2017-07-16 Sermon on the Parable of the Sower – Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
I don’t know about you, but I love Jesus’ parables. Especially those ones in the gospel of Matthew that end with weeping and gnashing of teeth, because they’re just SO HOPEFUL! But let’s save that for another time. Seriously, the parables are great for a lot of reasons. They’re easy to remember – and even when you get the details wrong, the basic point sticks. They’re interesting – you hear one a thousand times and still get hooked. But we know Jesus isn’t just telling stories – he’s teaching. So what we really want to know is how we fit into the story. Well, how fabulous that Jesus actually explains this parable, just so we might get his point.
So, what’s his point here? What kind of soil are you? That’s pretty much what Jesus sets up here with his explanation. He says that the seed represents the Word of God that we hear. So we could be like the rocky path, where we just don’t get what Jesus says and move on. We could be like the rocky soil, where we think we totally get what Jesus is saying and you get this sort of spiritual high like you’re going to conquer the world, but then you get busy and distracted. Then you’ve got the weeds and thorns, which is almost the same thing as rocky soil, but here it’s that we discover what Jesus wants is too much or too demanding, and we compromise. On the other hand, maybe, just maybe, there’s a chance we could be like good soil, where we totally get it, and we’re faithful, and we bear good fruit – 30, 60, a hundredfold! Almost sounds like a commercial, right? So, which soil do we want to be?
Now, if this really is the gist of what Jesus is saying, then what do we need to know? How to be good soil. And that’s where a lot of sermons go with this, because it’s so reasonable. Then we talk about spiritual practices and discipleship programs. Jesus, we totally got this. But here’s the thing – soil isn’t a person, it doesn’t think or feel, it just is what it is, and it’s totally passive. Microbiologists weren’t created yet. So right away, Jesus is saying we’re powerless, but that’s easy to overlook when we think Jesus is some kind of self-help guru telling us how to be happy. Context matters too. A lot of the people listening to Jesus are peasant farmers (that’s a euphemism – they’re sharecroppers). They already know something about soil. They till and labor over soil they don’t own or can’t afford, and it’s thought that for the most part, their lands were all bad soil anyway. A good harvest seemed like a miracle, especially when you’ve got weather, insects, wars, and all kinds of forces stacked against you. But there’s still this sort of romantic fantasy – if only this was good soil, we’d finally have something. So, if Jesus is talking about good soil, and it’s the thing you most desperately want but just can’t have, then what if Jesus is being a little hypocritical?
But there’s something else. Did you notice there’s a gap in our reading? Now, I love the lectionary as much as anyone, but I think it lets us down by omission. Then again, maybe you won’t be surprised. Jesus tells the parable to the crowds, but only explains it to the disciples after they ask him – why do you speak to them in parables? Jesus answers – the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given to you, but not to all them. For to those who have more, more will be given, and they will have an abundance, but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. The reason I speak to them in parables is that seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they don’t listen or understand. And then he even quotes the prophet Isaiah to back it all up, like this is all preordained. How does that feel? It feels like a great big setup, like Jesus is saying that he just throws out meaningless stories because in the end, it doesn’t matter. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer, like this whole spirituality thing is just self-delusion. We all still die.
But we’re smart – it dawns on us that Jesus only says this to his disciples, not the whole crowd. And we’re disciples, right? He even tells them – but blessed are YOUR eyes, for they see, and YOUR ears, for they hear. Truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and to hear what you hear, but never got to. Sounds like blessing. But we all know what kind of disciples these are. They deny Jesus. They lose faith when everything shakes down in Jerusalem. For all Jesus’ talk of resurrection, everything goes out the window when they see Jesus die on the cross. And Jesus knows all this already. So, what’s Jesus actually saying? When you abandon me, you won’t just be letting me down, but letting down every faithful person that ever lived. So if anything, Jesus actually puts the disciples in worse shape than the rest of the crowd. So, if we’re disciples all the same, all this supposed “blessedness” rings a little hollow by all the suffering and brokenness and injustice that we see and experience every day. Who really wants to be blessed after all?
But the thing is, there really is good news here, and our lectionary doesn’t let us down after all! Jesus quotes Isaiah for a reason, because here’s what Isaiah says – So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth – it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish what I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it. Brothers and sisters, our rocks and thorns are so absolutely real, and not even these can stand against the power of God. Because this God makes a promise to you and to me in the waters of our baptism, through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus willingly takes all of our sin and brokenness upon himself and by the cross he puts it all to death with his death, so that in his rising we would rise too. He takes everything that we are, so that he can give us everything that he is, even when we couldn’t or wouldn’t accept it. Because he knows us better than we know ourselves.
All these things about ourselves that we regret and try to forget, our self-centeredness and greed and ego, and I know just how bound I am. Most of the time we don’t even realize what we’re doing. Microaggressions, y’all. But Jesus knows every sour bit of it, and thank God for that. That’s exactly why he tells the parable after all. Because he knows our reality, he knows how powerless we are, and he always comes at us with 3 simple words. Every time, I forgive you. Maybe this is why you came here today, maybe not, but this is what you’re getting, all the same. And at his table, with bread and wine, he’s going to show us just how much he means it. Jesus knows he has to bind himself to our bodies and our brokenness, just so that we know nothing can ever separate us from his love. Everyone is welcome at this table.
The whole point of our gospel today is not about what kind of soil we are, but that the power of God will be revealed in us, and especially in our brokenness. After all, how else would anyone ever recognize the power of God? By our success? Our wealth? Our strength? No. We see that stuff all the time. But the true power of God is the reality that no matter how bad things get, there is such a thing as true and real forgiveness, and new creation, and new life. When you’re truly at your bottom, these are everything. All things are possible with God, and only our brokenness can reveal it. But we don’t stay broken. Jesus is a healer. Now, Jesus’ healing won’t look or feel like we expect, because what happens is that our scars become living, breathing testimony to God’s faithfulness, mercy, and love – and THAT’S what others will see and recognize. That’s what it means to be real and authentic and truly alive. God makes a way through every desert and wilderness, and has not brought us this far to abandon us.
So, when God sends us back out into the world, stop worrying about what kind of soil you are, or what kind of disciple you are, or any of that futile self-judging. That only comes from the evil one, and you don’t have to take it anymore. You can give yourself away, warts and all. And you will, even when you don’t want to. It’s the only way your giving, your service, your hospitality, can truly be a free gift to your neighbors, because you don’t have to prove anything to anyone anymore. And when, not if, you mess it up just like the rest of us, know this – the forgiveness of Jesus stands so that you will not fall, and free you to give again. Thanks be to God.