PRAYER: God of grace and mercy, as we labor this morning to prepare the soil of our souls for your harvest, remind us that there is no stone that you cannot help us remove. Remind us that when the weeds try to take over, you bend down alongside of us to help us clear the soil. Your generosity knows no limit, and you walk along the path in solidarity with us.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
There is a direct correlation between the fact that my attempts at gardening over the years were half-hearted at best, and the fact that I had very little success at gardening over the years. A couple of months ago, through my connection with a non-profit organization in Flemington, I was able to get my hands on several flats of plants. Tomatoes, peppers, and various herbs and so on… I decided to give gardening a try, even though it’s much simpler for me to rely on my past history and just say that I have a black thumb. So far, so good. I’m watering the plants faithfully, and making sure that they aren’t dead yet.
When I hear the parable of the sower, I find myself a little out of my element because of my past history with planting things. The sower in this parable gets results, and if we read this parable from the standpoint of the sower, we can interpret this parable about the importance of getting good results. Jesus says that if you plant seeds in the pathway, you’re going to get bad results because people are going to trample the plants underfoot. The takeaway is that we should not plant seeds in the path. If we plant in soil that is shallow, the plants will grow, but die as soon as the sun comes out. Don’t plant in shallow soil. But… if we plant the seeds in good soil, just deep enough, and away from where everyone is walking, then we’ll get good results. We’ll accomplish our goals and the church will grow.
So from that perspective, the parable seems to be telling us to be careful about where we plant the seeds of faith to ensure that the potential for growth is greatest. Got it. This parable is about getting good results.
This fits right into our narrative as a culture. We are all about getting results. We are all about success and winning and achieving. The message that teaches us about putting seeds on the good soil and bearing fruit, “in one case a yield of one hundred to one, in another case of sixty to one, and in another case a yield of thirty to one”, that type of message plays right into our wheelhouse. “Everyone who has ears should pay attention!” This is how you get results. Isn’t that what the church is all about?
But then the question that I have from all of this is, what exactly are the results that Jesus was looking for from his disciples – and by extension us? This is the challenge we face when reading parables. We often come away from them with more questions than when we started. And what makes this parable unique from all of the others that Jesus tells is that Jesus actually explains this one. He doesn’t typically do that… at least not in the Gospels. It’s possible, I suppose, that he might have explained them later on to his disciples and they just didn’t put those explanations into the gospels. We’ll never know… but this one, he explained!
Verses 19-23 explain everything. Jesus says that when anyone hears the word of God, their response is an indication of the type of soil they are. A person who has no root, who hears the word of the kingdom and then falls away, this is someone whose soil is rocky ground. The person who hears the word of God but cares more for the riches of the world, their soil is full of thorns. And the person who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit, this person’s soil is good.
There are two things I want you to notice about this. The first thing I want to notice is that Jesus is not describing our role in this parable as the sower. He’s not telling the disciples how they should be planting the seeds of faith. He is describing the human condition. He is describing conditions that we have all been in at one point or another in our lives. We have all been the rocky soil at some point. We have all been full of thorns at some point. We have all experienced times when our faith has been trampled upon, and we have all experienced times when the soil of our faith has been rich and deep, and full of nutrients, full of growth.
The second thing is that the sower in this parable does not scatter seeds discriminately. When it comes to planting seeds, this sower would have been wasting a lot of seeds. Even I know that you don’t just throw seeds everywhere and expect to get results. The people of first century Israel certainly would have known that as well. But the sower is spreading seeds everywhere and no matter where the seeds go, there is still some degree of growth – even if for just a little while. The sower in this story is not us, but it is God who is generous and loving and whose desire for community and growth extends to everyone no matter what condition the soil of their souls may be in at that moment.
What does it mean then, for us to be that lush soil? If Jesus is the gardener and we are the soil, then what is our role? Are we devoid of responsibility here? Jesus refers twice to “those who hear should understand.” Those of us who hear – those of us in whom the seed of God’s word is planted and bearing fruit, we should understand. We need to understand.
God’s word is meant not just for those who are of the good soil category. God’s word is meant for everyone. In the parable, we see the God, not as a cautious giver, but as an extravagant one. The seeds were scattered generously to every piece of ground that would have even the slightest opportunity to grow and bear fruit. It did not matter to the sower in this parable that there were rocks or weeds or birds ready to come steal the seeds. The seeds were scattered – the word of God was spread – to everyone! In those times that we struggle to achieve growth, we have the opportunity to either let the seeds whither away, or to do the work on cultivating the soil of our souls. We need to constantly check the soil of our souls and cultivate itl into a condition in which growth is possible.
