Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Lectionary 15A)
Sunday, July 12, 2020
Trinity Lutheran Church, Worcester, Massachsuetts

(Watch Here Minute 23:35)

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Today is the first Sunday of three in a row in which we will hear parables of Jesus. As we reflect on these parables today and in the coming weeks good for us to think again about how we receive parables. 

My study Bible notes that parables: tease the imagination, challenge accepted values, or illustrate a point. One commentator writes that “parables invite us in as we bring our own logic, life experience, and relationships to the parable… they become Christ’s invitation to discipleship.” Yet another commentator suggests that “we do not interpret the parables as much as the parables interpret us.  Multiple interpretations, including conflicting interpretations, are signs of success!”

Parables are not nuts to crack in order to get to the truth inside. Rather, parables are invitations to discipleship, an invitation cast to a wide and diverse community living in complex life situations.   So keep that in mind:  parables are not about dispensing easy answers, they are instead ways in which we are invited to faith.

With that being said, the parable we receive today is told in Matthew 13:1-9. Today’s parable has been titled: “The parable of the sower”

In text study this week, because I grew up on a farm, I was called on to explain how a farmer might look at this parable of sowing and planting. I suggested that from a farmer’s perspective, the parable is wasteful. No farmer, in his or her right mind, would waste seed by scattering it on the road, allowing pests to eat it, or weeds to choke it off.

Farming today is all about efficiency. Some Iowa farmers use GPS technology on their planter, so that as the planter goes across the field it plants seed at a rate consistent with the type of soil on that part of the field. The richer the soil, the more densely the seed is planted; the lighter and sandier the soil, the less seed is planted in it. 

An Iowa farmer, or New England gardener for that matter, might hear the lesson of this parable of the sower as a lesson to be wise and careful in sowing.  Don’t throw it where it won’t create a harvest, don’t waste time throwing seed in the wrong places, you’ll get no harvest there and you’ll waste money and time. Instead, plant the seed, in good soil where there will be a bountiful harvest.  

And yet, on the other hand, especially when paired with Isaiah’s prophecy recorded in our first reading today:  “so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth: it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose; and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11) … we might see in this sower, broadcasting the seed, throwing it every which way – the role of faith, to trust that God will use the seed in ways that we might not be able to see and understand.   

Whose to say that God doesn’t want the birds to be fed by the seed? Whose to say what a weed is?  Isn’t that how humans get themselves into all sorts of trouble – by calling people of the wrong nationality, or skin color, or political belief weeds that need to be discarded?  Whose to say there is no value in a crop that grows up quickly and then withers? In fact, my Iowa farmer Dad uses some seed as a short term cover crop to hold the soil in place – that seed is sown with no intention of a harvest, but simply as a placeholder until the real crops have rooted in the soil and grow for the desired harvest.   

So, is the parable’s point that we sow the seed carefully and strategically for maximum result? As a congregation, should we be cautious and strategic with our money, careful not to waste any? Or, do we sow the see widely and trust in the power of God’s word?  As a congregation, do we spend lavishly and perhaps wastefully? Are both right at the same time?

But maybe the parable has nothing to do with sowing the seed at all?

Another title for this parable I saw this week was: “The parable of the four soils” The interpretation of the parable, offered in Matthew 13:18-23, seems to focus us away from the sower and into the soil.

Some historians and scholars suggest this interpretation may not have come from Jesus himself, but was a later addition by Matthew as a way of adding meaning to the parable for early Christian community.  One scholar writes: “The focus of the parable reflects the situation of the post-Easter church living out initial commitment in the face of the three challenges:  (1) lack of understanding of the faith, rendering it vulnerable to challenge; (2) persecution, rendering the living of it costly (3) competing calls upon the heart (cares of the world; lure of wealth) that “choke” the word and render it fruitless …”

We can imagine the first Christians, new converts to the faith, enthusiastically receiving the story of Jesus. It must have been exciting as they were part of a new movement the world had never seen before. But then, the novelty wore off, the shine faded, and reality set it. 

