Third Sunday in Epiphany
Rev. Ryan Slifka
Last week, we found Jesus in hill country. There he was preaching and teaching—his most famous sermon, the sermon on the mount. This week Jesus is by the sea. In the sea, in fact. He’s standing, preaching from inside a boat. With a crowd gathered on the beach to hear him.
And if we know anything about Jesus, it’s that his teachings rarely come in lecture format. As a transfer of information from one person’s mouth to the other’s ears. Jesus teaches in parables because he knows that God’s ways are not our ways, and so these stories are meant to show us just how strange God is. He knows that the way God operates isn’t just through conventional wisdom. Following Jesus isn’t common sense. He knows the only way we can understand, or even begin to understand God’s strangeness, is by bypassing our rational brains, and going straight through to the imagination. And so Jesus prefers to teaching using these short stories, these parables, using everyday, familiar situations. Ones that, though familiar, end with a surprising twist.
And the plot of this short story goes like this: there’s a sower. The person charged with scattering the seeds that’ll eventually grow in to the year’s crop. Now this sower goes back and forth, from one end of the property to the other. And this sower’s just tossing seeds. Scattering them from side to side. She’s just going for it. Flinging them. From near to far. Everywhere in between.
And since she’s pitching the seed without a rhyme or reason, they’re landing all over the place:
Some land on the asphalt, so the birds come and eat them. Nowhere for them to go, nowhere to root in. So they just hit the ground and they’re gone.
Some land on spots where there’s only about an inch of topsoil, with nothing but rocks underneath. They sprout up quick, but there’s nowhere for the roots to go. No roots, no way to retain water. So when the sun beats down, they just wilt and burn. They burn up as fast as they grow.
Others, Jesus says, end up tossed into the weeds, among the thorns and the brambles. They might root in and grow for a bit. But eventually, the weeds overcome them choke them out.
But then, there are some seeds that land on good soil. That deep, black stuff. Maybe it’s been pre-plowed or tilled. This soil just sucks these seeds right in, incubates them, and they spring forth. Not only do they sprout, they explode with grain. One seed generates a hundred new grains. Some sixty, some thirty.
This is the surprising twist. Really the punch-line of the parable. Seeds are scattered all over the place. And while most of the other seeds either grow and die prematurely, or not at all, the ones that find their way into good soil produce massively. So much so that the number that do dig in and grow, no matter how small, more than make up for the others that were lost.
“Let anyone with ears,” Jesus says. “Let anyone with ears let them hear!” End parable. Right there. And this is how Jesus generally ends his parables. He lets people tease out the meaning from the story itself. But this time, in this parable, Jesus does something different. Here, he explains the parable for them. It’s not how parables are supposed to work. In a way, Jesus does the heavy imaginative work for us on this one.
“Hear then,” he says. “Hear then the parable of the sower.” Maybe “hear again the parable” might be a bit more accurate. And he explains it like this:
Remember the seeds that were scattered on the path? This is the person who hears the Word of the Kingdom. The words I’m preaching, about God, and God’s kingdom, the way the world God wants it. This person hears, but misses the point. It’s like the devil’s snatched the Word and prevented it from being planted in the heart. Seed’s got no place to go so ends up as bird food.
And remember the seeds scattered on the rocky soil, who grew but didn’t have the kind of roots to sustain themselves? This is the person who hears my words, the Word of the Kingdom, gets pumped up with enthusiasm when times are good, but has no roots to sustain his or herself during persecution, during trouble. This person wilts at the sun’s heat.
And remember the seeds that fell among the weeds? This is the person who hears my teachings, the Word of the Kingdom, but who’s so fond of earthly things—like the lure of wealth—that the words don’t penetrate to make a difference. These concerns choke the word off like weeds.
Finally, remember the seeds that fell on good soil and brought a huge harvest? This is the person who hears the Word of the Kingdom, who hears my teachings. This is the person who understands them, and bears fruit. The person who is transformed by the Word, the good news of God’s kingdom.
This is how Jesus’ explains the parable. How he ruins the punchline. In the end, Jesus’ teachings are like the seed scattered by the sower. Some will land, and will make no impact on their hearers. Some will land, and create a person of tepid, limited faith that can’t be sustained through difficulty. Some seeds will land, but their hearers will allow wealth and other things to neutralize and water down its power. But in the end, there are some hearers for whom Jesus’ teachings will land like in good soil. They’ll hear it, be nourished by it. They’ll grow… and they’ll spiritual bear fruit, 100, 60, 30 fold.
When the seed of the kingdom takes root in our own hearts, one of the things we usually want to do is make a difference. We feel empowered to go the extra mile, especially when it comes to other people. So we become sowers ourselves. But we can be so discouraged when none of the seeds we scatter seem to root in. We give something or someone all of our energy, then see little or no change.
This is the case especially, when we give help to people who are down and out, especially those with addictions or other afflictions. People whose lives are in pieces. Or it can be working for justice—so often the odds are stacked against positive social change that we figure it’s not even worth a try. But I also think especially in the raising of children. The truth is that we can’t control our relationships with our children, and we can’t control the outcome of their lives. And this is one of the most maddening, saddening, sources of discouragement in the Christian life. To scatter seed and get no fruit.
In the end, though, for followers of Jesus, immediate change is not the point.
Finance Committee Meetings aren't the place I usually expect to have a little divine light shine on things. But in our meeting this past week, a story was shared about a person that was facing some tremendous hardship in their life. During that time, they became a regular at the Sonshine Lunch Club, the soup kitchen that runs out of St. George's five days a week. Apparently, this person had moved to Prince Rupert, eventually made it back on to his or her feet, and had a job with a steady income. We only knew this because the church received a donation of several hundred dollars with a thank you note. This person wanted to give back, and make a difference in the same way they needed when they were down and out.
This person was just another name and face among hundreds at the drop in. While for so many people, the soup kitchen’s just a way to keep alive, not a way for change. But for us, it’s also a way to scatter seed in the trust that God will reap the harvest some day. So many lives seem too rocky, shallow, or choked out to make an impact. But in this case, and many others, seed falls on good soil. God used this one moment to bring this person healing, and new life.
Our job is to scatter seed indiscriminately, with the trust that the outcome, the fruit, is God’s doing. The great Catholic spiritual master Thomas Merton once said that our job as Christians is “to love others without stopping inquiring as to whether or not they are worthy.” Jesus adds one more piece: to love others with the knowledge that we may never see the impact. To bring good news, to help mend lives, to seek justice and resist evil. Even when we may never see the fruits of our planting.
I’m reminded of that phrase, “let go and let God.” This doesn’t mean that we simply let go of everything and let God do it all. No, it means that our job is to scatter the seed, and it’s God’s job to bring the growth. We let go of the outcome. Even though God the sower gives us the seed, and commissions us to continue the work of the kingdom by scattering it. We can let go and let God in trust. Because the harvest itself belongs to God.
And that’s good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.