Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
When I have time to garden, I enjoy it very much. I enjoy digging around in the dirt, working with the life of plants, helping them to grow and show their beauty. Each time I dig around in the dirt and encounter tree roots, rocks, hard ground, or other barriers to growth, I find myself reflecting on this parable. This parable is so rich with meanings. And where we stand, where we live, what we experience daily has a great deal to do with how we hear and understand and relate to every parable, this story being no exception. Even with Jesus’ explanation of the parable, we still hear it from our own contexts and understand it in that light.
What, for example, does rocky ground look like today? When you hear this parable, what comes to mind when you think about those who, in the words of the parable, receive the seeds of Good News, of hope, of promise, with joy but then quickly fall away? And what are we talking about when we talk about seeds? These seeds that are planted but do not always grow or do not grow strong? Are we talking about faith? A belief in the Good News? Are we talking about a commitment to following in the Way, to living out our lives with justice and compassion and commitment to our God of love? Are we talking about lives dedicated to loving our neighbors, and yes, our enemies, as ourselves? I believe this parable, and these words can even be applied to easy, simpler situations, not just to the big picture of what it means to be people of Faith. Sometimes we feel God’s call in our lives, for example, to do something specific and it just doesn’t take: God plants the seed in us of a dream, a hope, a calling. But sometimes when we feel called to do a particular thing and it doesn’t work out for us, we can wonder if we’ve heard the call wrong, or if the seed we planted just wasn’t very good. But this parable gives us another way to understand it. Sometimes the call we have or the message we’ve been called to follow just hasn’t found the right soil yet. Or perhaps the soil needed more tending, more tilling, more fertilizer. And sometimes it simply isn’t the right time for the planting. That’s why common church phrases such as “we tried that once and it didn’t work” are simply not helpful. When God plants a seed in us, a call, an idea, sometimes it won’t work not because its bad seed but simply because the soil isn’t right for it at that moment or in that place or, most likely, with that particular combination of time and place.
But whether we are talking the little seeds of a particular task God gives us to plant or the big seed of living out lives of faith and following in the way, the ultimate point of this parable is that planting the seeds, being the sower, being the one to bring and attempt to grow things, ideas, visions, missions is hard. Trusting in our calls to carry the Good News, in our words, in our actions, in our lives; trusting in the seeds that we are given, especially when they don’t seem to grow, can be so very hard.
For the disciples, these words that we hear Jesus speak today, this parable – these are words of encouragement. After Jesus has gone, the disciples will share their stories, their experiences of Jesus, the imperative to live lives of love with others, but they must be aware that their words, the Word of God that they speak and that they ask others to live out, may not easily be received or followed. They will encounter all kinds of people and they will not be able to succeed with everyone they meet. Each person will come from their own place and their own perspective. Some will not understand at all and will never be able to hear. Others will hear and accept with joy the Good News they are given, but will have no depth in their faith, in their understanding, in their commitments to living the life that this demands of us, that will allow them to persevere when things become hard or challenging. And some will find they are lured away from acting or living out, growing their seeds to fullness by the values of the world. Jesus tells them this parable to reassure the disciples. Their job, their only job, is to plant the seeds, to speak Good News, to live God’s truth, to be the people God calls them to be and by so doing to plant and plant and plant the seeds God gives them each and every day. They are not responsible for how it is received or what people do with what they hear. They are not responsible for the growing of those seeds, only the planting of them. There are many reasons why those seeds might not grow, why the visions God gives them to plant might not grow, and ultimately the disciples may not know the good they are able to accomplish in some. But that is not theirs to worry about.
We are given the same words of encouragement. But still they are hard. What do you do when things don’t work out? When you think the seeds you’ve planted, by actions, by deed, by the way you live your life, or by your words were good and you think the soil or groundwork foundation upon which those seeds were planted was well fertilized and abundant, but it still just doesn’t work out? What do you do when the seeds don’t grow, for one reason or another?
Current emphasis on church growth looks at doing studies ahead of time, or, to put it in this parable’s terms, to actually dig into the soil to understand it a bit before seeds are planted. But this has been found in many ways to be ineffective. Will we ever really know what is in or under the soil? We can be educated about our communities’ needs, we can care about what is going on in the lives of those around us, but ultimately, knowing the heart of one another takes time, it takes work, and it takes a willingness to plant seeds without knowing whether they will flourish long term or not.
Sojourner’s magazine published an article entitled, “Have churches become too shallow?” Stephen Mattson wrote, “Christians ultimately attend church to meet with God. But sometimes we turn our churches into distractions, and spiritual leaders mistakenly prioritize things beyond God, becoming obsessed with marketing, consumerism, and entertainment — creating false idols…..Truth is gauged by the amount of attention received, morality judged by popularity, holiness measured by fame, authority determined by power, security based upon control, and happiness evaluated according to wealth. This is what happens when we ignore God — or simply try to make God more marketable: Jesus becomes a product. The Gospel becomes a promotional tool. Parishioners become customers. Pastors become celebrities. Sermons become propaganda. Churches become businesses. Denominations become institutions. Faith becomes a religion, which eventually becomes an empire. Instead of striving to be a place for divine communion where disciples praise and worship …, churches become infatuated with accommodation — making people comfortable, happy, entertained, safe, and content. Contrarily, churches can go to the opposite extreme and remove any hint of joy, encouragement, comfort, and inspiration. Instead, they choose to implement fear, guilt, shame, and other abusive tactics to legalistically manipulate people into “loving” God. Both types of Christianity are illusions built upon lies and a facade of clichés, where cheap sales techniques and overused stereotypes are reinforced using the powerful motivations of insecurity, convenience, ignorance, and a deep fear and hesitation of being brutally honest, uncomfortable, humble, and vulnerable — scared of risking it all. This is why people often abandon Christianity and stop attending church — because God has been replaced by shallow gimmicks. Instead of helping the poor, feeding the hungry, tending to the sick, sheltering the homeless, fighting injustice, speaking for the voiceless, sacrificially giving, and wholeheartedly loving our neighbors (and enemies), churches have become co-opted by secular values and empty content. Emulating Christ is not for the faint of heart, and following his commands will probably mean becoming a church that embraces conflict, discomfort, work, pain, suffering, and truth. This is the messiness of Christianity — following God through the Pilgrim’s Progress of life, forsaking the riches of this world for the treasure of a Divine relationship. Are we brave enough to embrace this?”
