to root in just a little bit, but not enough? That’s someone who hears the Good News and who’s all on board. But their faith is the shallow kind, all smiles and sunshine. No deep sustaining roots. So when things get rough, they just drop the whole thing altogether.”

“And the seeds that fell in and among the thorns, surrounded by brambles? This is the person who hears the Good News, but their heart is so crowded with the drive for money, or for stuff, or prestige, that the Good News is squeezed out. Choked away before anything can sprout.”

“Ah… but the ones that fell on good soil. This is the person who hears the Good News and understands it. It resonates. It wriggles its way into their heart. The soil of their soul is hospitable to new life. It roots in deep, it flourishes. It grows green in the sun and bears more fruit than they ever thought possible.”

Here, Jesus interpretation makes this less about the sower, and more about the soil. It’s less about Jesus’ followers keeping at it, working hard. About sowing seed and persevering. Instead, it becomes more about what good soil looks like. About the kind of conditions necessary for the Good News to root down deep in their own hearts. And for God to flourish in their lives. And unless they’re able to bear fruit in their own lives, they won’t have any news seeds of faith to scatter in the lives of others. Cultivating their own soil for the seed is where it begins. And where their anxiety ends.

There’s a common misconception that Christianity is first and foremost a moral code. It’s a mistake that is made by Christians of all stripes. That it’s first about what we’re supposed to do or don’t do. Do justice. Don’t buy factory farmed eggs. Tithe your money. Don’t drink, smoke, or have pre-marital sex. But we miss this crucial step before that. And when we do, Jesus’ Way becomes about judgement over grace. We then think it’s first about judging others and being judged worthy by our behaviors. That it’s first about scattering seeds.

But it begins elsewhere. It begins with God. The great writer and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner once put it like this:

“What is both Good and New about the Good News is the wild claim that Jesus did not simply tell us that God loves us even in our wickedness and folly and wants us to love each other the same way and to love him too, but that if we will let him, God will actually bring about this unprecedented transformation of our hearts himself.

What is both Good and New about the Good News is the mad insistence that Jesus lives on among us not just as another haunting memory but as the outlandlish, holy, and invisible power of God working... in countless hidden ways to make even slobs like us loving and whole beyond anything we could conceivably pull off by ourselves.”[1]

This is the seed of the kingdom. This is the promise of the Gospel first and foremost. The outlandlish, holy, and invisible power of God working within us. Transformation, inside and out. The seed that if given good soil can root down in our souls, and change us. To be more like Jesus. It makes sense. In the bible, the first person’s name is Adam, which means earthling. The word human has its roots in the word “hummus,” top soil. Our human lives are the soil for God’s mercy and grace in the world.

This is something that made us here at St. George’s clarify our own mission. That we’re about Inviting, Inspiring, and Investing in The Way of Jesus Christ. The second piece, says it all. That everything we do is meant to open us up to the life-altering power of God’s Spirit. Worship. Small groups ministries, programs of Christian formation. Ministries of justice and generosity. Giving of our times, talent and treasure. Each of these is a Gospel plow for our hardened hearts. Where we help God break down the barriers of pain, shame and disbelief that keep new life from rooting in. Where we bust up the rocky soil of easy, sentimental, superficial faith for resilient lives to germinate. Where we pluck the life-choking brambles of greed and selfishness to bear the fruit of generosity.  We can scatter seeds, we can plant all we want, but God gives the growth. And it starts with us.

So, church. Or “churches” in the plural. Beloved in Christ. Your invitation today is not to first see yourself in terms of what you ought to do next. Whether it’s what good you might do, or what programs you can do to flourish. But to understand your life as a patch of soil in God’s New Creation. A seed has been scattered, has been planted in you. And that through you, with some nurture, a little Holy TLC, God can do some wonderful things. Here and beyond.

May your life, and our lives together, be good soil for the risen Christ. Ones that bear fruit in ways we never thought possible. Without God, anyway.

AMEN.

[1] Frederick Buechner, "Gospel," in Wishful Thinking: a Theological ABC, 33.