  • Some seed fell on the path and the birds came to eat it up – Some people didn’t really understand what it was all about.  When they encountered other new and flashy teachings they were carried away.  We see this today in Christian community, when people not deeply rooted in the faith, are carried off by flashier and trendier teaching about faith and more often spirituality.    
  • Some seed fell on the rocky ground and it sprouted quickly, but with no root, dried up when the sun came out – Some people have a mountaintop experience of faith, it all seems fresh and exciting, but then reality hits, a disappointment is experienced.  We see this today in Christian community, in thepeople who dive right in, volunteering for this and for that and for everything, and then suddenly they flame out and disappear.
  • Some seed fell among the thorns who choked off the seeds – Some wanted to follow, had a sincere desire to grow in faith, but then life got in the way.  We see this today in Christian community, people with talents and desire want to follow, but then work and family demands pile up, the balance gets out of whack.  As is put in the interpretation: the cares of the world and lure of wealth choke the word and it yields nothing.

These obstacles are not unique to life together as Christians. In fact, they are common to human community. We see these three approaches today in response to the pandemic. The word goes out that there is a deadly virus among us, the word lands among the people for a short time, who take it seriously, but then:

  • The birds carry away the seed on the path: “there’s nothing to worry about …  it’s just the flu … everything is under control”
  • The sun comes out withers the seed … “it’s just a hoax … most people who get it are fine … ”
  • The weeds choke off the seed … the cares and lures of the world creep in …. “pandemic fatigue sets in, all those things set aside are missed … people are over it, let’s get on with life.”

Instead of calling us to sow seed today, perhaps this parable invites us to consider the soil of our hearts and what it is that tests our endurance, perseverance, and steadfastness?  Maybe the parable invites us to consider the commitments we make to one another in response to the seed of God’s word already planted in our hearts and lives in baptism? 

It’s worth noting that when Mark tells this story the order of the harvest is reversed, the good soil yields thirtyfold, sixtyfold, and hundredfold. In Matthew’s telling, the yield diminishes: hundredfold, sixtyfold, thirtyfold – again, fitting for a community wrestling with diminishing returns, fading enthusiasm and members leaving.  Nonetheless, the good soil still produces a harvest, even though the parable doesn’t give us any definition of what exactly the good soil is. 

In Iowa, the best soil was the blackest soil. Pastor Lenny Duncan has challenged the church to think about how we use colors to denote virtue and vice: why do we use black as synonymous with bad and white as synonymous with good? From the perspective of soil black is good! The darker, the blacker, the denser the soil – the better the harvest.  That planter with the GPS rushes seeds into the blackest soil: the soil that yields the best harvest.

But, again, scripture doesn’t tell us what makes good soil. Perhaps we know the good soil because it does the opposite of the bad soil? Good soil: welcomes and protects the seed – nurturing it so it can grow; it provides moisture to the seed, holding moisture within itself and allowing the seed to send roots down to find water; Good soil is clear of weeds that prevent growth.

As this parable invites us into faith and discipleship, it leads us to ask questions today:

  • how do we protect our hearing and receiving of God’s Word so that it can take root and grow in our lives? 
  • How does the parable drive us to confession today – confessing the times when we are the birds, sun, and weeds that prevent the seed of God’s word from reaching a harvest in us or in others? 
  • In what ways are we yielding a harvest today as we persist in respecting the seriousness of the coronavirus pandemic and reality of racial injustice? 

In the many meanings and directions the Holy Spirit uses in this parable to invite us to discipleship of Christ… perhaps they all finally drive us to the Good News: God as sower sows and the sowing results is a harvest!

God speaks and a harvest results! Whether that harvest is increasing or decreasing, whether it is a hundredfold, or sixtyfold, or even just thirtyfold, there is a harvest!  God’s word does go out and accomplish that which it purposes.

Later in the gospel, Matthew records what that harvest and purpose is. It’s a harvest of loving deeds for the hungry, the thirsty, the sick, the prisoner, and the stranger.  “Whenever you do onto the least of these,” said Jesus, “you do onto me.” That is the true harvest of blessing:  community where the hungry are fed, the sick are cared for, the prisoner is treated with respect and dignity, and the stranger if welcomed as a Child of God.

In whatever way this parable is speaking to you today, may the Holy Spirit make you good soil, open to the seed of God’s word.

As good soil may you bring forth the seed of God’s word in the fruits of love, justice, and mercy.

May the Holy Spirit grant you the faith and trust to believe, that you are indeed the seed, held in the good soil of God’s grace, mercy, and love.     

Thanks be to God.