Sermon; 6 Pentecost/Proper 10A; Matt. 13:1-11, 18-23
In last week's gospel we heard Jesus tell the story about children calling to each other, “We played the flute, but you did not dance; we wailed, and you did not mourn.” In my sermon I pointed out that this was an allegory for Jesus and John the Baptist – Jesus is the bridegroom at the festive wedding, but nobody dances; and John is the prophet crying out in the wilderness for repentance, but nobody listens. This theme of dismissiveness or non-acceptance of the gospel message is woven throughout Chapters 11 and 12. In the overall arc of Matthew's gospel, it is this negative tone that sets us up for Chapter 13, a chapter populated with kingdom parables. These parables not only provide insight into Jesus' view of the kingdom, but also provide us with a guideline of judgment. And for the next three weeks, we will be spending time with these kingdom parables of judgment.
We start this series of kingdom parables with the parable of the sower. A sower went out to his field and began to sow. Some seed fell on the path, other seed fell on the rocky ground, other seed fell amongst thorns, and other seed fell on good soil. Jesus explains the parable by saying that in the first, the seed represents those who do not understand the message of the kingdom and are snatched up by the evil one. The second batch of seed has no depth, and when persecution arises or times become difficult, they wither away. The third batch of seed takes root and grows but is overcome by worldly cares and desires. The fourth batch falls on good soil, they take root, mature, and grow, producing a greater yield.
Where do you see yourself in this story? Most of us, if we are honest, see ourselves as the seed in that last group. We tend to see ourselves as understanding the message of the kingdom, growing deep roots, and producing much for the kingdom of God. And while that is probably a comforting image for us, it's also probably not totally accurate. The reality is that we, at one time or another, fall into each group of seed.
There are times when we hear the word of the kingdom and do not understand it. In these times we are vulnerable to being snatched away by the evil one. That could be because what is being said is really deep, complicated, and opaque. Such as whatever is going on in Revelation. Just how is it that locusts and scorpions are given authority over the earth? Or how exactly could we survive any star falling to earth from the sky? And given what we know about astronomy, how is that even possible?
Or it could be because what is being said makes us uncomfortable and we'd really rather not have to deal with it. For instance, how do we justify an economic system that punishes the poor and underprivileged when time and time again God speaks up for the immigrants, refugees, the poor, the widow, and the orphan? Or why do we defend a system that privileges whites over people of color when Jesus and God are working to break down barriers, not build up walls? Not understanding these basic biblical justice issues leaves us vulnerable to being snatched away by the evil one. Let anyone with ears listen.
There are times when we hear the word but have not developed strong roots and therefore lack depth and strength. How many times do we start off being passionate about the gospel but have not taken the time to, as the Collect says, “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest?” How many times have we laid aside, or fallen away from, the gospel because of persecutions (real or imagined) or because it was “just too hard?” This is us on the rocky soil.
There are times when we hear the word and we commit to doing something or serving in some way, but the world gets in the way. We would rather spend our money on things we can touch, see, and derive pleasure from than on the mission and ministry of the kingdom. We would rather take on a new car payment or renovation project, there are times we would rather upgrade our wardrobe or get involved in a new hobby than use that money and/or gifts to increase our pledge or involvement in the mission and ministry of the kingdom. In that instance, God, our faith, and our community take a backseat to our personal desires and we're okay with giving God the few leftovers we may have.
And then there are times we get it. There are times when the message of the kingdom hits us right when and where it needs to, and we respond in a way that produces much fruit. Whether that is an increase in our time, talent, and treasure, or whether it's how we reach out in love to those around us, or whether it's how we proclaim God's love for all people, there are times when our roots are deep and we do wonderful things for the kingdom of God. All these and more are ways we hear and act on the word of God.
So none of us are the seeds in the good soil all the time. Recognizing that fact, though, can allow us to be aware of when and where we may have fallen into the wrong section. Recognizing that we are sometimes in a difficult or dangerous place can allow us to evaluate where we are and how we might work to deepen our roots and grow, doing wonderful things for the kingdom of God.
But there's another part of this parable we need to consider, and that is the part of the sower. People have a tendency to view the sower as God or Jesus – the one who proclaims the good news of the kingdom, and the seed as those who respond to that message. That is certainly one way to read this parable. But note this: In his explanation of this parable, Jesus never identifies the sower.
The sower is the one who proclaims the message of the kingdom to the world, and that message is the seed. We are in Chapter 13 of Matthew. Remember it was back in Chapter 10 when Jesus sent out the twelve to proclaim the good news, to cure, cleanse, and to cast out. Those twelve were sowers spreading the message of the kingdom. After his resurrection, Jesus will again send out the disciples to sow the seed of the kingdom “to the ends of the earth.”
Yes, sometimes we are the seeds in this parable. Sometimes we don't understand and are snatched up. Sometimes we give up because it's too difficult. Sometimes we get distracted by wealth, power, fame, greed, or whatever the world throws at us. And sometimes we get it right. Sometimes we are the seeds in this parable; but all the time we are the sower.
If the message of the kingdom is the seed, that seed won't have a chance to grow unless we actively work to spread it. The kingdom of God won't grow unless we actively work to promote it. And it is that fact that makes us the sower all the time.
“But, oh,” we might complain, “I don't know the right people,” or, “The people I know won't come or listen,” or any number of excuses we use to avoid sowing the seed of the good news of the kingdom of God.
But look at that parable again. Some seed fell on the path, some on the rocky ground, some amongst the weeds, and some in good soil. Notice that the sower didn't spend his time carefully planting the seed in good soil. Notice that he just went out and tossed the seed around willy nilly, not caring whether seed landed in good soil or elsewhere.
Have you ever been out walking on a sidewalk or down a road and noticed a plant coming up through a crack? Apparently even a seed in a less-than-ideal spot can grow. So who are we to predetermine who is the “right person” to proclaim the good news to or not? And if we can be all versions of where the seed falls (sometimes even at the same time), then so can others. But the seed will never grow if it is never spread. The seed is the good news of the kingdom of God and it needs a sower to get planted. It needs you and I to do that work.
Sometimes we are the seed; but all the time we are the sower.
And here's the secret of the kingdom of God: the only way the message of the kingdom and the message of the gospel will take root and grow is through our willingness to go and sow it – even in places we think it won't work.
Sometimes we are the seed that has fallen in any number of difficult or good places, but all the time we are the sower.
Let anyone with ears listen.