Kari Jo Verhulst writes “The imprudent generosity of the sower reveals a God who gives without considering the worthiness of the recipient. …God’s generous giving of self makes the stinginess of our self- protection that much more evident.”
After all, if God ensured that God’s Word would only be spread to those whose soil is not contaminated in some way, shape or form, how many of us would have received it? I know I wouldn’t! It is only by God’s grace that I am able to stand here and proclaim that the seed has been planted in me. But I also assure you this: In many ways, I am like the footpath: Many times, God’s word has left my heart soon after it is received – snatched away! I assure you this: I am like the shallow soil with underlying rock. Many times, I have heard the word of God with great joy, but have just as quickly lost focus or passion when I get distracted by something else. Very often, I am like the soil with thorns. The distractions of this world tend to lure me away from the message of God and I’m worrying or focusing on something that is not of God. But in spite of all of that, God is an extravagant sower. God is a generous sower. The seeds of God’s grace and message are scattered to all of us in spite of ourselves.
As the recipients of God’s generous sowing, we cannot pretend that our soil is so lush and fertile that we then look down upon those who may stumble and fall through the weeds, or trip over the rocks in their path. If we embrace God’s gratuitous giving in ourselves, then it is incumbent upon us all to recognize ourselves as lavish gifts from God, and in turn, ensure that the sower’s work is not wasted.
In my involvement with youth ministry, I can remember times when it seemed as though we youth leaders were just spinning our wheels… that the youth were just sitting there like lumps. It could be very frustrating! But years later, when those same youth would come up to you in church with a great big hug, you start to realize that you did in fact make a connection – that through us, God planted a seed that is actually yielding fruit. It is an amazingly rewarding feeling when you realize that you played a part in planting God’s word in peoples’ hearts. And the truth of the matter is that we may never see the fruit that we played a part in planting, but with faith we can rest assured that the seeds we planted will bear fruit someday.
Is it enough for us to view this parable strictly from an individual perspective? Do we only take stock of ourselves and say, “Well, I know that I am good soil…” or do we, as a community need to do the same? How does the church welcome those whose soil may not be as receptive as ours?
As we endeavor to be the Church of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, we must remember that if the soil is our faith, then we can see growth in a multitude of ways. If the soil is our church, or our egos, or our fears and worries, then I’m afraid we’re going to be in trouble.
Over the years that I’ve been in ministry, I’ve been engaged with many people from a great many walks of life who have shared with me how their respective church has turned them away in some way, shape or form. Churches that profess that all are welcome can, in many ways, go out of their way to make people feel unwelcome.
Today, I am calling on the church for a time of checking our soil. I am calling upon each of us within this congregations to join me in checking our soil – a period of examining ourselves in how those whose soil may be rocky or full of weeds are to be welcomed and affirmed in the church. Is it enough for us to say that all are welcome. Is it enough for us to say that our doors, our hearts, and our minds are open. Or do we need to demonstrate that somehow through our actions.
How do we live as good soil that bears fruit if we are unwilling to extend God’s generosity outward to those who are unable to produce fruit at this moment in their lives? How can our soil even be considered good fruit-bearing soil if we are not extending outward to help others bear fruit as well? Is the church only focused on the results of what is planted in ourselves, because if so, then the church is rocky soil indeed. Is the church merely focused on the soil that grows within us, because if so, then the light of the sun will surely cause our fruit to wither away.
I call upon the church today to check your soil. I call upon us all to prayerfully examine our own preconceptions about our place in the world, and the condition of the soil of our souls.
Is it enough for us to believe that God’s generosity is so extravagant that God is satisfied with the fruit that we produce given the limitations we put on ourselves? I call on the church today and for the rest of this calendar year that we devote ourselves to reflective and meditative prayer, to a period of contemplation in how we should be challenged to help cultivate the soil in others that the soil in our own souls may bear more fruit. We may be surprised by how many rocks and thorny branches we have to pull from our soil.
I started out this morning by saying that there is a direct correlation between the fact that my attempts at gardening over the years were half-hearted at best, and the fact that I had very little success at gardening over the years. There is a direct correlation between how we cultivate the soil of our souls and how we become disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
I invite you and challenge you to join me as we strive to be the church of the 21st century, ready to ensure that the soil that is our souls is prepared to extend out into the world to ensure that no one is made to feel trampled upon by hatred; no one is made to feel choked with the weeds of selfish desires; no one is left to whither away by apathy. God is a generous and gracious sower of grace. Let us check our soil and celebrate God’s generous giving, extended outward to be the bearers of a yield so grand, they’ll never finish counting it!
To God be the glory.