Sermon on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 for Pentecost +5 A, July 13, 2014
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
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.”
This past week has been weirdly conflicted for me, emotionally. Two very opposite feelings have been generated by events happening at the same time. On the one hand, here at the church we have just had the pleasure of hosting the Gulf Coast Arts Alliance’s Summer Fine Arts Camp. And on the other hand, at the same time, the world seems to be falling apart in many places.
So, I have had the joy of watching around 75 beautiful, eager, smart, creative kids diving into music, drama, painting, dance, and story-telling. I have witnessed dedicated, talented, experienced adult teachers and leaders giving of themselves on behalf of these children, planting seeds in the fertile soil of these young lives.
And then, after a great day of Fine Arts Camp, I get in the car and turn on the news and hear about Hamas rockets fired into Israeli towns and cities, and air strikes by the hundreds into Gaza killing scores of people. I hear about the ISIS army in Iraq slaughtering people by the hundreds, taking over cities and refineries, banks, and now, acquiring uranium from Mosel University. And, I hear still more about the unaccompanied minors, streaming into our country from Central America by the tens of thousands.
On a personal level I find similar emotional opposites at work in me as well. I am thrilled and proud to watch my son growing up and getting ready for college in little more than a month, and yet, I am deeply dreading the “empty nest” we will be left with.
Life is Complicated
Life is complicated. I know you also woke up today with your own set of reasons for joy as well as your temptations to despair. From your personal life and your family concerns, to your thoughts about the future for yourself and for the world, we all feel conflicted.
I have learned recently that listening to, or watching too much news media is not helpful. NPR is doing a series of reports on stress. It turns out that people who watched a lot of news about 9/11, in the days following the attacks, actually reported higher stress-levels than some of the people directly affected. It is hard to find solace or take pleasure in the beauty of a Mozart concerto or a blossoming Crepe Myrtle tree while our attention is focused on reports of suffering and death.
We just read one of the most familiar texts in the gospels. Probably, if a person knows almost nothing else about Jesus, she at least knows that he sat in a boat just off shore, and taught parables to crowds of people. One of the best known is the The Parable of the Sower. It is probably right up there in popularity with the Parable of the Good Shepherd.
That picture of Jesus and his world seems relaxed and calm. You have the impression of a well ordered, happy time. It is as if Jesus was giving a seminar at an outdoor event, like the Wild Goose Festival. There he sits, gently rocking in the boat on a sunny day, speaking about a quaint farmer, sowing seeds on the ground. In the story, the sower gets off to a rocky start with lots of mis-spent seed, but it has a happy, hopeful ending: a bumper crop; 30, 60, even 100 fold increase.
What’s Wrong with the Peaceful Picture?
Two things are wrong with this peaceful picture. First, in Jesus’ day, when he told the story, yes he may have sat in a boat teaching, but the scene was anything but peaceful.
Lots of people in Galilee were gearing up for a war with Rome that they wanted sooner, rather than later. War would be a desperate solution, but that’s how desperate their lives had become.
And Rome, for its part, had spies and soldiers all over the place to crush any budding opposition. The very crowds that come to hear Jesus put him in danger of looking like he was starting an opposition movement. Times were tense. There were reasons to speak in cryptic parables.
Picturing Jesus in the boat as a peaceful scene is also wrong because by the time “Matthew” wrote down this story in his gospel, many years later, there had indeed been a Jewish revolt. It had been crushed by the Roman Empire. The temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, and the little community of Christians in Matthew’s church had no power or influence of any kind.
What did it mean to be a Jesus-follower after all of that? The Empire, was still in charge. What had happened to Jesus’ message of the kingdom of God that was supposed to be like a sower sowing good seeds on good soil with an abundantly fruitful result?
So, for both the times of Jesus, who told the Parable of the Sower from the boat, and for the times of Matthew, who later wrote it down for the sake of his struggling community, this parable is for people in complex times. For the people hearing this parable, times were hard. Economically hard, politically polarized, and personally challenging. In other words, this parable is for people in complex times, like ours.
