Sermon preached by the Reverend Nicholas Lang
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fifth Sunday after Pentecost – July 13, 2014
In the Name of God: cosmic creator, ascended Christ, and enabling Spirit. Amen.
For the next three Sundays, the Gospel passages are a series of parables or short stories with metaphors and analogies concerning the Kingdom of God. Today’s segment is the Parable of the Sower, though because of how detailed it gets, we tend to think that it is more about the soil in which seeds are planted.
Here again, Jesus uses down-to-earth elements like the growth of seeds to stimulate in us the longing for what lies beneath the surface of everyday, familiar life. It is all about coming to the place of overlap with Gods Kingdom and its values.
A preacher once faced with this text decided that a visual demonstration would add emphasis to her sermon about growing in good soil. She placed four worms in four separate jars. The first into a jar of Jack Daniel’s Bourbon; the second worm into a container of cigarette smoke; the third into rich chocolate syrup; the fourth worm into a container of good clean soil.
At the conclusion of her sermon, she reported the following results: The first worm: Dead. The second worm: Dead. The third worm: Dead. The fourth worm in the good soil: Alive. “What does this teach us about this parable,” she asked. A little old lady in the back of the church stood up and announced: “As long as you drink, smoke, and eat chocolate, you won’t have worms!”
Jesus’ clear interpretation of the parable would seem to leave little work for the preacher. Biblical scholars, however, tell us that the original parable did not include the explanation Matthew provides. That means that the focus of the lesson is not on what we do, but on what God does. That’s good news for us because the interpretation raises some troubling questions. Who makes the grade of “good soil”? Since soil cannot change itself, is there any hope for the hardened, rocky, and thorny soil?
The disciples themselves might be included among those who fall away “when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word” and the rich young man unable to part with his possessions is a striking example of “one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing”
I’ve preached on this parable many times—however, never with worms. The main character in the parable is the sower, not the soil. The sower scatters the seed carelessly, recklessly, seemingly wasting much of the seed on ground that holds little promise for a fruitful harvest. Does this speak to the way Jesus invests in disciples who look similarly unpromising, squandering his time with tax collectors and sinners, with lepers, the marginalized and oppressed, and all sorts of outcasts?
Jesus didn’t tell stories just for the heck of it. Each parable he told was intended to debunk the assumptions about life that some members of his audience held as absolute. So what exactly is his point? Well, of one thing we can be sure: Jesus is challenging us to question conventional wisdom. Our initial reaction to the story is probably “What a waste!” Who would be so reckless as to squander so much good seed knowing that the success rate will be so low? The underlying metaphorical question could be framed as “What kind of soil are you? Good soil or bad soil?”
I don’t think we need be concerned about the quality of the soil at all. I believe that God produces good and abundant fruit in any kind of soil—and we know that God does just that. I think Jesus wants us to consider the issue of waste versus generosity. I think God wants us to look at how well and how openhandedly we spread and broadcast the seeds God has so freely given and in such abundance. How bigheartedly do we share the Good News of God’s outrageous love and extravagant grace with the world beyond our doors when we leave here each week?
If we are honest with ourselves, we can probably find evidence of several kinds of soil in our lives on any given day. Having the word choked out by “the cares of the world and the lure of wealth” seems to be a particular problem in North America. Jesus does not use this parable to provoke hearers to “be good soil,” as though we could make that happen.
If there is any hope for us, it is that the sower keeps sowing generously, lavishly, wastefully, even in the least promising places. Jesus never gave up on his disciples or on the crowds of people who came to hear him teach, in spite of their many failings. Nor will he give up on us. The sower will keep sowing, working on whatever is hardened, rocky, or thorny within and among us.
The parable does have important implications for how we engage in mission as a community of faith. Do we play it safe, sowing the word only where we are confident it will be well received? Do we hold tightly to our resources, wanting to make sure that nothing is wasted? Do we stifle creativity and energy for mission, resisting new ideas for fear they might not work so that mistakes are avoided at all costs?
What we learn to day is that Jesus’ approach is quite at odds with our play-it-safe instincts. He gives us freedom to take risks for the sake of the gospel. He endorses extravagant generosity in sowing the word, even in precarious places. He promises that the end result will be a bumper crop.
Soil is inert! It is what God does that brings about fruit. Growth takes place in hidden ways, on God’s timetable, just as seeds bearing fruit happen according to God’s schedule and not ours. That’s very good news, indeed. It just depends on how willing we are to spread those seeds.