The call to plant seeds, to do the work, to have the conversations, to risk truth-telling and to risk truly loving others, and acting in a way that really empowers, liberates and feeds others – that call requires being brave. I found myself thinking about the Dr. Seuss story, Horton Hears a Who. Horton did not want the job of protecting the teeny tiny Who community that was on the little clover flower. But he took it because the job needed to be done and it was in front of him. He was given the seed, the opportunity to serve and he planted it by taking the job. In contrast, a little later when the Whos were trying to get the attention of Horton’s disbelieving community by shouting with all of their might, one of the little Whos was not participating. This little Who didn’t want to do it, he didn’t think it would matter whether he did what he was called to do or not. In the end, when he was finally convinced to try, it was his voice, the littlest voice of all, that added enough volume to the collective shouting that Horton’s community could hear him and change their minds about the Whos existence. That one voice, that one decision to say “yes” to the call to answer the needs at hand, to stand up, to be a voice for truth and justice, that one voice made the difference.
Will it always? No. But again, we are not in charge of the outcome. We are not in charge of whether or not our voice, our work, our efforts make a difference. We are not in charge of whether or not the seeds we plant will grow. I realize that is a hard lesson to bear. When we work hard at something and get nowhere, it is easy to give up. It is easy to say, “it’s not going to make any difference, so why bother?” (starfish?)
We also can’t always anticipate which seeds will grow what, or what good they will do. Sometimes the things we consider to be weeds give the most life. As a world, for example, we are having a crisis about bees dying. In the process of studying bees, one of the things that has been found is that one small reason for this is that we get rid of “weeds”. One of the weeds we get rid of, dandelions, happens to be one of the bees’ favorite flowers. Similarly, gold finches are most attracted to thistle. Sometimes when we think the seeds we’ve planted are turning into weeds, we have to take a more studied look at what is, in fact, growing after all. We may find ourselves unhappy about the thistle and the dandelions until we see the life that surrounds them. I have a friend who planted what he called a “butterfly plant” in his yard. He found that the caterpillars of the butterflies kept eating most of the leaves on this butterfly plant. He became very upset and determined to poison the caterpillars until his son pointed out that the caterpillars were what was becoming the butterflies he was hoping to attract. He had a choice. To let the caterpillars eat much of the plant but be rewarded with the butterflies, or to kill off the caterpillars and lose the butterflies as well.
I began today’s sermon by saying that where we stand has a great deal to do with how we hear this story. Wherever we stand, we tend to assume that our hearts represent the good soil, that we are the ones who have heard, in whom the seeds have taken hold and grown, the ones with depth of soil in whom the roots can also find room to move and deepen. But my experience says that all of us hold all those different types of soil in one area of our lives or another. Maybe the good soil within us, for example, takes strong hold of God’s words of grace offered, given and accepted into our hearts through our trust and faith in it. But maybe at the same time, the call to love our enemies as ourselves has not found good soil in terms of loving a certain kind of person, a certain type of person, whatever or whomever that may be. Or maybe it is the opposite. We have good soil within us that encourages us to live lives of action and love towards our neighbors, but when it comes to the soil that allows the seeds of God’s grace and forgiveness, the new life that God offers to US to grow, our soil is not so rich.
In all of these cases, the soil is not up to us. What happens with the seeds that we plant is not up to us. We can pray for good soil, pray that God will enrich the soil, fertilize the soil. But what we are called to do is our job - keep planting the seeds, within our world, within our communities, within our churches, and mostly, within ourselves – to keep doing the work of God, being open to receiving the seeds God asks us to plant, keep listening in every way that God speaks, and to pray for the good soil that only God, ultimately, can provide.
I want to leave you with one more thought about planting seeds. There is a story about a group of people who were taking a pottery class. The teacher divided the students into two groups – a quality group and a quantity group. The quality group was told all each of them had to do was make one beautiful pot. The quantity group was told they needed to just make as many pots as possible. Which group do you think did the better job? The quality group did not do well because they spent all their time on one pot and when it was not going well, they just kept trying to redo it. The quantity group produced beautiful pots because with each one they made, they learned something and could improve on it with the next pot.
When we do the work of God, we will be given more seeds to plant. Each time we will learn and get better at the planting. Do justice. Speak the truth. Share the Good News of God’s love for ALL people. Stand up for the voiceless.: the call under all of it is simply to love one another. These are the seeds we are called to plant. Plant lots of seeds of love. Each time you do, you will get better at it. But even so, let go of the results. We are not in charge of the soil, that is up to the hearers. And we are not in charge of the end results: that is up to God. And in that, there is great hope. Thanks be to God. Amen.