The Big Picture: Fruitfulness
First, let us look at the big picture: it is about seeds that get scattered, take root and grow. The hope and plan is that they become fruitful. Even bountifully fruitful. The purpose of a seed is to grow into a plant that produces abundance.
That is what you were made for: you were made to grow and be fruitful. Jesus who tells this story was raised as a good Jewish boy who heard the creation story read in the synagogue. What did he learn? It is a story of a good God who makes a good world and who blesses it from the outset saying, “be fruitful and multiply.” The original plan, the original creation blessing is still in effect. God wants us to be fruitful.
It is simply tragic when that creation blessing of fruitfulness fails. But it often does. In this complex world, lots of things go wrong. There really is evil – like the evil in the parable, pictured by the birds who do not even give the seed on the path a fighting chance. Evil, like the greed of others, the systems that oppress people, violence, and the all evils we bring on ourselves, all have the capacity to be Round-Up on the creation blessing of fruitfulness.
Even when fruitfulness looks possible and starts well, things can still go wrong. Thorns can grow up and choke the plants – “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” are the thorns Jesus is talking about. In other words, a person has begun to define the fruitfulness that they are seeking differently than the original creation blessing of fruitfulness intended.
The Harvest is for Others
Look: here is the beauty of the whole metaphor of sowing. Sowing good seed on good soil produces a crop of bounty. But consider this: the harvested wheat does no good simply for itself. The harvest is there to become bread on the table. The whole point of the seed’s fruitfulness is that it becomes nourishing for others.
This is what we were born for. We are here to be fruitful for the sake of others; “blessed to be a blessing.” We are here on this earth in order to be fruitful; in order to give back, to nourish, to be the bread, the life-force for others.
That’s why the thorns that choke the weeds are so tragic. “The cares of the world and the lure of wealth” are only thorns to people who have tragically defined fruitfulness selfishly instead of communally.
The Message of the Kingdom: it’s Here
The seed is the message of the kingdom. The message of the kingdom of God is that it is here, already, right now. The Kingdom, Jesus said, is at hand; the kingdom is near.
The trouble is, it does not look like that could be true. Look around – at the zealots, sharpening their swords or the Roman with theirs – it doesn’t look like the Kingdom of God has come.
Look at what Isis is doing in Iraq; look at the explosions in Palestine, look at the masses of minors at our borders; it does not look like the kingdom is here. We are in no different situation in this respect than the people Jesus told this parable to or the people Matthew wrote it down for. We all live in complex and difficult times.
The message is the same. The good soil people are simply those who are willing to, as Jesus says, hear the word of the kingdom and understand it. That’s all, and that makes all the difference. The good soil people who produce the bumper crop of fruitfulness are the ones who do not let appearances deceive them.
They are the ones who say that in spite of the evil, in spite of the problems of these complex times, we will take the risk of living into the reality of the kingdom. We will live, not for ourselves, but for others. We will not circle the wagons and hunker down in to communities of fear and self-protection.
Doing what Kingdom People Do
We will not simply hide behind walls that keep out others. Rather we will live as though the kingdom has actually begun to unfold in front of us. We will produce the fruit that can become food at the banquet. This is what we were born for. As St. Francis said, “for it is in giving that we receive.”
So we will be the ones who live fruitful lives for others. We will spend the time and effort to nurture God’s gifts in children, such as we have done at the Fine Arts Camp this past week. And we will be the ones who make sure all those children at the border are well-cared for. We will be the ones whose prayers are for peace in Israel for the children on both sides of the wall.
And we will be the ones who care about every situation of suffering, knowing that God wills the fruitfulness of every child on this planet. And we will push back against “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” so that our fruit is not choked off by despair, by apathy, nor by selfishness.
This is not the default path of the complex world. We will have to be disciplined to live this way. We will turn off the news when we have had enough. We will daily set aside time to nurture our spiritual values by prayer and mediation, as Jesus did, so that we can look at the world and see God’s hand, even in the midst of the evil and suffering – and know that God has put us here as part of God’s solution.